REVIEWS

Ray and Joe: The Story of a Man and His Dead Friend

RAY-AND-JOE-coverCes bandes dessinees ne sont pas une pipe non plus

“Can Johnny come out and play?”

“Why, Billy, you know Johnny’s a quadriplegic.”

“Yeah, but we want to use him for third base.”

-Example of side-splitting humor, circa 8th grade (1956)

“Sick humor,” they called it then – usually in news magazines’ articles on civilization’s fall.  At the high end of this abomination perched Mort Sahl and Lennie Bruce.  At the low squatted Johnny.  For a 14-year-old humorist, it was neither as beyond the pale (i.e. necessary to conceal from parents) as “dirty” jokes, nor as transgressive (i.e. usually requiring the preface “I’m not prejudiced but…”) as jokes about race or religion, but it served its purveyor similarly.  Its daring elevated him above his peers.  Its expansion of the possible increased his own understanding of the world.  So did the absence of any lightening bolt striking him down.

In December 1969, Henry Beard, a blue-blooded recent graduate of Harvard University, who had germinated in this humor’s effluence, wrote letters soliciting contributions for a magazine was preparing to co-found.  One recipient was a 43-year-old, devout Catholic of Portugese ancestry, born in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and in whose vicinity he had lived most of his life since.  He had enlisted in the navy, at 17, but had been discharged after contracting rheumatic fever during basic training.  Deciding he did not have what it took to succeed as a writer, he had studied cartooning at what would become New York City’s School of Visual Arts.  During the 1950s and ‘60s, he had contributed regularly to Hi-Fi Music Review (later Stereo Review), Electronics Illustrated, and, less regularly Esquire, Look, Playboy, and TV Guide, with work that drew comparison to Charles Addams, VIP, and Gahan Wilson. He had published one collection of cartoons, Spitting on the Sheriff (1966) and illustrated Strictly Personal, a compilation of “racy” classified ads by Leo Guild, whose oeuvre  which included such titles as The Loves of Liberace and Street Ho’s, would win him designation as “The Worst Pulp Novelist Ever.”

The target audience for Beard’s magazine was that portion of America’s youth amenable to cultural revolution.  The cartoonist’s politics leaned markedly to this market’s right.  His head shot, bald, fleshy faced, and thickly eyeglassed, would not have won space from Che or Dylan on its dorm or crash pads’ walls.  He did not smoke or snort his stimulants.  He played Russ Colombo and Bing Crosby on his stereo, not Doors and Stones.  But his humor, which mocked blindness, cannibalism, castration, defecation, enemas, farts, hemorrhoids, herpes, homosexuals, infanticide, menstruation,  necrophilia, racist caricatures, sado-masochism, urination, and vomit fit the young like a lead-knuckled glove.  I do not mean to imply that Beard’s projected readership reveled in bodily fluids and physical abnormality, but, hey, anything that shocked the elders…  Storm the Bastille; kill your father; ridicule the handicapped…  You chose your shackle, and you cast it aside.

ray_and_joe_001Charles Rodrigues remained with The National Lampoon for 24 years.

Ray and Joe: The Story of a Man and His Dead Friend, edited by Bob Fingerman and Gary Groth, is a 184-page collection of Rodrigues’s most scabrous work, all of which seemingly ran in the “Lampoon” between 1978 and 1989.  I say “seemingly” because the book omits any delineation of which appeared when as though to keep all statutes of limitations on the table as potential defenses against any group libel claims from the tissue-skinned.

