I See My
Light Come Shining
Volume 5, Comics Journal - Fantagraphics, March 2005
approximately 1:00 p.m., on Friday, July 18, 1975, the cartoonist Vaughn
Bode came out of the bedroom of the apartment in San Francisco's Mission
District he shared with a lover (I will call Helene) who worked as a
secretary at UC Medical Center. He wore a monk's robe and several necklaces.
His light brown hair hung in curls to his shoulders. His blue eyes were
lined and mascaraed. A white triangle was painted on his forehead.
phone calls today, Mark," he said to his 12-year-old son, visiting
from New York. "I'm doing my God thing."
look beautiful," Mark said. His father smiled.
see, Mark, I really am a high priest."
returned to his room. In the center, on the lid of a coffin, sat a Buddha,
a Jesus, a Krishna; figures in the pantheon of a religion he was creating.
Over the next few hours, to the accompaniment of Mozart and pausing
only to slip $5.00 under the door for Mark to buy food, he worked through
a series of steps as ritualized as a Japanese tea ceremony. He believed
that each human sense was a window through which God communicated. This
communication could be magnified by alternately silencing each sense.
So he applied blindfold, earplugs, gloves, apparatuses to mute taste
and smell, each increasing his expectations and excitements as he approached
a climactic extinguishing of his conscious self.
this, he tied one end of a leather strap to a chinning door braced on
the doorway of his closet. He looped the strap around the bar several
times and then wrapped it around his neck. He grasped the loose end
of the strap in both hands and pulled downwards. He expected that, by
cutting off his air supply, he would black out and fall onto pillows
he had laid across the floor. The strap would loosen, and he would regain
his breath. But while unconscious, he would have been launched into
a circumnavigation of the universe. He would have been in touch with
worlds and visions he had pursued for most of his life. He would have
melded into "everything." He would have accessed Mysteries
of the Light. When he awoke, he would have the harvest to enrich his
he had performed this act for the first time, he had wept because he
wanted so badly to return. Each of the five times he had done it since
he had gone further and gotten higher. He was four days short of turning
34. Since Christ had died at 33, he had told himself that when he passed
that age, he would not cast this die with God again.
was at his professional peak. His work appeared in publications that
ranged from the narrowest corners of the underground to magazines of
worldwide distribution. Film production companies courted him. He had
been only the third American to win the Yellow Kid Award from the International
Congress of Cartoonists and Animators. His public appearances drew thousands.
He had an agent at William Morris.
necklace caught in his strap, and it did not release.
had been born July 22, 1941, in Syracuse, New York. He had an older
brother, Victor, a younger brother, Vincent, and a younger sister, Valerie.
Their father, Kenneth, was an unpublished poet and a drunk. He was handsome,
bright, and unable to hold a job. Their mother, Elsie, was good-hearted,
likable, and warm. She worked the assembly line at a GE plant in Utica.
Because she worked and Kenneth was drunk, the kids ran wild. They were
in and out of school, in and out of juvenile hall.
he was sober, Kenneth would do anything for his children. But when he
was drunk, he grew sad; and when he grew sad, he became mean. He beat
Elsie; he beat the kids. He beat them, while they slept, through their
blankets with a belt. To escape, they would sleep on the floor beneath
their beds. When Elsie had been beaten enough, she filed for divorce.
Vaughn was eleven, maybe ten.
moved to Philadelphia. Valerie was sent to live with grandparents. Victor
was placed in a children's home, Vincent and Vaughn with different uncles
in Washington, D.C.
aunt and uncle who took Vaughn had a daughter his age. They were sure
he would be her ruination.
Vaughn is no good," they said in front of him.
Vaughn will never be any good."
Vaughn will rape our daughter."
did not help his standing when they caught him in the basement masturbating
amidst discarded automobile tires.
had it helped that, when he was little, Elsie, who had wanted a daughter,
allowed his hair to grow in ringlets and clothed him in dresses so that
he resembled Shirley Temple. Nor had it helped when his father mocked
him because he was no fighter. Nor when his mother forbade him to play
with other children because they might do harm. There were times he
did not know who the fuck he was or what the fuck he was supposed to
fled the home in which he had been placed and joined his father. From
Philadelphia, he wrote letters to the rest of the family urging them
to reunite the children. Finally, Elsie took custody and moved them
to Utica, an aging industrial town of about 75,000 - Poles, Italians,
Jews. Little Chicago, they called it.
family offers models upon which to build a life. And it unleashes scalp-hunting
savages against which to erect a fortress.
Bode family contained strong contingents of Baptists, Catholics and
Methodists. For a time, Jehovah's Witnesses met regularly at their home.
