I should start by saying that I’m thrilled that Craig Yoe’s Boody brings such a nice quantity of superlative material by Boody Rogers into print. After a sampling in RAW and, more recently, my own Art Out of Time, it’s time for everyone else to read more of this great cartoonist. So, I feel like a schmuck when I say the book itself, despite the usual fantastic production job by Paul Baresh, and fine design by Jacob Covey, is a disappointment. Ten years ago I suppose it would have been OK, but in these days of books like Patrick Rosenkranz’s masterful Greg Irons retrospective, Paul Karasik’s personal, insightful Fletcher Hanks book, and the whole body of work by Jeet Heer for Gasoline Alley and Little Orphan Annie, Yoe’s treatment of the material is just not acceptable.
The introduction to the book is written with a blend of fannish glee (“I’m sure as shit”) and oddball imagery (“the stories were as wild as an acre of snakes”) that deflates the comics to which it refers. When work is as “wild” as Rogers’, it’s not necessary to go the extra mile with the prose. It’s self evident. What we need is cogent analysis and solid history, both of which are sorely lacking. I want to mention a few things:
Yoe notes (with good reason, I’m sure, but since no sources are listed, it’s hard to say) that Eric Stanton was, at one point, Rogers’ assistant, but we don’t know when, where, or how, exactly. Stanton later (it must’ve been later, as Rogers left comics in the early ’50s) shared a studio with Steve Ditko. So here we have the definitive bondage/s&m cartoonist/illustrator of the latter part of the 20th century linked to two of our finest cartoonists. But that barely merits a line (and the Ditko connection isn’t even mentioned) in Yoe’s introduction. Stanton could be a hugely important factor here, linking two sui generis cartoonists — if he knows more, Yoe isn’t telling.
Yoe also claims Rogers was a great letterer, but it’s clear from reading the book that later in Rogers’ career he switched to a letraset of some kind, and his unique handwriting vanishes. Why? Also, despite Dudley’s presence in the book, that 3-issue comic book never merits a mention in the intro. What was the nature of Rogers’ work with Zack Mosely on Smilin’ Jack? I mean, when you read the strip you see Rogers all over it, so how did that partnership work? And what effect did Bill Holman have on Rogers? Throughout Babe and Sparky Watts one sees Holman-esque gags: characters in picture frames freely move in the background; signs on the street have their own gags: it’s a loopy, jam-packed menagerie of jokes. But this was not Roger’s invention, and is very much linked to his time in Chicago and his friendship with Holman, just as his action/adventure stuff is liked to Mosely. Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, Rogers, like Gould and Holman, and later the Hairy Who, belongs to a grand Chicago tradition of the comic grotesque. It’s a loose aesthetic but certainly the distortions at play in Rogers, Gould and Holman are not unique to them: they’re very much informed by that city and it’s own aesthetic vibe. Rogers, coming from Texas (and here we could link him to other Texan yarn-spinners and imagists gone urban and psychedelic like Gary Panter, Trenton Doyle Hancock, Gilbert Shelton, et al) also had that distinct “hillbilly” gift for punning and dialogue. Put that together with the Chicago aesthetic and you have a potent cultural/visual mix (as, for example, Panter combined it with LA and Tokyo). I’m not making these points to reduce Rogers or somehow put a formula on him, only to note that there is a broader art, comics, and cultural context at play that Yoe ignores.
And we’re also missing the basic context for Rogers’ career. The book lacks even a starter bibliography or timeline for Rogers, leaving the full arc of his time in comics a mystery. When, precisely, did he work for Mosely? When was Deadwood Gulch published? When was his final work with Columbia Comics? Hmmm? Yoe repeatedly references having gone through Rogers’ personal papers, finding photos, artwork, etc., and in his own bio refers to himself as the “Indiana Jones of comics”. Well, um, I don’t get it: What’s the point in mentioning you’ve found all this stuff if you don’t use any of it to illuminate your subject’s life and work? Or if you barely show any of it?
And then there’s the running order of the book. There is no table of contents, so it’s a little hard to navigate, but from what I can tell, many of the stories are run out of sequence. For example, the book begins with a story from Babe 1. Then the second to last story in the book is a continuation of that first story from Babe 1. But before we’ve gotten to that story, we’ve read a story from Babe #4 that references events in the second part of Babe 1. Still with me? It’s tough going. In between, natch, there are stories from Dudley and Sparky Watts, also in no particular order. Why not run stories in sequence? Or at least separate out the characters so we can better understand his distinct bodies of work. As is, there’s no rhyme or reason.
Look, Rogers made great work and Yoe has done a service just by compiling some of it. I know how these books can go, and how difficult it is to achieve a balance between scholarship and reprinting, especially with a limited page count. And I hate when people impose their own unreasonable expectations on someone else’s work. Yoe clearly was not interested in writing the kind of text that, say Heer or Rosenkranz might have, but that’s not really an excuse. These days, with all the resources and writers out there, an editor has a responsibility to his subject to make a clear, cogent case for the history and importance of the material at hand, even if it means letting someone else take a crack at it. So, I’m sure choices were made. I just happen to disagree with them, and I think the things left out of the book — basic information, in fact — ultimately sinks it as a useful document. I wish that Yoe had looked past his obvious love of the material and towards preserving Rogers’ legacy in a more articulate and informed manner.