[3 September 2009]
The absurd is a funny thing. On one hand, absurdity can take our world, reorient it in phantasmagoric new ways, hold us outside, and say, “Look. Why is what you are familiar with any less bizarre?” This is the technique employed by the works of truly great absurdists: Ionesco’s language-primer culling The Bald Soprano, Stoppard’s rule-subverting Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Albee’s descent into semiotic disintegration, Tiny Alice. What these pieces share in common is focal point that always swings back to reader begging him to find more consistency in his language, more logic to his structures of art, more meaning to his symbols. Ultimately, these inquiries should be found wanting and the absurdity is no longer trapped in the play but has flipped into the reader’s world.
On the other hand, the absurd can be bandied about as a simple stylistic device to highlight the quirks of the fiction’s universe. This is how the absurd usually shows up in comics. Anthropomorphism runs amuck, eyeballs and veins bulge out of heads, plots become something of an appurtenance and grotesque visuals crowd the panel. Such is the school of Basil Wolverton and his many imitators, much of Eightball, and a fair share of the underground comics scene in general (cf. Kim Deitch). Here the absurdity largely stays put. As we flip through the candy-colored, ink-crazy pages, our world becomes all the more normal. The reader is, in a certain sense, left out as its seem crazy that anything but discontinuity could exist between this comic world and anything we know.
Now, perhaps this is an unfair comparison. As is obvious, the first set of exemplar absurdism was drawn all from theatre, a medium that begins with the immersion of transporting the audience into the play houses and auditoriums where the drama is conducted. However, there are theatrical pieces that fall into the absurd rather than it falling out—Endgame anyone?—just as there are comics that dress the reader’s world in new a strangeness. Black Hole comes to mind. This encourages me to believe that, generally, the stylistic absurd of comics is a product not of the medium, but of comic artists trying to distance their work from the stuffy canon of more conventional art and literature: a cheap trick.
With such an axe to grind, I could only assume—after seeing the insectoids and bearded women on the cover—that Fantagraphics new trade Boody would easily fall into the same perils as other comics. Collecting strips from comic pioneer Boody Rogers, Boody revisits the strange course of Rogers career, which spanned most of the twentieth century.
I was relieved (startled?) to find that Boody falls into neither of these camps of absurdism. Such is the luxury enjoyed by early works that fall before the codification of a medium. Boody Rogers produced many of his strips in the ‘30s and ‘40s before comics had an “underground” flag to rally under and when the comic arts still, for the most part, served the readers of periodicals. Boody had no stylistic absurdity to ape. He was just weird.
Boody is comprised mainly of two different story-lines of Rogers’s. The book is divided, with one or two other stories, between the shrinking super(ish) manSparky Watts and the buxom Hercules Babe. Watts is a pseudo-hero who needs to be infused with rays every so often or he shrinks to a microscopic size. As one would expect, most of Watts’s stories begin with something preventing him from getting his regular dose of rays causing his absent-minded doctor and large-footed galoot best friend to have to find him. Babe is a beautiful and busty girl of hillbilly stock whose outrageous talents, given to her by lightning tea, get her into strange situations as others try to exploit or capture her.
Throughout these stories, a miniature Watts is continually stumbling into fantastic bugs and other tiny creatures with surplus body parts and mangled shapes. Babe finds herself beset by both the ridiculous actions of her unpolished kin and, sometimes, magical interlopers such as neck-snapping brutes and centaurs.
Although this may all seem like the standard fare of the underground comics we have grown to tolerate, Boody’s absurdism is patently blue-collar. There is nothing heady or cynical or mean-spirited in these strips. They owe far more to the tradition of wives tales and folk legends than Kafka. As their syndication would likely demand, Boody’s bizarre comics are Golden Age nuggets of an off-kilter author who found a particular release in his medium. This is the absurd with no absurd as context. In fact, we probably only recognize it as absurd after decades of the stylistic absurd that try far harder to be weird.
The actual quality of the comics is mediocre. The Sparky Watts stories are hardly compelling and the whole enterprise feels a bit like reading an out of print joke book. Fortunately for Boody these are jokes that no one would have ever gotten and that adds a bit of left-of-center charm. Furthermore, the editor makes no attempts to veil his egregious sycophancy in his introduction where he lauds Rogers ad nauseum. “…these comics will make you, too, my friend, as happy as a dead pig lying in the sun.” I am inclined to disagree.
At best, Boody is an intriguing look into what happens before styles become dogma and all forms are mid-nascence. As such, Boody is a genealogy, an archaeological record. At worst, it is just another Golden Age comic that has lost a little of its sparkle.