Sunday, April 26, 2009

Book Review: BOODY: THE BIZARRE COMICS OF "BOODY" ROGERS by Gordon "Boody" Rogers, edited by Craig Yoe (Fantagraphics Press, 2009)

The roiling, anything-goes "Golden Age of Comics" is best known for introducing and developing the superhero genre, but the medium was so fluid at that time that literally any sort of subject matter was fair game, provided that audiences liked it. Humor comics flourished in the years after World War II, and, in their zeal to get readers' attention, publishers weren't averse to taking walks on the weird, wild side and employing stylists whose over-the-top gags and broad drawing styles would probably not have passed muster in the more cautious post-Comics Code days. Basil Wolverton (POWERHOUSE PEPPER) is probably the best known of these genial nutcases. This volume introduces modern readers to a second likable loony: Gordon "Boody" Rogers. Of this gentleman, I previously knew only that he created Sparky Watts, the first true parody of Superman, and was the leading assistant to Zack Mosely on the comic strip SMILIN' JACK. After digesting this brief collection of examples of each of Rogers' major features -- and "major" is stretching things some, given that even Sparky Watts had a career that lasted less than a decade and was interrupted due to Rogers' service in World War II -- a few additional questions have been answered, at least... but not enough to give this volume the high rating it otherwise might have merited.

One reviewer of BOODY strafed editor Craig Yoe for a fanboyishly dizzy introduction that gave Rogers' biography short shrift -- a bit of a surprise considering Yoe's obvious enthusiasm for Rogers' work and self-proclaimed diligence at digging up data. (I myself picked up at least one error of fact: Carl Ed was the creator of HAROLD TEEN, not SMITTY, which was drawn by Walter Berndt.) At the very least, we should have been provided with a basic bibliography of Rogers' comic-book work. Unfortunately, sloppy, breathless writing is the least of Yoe's sins here. Take Sparky Watts, the bespectacled, casually dressed mock superhero... who is featured in several stories herein but does not get a chance to perform any superheroics. I'd call that a major omission, wouldn't you? Instead, we get to see him lose his mysterious powers and shrink (!) due to the wearing-off of the "cosmic rays" that are the source of whatever abilities he may happen to possess. The resulting antics are funny -- ant-sized Sparky survives encounters with some truly bizarre insect life and barely avoids getting married to a two-headed, half-bug-half-babe (would I make this up?) -- but c'mon, Craig, surely we could have been treated to at least one little fantastic feat, in order to give the un-powered Sparky's adventures in bug-land a little more context? The last SPARKY story, a two-parter, features Sparky and his pal Slap Happy in a supporting role to two pairs of animate legs and feet who fall in love and get married. Sparky and Slap might just as well have been Sam and Silo (cf. my previous review) for all they contributed to this story. If Fantagraphics wants to follow up this collection with another bundle of "Boody" boodle, I have a mild suggestion: publish a volume devoted entirely to Sparky, so that we can actually see what makes him tick, as opposed to getting ticked off at not finding out more about the character.

The volume does a little better by BABE, "The Amazon of the Ozarks," whose origin story and its follow-up appear herein. Unfortunately, the two stories are split up at opposite ends of the book and really should have been printed back-to-back. The influence of LI'L ABNER on this fanciful scenario of a female hillbilly who's part super-athlete and part "eternal innocent" is obvious, but Rogers' Ozark setting is far weirder than Al Capp's ever was, including, among other things, a "table mountain" that's home to a group of male centaurs who get their kicks by racing comely females as if they were horses. This scenario is disturbing enough, but just as skin-crawling is the brief tale in which Babe performs as a female wrestler and has her neck broken. She spends the last page or so of the story with her head canted back at an impossible angle -- and no, there's no deus ex machina to make it all better at story's end. The reader apparently had to assume that Babe's neck would heal up by the time the next issue appeared (and since this only appeared in issue #4 of an 11-issue run, at least she got the chance to recover!).

A few additional stories from a teenage comic, DUDLEY, are thrown in to help the volume make weight, though additional SPARKY WATTS stories would probably have been a better choice. The DUDLEY story, chock full of antiquated "hepcat" slang, is pretty lively and amusing, though nowhere is it made clear exactly which of the characters is Dudley. It's reasonably easy to figure it out in context, but, to me, it's another example of careless editing. JASPER FUDD, a "filler" story about a clod-hopper country boy who doubles as an inexplicably fast cross-country runner, is the most "normal" story in the issue, and, as such, is the story that should probably have been chucked in favor of more zany fare.

Rogers left comics after 1950, and probably just in time; though there's nothing truly offensive herein, his extreme caricatures, "scary" creatures, and occasional forays into realms of "iffy" taste (cf. the BABE story in which a famous actor cross-dresses and escapes to Babe's town to dodge his adoring fans) would have been a much harder sell after the Comics Code crackdown. I liked this material enough to want to see more of it -- and, apparently, a few of Rogers' others stories have been posted on the Web, so I may go hunting for them -- but the next Rogers collection should receive somewhat soberer treatment, at least when it comes to ancillary material.

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