Jonathan Bogart’s 50 Favorite Cartoonists: #48. Vaughn Bodé
Caution: NSFW (and frankly sexist) material below the fold. You have been warned.
Vaughn Bodé is far from a household name these days, if he ever was one. Partly this is due to changes in fashions — his squishy but carefully shape-defining line is perhaps better appreciated for its impact on animators (Bakshi, Miyazaki) and street artists from the earliest days of hip-hop grafitti to the present than for the kinds of stories told with it, which were very much of a piece with the underground comics of the late 60s and early 70s, short strips and squibs full of sex, violence, racial caricature, and filthy language that still on occasion has the power to shock today.
Bodé himself was an unusual person, though perhaps only notably so in the conservative, insular, and methodical world of comics, in which the thousands of hours spent before the drawing desk leave precious little time to cultivate a personality. He threw himself whole-heartedly into the consciousness-raising, boundary-dissolving worlds of acid, Eastern religion, science fiction, and fluid sexuality, a beatific hippie with a barfly’s vocabulary and a vaudevillian sense of irony.
His most notable recurring character was Cheech Wizard, a hat with feet who was also a free-associative guru in the underground comix tradition of Crumb’s Mr. Natural — which is to say a repository for all the vices Bodé could conjure out of line or text. His “philosophy” mostly revolved around getting laid or hammered, while meting out violence to a hapless — and far from innocent himself — goon who served as a disciple.
It’s relatively simple to filter his mature work down to a handful of influences: the decorative designs of Winsor McCay, the fleshy shapemaking of Frank Frazetta, the hyperverbal rhythms of Walt Kelly, the gleeful degeneracy of Charles Bukowski, the spacey mysticism of Timothy Leary looking at a Peter Max poster. Plus, of course, the voltalic rush of the Zap generation of underground cartoonists: Crumb, Moscoso, Williams, Griffin, Shelton, Wilson. The Cheech Wizard strip appeared in National Lampoon throughout the first half of the 70s, making Bodé one of the most visible and influential “overground” cartoonists, who imported an underground (read: anarchic and id-driven) sensibility to a relatively mass audience.
There is no moral center in Bodé’s universe, just as there is none in those of the music of the Rolling Stones or the cartoons of Tex Avery — the whirling anarchy of ego-gratification and the irrepressible rhythms of setup-punchline are endemic to the form. Even when the punchlines curdle into cynicism, misogyny, or the least palatable parts of the human soul, the rhythms are bone-familiar as the newspaper comics page.
Bodé’s universe is mostly populated by shovel-snouted lizards who (largely but not entirely) stand in for the male population, and women of varying hair and skin color but the same bulbous form. There are a few human males, in addition to his self-portraits — often racist caricatures, like the chop-socky Bruce Lee parody who annoys Cheech Wizard for a while (the ironic hipster racism of ”it’s okay because I’m really progressive” is so not new) — but insofar as Bodé’s strips deal in war-of-the-sexes tropes, it’s between lizards and women.
What I treasure about Bodé’s comics — despite the racism, the sexism, the break-all-taboos nastiness (I haven’t excerpted the most egregious stuff here, and I won’t) and the I-dropped-acid-and-touched-the-face-of-god hippie nonsense — is how masterfully they delineate his world. It’s not a particularly deep world, revolving mostly around scatological humor, shock violence, and tits, but it’s an entirely unique one, and more to the point, it’s gorgeously well-designed.
Juvenile? Undoubtedly. Some things belong peculiarly to male adolescence as I experienced it; understanding one’s self as a sniveling, weaselly little lizard dude when confronted with the mystery and terror of Woman is one of them.
Bodé died in 1975 of autoerotic asphyxiation after only ten years of producing comics (and after only about five in his mature style), which is one of the shortest careers on this list. I’m not particularly fond of any of his subject matter (besides a faint literary interest in his cobbled-together language games and an adolescent interest in his depictions of women), but it would be stupid to deny his mastery of design, color, and rhythm. And I can’t hate anyone who deflates his own intolerable pretension by having his best-known character kick him in the balls.
In a way I’m surprised I don’t see more Bodé-inspired (or just plain Bodé) work floating around on Tumblr. Little of it has aged particularly well, of course, and it’s undoubtedly true that the influence of his collection of aesthetic practices has filtered down in so many different directions that broad swathes of the visual identity of certain hip-hop, manga, and goth graphics are directly descended from his orgies of shape and sentence.
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- imathers said: my dad had an old Bode volume growing up (long gone now), I remember it making NO sense to me as a kid
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