The volume contains four narrative pieces,  20 to 84 episodes in length, and several more abbreviated efforts.  (A collection of Rodrigues’s gag cartoons is slated for future release.)  They seemingly – there’s that word again – appeared, one installment per issue, in primarily nine-panel, single-page strips, with story lines that could shift as abruptly as a dirt track Chevy.  The strips do not build to a single, concluding laugh but pull smiles and chuckles at disparate points en route.  Rodgrigues works like a silent film comedian, choosing a situation and wringing as many laughs as he can from it before moving on, like Charlie Chaplin starving in a cabin or Harold Lloyd climbing a building, though Rodrigues’s situations are more likely to produce an uplifted eyebrow or sharply sucked in breath: rooming with a corpse; a private detective in an iron lung; the ugliest little girl in the world.

ray_and_joe_011

Visually, Rodrigues takes a more-is-more approach.  Fingerman, in his introduction, notes that while the work appears “hasty, chicken-scratched and impulsive,” it is actually the product of “a painstaking perfectionist.”  Developing individual panels through as many as ten drafts, Rodrigues constructed pages of “masterful” architecture.  Solid black patches weigh against vacant white spaces.  Some panels are constrained by solid lines; others float free of any.  When there are borders, word balloons often bulge beyond them.  The panels warp into different shapes and sizes.  The typography runs riot.  It swells and shrinks, bobs and weaves, mutates into cursive from print.

The chaos does not cause Rodrigues to overlook detail.  He enriches characters through choice of hat or style of undershorts.  He cast them with Fellini-esq pot bellies or chicken necks.  A cornucopia of big noses adorn his clods, buffoons and creeps.  And he is a wizard with eyes.  On one-page, these dots-within-ovals, with the slightest of fluctuations, may transform a single character from happy to playful to angry to really angry to CRAZY angry to remorseful.

But the key to Rodrigues’s art is language.

In a 2011 Comics Journal interview, S. Gross, Rodrigues’s co-“Lampoon”-ist declared “The highest form of cartooning has no caption.”  This is a belief I doubt Rodrigues shared.  (Double-checking my suspicion in the only Lampoon anthology I own, “Cartoons Even We Wouldn’t Dare to Print,” I find that only three of Rodrigues’s 11 cartoons there are captionless, a smaller percentage than that of any other frequently represented cartoonist.)

Deirdre-8103

Not only does Rodrigues rely on language for his humor, his use is dazzlingly varied.  There are puns, usually so bad as to be extra-delightful.  There is medical-sounding double-talk, referencing such conditions as a “cantilevered Jensen’s oracle” and the “ante-bellum cranial sphincter.”.  Characters lapse into speaking Spanish or Latin, or are suddenly stricken with a hare-lip.  There are out-of-left-field references to Jimmy Hatlo and William Kunstler.  Allusions to the work of D.H. Lawrence, Groucho Marx and Humphrey Bogart occur.  Digs are delivered at other “Lampoon” cartoonists.  A character portrayed as a Negro declares himself a “White Russian,” while white characters are  named “Black” and black ones “White” or “Blanche.”  One character’s word balloon references a “cheque,” leading another to mock his pretentiousness.  Another mentions “Carl Marx” and is laughed at for not knowing the correct name is “Karl.”  One running gag is built upon different characters referring to the identical vehicle, a cart, in a variety of less than commonplace ways, “carouche,” “barouche,” and “quadrigue” among them.

sam_de_groot-8712

Rodrigues’s humor at its most untethered sends him into wacky, wonderful send-ups of and trespasses against his medium’s conventions.  He concocts mock letter pages and fan club notes.  His captions dispute assertions of his characters’ balloons.  A footnote wonders “What the hell is that/”  When the “Ugliest Little Girl” becomes even further disfigured, her appearances are blacked-out by a box entitled “Too Hideous For Publication.”  Rodrigues will apologize mid-strip for its “inconsistencies” or “verbosity.”  He will interrupt a story mid-page, due to its “deteriorating quality,” and begin another one.  He concludes one episode by drawing himself into a panel, shooting characters he has tired of – and threatening those in a rival Lampoon strip.