Vaughn saw that religion could bring meaning to empty lives, solace
to aching hearts, courage to fearful souls. But no religion he met comforted
him. At 14, he began to rewrite the Bible - to tuck and taper its steamy
blanket - to chip and chisel from its unwieldy weight.
another point, he considered becoming a Jesuit priest. It was not, he
later realized, the theology that had attracted him so much as the life
of quiet contemplation, the channeling of sexual energy into the courting
of God - the opportunity to wear a dress.
there was art.
had drawn his first cartoon when he was five, his first comic when he
was seven. No one else who came to supper or through a front door he
was likely to step did that. This individualization strengthened his
sense of a life apart. To the extent the drawing satisfied, the correctness
of this course felt confirmed. Drawing drew him from where he was otherwise
condemned to be. Its pencil lines and colors transformed him as well
as any other blank page.
clipped his favorites from the paper: Prince Valiant; Alley Oop; Pogo;
Li'l Abner; anything by Disney. 1 He created his own characters, dozens, hundreds, perhaps thousands.
Hobos found sunken treasure. Garbage men went to the moon. Mars and
Venus were nearer than the corner store. He schemed out solar systems,
populated alternate civilizations, every one more satisfying than the
one to which he each morning awoke. He visited his worlds daily. The
stretches during which he lingered lengthened. They were the only places
that made sense or which he controlled.
13, he had his first "publication": a church flyer depicting
Samson bringing down the walls of the temple. He plotted a career as
a newspaper cartoonist. He intuited the need for a "front strip"
the public would accept. It was not prepared for the worlds of his dreams.
His first effort featured a man who resided in a trashcan. Hobos. Garbage
men. Trashcan residencies. Smashed temples. His pages did not advertise
a happy child.
he had to be here, he thought, he must have a purpose. If he had a purpose,
it must involve this talent that set him apart. And if his being apart
exposed him to privileged visitations, he had a duty to lead others
to places they could not find on their own. At 16, at the kitchen table,
he doodled two pipe-cleaner legs protruding from beneath a battered,
extra large, wizard's hat. He cribbed his creation's name, Cheech, from
a nearby nut jar. A panel or two of combat left him shredded, lumpy,
on his back. "What didcha' expect, a dime store hero...?"
he instructed. "Life ain't at all like dat, dope!"
gotte met Vaughn in 9th grade and became a lifelong friend. Gotte remembers
him as quiet, calm, extremely creative, extremely ambitious, deeply
involved with his cartooning. He was also interested in exploring, in
thought and conversation, areas of the unknown. One of these areas,
not revealed to many people, was sexual deviancy. "Nothing major,"
Gotte says. "Closeted stuff. Not practicing anything. Just a lot
of imagining and wondering 'What-if'...Trans-sexualism, S&M. There
was this book, The Seven Sins." One of the people who did not know
of this interest was Barbara Hawkins, a shy, pretty, dark haired girl,
who resembled a teenage Sophia Loren. Barbara, who came from an abusive,
strict, Baptist family, and who was a year younger than Vaughn, met
him her freshman year of high school. They had classes together, which
he passed by peeking at her test answers. She thought he was cute, funny
- and, potentially, a "savior." When she asked permission
to go to a school dance with him, her father beat her. Her mother convinced
him to relent, provided she was home by 11:00.
Vaughn asked her out again, both parents said, "No."
cartooning was leading him nowhere. Barbara's parents were thwarting
his progress there. Victor had dropped out of high school at 17, enlisted
in the Marines, and already commanded a helicopter squadron. Well, Vaughn
thought, Victor's doing good. With Elsie's consent, he quit school and
joined the Army.
served a year before going AWOL and receiving an honorable discharge,
under medical conditions, on a psychiatric basis. Denny O'Neil, writing
in High Times a year after Vaughn's death, says that he had blacked
out several times from guilt feelings over homosexual acts. Mark says,
"His commanding officer came onto him sexually and he freaked and
ran into the woods." Lenny Gotte says, "The service was just
too harsh and violent for his personality." Barbara says, "Vaughn
simply was not a follower. He couldn't take orders from anybody. He
didn't want to obey rules."
was back in Utica maybe a year, living with his mother, when he packed
15-pounds of his work into a portfolio and came to New York City, his
hair brushed, his shoes shined, his tie knotted at his throat, determined
to become "the hottest cartoonist in the Western world." (Barbara
had loaned him money for the trip. When her father found out, he hit
her so hard he drew blood.) Vaughn visited newspaper strip syndicates
and comic book publishers. He passed his rendered visions across the
desks of balding, sweating, pot-bellied men who had room for boys of
fire and invisible girls.
back," they said, "when you've learned to draw."
went home and burned several hundred drawings. He tried a Bible again
but abandoned it after three chapters. The first time he asked Barbara's
father to marry her, he laughed in his face. "Like father, like
son," he told Vaughn. "Your father was a drunken bum, and
so will you be." Barbara was still dominated by - and terrified
of - her family. The only way she could be married, she knew, was at
their church. So Vaughn started meeting her there, showing interest
in the congregants, the service, the minister whose permission was necessary
for any union. One Sunday, when the minister summoned the saved forward,
Vaughn was among them.
you certain?" the minister said.
has spoken to me."
minister had shaken the other people's hands. He only glared at Vaughn.
wedding, November 4, 1961, was attended by relatives and a few friends.
