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The internationally known underground comic artist who created Vancouver's first counterculture hero is dead. Rand Holmes died on March 15 in Nanaimo, B.C., while awaiting chemotherapy treatment for Hodgkin's lymphoma. He was 60.

The misadventures of Harold Hedd appeared in the Georgia Straight back in the psychedelic seventies when the paper was still a radical hippie weekly. Mr. Holmes's comic strip, which featured standards of draftsmanship and satirical sophistication rarely found in the underground press at the time, is often compared to such U.S. favourites as Gilbert Shelton's Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers and Robert Crumb's Mr. Natural.

Riddled with pot references, long-haired hippies and free love, the strip was a classic of its time. It earned Mr. Holmes a legion of devoted fans, including Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, who hired Mr. Holmes to do a comic just before he died in 1995.

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Hedd, a bespectacled dope smoker who was forever being hassled by the superstraight Constable Leroy, lived in a dilapidated house in Kitsilano with his biker cousin. Mr. Holmes would sometimes send his hero down to Gastown, where he would busk on the streets and sells baggies of "oregano" to tourists, or off to Mexico, where he would pilot Second World War bombers loaded down with marijuana back to Canada.

But more often than not, Hedd could be found making fun of then-Vancouver mayor Tom Campbell, or commenting on the Vancouver police vice squad and the obscenity charges it was forever slapping on the Straight.

Georgia Straight publisher Dan McLeod says Mr. Holmes was instrumental in the Straight's early battles against censorship. "Here was one of the greatest artists in the history of underground comics, living in our building and churning out major satirical work about those who were out to destroy us, turning them into buffoons. He was a sweet, gentle man who helped us to seize the moral high ground when we were feeling beaten."

Mr. Holmes published three Harold Hedd collections in the early seventies and also contributed to the All Canadian Beaver Comix, White Lunch Comix, Fog City Comix and other underground collections. His talent was showcased on the cover of The History of Underground Comics, published by Rolling Stone magazine's book wing, Straight Arrow.

Born in Truro, N.S., Randolph Holton Holmes moved with his family to Edmonton, where he grew up, married young and had two children. He went to B.C. for a visit in 1967 and fell into the hippie scene, where he later met his second wife, Martha Holmes. They left Vancouver in 1982 to live off the land on Lasqueti Island. When Mr. Holmes died, they were still living there in the house that took them 10 years to build.

During the eighties, Mr. Holmes enjoyed some success in Europe with a series called Hitler's Cocaine and continued creating artwork for the science-fiction comics Death Rattle, Alien Worlds and Twisted Tales. Although contracted to do some work for a mainstream U.S. comic-book publisher, Martha said Mr. Holmes had given up on deadline work.

"It's really a young person's job, staying up until 2 or 3 in the morning," she told the Georgia Straight.

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As Mr. Holmes's comic-book output slowly petered out, he did carpentry to supplement his income and took up oil painting.

"He was a hippie to the end," said Martha, citing one of his last paintings, The Bud Clippers, which depicts an extended family, from grandparents to children, sitting around a kitchen table processing their marijuana crop.

With about a dozen works completed before he died, Mr. Holmes was contemplating an exhibit this year. She says she hopes to organize a retrospective of his work, including the oils and early comic-book art, in Vancouver this summer.

As his birthday came and went last month, Martha said Mr. Holmes often spoke about moving from Lasqueti.

"He had realized that, at 60, it was time to start giving back to the community and being more involved in it. Not that he hadn't done quite a bit already in his commentary over the years."

Mr. Holmes leaves his wife, their 14-year-old son, Sirett; two adult children from his first marriage, Ron and Michelle; and grandson, Denten Rand Holmes.

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