MICHAEL H. PRICE: The Long Shadow of Boody Rogers
People and events of consequence cast their shadows before them, never behind. Oklahoma-born and Texas-reared Gordon “Boody” Rogers (1904 – 1996) owns one of those forward-lurching shadows – an unlikely mass-market cartoonist whose oddball creations anticipated the rise of underground comics, or comix, and whose command of dream-state narrative logic and language-mangling dialogue remains unnerving and uproarious in about equal measure.
I had discovered the artist’s more unsettling work as a schoolboy during the 1960s, via the used-funnybook bin of a neighborhood shop called The Magazine Exchange. One such title, Babe, amounted to such an exaggerated lampoon of Al Capp’s most celebrated comic strip, Li’l Abner, as to transcend parody. (One lengthy sequence subjects a voluptuous rustic named Babe Boone to a gender-switch ordeal that finds her spending much of the adventure as Abe Boone – almost as though Capp’s Daisy Mae Scragg had become Abner Yokum.) Such finds drew me back gradually to Rogers’ comic-strip and funnybook serial Sparky Watts, a partly spoofing, partly straight-ahead, heroic feature about a high-voltage superman.
Rogers resurfaced in my consciousness quite a few years later. A college-administration colleague showed up one day around 1980 sporting a canvasback jacket adorned with cartoons bearing an array of famous signatures – Al Capp and Zack Mosely and Milton Caniff among them. The garment proved to be one-of-a-kind.
“Oh, it’s my Uncle Gordon’s,” my co-worker explained. “Kind of a family heirloom, I guess – something his cartoonist pals fixed up for him on the occasion of his retirement. He lends it out to me, now and then.”
Okay, then. And who is this “Uncle Gordon,” to have been keeping company amongst the comic-strip elite?
“Oh, you’ve probably never heard of him,” she said. “He was a cartoonist, his ownself. Went by the name of ‘Boody.’”
Not Boody Rogers?(Yes, and how many guys named Boody can there be, anyhow?)
“None other. So maybe you have heard of him?”
Well, sure. Used to collect his work, to the extent that it could be had for collecting in those days of catch-as-can trolling for out-of-print comic books and newspaper-archive strips.
So, uhm, then, he’s a local guy?
“Well, not exactly right here in town,” answered my colleague. “But he lives not far from here” – here being Amarillo, Texas, in the northwestern corner of the state – “over to the east. Do you ever get over to Childress? You ought to drop over and meet him.”
No sooner said than did, as Boody Rogers might have phrased it. I had frequent business in Childress, in any event, what with my regional-newspaper connections and a responsibility to range the Texas Panhandle provinces as a student-recruitment representative for Amarillo Junior College. I mentioned Boody Rogers to Childress Index publisher Morris Higley, who recognized the name right off.
“Yeah. Something of a local character, ol’ Boody,” said Higley. “Kind of famous, too, although he mostly keeps to himself anymore. Used to do some newspaper cartoons. Approached our paper once, about getting some print-shop quotes to publish a memoir. Colorful ol’ guy.”
By this time, of course, Rogers was among the last survivors of a vanishing tribe of first- and second-generation comics talent – long since strayed from his funnies-racket territory in New York and Chicago, long since retired not only from cartooning but also from a second career in the art-supplies retailing market. But still a natch’l-born storyteller, and still in charge of his memories if no longer of his dreams and ambitions.
Rogers proved to be as garrulous as the narrative voice of his comics yarns had suggested – youthful in outlook though “pushin’ 80 with a bulldozer,” as he put it, and intent upon chronicling his eventful life in a book that he intended to call Homeless Bound.
“That’s on account of anywhere I hang my hat is home,” as Rogers explained the cryptic title. “And if I ever had a home to call my own – well, I loved New York, but the Southwest, the Texas Plains, has always been the place I wanted to be.
“Can’t be a working cartoonist and base yourself out in the boondocks. Gotta be smack-dab where the syndicates and the publishers are. But when I quit the business [during the early 1950s], I homed right in on the South-by-Southwest. And I was raised on the Texas Plains, movin’ from town to town, whichever way the wind blowed, and Childress is as good an excuse for a hometown as I ever had to call my own. Went to high school here, anyhow.”
Midway through the 1980s, Rogers published Homeless Bound through Pioneer Books, Inc., and laid in an inventory of the hardcover edition for mail-order sale via his Childress, Texas, address. The book proved to contain frustratingly little information about Rogers’ cartooning career but compensated with a rambunctious, bawdy and often poignant account of a nomadic childhood, a freewheeling young adulthood in New York of the 1920s, and a hell-raising tour of uniformed duty during World War II. The book had rather a low profile until the early 1990s, when Art Spiegelman’s comics-as-art journal RAW devoted a hefty space to a reprint from the fever-dream Babe series and took pains to call its readers’ attention to Homeless Bound.
Today, 11 years after Rogers’ death, Homeless Bound is more generally available from this Web catalogue or that – as close within reach as a Google search, though somewhat pricier than Rogers’ $10-postpaid going rate. The book reads more like Woody Guthrie’s Bound for Glory (1942) or Billy Porterfield’s Diddy Waw Diddy: The Passage of an American Son (1994) in its obsessive-but-reflective homesickness for a Southwest untouched by the nicer civilizing influences.
Homeless Bound takes wildly digressive leaps, from a rootless and adventurous childhood to some preposterous wartime incident and back again, but Rogers’ conversational tone and overriding enthusiasm keep the book anchored. If, by the time of its writing, memories had outstripped ambition, Rogers nonetheless remained determined to transform those memories into New Art.
“My early ambition in life was double-barrelled,” writes Rogers. “First, to be a football quarterback and win the girls, and second to be a cartoonist and make people laugh.” A wisenheimer from childhood, he revels in such episodes as the early triumph of antagonizing a school principal with this suggestion for a class slogan: “When in doubt, eat ham and eggs.”
Rogers earned the nickname of Boody via schoolboy football, in recognition of his place-kicking ability. The odd spelling, he explained, “is how us kids pernounced ‘boot.’” (As in “boot that thaing,” no doubt.)
The book glosses over Rogers’ academic preparations, which included studies at the Art Institute of Chicago. And although Rogers lived as a high-roller among name-brand cartoonists – apprenticing under Smilin’ Jack’s Zack Mosely, appearing as a featured artist in more than 200 newspapers, and hobnobbing at a peak of his craft with the titanic likes of Capp and Caniff – the book avoids name-dropping.
Homeless Bound excels at recalling a long-vanished Southwest, from the viewpoint of an observant and prankish son of a household (Rogers’ father was a small-town storefront restaurateur) that moved about routinely. He tells uproariously of how he became “the only four-year-old to cause a large restaurant to be totally evacuated twice in one month” – an account that the book itself should be allowed to deliver in its own sweet time. And he describes a circle of roughhousing schoolboy friends bearing such American-Dickens names as Dirty Shyrock and Bill Something-or-Other.
Only in such out-of-the-way archival sources as Woody Guthrie’s Library of Congress recordings, or the Institute of Texan Culture series of Dust Bowl survivor interviews, can one find more intimate accounts of growing up in an American Southwest that still belonged more to the rip-snorting frontier than to polite civilization. And only in the cartooning of such kindred souls as Gene Ahern (The Nut Bros.) and Bill Holman (Smokey Stover) and Basil Wolverton (Powerhouse Pepper) can one find as outlandish a combination of Big Ideas and gratuitous absurdity as Boody Rogers’ work conveys.
“Being nutty wasn’t necessarily a prerequisite for being a cartoonist,” as Rogers tells it in Homeless Bound, “but it surely helped.”