Vaughn and Barbara found their own apartment. He went to work as a commercial
artist for International Harvester but quit after a year. He and Barbara
set off for California on a Vespa, which he crashed in West Virginia.
The rest of their savings went for train fare. After a brief stay with
an uncle of Vaughn's in Santa Barbara, they rented an apartment in Hollywood.
Vaughn took a commercial art job, which he hated more than International
Harvester, and at which he did not last as long. They returned to Utica
and moved into a trailer - a small one.
means nothing and life is certainly an analogy to the Null," Vaughn
wrote in his diary the first day of 1963. 2 He and Barbara, seven-and-one-half-months pregnant, were on welfare,
living in a $20-a-month apartment. (Vaughn was pleased when she gave
birth to Mark, since a son avoided the problem of "having a female
as our next Messiah.") He had been turned down by Utica College.
He had unsuccessfully sought work at funeral parlors, state hospitals
and as a stock boy. When he was hired as assistant manager of a downtown
bookstore, he was paid only $1.15-an-hour and fired after eight months.
More periods of unemployment and a short, unsatisfying stint at a commercial
art studio followed. For additional income, he pawned his watch and
Barbara's razor. (He had already pawned their wedding set, her engagement
ring and wedding band.) His greatest success was an application to the
VA for a service-connected, $46-a-month, psychiatric disability.
New Frontier era had America floating on a rising tide of hope and vigor.
But Vaughn lived like someone in a backwater shack. Reading his diaries
from these years for clues to how he would burst forth is like staring
at a sparrow's egg and trying to forecast a phoenix. He bowled. He built
model planes. He believed The Nutty Professor "delightful"
and Gunfight at the OK Corral "really fine." He compulsively
bought - or shoplifted - books at the Salvation Army: a 1909 Webster's
Dictionary; a 13-volume history set; old National Geographics. He considered
night school, a career in nursing, and - craving "some conformist
movement" - the Air Force Reserve. He took long walks through the
cemeteries of his rusting city and unappreciative culture. "The
wind is howling madly..." he wrote. "I walk in it for hours
and think of Death." He wondered if it held "beauty in its
timeless voids." He could not tolerate that it might not: "Nothing
means anything if only blackness awaits." He was wracked by unspecified
"unbearable truths" - conflicts between "what my body
wants, what my mind wants, and what everybody else wants."
sought relief through new sensations. He enrolled in a school for commercial
pilots and logged flight hours. He joined a club, which taught its members
to make parachute jumps. In the clouds, he felt closest to his imaginary
worlds. Each time he jumped, he considered not pulling the cord. Each
time he waited a little longer.
he always pulled it. His dreams of artistic glory continued. Taking
stock, he noted his "mechanical craftsmanship," "rich
writing ability" and "millitary [sic] trend," as well
as an inability to blend these into a commercial form. The strip he
submitted to the Utica College newspaper was not run. The gags he sent
to Dude and Gent and 1000 Jokes were rejected. The queries he directed
to art schools and agents, strip syndicates and comic publishers led
nowhere. He displayed 49 drawings in a local art show, sold one, and
won a blue ribbon in a category with no other entries. Jealous of the
success of Charles Schulz's saccharine Happiness is a Warm Puppy, he
turned out his own, acerbic Das Kamph Is..., 100 pages of captioned
illustrations, such as "War is making a parachute jump behind enemy
lines and forgetting your gun." With money borrowed from his brother
Vincent, he reproduced 100 copies in book form, but sales were minimal.
In another creative burst, in one night he produced 17 pages about a
caveman he called Man. "I like the stupid little fellow,"
he wrote, "but I imagine no one else would."
was, for long stretches, too nervous, depressed, beset by headaches
to work. He was torn between his aspirations and his reality. "Am
I good or am I bad or am I great? The latter must be true, or I wouldn't
have existed." He believed he had been granted his talent in order
to delight and instruct others. His inability to deliver was driving
him mad. He feared he might never bring into existence his creatures
and their worlds. In his worst moments, he could write, "I can
hate no one with more vengeance and discust [sic] than which I hold
the summer of 1964, America began to crack apart. The Gulf of Tonkin
allowed Lyndon Johnson to plunge Viet Nam into her belly like a sword.
The murders of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman confirmed that her racial
fissures would not be bridged by singing "We Shall Overcome."