Though the sexual content of his work was muted and the political non-existent, there were few other eyes into which Rodrigues would not stick his thumb.  These free-flowing affronts to good taste likely called him to Henry Beard’s attention.  But poop and pee only carry one so far.  While the customary “no-no”s remained basic to Rodrigues’s conversation, the freedom from constraint they evidenced allowed his creative entry into even more significant areas of creative liberation.   His play between word and image and dada-ist assault on form that resulted  strike me as Rodrigues’s more notable accomplishment.  S. Gross may grumble, but Rene Magritte would, I imagine, smile.

FILED UNDER:

26 Responses to Ray and Joe: The Story of a Man and His Dead Friend

  1. Goodman says:

    I can’t really tell what you thought but I think it’s the funniest fucking book I’ve read all year and so does my retarded uncle, my amputee granddad, my sister with cerebal palsy…. my Siamese twinned nieces almost split cause they laffed so hard and we had to get Dad some medical attention after he fell off the bowl from chortling so hard and cracked his skull on the edge of the tub (he fell on the book and damaged the spine, the bastard)!

    So when do we get the Trots and Bonnie, the BK Taylor, Complete National Lampoon Comic Parodies, and Ed Subitzky compilations, dear FBI?

  2. Eric Reynolds says:

    I agree with Goodman. This was the funniest book I’ve read this year. It was a revelation to me.

  3. Yes — Trots and Bonnie, please!!!

  4. You can see the complete run at https://archive.org/details/national_lampoon, though it does have annoying watermarks on all the pages. I hope I didn’t ruin the prospect of future collections. Nothing like printed pages, but you can still see additional cartoons that should be collected.

  5. R. Fiore says:

    Gary has been trying to do Trots and Bonnie for years. Shary Flenniken doesn’t seem to like the idea. They are going to have an M.K. Brown collection next year, which should surprise you if you’re not familiar with her.

  6. Goodman says:

    I remember it well, but in all honesty I never warmed up to her style or sense of humor. Probably a lack of sophistication in my 14-17 year old self. Perhaps that will change when I’ve had a chance to examine the forthcoming collection and see a plethora of her comics in one place. I was always a big admirer of her husband B. Kliban straight from the beginning….still consider him a titan and miss his cartoons greatly! Someone needs to sit Ms. Flenniken down and explain that the world is much more bankrupt without the joy of a complete T & B collection.

  7. R. Fiore says:

    You know I felt the same way when I was reading MK Brown in the Lampoon when it first came out, but I looked at some examples again in the Rick Meyerowitz National Lampoon anthology and it’s really extraordinary. It deserves another look.

  8. Chris Duffy says:

    To me the “gimme” Lampoon comics collection is a Subitzky book. Though I’d probably buy all the others…I’m a sap.

  9. Goodman says:

    And on a similar note since this has become a wish list thread for old NatlampCo fans, Rick Geary has produced a volume titled “Rick Geary The Lampoon Years 1979-1992″ which I bought from him at APE this year and while I don’t know if it’s complete, it’s quite an excellent compilation of his work from that era, and it’s been published in a lovely large trade paperback! A worthy addition to my growing library of NL comics collections that includes Gahan Wilson’s Nuts and Jeffrey Jones Idyl along with Bode’s Cheech Wizard and probably others I’m forgetting about right now!

  10. patrick ford says:

    When I began reading comics regularly in 1970-71 NATIONAL LAMPOON was right at the top of my list and along with Kirby has survived the passing years. There are numerous collections which could be culled from it’s pages.
    TROTS AND BONNIE is a great strip, but it seems to me it might run into legal troubles. This isn’t 1971 anymore .
    I recently picked up a great collection of Bruce McCall’s work called ZANY AFTERNOONS. Look for it.

  11. Goodman says:

    Hey thanks for the tip. McCall was/is a fantastic illustrator. I’ll never forget his Bulge Mobiles and other articles he did along those lines….Great stuff to be sure!

  12. patrick ford says:

    Bulgemobiles is in there along with NEW YORK , ONCE UPON A TIME, TANK POLO, THE ZEPPELIN SHOOT (They Fell So Much More Gracefully Than Grouse), R.M.S. TYRANIC, The hillarious THAT FABULOUS BATTLE OF BRITAIN, and many more.
    HOPLOCKS”S AMAZING CATCH IN THE 1946 WORLD SERIES makes me laugh just thinking about it.
    Not only great illustrations, but McCall’s text is very, very funny.

