Edited by Craig Yoe (Fantagraphics Books)
The one true invention of American Comic-books is undoubtedly the super-hero, but the pervasiveness of that almighty icon has prevented the wider world from discerning what the readers, fans and collectors have always known, even if they choose nowadays to disregard: the fact that our masters and artisans have always been just as effective and creative in established genres such as crime, horror, westerns and especially comedy.
A perfect exemplar of that fact has finally had his first long overdue retrospective in this fabulous if unstructured collection from Fantagraphics: Gordon “Boody” Rogers.
Born in 1904 he began his drawing career in the 1920s after studying at the Cartoon Academy of the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts and the Chicago Institute. At this time he palled around with Harold Gray, Frank Engli, Chester Gould, and Tex Avery among many other talented art-stars in waiting. When his roommate Zack Mosely began his long-lived aviator strip Smilin’ Jack in 1933, Rogers was his assistant from day one. As a jobbing cartoonist he also worked for such magazines as Life, Judge, Colliers and the Saturday Evening Post on syndicated features and gag strips like ‘Deadwood Gulch’ and ‘Possum Holler’
He was a major contributor to ‘The Funnies’ the very first comic book, published in 1936 (there’s a fascinating example, ‘Rattlesnake Pete’, from this landmark leading off the compilation) before developing his own newspaper strip ‘Sparky Watts’ in early 1939 which he wrote and drew until America joined the war, at which point he enlisted.
On his return he revived Sparky (a physical superman, sans costume, whose wild and wacky adventures were at once a spoof of the ubiquitous mystery men and a snappy, surreal satire on the American Way) for Columbia Comics and created a number of other properties, all in the comedy, teen and gag genres that rose in popularity as the costumed heroes diminished. Obviously seeing another sea-change coming, Rogers retired from the industry at age 48 to open a small chain of art shops in Arizona. He passed away in 1996.
Boody Rogers’ style of work is far more amenable to a British audience reared on Desperate Dan, Pansy Potter and the unrestrained genius of Ken Reid or Leo Baxendale than the rather anodyne fare of post-war America. His wild perambulations and freewheeling style of gag-upon-gag narrative often skirted bounds of taste (as all great humour should) and his influence, as much as Basil Wolverton and EC Comics, can be clearly seen throughout the Underground Comix revolution of the 1960s and 1970s.
The material collected here all comes from Sparky Watts, Babe, Dudley and the anthology title Big Shot Comics and the years 1948-1950. Although to my mind inadequately referenced (I’d love to know which stories appeared exactly when and where), the broad range of tales perfectly illustrates the kind of manic energy and absurdist invention typified by the “Screwball comedies” of the thirties and the madcap pace of the teen movement as immortalised by Bob Montana’s Archie, with arcane dialogue, quick-fire set-ups and punch-lines building one upon another. Rather than being dated, these works – at least to this old coot – have great resonance with the youth culture of today.
They’re also beautifully drawn and a total hoot.
Babe (“the Amazon of the Ozarks”) was a rustic and rambunctious take on Li’l Abner; a physically perfect hottie no man could resist – or beat – who appeared in Big Shot and Sparky Watts Comics as well as eleven issues of her own title. Following her premiere appearance, we’re also treated to ‘Hideout’ as movie heartthrob Clark Sable tries to escape the onerous attentions of his fans by masquerading as Babe’s dowager cousin Fanny, ‘the Secret of Lighting Juice Tea’ reveals the origins of the hillbilly lass’ rude health, ‘Mrs. Gooseflesh’ is a murderous lady-wrestler who met Babe in the Canvas ring, and ‘the Mysterious Case of Mystery Mountain!’ recounts the peculiarly fetishistic lives of Ozark centaurs living on top of an isolated plateau. Fans in the know will be intrigued to discover that Bondage artist Eric Stanton began his drawing career as Rogers’ assistant…
Jasper Fudd is a prim and prudish, dim-witted yokel who unexpectedly goes to college where he discovers he can run like the wind – given the right motivation – and this was decades before Forest Gump’s mum ever got her first box of chocolates, whilst Dudley, the Prince of Prance is a excellent – if now bewildering – example of the teen oriented strip that spread like measles in the post-war years. Following the Archie/Andy Hardy model, every publisher chased the older kid market with impenetrable tales of Sock-Hops, Jalopies, music that parents couldn’t stand, young love and obnoxious siblings. Gosharootie, how things have changed…
Sparky Watts is the undisputed star, an affable everyman with amazing powers who always seems to be getting into scrapes. He doesn’t fight crime, but empowered by Cosmic Rays which tend to shrink him to microscopic sizes when they fade, he often found himself in strange places meeting the most peculiar creatures, aided (although that’s not really the correct term) by his assistant Slap Happy and the eminent Doc Static.
As well as 10 issues of his own title and the 1943 one-shot Columbia Comics, Boody’s Sparky appeared in Big Shot from #14 (June 1941) through #42, and again from #77-104, whilst other, lesser lights handled the strip during Roger’s war service. The six episodes included here are all from the post-war period but wonderfully display the surreal punch and eye for visual characterisation that exemplified Roger’s work.
This comfortingly substantial tome is a wonderful introduction to a comics master who never disappointed, working in a genre most comics fans won’t even be aware of these days. That’s their loss: don’t let it be yours…
All stories are public domain but the specific restored images and design are © 2009 Fantagraphics Books. All Rights Reserved.