August, Vaughn applied for admission to Syracuse University's School
of Fine Arts. Bathed in cold sweat, he hitchhiked from Utica to be tested,
interviewed and to have his portfolio reviewed. "God of Gods,"
he prayed, "be merciful." When his acceptance came, he was
overcome. "A whole new world is opening up for us....If only I
can be worthy of this honor." He was 23 - two years older than
the seniors. He had his father's beatings, his mother's coddlings, his
army breakdown, his professional failures, the responsibilities of a
wife and child on his back.
also brought a destiny to seize.
found a $12-a-week room. he ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
He studied Light and Figure Drawing and planned to become an illustrator.
And he sought ways to make himself known. He would give Syracuse something
to think about besides Larry Csonka and Dave Bing. The school paper,
The Daily Orange, rejected his submissions; but, in December, Sword
of Damocles, an off-campus humor magazine, accepted a six-page story,
"The Masked Lizard." Its protagonist, a four-foot-tall extraterrestrial,
lives in the sewers beneath the university and subsists on nicotine
and alcohol. He is also a CIA operative who is shot multiple times,
has a dozen grenades explode in his mouth, and is buried alive. But
- death not being an end - is left singing in his coffin. The Sword
sold out its 2,800-copy print-run, but Vaughn was not impressed. "Wonder
if I will ever be what I want. Seems hardly likely that I will shake
the foundation of my rotten society. I suppose it will be enough if
I shake the foundation of my own social sphere."
the next two and a half years, his work rocked the campus. The Orange
ran a half-dozen strips. The art students' magazine, Vintage, ran cartoons
and stories. The Office of Student Publications published three cartoon
books. The campus welcomed Vaughn's bickering beatniks, warrior lizards,
detonator toads, plots to blow up the Vatican. It embraced Rudolf, a
bearded fanatic, whose efforts to restore dignity to a dehumanized,
conformist society result in his being machine-gunned and incinerated.
It hailed the arrival of a Cheech Wizard, who had evolved into a police
defying, profanity spouting anti-hero. (Like O'Malley, his idea of a
good way to demonstrate his powers is card tricks.) Having been expelled
from Sorcerers' University (SU), Cheech spends his time at a local tavern.
His world is full of ineffectual Communists, stupid ministers, evil
rulers, and five-cent-a-hit assassins. At one episode's end, those who
see his face are rendered catatonic because they cannot "accept
the truth." But Vaughn's greatest achievement may have been the
"stupid, little fellow" he had created 16 months before.
Man ran in the Orange from October 1965 until February 1966, and was
reprinted in book form the following year. Man led a simple life. He
killed and he ate. He had one friend, Stick, a spear, with whom he held
one-sided conversations. When he found a second, Erk, a reptile, another
caveman killed and ate it. (Man then killed him.) The loss of Erk left
Man feeling like the wind, empty, cold and crying. But he can go no
further in articulating or accounting for his feelings. He can neither
bear nor transcend them. They teach nothing. They lead nowhere. He can
only exclaim - and here the story ends - with Man atop a rocky crag,
arms wide, mouth gaping, even Stick fallen into the void, "...I
Man's narrative distance was masterfully balanced in order to sustain
a shifting, implicating moral complexity. Readers both identified with
and were repulsed by this stunted being struggling to cope. They smiled
and they winced. Their grins spread and their tears welled. He was all
they had to hold onto; yet he was as if thorned. Vaughn had set before
them a creature whose differences were off-putting but whose core humanity
was magnetic. His anguish was one that any of them, eyes opened, heart
unshielded, had to share.
Todd was already a published science fiction writer and illustrator
when he entered Syracuse in 1966. Vaughn was, by then, at the heights
of college cartooning, publishing widely, pissing people off. He was
developing artistically through color experimentation, simulated 3-D
technique, working on a giant scale and through reduction glass; and
he was manipulating the G.I. Bill to drop in and out of school at will.
(He would not graduate until June 1970.) "There was a tremendous
energy boiling inside Vaughn," Todd says. "But you could not
tell in what direction it would go. It took a couple years for him to
become seriously bent. Hell, it took a couple years for the idea of
being seriously bent to even come up. At first, he just seemed another
science fiction-Buck Rogers guy playing the game: 'Anything you can
think, I can think weirder. I can think anything weirder than you'."
however, was putting some thoughts into practice. When Barbara and Mark
had joined him, they rented an apartment in a large, sprawling, two-story
house, before moving into married student housing. While he went to
class and developed his art, she worked as a secretary, first for an
insurance company, then a marketer of air conditioning. She enjoyed
her new experiences and the people she met. But Vaughn was a celebrity,
and his fame presented him with opportunities to explore areas previously
confined to fantasy. One of these explorations involved having sex with
her best friend while she was in the next room. Another compelled him
to describe to Barbara the sex he had with someone else. (He explained
that these descriptions demonstrated how much he loved her.)
