Friday, June 3, 2011

Autobiography Pt. 11


I met most of them at the Phil Seuling Conventions during 1969 and 1970.  I met Jeff Jones and Vaughn Bode while they were putting up a display of Vaughn's work the first day of the 1970 con.  Bode had just come to my attention via his DEADBONE EROTICA STRIP.  Come to think of it, I met Jeff in New York in 1970 during the early days of his career.  I remember visiting Jeff in his NYC apartment over the Easter holiday during 1970, directly North of the Museum of Natural History.. He was still living with Weezie, his wife,  and his daughter.  Jeff had two iguanas hanging out in his studio.  My friend and I looked over his paintings with awe,  and as we were leaving, my friend from Michigan, Ed Aprill arrived, pockets full of cash and the scent of oil paint causing his pulse to pound.  We stopped downstairs and visited Berni Wrightson at his place.  Berni had snakes in glass cages (I remember a big Corn Snake coiled under a light).  Berni was working on the “Future World” story in BADTIME STORIES.  He showed me several discarded pages that knocked my socks off.  As did the pile of abandoned drawings next to his drawing table.  Twenty or thirty pieces that were never going to be finished.  Amazing.  I begged one off of Berni and painted a full illustration around it.  Sal Quartuccio printed it in PHASE ONE (I believe).  While at Berni's, his roommate, Alan Weiss appeared with writer Mary Screnes.  She was sporting a black eye and he was insisting that he hadn't done it.  We razzed him about punching her lights out for about a half hour.
       September of that year (1970) found Berni attending the DETROIT TRIPLE FANFAIR.  Steranko was the guest of honor and debuted his HISTORY OF COMICS Volume One there, and unveiled his first paperback covers.  Also attending was Frank Brunner.  We had a surprise birthday party for Arvell Jones in somebody's room, and the ho-down eventually deteriorated into leaping from bed to bed, posing like our favorite artists.  Berni arrived and demanded equal time.  At the exact moment he flew from bed to bed in a Frazetta pose, someone, I don't remember who, lifted Arv's birthday cake into a leaping Berni Wrightson's face!
Really. The only time I’ve seen that in real life.
       A good time was had by all.      

       On one of our trips to Woodstock, I remember a conversation with Vaughn.
       At this point, he certainly had not only a five-year plan, he had a life-long one.
       He wanted to be a Messiah.
       I remember that it was late at night, in his studio at the back of the house, with so many windows. He was going on and on about what a good idea it was to be a Messiah, and I put my two-cents into the mix.
       “Being a Messiah would be too much work for me. I think I’d rather just be a priest.”
       Vaughn looked at me in a way he’d never looked at me before.
       Then he started outlining plan of the touring Cartoon Concert.
       Looking back, I now understand that Vaughn was looking for disciples. Courting me. Flattered.
       Since I’m stitching this Frankenstein together from not only memory, but from previous works as well, here is something I wrote about in VAUGHN BODE: RARE AND WELL DONE (Pure Imagination Publishing 2005.)
 BODE: The Perverted Disney

