Butch Wax

The lost art of a SoCal maestro.

Light / Dark

As the old saying goes, “Time and tide wait for no man.” Surf cartoonist Butch Cornelius is no exception.

Cornelius’ wave crested sometime between 1963 and ’64, right around when he created one of surfing’s most indelible logos for the Windansea Surf Club, and when his cartoons in the pages of Surf Guide could be said to rival those of the more famous Rick Griffin at Surfer magazine. But these days Cornelius is forgotten.

He lives by himself in Humboldt County, near Eureka, California, and looks a lot like The Dude from The Big Lebowski: long hair, gray-blond beard, Zubaz-style sweatpants. He meditates regularly and talks in a laid-back patois that finds most sentences ending with the phrase “and stuff.” He still paints and draws—surfing images as well as holy figures and chimera from Tibetan Buddhist tradition—and has lost none of the playful exuberance and attention to detail that marked his early illustrations. Only now he makes work for an audience of one: himself. His dropout from the surf-art scene, in fact, happened decades before his retreat north and reads more like a “what could’ve been” than a typical retrospective.

He was born Clifford Cornelius in Milan, Indiana, in January 1947. His father, Carl, was a career Navy man who helped develop missile guidance systems—a job that took young Cornelius, his mother, and his younger sister to a number of bases around the US. He remembers a time in the 1950s when his family lived near Washington, D.C., and he went to the Smithsonian Institute to see an exhibition of Tibetan artifacts. 

The artist today at home in Northern California, with more-recent and -developed work on display.

“I originally wanted to be a paleontologist,” he reveals, “and got into reading about reptiles and seeing all the dinosaur bones at the Smithsonian and stuff.” Later, as his interest in drawing emerged, he changed to wanting to be a conceptual artist of dioramas at museums. He points to the dinosaur scenes in the 1941 Disney film Fantasia, created by Josh Meador, as a major influence on his creativity.

Even when he was fully immersed in surf, Cornelius’ curiosity about science remained. For instance, his 1963-64 surf comic strip “Malcolm”—a knockoff of Griffin’s “Adventures of Murphy”—was originally created to drum up excitement for his high school’s science fair. It became so popular, however, that he kept it going in the school’s weekly paper, and the strip eventually grew into a fixture of his Surf Guide commissions.

The family eventually settled in the San Diego area when Cornelius was 9 years old. It was around that time, he says, that he decided he wanted to be an artist, and felt the name Clifford was too proper. 

Early recognition in the San Diego Union, 1965. Still a high-schooler, Cornelius was already well established in the era’s cadre of surf illustrators.

“I went to see the movie Lady and the Tramp,” he recalls, “and there was a character in that named Butch. As a kid, I already had a flat-top haircut, and I used this stuff called Cru-Butch Wax to keep it up, so that’s what I decided to call myself.”

It was 1961 when Cornelius developed his more serious focus on cartooning. Already an avid reader of Mad magazine, he began noticing West Coast versions of finks and weirdos popping up in surf shop logos designed by local artists Michael Dormer and Mike Salisbury, and on hot-rod decals by Ed “Big Daddy” Roth. “I met Big Daddy Roth at a car show,” Cornelius remembers, “and he showed me how to draw using an airbrush.” He also became acquainted with Salisbury, then in art school at San Diego State, and Dormer, whose beatnik surf cartoon “Hot Curl” was running weekly in the La Jolla Light funny pages. The latter became like a mentor, helping Cornelius with various cartooning techniques as well as professional advice.

By 1962, Cornelius, still only 15 years old, received his first art commission, from the Pacific Beach Surf Shop on Cass Street, near Crystal Pier. “I’d been drawing cartoons for about a year at that point,” he recalls, “selling them to kids at school, or as single-sheet comics at the Hobie Surf Shop in La Jolla, and the PB shop hired me to do their logo because of that.” The resulting piece proved not just a defining artistic moment for Cornelius, but a distillation of everything that had come prior in surf comics.

At the logo’s center sit the words “Surf Shop,” hand-drawn in typical beatnik fashion, each letter exaggerated and emblazoned against a yellow backdrop. To the left is a lone figure, surfboard clutched in his hand like a walking stick, floppy feet, and a long torso à la Dormer’s “Hot Curl” character, with golden hair, a flat nose, and a self-conscious stare like Griffin’s Murphy. His anatomy also bends and twists like the figures in John Severson’s early surf film posters. Cornelius learned how to imitate these artists in part because, besides cranking out cartoons to sell at the Hobie shop, he also printed silk-screen T-shirts, both for Hobie’s brand and for Severson’s Surfer magazine, whose most famous image at that time was a Murphy cover from the August 1962 issue. 