Vaughn began making requests. He wanted her in 19th-century lingerie.
He wanted to use various "sex toys." He wanted her blindfolded
- gagged - bound. Barbara liked the lingerie. She did not care for the
tight leather garment with the hood. Once, after arousing her, he locked
her in a trunk and left for another woman. When he returned, he kicked
the trunk, off and on, so Barbara would know he hadn't forgotten her.
She was inside for six hours.
took a while to convince, but I always did things for him," she
says. "I wanted regular sex, but I had never had sex, and he told
me this was normal. And he balanced it by always having loving sex immediately
afterwards. So I got what I wanted, and he got what he wanted. And we
both enjoyed the second one."
he wanted to be worshiped during sex. She laughed at that.
psychiatrist at the V.A. to whom Vaughn described his acts and fantasies
said that if he did not stop, he would kill himself. But when you are
young and coming into your powers, words like these have the effect
of warnings that masturbation will drive you mad. And Vaughn had stronger
The 50-Minute Hour, Robert Lindner, M.D. reported the psychoanalytic
case study of "Kirk," a nuclear physicist, who is "cured"
of his insanity by having his inner, fantasy worlds permanently sealed
off from him. Vaughn had never read anything so disturbing. He required
his capacity to create art to tolerate his life, but the only way he
could create was to visit his inner worlds and reproduce what he found
there. And the only way his inner worlds could exist was if he nourished
them with the adventures the outer world demanded of him. Later, Vaughn
would introduce one of his works with a quote from Rimbaud. Only by
shattering the senses through exposure to "(a)ll forms of love,
of suffering, of madness" can a poet become a visionary, Rimbaud
said. It does not matter if he is destroyed, for then others can stand
upon him and see further.
psychiatrist told Vaughn his contributions would enrich society - and
prescribed Elavil. (Vaughn liked it because it left him feeling in control.
Later, he would learn what he wanted to control and what he didn't.)
The doctor also diagnosed him as a paranoid schizophrenic.
am Schizophraniac [sic]...," Vaughn exulted, "full to the
brim with fantasy worlds and ideas... desiring to exist in another galaxy
or another time." The upheavals of the late 1960s had cast into
being newspapers that printed cartoons sexually and politically unlike
any before. In early 1968, Larry Todd showed Vaughn one of these papers,
the East Village Other. It had work by Robert Crumb.
this time, Vaughn had spread his work beyond Syracuse. He had been art
director for a public relations firm, where he had created animated
commercials, displays for trade shows, and a comic book, Powermowerman.
He had contributed to dozens of comic and science fiction fanzines.
(In two of these, Shangri L'Affaires and Witzend, he would post one
of his most powerful narratives, "Cobalt 60." It tells the
story of another isolate, a hideous, homicidal mutant, who roams an
Earth stripped and sterilized by nuclear war into dust and bones and
empty winds. His contribution will be the slaying of the last woman
capable of conception.) He had done promotional material for fan conventions
and drawn covers and illustrated stories for the science fiction magazines
If and Galaxy. (After he won a Hugo Award in 1969, as Best Fan-Artist,
Galaxy launched his cartoon serial "Sunpot." But when editors
who objected to its sexuality rewrote an episode without his consent,
Vaughn killed his characters and was fired.)
he sent pages of original art to EVO. The staff regarded these strange
lizard soldiers - who burned hooches and machine-gunned children, and
from whose mouths, when they died, butterflies spewed toward the sun
- with awe and wonder, an attitude that did not insulate the pages from
being left on desks and tables, while coffee stains upon them mounted.
Finally, Trina Robbins, whose "Suzie Slumgoddess" the paper
already ran, wrote to the artist. "Your stuff is amazing! Get down
here!" No one else she knew drew like that. All the underground
cartoonists in New York influenced each other, and all of them were
influenced by Crumb. But here was a unique conception and style. Here
was an entire world, riven with horror and destruction but rendered
with a humanity and a compassion that was heartbreaking.
arrived, shaved, shorthaired, and overwhelmed by the East Village. Robbins
took him to lunch at a Polish restaurant, and all she could convince
him to eat was an apple strudel. "He was so-o-o-o straight,"
she says. "Then, of course, he ended up more weird than any of
had already published most of his EVO contributions at Syracuse; but
he did plant several memorable images on its front page: a city erected
atop a skull; a policeman shooting a newspaper; a terrified child huddling
against the tomb stone of peace; Nixon offering help to "niggers,";
a lizard desiring to "ball da entire womans [sic] liberation movement."