  13. Hey Patrick — why do you think Trots and Bonnie might run into legal troubles? That’s one of my faves and I’ve been hoping and praying for a collection for years.

  14. Goodman says:

    My guess would be that in these uptight times some of the content of T&B might be construed almost as kiddie porn. Lots of depictions of teenage locker rooms and such…that’s the only reason I can think of to be guarded about a reprint.

  15. george says:

    TROTS AND BONNIE showed adolescent girls naked and in sexual situations (and masturbating, in one strip I’ve never forgotten — it was educational!). It was a funny and beautifully drawn strip, but people get more steamed today over sexual portrayals of underage characters. Hence the possible legal trouble. As Patrick indicated, this ain’t the 1970s anymore.

  16. patrick ford says:

    Not to mention the
    I recall in 1973 I was 14 and bought this off the newsrack in a chain drug store.
    http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_-H-t-Wz1VNU/S-TRubG5HyI/AAAAAAAAJMo/d7kwhuMYFx8/s1600/Frazetta_NatLampoon_1973-08_100.jpg
    The cashier didn’t even notice. I don’t think you’d see a cover like that displayed in Walgreens today.
    As a matter of fact I don’t think you’d see Frazetta’s “Alien Crucifixion” cover either.

  17. patrick ford says:

    SATURDAY NIGHT ON ANTARIUS.

    And how about Stan Mack’s MULE’S DINER ?

    Or all those multiple page full colour pieces by Gahan Wilson.

  18. Goodman says:

    That one made me a tad nervous as well, but all the lady behind the counter cared about was my 75 cents + tax. Didn’t bat an eye….asked me if I wanted a bag, I think….I was 12.

  19. patrick ford says:

    I really doubt you’d see something like this in a CVS today.
    http://www.marksverylarge.com/images/7306cover_l.jpg

  20. Goodman says:

    This one had me almost resorting to shoplifting, but a cooler 11 year old head prevailed, along with the lesson I had learned having seen Woody Allen’s Bananas, and I mixed it in with a small stack of Marvel and DC’s…..

    http://www.marksverylarge.com/images/7302cover_l.jpg

  21. Goodman says:

    Guess that brings us back around to the topic at hand…too bad they didn’t let Charles Rodrigues do more covers….I love that one!

  22. george says:

    A lot of things from the ’70s wouldn’t pass muster today.

    Someone at the movie site The Dissolve noted that the scene in ANIMAL HOUSE where Pinto debates whether to have sex with a 13-year-old girl, who has passed out drunk, probably wouldn’t make it into a movie today. Underage date rape isn’t so funny anymore.

    But in 1978, hardly anyone batted an eye. It was just a funny scene, especially if you were a male college student.

    You also don’t see movies and albums with the “N-word” in the title, as you did in the ’70s. Check out some of Richard Pryor’s records from that decade. Hard to imagine any chain store selling it today.

  23. george says:

    Goodman said: “That one made me a tad nervous as well, but all the lady behind the counter cared about was my 75 cents + tax.”

    Buying Marvel’s SAVAGE TALES No. 1, in 1971, made me nervous. But the clerk sold it to me. It was shocking (for my young eyes) to see nudity in a Marvel publication. The severed head on the cover was pretty startling, too.

    I don’t think I bought a Lampoon until 1973, when I was 14. Again, all the clerks cared about was my money.

  24. Briany Najar says:

    Sublime cover there.
    Never noticed this cartoonist before. Seems pretty great.
    Characters complaining about the spelling of interlocutors’ balloons; captions that quibble with dialogue; metatextual apologies and leaning at adjacent comics: I’m won over, give me that.

  25. Phil Larrabee says:

    Why does this book have a 2011 copyright?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>