Vaughn Bode was a reincarnated snake-oil salesman who sold an excellent home-brew of underground comix packed with tits, ass, and laughs. He was Chuck Jones channeling W.C. Fields on acid. He  was a lesbian in a man’s body and a bi-sexual transvestite whose magnetic personality seduced a conga line of young men and the women, and if he’d lived five more years he’d have become the superstar that he already envisioned himself to be. You might argue that he had a Jesus complex and that his auto-erotic asphyxiation at 33 years of age was due as much to a death wish as it was to a jammed belt buckle. All I know is that his death changed my life forever.
       In case you never knew him, Vaughn Bode was a perverted Walt Disney. No joke, that’s how he thought of himself, and that’s how the world would have known him. Since Vaughn killed himself while jerking-off, we’ll never know if he would have equaled or  surpassed Mr. Disney’s empire, but  I can tell you for a fact, that’s what he was planning to do, and he had invited me along for the ride.
       I discovered Vaughn Bode and his creations in 1968. At the time I was an aspiring artist and when I saw his work in  CAVALIER magazine on the DEADBONE EROTICA strip I was convinced a genius had surfaced. The three black and white pages he did every issue were packed with lizard men and Bode Broads– cartoon nymphos, round and well-packed. The jokes were stupid vaudeville or brilliantly original, mostly down and dirty, and full of sex and violence–a lot like the underground comix scene that he’d graduated from. I worshipped his work and when we met in July of 1970 I began to worship at his cult of personality.
       Vaughn never bitched about it much, but he seems to have had a shitty childhood. In an effort to erase his old-man for his reality, Vaughn began to construct fantastic worlds, and checked into their splendor on a  regular basis. Pretty soon he was drawing these locations, and a career in art became his goal.  He worked for his college newspaper, then for the GOTHIC BLIMPWORKS newspaper in San Francisco, then at CAVALIER, and ultimately he was most at home in the NATIONAL LAMPOON doing a strip on the magician Cheech Wizard, the ball-kicking hat who’s a sex-machine to all the chicks.
       In 1972 I hauled my seventeen-year-old- ass to New York to try to break into the comics and was living with my illustrator pal Carl Lundgren in Ossining about a mile from the Sing-Sing prison.
       We got a call on Thanksgiving night from Vaughn who was then living in Woodstock, a few hours north of us. He explained that because the IRS had seized his cars he had no way to get into New York City for an important engagement the following day, and could we drive him in? We agreed, packed the Volkswagen, and headed for the vicinity xxxx’s farm.
       At the time, Vaughn was living with illustrator Jeff Jones in a stone house on a mountain that rose high above the town. F. Scott Fitzgerald was supposed to have written there, but of late it was being used as a private Xanadu stocked with raw canvas, fresh illustration board, and a steady stream of beautiful hippie-chicks culled from the lowlands. I remember once arriving there with Carl and watching while the Avon lady finished her appointment with Vaughn. After she was gone he offered “I’d probably have fucked her if you guys hadn’t shown up. That’s OK, though. She’s too straight for me.”
       Anyway, Thanksgiving night Carl and I arrived in Woodstock around 9:00 PM and were ushered into the living room, a comfortable area with a huge fireplace, double doors leading to a terrace and too much overstuffed furniture. A small motion picture screen was up and open in one corner and a slide projector in the other.
       Vaughn explained that the Bantam Lecture Bureau was interested in his brand of tits and ass, and was going to be present his first Cartoon Concert the following day. He’d taken the best of his art and shot it on slides, and planned to project these while doing the entire cast of voices. He asked me to time the show and comment at the end. It was a slice of heaven, and if you had foretold that his show would eventually play the Louve, my only response would have been “But of course!”
       I offered some suggestions at the end of his performance, and, amazingly he agreed and incorporated them into his show. He did the first Cartoon Concert the next day at a Creation Con in New York City, and the crowds went wild. When the lecture bureau representative saw the response, she signed Vaughn immediately. From that day forward, Vaughn peddled his smut for much bigger bucks.
       He played Bowling Green University and it was so successful that he always thought of it as his good luck charm. I caught a couple of the next shows, in Detroit and Toronto, and once again in New York City. He was always adding and cutting material, honing his performance, and when I was around, taking suggestions from me. At the end of the fourth show Vaughn invited me up to his room and asked for my review. I was saddened to inform him that I simply couldn’t add anything to his incredible work.
       Satisfied that the Cartoon Concert was perfect, the master announced that it was time for the next move up the ladder of glory. He confided that his plan was to buy a touring bus, paint his characters all over the sides, and take a small troupe around the country performing the Cartoon Concert during the nights and travelling on the road doing art at drawing tables during the day. It would be a national blitzkrieg of horny lizard men and aggressive Bode Broads. In an effort to avoid the tax bite that he’d gotten the years before, Bode decided to form a religion that worshipped comix, and by the way, did I want to come? Sounded good to me.