He also convinced its publisher to release Gothic Blimp Works, an all-cartoon
tabloid. Vaughn envisioned it as a place for underground cartoonists
to make their art known and earn money from it. He edited the first
three issues, then resigned. Except for a few, scattered appearances,
he was through with EVO too. Shepherding a flock of hippy cartoonists
into the pastures of plenty required more than he could commit. And
ideologues were calling for the underground press to toe lines he was
driven to cross.
of the cartoonists with whom Vaughn worked - Trina, Kim Deitch, Spain
Rodriguez - moved to San Francisco to join its freewheeling underground
comix scene. But he stayed in the East, where professional prospects
seemed greater. He continued to contribute to science fiction mags and
fanzines, drew for the Cryonics Society, did cartoon ads for Douglas
Records (He saluted its offerings of Richie Havens, Lenny Bruce and
Eric Dolphy as capable of causing "worms, diarhea [sic], chest
phlegm, terminal halitosis, and five years in purgatory"), and
turned out covers for the horror mags Creepy, Eerie and Vampirella.
Two were collaborations with Larry Todd. One was with Jeff Jones, a
New York City-based illustrator known for his science fiction/sword-and-sorcery
new friend was Bernie Wrightson. Wrightson had come from Baltimore,
where he had drawn editorial cartoons, to New York, hoping to break
into comic books with a style that combined Frank Frazetta and Graham
"Ghastly" Ingels. He met Vaughn at a comic convention in 1969.
(In 1971, when Vaughn was busy with other projects, Wrightson illustrated
and lettered installments of his Purple Pictography series for Swank.)
Wrightson recalls Vaughn as very collegiate then, still very much the
straight arrow. "He had a wide range of philosophical and religious
interests, but he was no zealot. He seemed to gather and assimilate
information only in order to enrich his work. He was preoccupied with
landing the next job, with securing good accounts. He was very intense
and very confident. He envisioned himself becoming the Walt Disney of
used to joke about Vaughnbode-land with rides that ended in horrible
spent the bitterly cold winter of 1969 at the far end of Long Island
with Barbara and Mark. He took the train into Manhattan to deliver his
assignments. When he returned and reported what he had gathered and
assimilated beside a paycheck, Barbara learned how open her marriage
had become. "I wasn't too happy about it. It was pretty heartbreaking
really. I knew he loved me more than the other women, but it's hard
sharing a husband, to say the least."
had complaints too. Most of these women wanted to skip the restraints
and lingerie and just get it on.
had broken into the slicks with Cavalier in May 1969. A Playboy cousin
with chewed fingernails and stains on its raincoat, it may have lacked
sophistication, but it had an edge, and paid better than the underground
or fandom. For a while, it also had quality. It published Crumb, Art
Spiegelman, Harlan Ellison. When Crumb quit because of a negative article
it had run on underground comics, Vaughn over took his slot. The editors
promised not to censor anything he submitted unless it could get somebody
jailed. He produced four black-and-white or halftone strips per issue.
They were six-to-nine panels long, in a form he named "Pictography,"
which left the word balloons outside the panels and the art uncluttered.
The series was entitled Deadbone. In April 1970, it switched to color.
was a four-mile-high, volcanic mountain, populated by lizards, toads,
and bare breasted, big-hipped objects of sexual desire (and vessels
for its easy fulfillment) that came to be called "Bode Broads."
Deadbone was "an evil and insane society," created a billion
years ago as a rehearsal by the "murky mysterious forces"
which created our own. It was a blackly comic world of bashed heads
and ripped out hearts, overseen by gods who studiously ignored or flippantly
destroyed their worshipers. Death came from meteors and submarines,
rifles accidentally discharged and monsters lurking around corners.
Deadbone's citizenry were pushed off cliffs and squashed by overly passionate
robots. Since women were ridden like horses, they were shot if they
hurt a leg. Others were bound during lovemaking, turned into "lumps
of leather and rubber," and buried alive. Among Deadbone's populace
was a lover of clouds who falls to his doom when he steps out on one;
a preacher who murders children in order to speed their passage to heaven;
and a mourner for a lost brother who, sitting alone, on a rocky crag,
in a cold night wind, concludes, "...Life is a good thing to be,
even if we got to be dead tomorrow." There was also a lizard who
holds his breath underwater so long that he achieves an expanded consciousness
- the "Grooviest thing I is ever done" - and drowns.
solution to this casual, inevitable destruction was absolute sexual
indulgence. His cartoons rippled with celebratory references to cunnilingus
and fellatio, masturbation and S&M. His call had a philosophical/theological
basis. "We don't just ball each other," he wrote. "We
ball life." Repressing sex causes us to obsess about it. These
obsessions block our minds so that we cannot receive God. Vaughn wanted
to open everyone to this reception. Something must fill us besides what
he knew otherwise to be there.
also used his strip to address political issues (His take on the student
killings at Kent State was a duel between reptiles, one armed with a
brick and the other a machine gun) and to work over personal concerns
(a troubled marriage; a father's death). 3 He achieved poignant episodes, like "River Meat," in which
a corpse wonders, "what I was before I got to be a bobbing, bloated,
floating thing....I might have walked on top of the actual ground and
waded through autumn corn. I could have heard a different drum."
