Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Remembering Vaughn’s World

The Life and Death of Deadbone’s Dark Wizard
By Greg Guma

When Vaughn Bode died in 1975 his most memorable eulogy appeared in National Lampoon, which speculated in jest that he might have been murdered by Paul Krassner, a Bode acquaintance and notorious renegade journalist. It was a fitting tribute for an artist whose life and work often rode the line between satire, genius and obsession.
     Bode had become famous for comics in the East Village Other, his Cheech Wizard strip and the weirdly erotic Deadbone series that appeared in Cavalier, the first full-color comic strip in a national magazine. But by then he was also a world-class manic depressive with paranoid tendencies, buffeted by primal fears and suicidal thoughts. 
     And not all of it was in his mind. The IRS was out to get him.
     We met ten years earlier at Syracuse University, when he returned to school after release from the army. At the time he admitted to getting out on Section 8, a psychological discharge, but did not mention that he’d been locked up after a suicide attempt. He was 23 at the time, married with a young son, and struggling to balance school with supporting a family by creating ads and illustrations for local businesses. One campaign included a comic book about the exploits of Mower Man.
     On campus he emerged with a strip called The Man, wryly humorous stories about a cave man struggling to survive with his only friend, a stick. In a 1966 collection of those strips poet Greg Kuzma commented that Vaughn’s work was like an epic panorama: “a cast of thousands of unique characters lies behind his pen waiting to be born.”
     Shortly after The Man we began collaborating on a publication, Vintage, an attempt to re-imagine the idea of a campus magazine. With a small budget provided by Syracuse University we produced several issues over the next two years, each one different in content and form.     
    For Vaughn it provided a platform to tell stories his own way, to explore his demons and introduce an alternative universe in which he would spend much of his remaining life. In the first issue he published seven illustrated vignettes called “Excerpts from the Saurkraut Papers,” brief stories about the absurd hypocrisy of war. In “Survivor,” for example, a German hides from the Russians under a pile of bodies only to discover that he’s not the only one. As more time passes more Germans pipe up. “About two hours later,” Vaughn concludes, “the pile of dead Germans stood up and walked back to camp.”
     These early experiments were restrained in comparison to what came next. Although Vaughn had not yet experimented with drugs and wasn’t much aware of the emerging underground comics scene he had a whole world in his head that was destined to emerge. To provide a better venue we decided to publish the next issue of Vintage as a series of stand-alone sections, all enclosed in a stylish slim box. The package included two Vaughn Bode comics, and a third by his protégé Larry Todd
     The more memorable comic was Cheech Wizard, which introduced one of the characters that made him famous. Cheech, who talks trash from under an oversized hat, is taken into custody by cops under the control of Morton Frog, a boss who wants to reveal his identity. But as Cheech explains in the final frame, after his captors go into shock, “Their primitive minds couldn’t accept the truth.” 
   Who was Cheech? Neither he nor Vaughn ever said.    
     The second comic book, The Machines, is a grim dystopian tale about a Terminator world of thinking machines. Set in 2005, it’s a war story with three main characters, a lone human living underground, a “Baby Battery” machine fighting on the surface and “Mother Complex.” When Baby is hit Mother goes ballistic before being overwhelmed by other machines. There’s no silver lining and little humor.
     As Vaughn’s universe expanded the magazine attempted to keep up. The last issue of Vintage, released in late 1967, was a large-format publication. We promoted it with the catch phrase “It’s bigger than Life,” since it was literally larger than the popular publication. The cover was an elaborate full-color illustration by Vaughn that introduced the Deadbone world of lizards and cherubs. Inside, along with contributions by Allen Ginsberg, Marshall McLuhan and folksinger Tom Paxton, plus features on contraception and a motorcycle gang, was the first installment of The Junkwaffel Papers, ostensibly “wireless communications between the Planet Plumpstickel 5 and Vaughn Bode’’s head.”   
      The format allowed Vaughn to create a short graphic novel with four book pages on each larger page of the magazine, each bordered with the image of a heavily-armed woman warrior. The story’s premise is that Vaughn, an illustrated character in his tale, is struck by lightning and begins receiving outer space transmissions. Eventually he learns that he’s been set up to provide the opening for a regime change on lizard planet.
     “When they try to jam your mind out of existence,” he is told, “they will be feeding out 86 percent of their total energy capacities. A nation-wide blackout will exist while they execute you. That’s when we strike!”
Self-portrait, 1967
     Fortunately for the world of comic art, he survived the plot and was invited to lizard world for an extended visit. But the story did suggest that Vaughn was dealing with deep inner conflicts, and perhaps even saw himself as a victim. Meanwhile, back on Earth, he separated from his wife Barbara and moved to New York in 1968 to begin work with The East Village Other and found The Gothic Blimp, a weekly comic paper. That year he also won a Hugo Award for his science fiction illustrations.
     By 1970 Vaughn Bode was a comic art superstar, his work able to cross from the underground to commercial venues. He’d created about 200 different cartoon series with more than 1500 characters. During a visit in 1969 he shared some of the detailed dossiers and designs he was developing for each character and location. A natural performer, he also began appearing in a series of Cartoon Concerts, which combined slides of his art with voicing of characters. His Cavalier strips were collected for a 1971 book, Deadbone Erotica.
Deadbone landscape
     During the next few years he had considerable fun hanging out with Jerry Garcia and The Grateful Dead, which helped catapult him into the drug scene. He also collaborated with writer Dean Koontz and began developing motion picture ideas with Ralph Bakshi. But an attempt to establish himself as a church failed to dissuade the IRS. According to someone close to him during this time, Vaughn again began to view suicide as a serious option.
     For several years he followed Guru Maharaji, the teenage spiritual leader of the Divine Light Mission. At the same time he was experimenting with meditative auto-asphyxiation. Although primarily known as a sexual practice, oxygen deprivation is sometimes associated with deep meditative states.
     On July 18, 1975, according to the official version of the story, Vaughn was meditating with a leather collar around his neck. A San Francisco Chronicle editor described it as a bizarre hanging accident. But National Lampoon wasn’t satisfied with that tepid explanation. “Bode was a convert to Zen Zen, a highly advanced mystical discipline which teaches that satori can be reached merely by drinking a quart of Jim Beam and urinating in a light socket,” the Magazine joked. I believe he would have loved the attention and have gotten the joke.
   Lampoon even published a poem about his passing, “Vaughn But Not Forgotten.” It begins with the line “Somewhere there’s a four-color heaven,” and then describes an afterlife filled with artists and their creations. It ends with this:
And Jesus was waiting for Bode
And Cheech up in heaven that day.

If you believe in forever
Then life ain’t just a four frame gag.
If there’s a comic strip heaven,
You know they’ve got a heck of a gang.
     Seeing photos of Vaughn during his last years, it’s hard not to compare them with some illustrations in his comics. He'd transformed himself physically into a character from his imagined world – a buff, long-haired cartoon hero in a tough and sexual alien environment. From the distance of decades it seems as if he never truly returned from lizard planet.

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