       In four years that I knew him I watched Vaughn recreate himself in waves, each more outrageous than the one before. When I first met him he didn’t look like and underground cartoonist. He had fairly short hair and there was nothing wild about his dress, but soon after he let the real Vaughn begin to shine through. Leather pants and longer hair at first, with lots of jewelry, then skirts and make-up, next the rock-star outfits inspired by his shows, and ultimately an androgynous look that was in a class by itself.
       His work seemed to keep pace with the changes in his life. Early Bode is concerned with man against man (or lizard against lizard) or man against nature. The results looked like war stories by Walt Kelly’s evil twin. The work became more sexual with the CAVALIER period, and as Bode finally came to terms with his sexuality, the sexuality of the strip also crystallized. Where the work had been obvious to even morons, the later Bode is concerned with interpretive images and cosmic ideas. Still lots of broads and lizards, but cosmic.
       He once offered an insight to his sexuality when he said “ I like men, but I simply couldn’t live without women. They’re so fuckable!” He always exercised good taste in his lady friends, and his status as a star-in-the-making made meeting them much easier. He liked hippie chicks, and he picked the quite types more often than not.
       The first half of 1974 found Vaughn relocated in San Francisco living with Jeff Jones and Diane Petrie. She’d been Jeff’s girlfriend for a while but decided to switch to his roommate, and they were still living together in some kind of intense threesome. It is a relationship that I never asked about, and no explanation was ever offered.
       Since California has simple laws when it comes to founding religions, Bode was taking steps to make his new religion legitimate. Once he was tax exempt Bode’s genius would be back on the newsstands and quite literally back on the road.
       As an added bonus, Bode announced that we would be touring as an opening act for the Grateful Dead. He was also developing a Cheech Wizard movie deal, and a major motion picture was inevitable. I’d designed a Cheech Wizard stop motion animation puppet, and if we couldn’t get backing for full animation, we’d do the picture in stop-motion. It all rested on Vaughn founding his religion.
       Once he set up shop in San Francisco I began to hear less from him until I lost contact completely. Friends informed me that Vaughn had been making a tour of the gay community and was supposedly doing lots of drugs. Neither shocked me, but something didn’t feel right.
       It was early summer 1975 when I got the call that told me Vaughn was dead. Strangled in an accident. It seems Vaughn would put on a leather mask, loop a belt around his neck and through the buckle. He would then stand on a chair, loop the belt over a chin-up bar mounted in a doorway and pull. At the same time, he would kick the chair out from under him and hang until he ejaculated, and let go. Piles of pillows cushioned his fall, and he eventually would regain consciousness. Dangerous fun. One such session resulted in the mask jamming the belt buckle so when Vaughn fell to the floor, the tension wasn’t released and he suffocated.
       I flew to San Francisco and spent a couple of days in his apartment awaiting the funeral. All of his friends were crushed by his death, yet all seemed strangely compartmentalized from each other. All in grief, few mourning together. I spent most of my time with his twelve-year-old son Mark,  avoiding many of the neurotics who had trouble coping with reality under normal conditions. The funeral was  held in a church on the bay, Vaughn’s ashes scattered at sea later.
       Not surprisingly, there was talk that Bode had faked his death (ala Paul McCartney) and people that I knew claimed to be getting mysterious late-night calls from Vaughn who was still alive and hiding out in Canada. For the six months that followed the funeral, I wasn’t sure that Vaughn was dead or alive. Ultimately, no evidence ever materialized, and I finally accepted his death.
       In the years since, Mark Bode has followed in his father’s footsteps, performing the Cartoon Concert and adding to it. In a classic case of like-father-like-son, Mark continues the tradition of giving people what they enjoy most about comics: sex and violence.
       Sadly, when an entertainer passes from the public view, the point of reference is lost and the legend inevitably fades. Disneyland keeps Walt alive in our minds, but Vaughn’s work hasn’t been published regularly for almost 25 years, and lots of people never heard of Vaughn Bode.
       For the record, Bode was the only genius that the underground comics movement ever produced. Crumb was talented, but Bode was deep. Had things worked out differently he’d have toured with The Dead, made some movies, won some Oscars, become a legendary part of pop culture, and ultimately the Guru of a full-fledged religion. He was a one-of-a-kind and what we’ve missed because of his death is enormous. On the other hand, if we’re good, someday, somewhere, we’ll get to see the Cartoon Concert to end all Cartoon Concerts, and maybe I’ll finally get my chance to work with Bode.      

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