And he presented deconstructive riffs, startling in their originality.
"Self," for instance, plays inside his mind, with characters
investigating the stored memories, which triggered their creation. In
the next-to-last panel, they peer out through the eye that drew in the
perceptions that begot them. Then the point of view reverses; the last
panel, shot from the outside, reveals the full being in whose eye they
stand: the author as a teary child, naked but for a straitjacket, to
whom electrode-like wires attach.
ghosts shadowed Vaughn. They hung in the corners. They hid behind doors.
Men and women acted toward one another only as sexual aggressors or
exploiters. Friends only abused and debased. Where was the child on
the knee, the wife hand-in-hand, the comforting touch, the reassuring
word? The ecstatic license he projected entailed a remove from gentler
social comforts that he could not will his art to span. He had been
cast there by a childhood he could not extract. It sparked his achievement;
it would command his demise.
ran until Vaughn's death, about 220 episodes in 73 issues. (Its title
changed to Deadbone Erotica in May 1970, to Deadbone Erotica, One Billion
B.C. in May 1972, and to Bode Erotica six months after that.) Its popularity
spawned one hardbound and two paperback collections, including, Vaughn
proudly proclaimed, the first Bantam "to show tits." (It also
earned adaptation as a nickname, "The Deadbone Pilots," for
a mobile platoon in Vietnam.) Its earnings bought a used Mercedes, later
succeeded by an orange Opel GT.
he considered Cavalier a great training ground, as it increased its
raunch content in an effort to boost circulation, Vaughn became less
comfortable with the association. ("I don't," he wrote, "even
like to think about the average Cavalier reader.") He submitted,
unsuccessfully, to Scanlan's Monthly and National Lampoon. (It rejected
his work as "too pretty.") He sent book proposals to Avon,
Grove Press, Olympia, and Viking. He pursued deals with Jim Warren,
Dean Koontz and Stan Lee. (Lee would offer Vaughn the chance to edit
an "adult" comic under the Marvel imprint.) He negotiated
for X-rated shorts and animated features based on his work. 4 He looked into calendars, playing cards, and posters. He considered
a commission to do murals for a California nightclub, Pepperland, which
Crumb and S. Clay Wilson had already rejected. He sought to syndicate
a newspaper strip.
strip, coming while Wilson was still lopping off pirates' penises with
cutlasses and Crumb shoving Angelfood McSpade's head into a toilet,
showed how far Vaughn would go to climb the professional ladder. It
centered around a revisited Cheech Wizard, now called "The Hat."
(Vaughn had almost changed his name to Ichi Poo.) His proposal placed
his strip in the tradition of Wind in the Willows, Pogo, Little Lulu,
and Peanuts, and touted it as "the most well liked and read feature
to ever appear at Syracuse University." It was, he claimed, "a
perfect bet for success with mass market appeal." His samples showed
The Hat in charge of a household of appealing elves, adorable rag dolls,
and a loveable lizard. Its humor depended on water balloons.
syndicate bit. But Vaughn would not abandon Cheech just because he had
been deemed unfit to keep company with Miss Peach.
push to advance, the lack of major progress, the punishing deadlines
- at one point, Vaughn had a multi-page series running in three different
monthly men's magazines (Dude, Swank, and Cavalier) - often left him
on the point of breakdown. He still hoped to create socially significant
work. He still craved recognition for his genius. When the nationally
televised Dick Cavett Show approached him to be a guest, he decided,
rather than simply plug his projects, to present himself as the one
person who, through them, could bridge the Generation Gap and save the
country from the "Death Decade" toward which it was headed.
(Later, he decided instead to emphasize his capacity to "lighten
the heavy, twisted sex hangups of the nation.") When Cavett booked
someone else, Vaughn was left "discusted [sic] to be a human being...Trapped
and mired in an uncivilized, barbarous world of horror, plague and injustice."
was smoking large amounts of marijuana and hashish - and swearing to
quit in order to preserve his sanity. He considered moving to Manhattan
to be closer to the publishing world's center, decided against it, then
moved - and returned to Syracuse a month later. He was in and out of
psychotherapy. ("Dr. H- steers me like a positive ship...I used
to be the Titanic." "Dr. H- can not bring me any closer to
reality without ruining everything.") He was accepted at graduate
school - but never enrolled. He repeatedly expressed his commitment
to Barbara - the one woman he desired - the only person he could talk
to - the only woman who gave him a reason to exist - but insisted on
sexual freedom that drove them apart.
social life now included a circle with whom they partner swapped or
had group sex. ("I was never very comfortable about this,"
Barbara says, "but when you can't fight 'em, you join 'em.")
