Saturday, August 16, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #228: Ray and Joe: The Story of a Man and His Dead Friend by Charles Rodrigues

Bad taste doesn't get into the history books very often. It get cleaned up and tidied away, pushed aside in favor of the stuff that makes us feel better about ourselves, the uplifting or serious or just more acceptable in mixed company. But bad taste can be great and liberating and, even more importantly, show exactly what people of that time cared about and laughed at. Bad taste should never be forgotten.

In comics, the great forgotten repository of bad taste was the National Lampoon: it was a major, well-paying market for more than a decade, and the home of essential works like Gahan Wilson's Nuts and Sharry Flenniken's Trots and Bonnie (still scandalously uncollected, decades later). And it's basically forgotten -- even though it was the real link between the undergrounds of the 1960s and the indy-comics scene of the '80s.

One of the masters of bad taste at NatLamp was Charles Rodrigues, who had a regular page in their comics section. His absurd, bizarre stories -- inevitably based on a tasteless premise, and run through strange permutations before they each ran aground in turn and were replaced by the next concept -- were odd even in that context; while the other cartoonists were gleefully pulling down idols and rampaging through treasured beliefs, Rogrigues had an almost matter-of-fact delivery, as if he was just providing a window into this demented world, and didn't want to be seen as endorsing any of the behavior there.

Ray and Joe: The Story Of A Man And His Dead Friend And Other Classic Comics reprints a lot of those NatLamp pages -- possibly even all of them; the book doesn't explain itself in any depth. (Possibly due to corporate copyrights, it doesn't even say these strips all came from NatLamp, and that magazine is only mentioned in passing in Bob Fingerman's appreciative introduction. Fingerman also provides a biography at the end, which includes such eye-opening facts as that Rodrigues's previous book, Total Harmonic Distortion, was a collection of three decades of work for Stereo Review. Actually, I'm assuming this is all NatLamp material: there's a chance that some of it appeared elsewhere.) It's organized by strip continuity rather than by strict chronology, leading off with the 1982 continuity in the title: the story of a guy who can't stand to lose his best friend, so he has him embalmed and drags him around everywhere.

The other major continuities are "Deirdre Callahan: a Biography" (about the ugliest girl on earth, pitched as a mixture of Victorian sob-story and a piss-take on Little Orphan Annie), "The Aesop Brothers" (Siamese twins, Alex and George -- Rodrigues occasionally switches which one is which, either inadvertently or intentionally -- whose adventures start in a traveling circus and only get more random from there), and "Sam DeGroot, the Free World's Only Private Detective in an Iron Lung Machine" (my favorite when I read NatLamp originally). Each follows the same pattern: strange beginning, unusual meanderings through unexpected plot byways, and, eventually, complete metafictional collapse and an apology from Rodrigues.

At the end, Ray and Joe has a section of shorter continuities -- "Doctor Colon's Monster," a series of single-page biographies of famous people that mostly avoid anything that made them famous -- and a bunch of one-off strips. All are as idiosyncratic and uniquely Rodriguesian as the longer continuities; reading a book like this, it's difficult to imagine what kind of work Rodrigues did for staider, more traditional markets.

Rodrigues's art is equally specific: a loopy '70s style full of caricatures and long, discursive hand-drawn captions (often in white-on-black). Fingerman's notes at fore and aft explain that Rodrigues was a frustrated writer, and that is clear -- his cartoons are full of words, in dialogue and captions and their immense, ever-proliferating titles. It's also clear that there was no one else like Charles Rodrigues, and that his bad taste was incredibly entertaining for a long time. It's wonderful to see that bad taste -- cannibals, farts, sexual deviancy, a man who speaks through an enema tube -- brought back out and presented to the world all these years later. And it's better still to see that's it's all still as funny, as strange, and as utterly Rodriguesian as it ever was.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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