The Windansea gang hammin’ it up with the famous logo on a freshly printed T-shirt. Cornelius first laid the design down on a tee hanging over the torso of one Butch Van Arstdalen, the shape of the letters made to fit within the contours of his back. Photo by Ron Church.

1963 proved an even more precipitous year for the young artist. He’d been surfing five years at that point and was the youngest in a loose-knit group of seasoned surfers that included Mike Hynson, Butch Van Artsdalen, Linda Benson, Chuck Hasley, and Mike Diffenderfer, among others. During non-surfing hours, they all hung around the Hobie shop, where Cornelius printed shirts and Hynson shaped boards. And it was from one of their casual shoot-the-bull sessions that the subject of starting a surf club first emerged. The Malibu Invitational was coming up that April, and instead of sending a few choice surfers from their crew to represent the clubs in Orange County or LA, they decided instead to crash the party, San Diego style. Enter the Windansea Surf Club.

Everything was slapped together quickly, remembers Cornelius, from the bus they chartered to Malibu to the logo he drew. “Hasley said we needed a logo for the competition,” the artist recalls, “and I was already printing the shirts at Hobie. So I grabbed a blank one from the back and my felt-tipped pen, and put the shirt on Butch Van Artsdalen.” 

“It’s all based on the shape of Van Artsdalen’s back,” he continues. “He had all these muscles and stuff, and the W was tilted the way it is to literally get around his shoulder blade.” The “an” in the middle of the word “Windansea,” says the artist, was made smaller than the rest of the letters because it was drawn in the small of Van Artsdalen’s back. “I told Hasley when I was finished that I’d take it home and clean it up a little bit, and he said, ‘Nope, it’s a Zen thing. Leave it just like that.’” Cornelius says the whole process took him about ten minutes. 

Self-referential humor in a “Malcolm” comic strip, circa 1963. Artwork courtesy of California Surf Museum.
Boss Radio and Windansea Club–sponsored surf school championship program, hand-lettered and designed by Cornelius from his deployment in Vietnam. Artwork courtesy of Brian Chidester.

Next came the club’s first membership cards, 40 in total, each of which Cornelius says he drew by hand. Then came Windansea stickers, which quickly grew into patches and silk-screened T-shirts. These, along with T-shirts featuring Dormer’s “Hot Curl” that

Cornelius printed at the Hobie shop, were worn by all the “surf” characters in the film Muscle Beach Party. After that came Surf Guide, the editors of which—Bill Cleary and David Stern—dropped by the Hobie shop one afternoon and offered Cornelius a freelance job drawing cartoons for their magazine.

At Surf Guide he became even more of an artistic jack-of-all-trades. He drew margin art and maps for some of the feature stories, did full-page comic strips of his “Malcolm” character, and in three issues in the summer of 1964 illustrated a teen-surf satire of Grimm’s Fairy Tales titled “Feigel’s Fables.”

In one, from August of that year, titled “Jack and the Hodad,” the story of “Jack and the Beanstalk” gets sent up—its titular figure being recast as a surf gremmie whose board gets stolen by an older hodad-greaser and can be recaptured only with the help of some magic surfing beans. The hodad, meanwhile, is a wine-swilling deadbeat with a black goatee and bad surf-related pop culture strewn around his lair. The vignette includes a Moon Eyes decal on Jack’s surfboard, several Severson-esque posters on the wall, and a Beach Boys album on the floor. The image is rendered in expert comic detail and makes perfect narrative sense—provided you understand the vernacular references. It is, however, not so much epoch making as epoch marking.

Alas, the fun came to an abrupt stop in early 1965, when Cornelius was forced by his father to stop drawing for Surf Guide, as it was apparently affecting his schoolwork. “My dad was always butting into things,” he says irritably. “He never wanted me to do art. But then once I started getting some attention, he had his nose all in it.” Cornelius characterizes his childhood as “unhappy” and says his parents “believed in what you might call corporal punishment.” He remembers the periods when his father was called away for Navy duty as “the happiest times of my life.” He’d be gone for 18 months, explains Cornelius, “and I’d have the place to myself and draw all kinds of stuff.” 

By that summer, he’d set up a new Windansea contest for preteen surfers, the Menehune Surf Contest. He’d also created a new comic strip, titled “Lester Lombardo La Jolla III,” which ran in the La Jolla Light and was ostensibly a Richie-Rich-meets-surfing story. Cornelius says he created it “because the La Jolla kids were all rich snobs and I was making fun of them.”

“Lester Lombardo” ran a little over a year before Cornelius started regularly getting high and dropping acid. “It made me want to do something different,” he says. A strip titled “Instant Exit,” which he conceived for the La Jolla Light, ran for two months in the newspaper in 1966. “But no one could understand it,” he says.

Around this time, the artist was contacted by a recruiter from the Wall Street Journal. After making a quick sample illustration for the newspaper’s editorial board, he recalls, he was flown to New York City for an interview. “They gave me a hotel room near Penn Station, and I wore a suit and tie to the meeting,” he remembers, “the only one I had at the time.” They offered him the job on the spot, he says, with the caveat that he move to New York, buy a few more suits, and work in an office five days a week. “I told ’em, ‘Sorry, I’m a surfer. I don’t wear shoes.’” 

Back in La Jolla, Cornelius was out on his own, living at the Red Rest, a historic Arts and Crafts bungalow across the street from La Jolla Cove. He was still printing shirts for Hobie and working part-time at a local sandwich shop. He also sold a few leftover Surf Guide illustrations to its competitor, Surfing Illustrated, and began painting posters for Mithras Bookstore/Unicorn Theatre, a nearby underground culture emporium.

A year later, married with a child on the way, Cornelius was drafted and shipped off to Vietnam to work in a helicopter maintenance unit. While there, he’d often go to the PX near China Beach to purchase all the magazines that featured cartoons—after which he sent his own submissions to the likes of Sex to Sexty, Cavalier, and Penthouse. He was thrilled when one of his drawings sold and he was sent a $50 check in Vietnam. He also continued to send back new illustrations for Windansea Surf Club newsletters and competitions.

He fought in the war for two years before returning to San Diego in 1970. Almost immediately, however, he noticed a big difference. “My wife divorced me two months after I got back,” he says, “and friends either ignored me or would push me off waves.” In terms of cartooning commissions, he remembers going to potential clients for interviews, “and when they’d ask me where I’d been the last few years—what I’d been doing—I’d say, ‘Nam,’ and the doors would slam in my face.”

Artworks courtesy of Butch Cornelius.

He saw radical changes in the surf art industry as well, particularly that of Griffin’s newly psychedelicized “Murphy” strip in the 1970s issues of Surfer. When asked if he felt inclined to update his style to meet the new visual demands, Cornelius insists he didn’t have time. “I had PTSD real bad,” he says, “and I had an ex-wife and alimony payments.”

Around this time, his son needed an emergency surgery on his foot, and Cornelius’ old friend Dormer took him around to help get him some illustration work. A few freelance gigs drawing signs emerged, including one at the Cost-Less store in San Diego where Dormer’s mother worked. He also did a new logo for Gary Linden Surfboards, and got a few jobs doing art for local businesses. “It got so desperate at one point,” he says, “that I started working these franchise conventions for Shakey’s Pizza, drawing caricatures and stuff. Seventy drawings a day for only ten bucks.” 

A year later, he went back into the service, this time to Panama, where they needed an artist to draw charts for training manuals and signs for areas where there might be poisonous berries or venomous snakes. 

By 1974, Cornelius was out of the Army for good and back in San Diego. His PTSD, however, had worsened, and he had to be hospitalized. After that, he went back to printing T-shirts and did the occasional lettering job. In 1977, he drew signs for an episode of the ABC television show Eight Is Enough that was filmed at Crystal Pier, as the production team needed new logos to cover up all the local business signs. 

“I was still surfing at that time,” he remembers, “but whenever there was some loud noise, I’d look up in the sky and there’d be Cobra helicopters flying overhead.” It was then that he began regularly traveling up north to “just camp out in the redwoods and get lost in nature.” He eventually quit surfing altogether when he realized he’d developed a chronic form of skin cancer caused by exposure to Agent Orange while serving in Vietnam. 

He moved to Humboldt County around the time of the first Gulf War, in 1990-91. That’s where I found him living earlier this year—hopeful that the last of the original surf cartoonists of the 60s might still possess the great lost archive of weirdo-fink art. But it was not to be.

Nearly 60 years on from his ’tooning heyday, sporting a shirt featuring his 1962 logo made for the PB Surf Shop.

Cornelius tells me right away that he’d lost most of his old drawings in a house fire in 1994. Thankfully, he had donated some of the original sketches and artifacts from the Windansea Surf Club to the California Surf Museum in San Diego, and, more recently, a few old friends have returned some artwork he gave to them years ago. There are also those pieces he’d published in the pages of Surf Guide, Surfing Illustrated, and other magazines.

The artist continues to draw and paint new surf-related images. These still maintain the refined draftsmanship of his earlier art, complete with bendy and bulbous whimsy, yet there is a reflectiveness in them too—something that suggests wisdom and the inevitability of time passed. We can lament the way things turned out for Cornelius, and pine for what might’ve been, but only if we recognize it as our remorse, not his own.

He regrets only that he never became a paleontologist, he says as he sits and paints another lone surfer inside the curl, then a green-skinned figure from Buddhist lore. Neither are original in execution or scope, yet, for Cornelius, that’s never been the intent. His was not a self-expressive, cathartic art, but rather one based in a common lexicon, a shared vision. It was made for you and me.