Vaughn also found more women with whom to solo. ("Seeing how I'm
well-hung, with a good developed body and a handsome head, it's easy
with broads," he explained. He also noted, "Male cartoonists
are not the prettiest group of people. Except me.") He had sex
with one of these on his ninth wedding anniversary. He had sex with
another on an evening on which he struck Barbara so hard he knocked
her to the floor. Once he carried off a program of sex with four different
women, in four different cities, in four days.
diaries also mention "a strong desire for masculine domination,"
goings-on so "mysterious" he dares not record them, and a
growing fascination with transvestitism. At first he confined this interest
to looking at pictures; then he was talking to practitioners; by late
1970, he was dressing up in private. He believed that, in order to understand
himself, he must be able to experience all aspects of himself, including
full "transvestite release," without apology or guilt. (He
also believed that, since he continued to desire women, he must be a
unique "unisexual," "a forerunner of humans to come.")
In New York City, at Macy's and The Tall Gal Shop - Vaughn was 5' 10"
- he purchased a woman's slacks, blouse and boots. He dropped his weight
15 pounds to a more androgynous 150, grew his nails long, and began
carrying a shoulder bag.
Barbara's discomfort with his new persona increased, Vaughn began expressing
hostility toward her. She was now the "tangle of vines" from
which he must escape in order to be "whole." On New Year's
Day, 1971, not knowing if he was headed toward "destruction"
or "light," he proposed they separate. He would move into
his studio, where he could dress as he wished, and they would see each
other on weekends. When Barbara seemed to distance herself further,
refusing to "dress up" for sex, encouraging him to sleep with
other women, he decided, without her permission, to read her diary,
"to better understand her...and help us." There, he learned
she preferred another man. The revelation left Vaughn "sick,"
"wounded," "tearful," "sad to death,"
"walking stoned, pain crazy, cracked mind crying at the full moon..."
"The crowning irony," he wrote, "is that when I came
to rest with her after so long a troubled time, she's not there any
more." (This "rest" had not prevented him from spending
the night with a West Indian woman a few days before.) He decided that
it would be best to dissolve their marriage - but continue to be lovers.
One person not made uncomfortable by Vaughn's shoulder bag and nails
was Jeff Jones. In fact, he revealed that women in his art were based
on photographs he had taken of himself in drag. (He looked, Vaughn noted,
like Claire Bloom.) Vaughn's courage in going public inspired Jones,
and Jones's admiration emboldened Vaughn. He added to his wardrobe a
tweed skirt; dark blue, leather bellbottoms; a blue jumper worn over
opaque pantyhose and accessorized with a paisley sash and an Egyptian
ankh on a chain. He began shaving his legs - and then his arms, underarms,
chest, and stomach. He wore eight rings at a time and applied Revlon's
Blush of Ivory. He grew his hair to Roger Daltrey, Tommy-era curls.
also shared Vaughn's interest in bondage. When Vaughn related an episode
in which he had lain a spread over and set out knickknacks on a trunk
in which he had locked Barbara, Jones exclaimed, "That's pure expression.
Real, basic art!" The statement struck Vaughn like the Burning
Bush. Sexual acts could be art - anything could. He could make himself
a conscious, creative act, neither man nor woman, transsexual nor hermaphrodite.
He could "intensify and heighten (his) inner energies to true projection."
He would no longer worry about what others thought. He would become
"Art...pure, poetic, symbolic expression."
January 1971, Jones left his wife and daughter and moved to the arts
friendly community of Woodstock, New York. In February, he invited Vaughn
to combine studios. It went so well they discussed living together.
Vaughn made two trips of significance that fall. In both he was accompanied
by Larry Todd. The first was to an auditorium in Greenwich Village for
the first American appearance by the Guru Maharaj Ji. The guru, a plump,
13-year-old Indian, was one of a number of spiritual leaders to come
West hoping to duplicate the success of the Mahareshi Mahesh Yogi, who
had turned on the Beatles. The guru, wearing pants with elephantine
cuffs, sat on a throne and smiled benignly while aides in yellow robes
ministered to him. The spectacle reminded Todd of "a historical
pageant out of a Hawaiian junior high school." Vaughn was more
one point, the guru touched Vaughn's forehead and told him that all
answers lay within him. The moment was revelatory. ("It turned
his mind inside out," Todd says. "It opened him like an acid
trip," Trina Robbins says. "It convinced him," Barbara
says, "he was not insane.") Vaughn left believing that Guru
Maharaj Ji was Jesus Christ and that his touch had transmitted this
holiness to him.
Todd says, had always sought the beatific experience. "He understood
religion enough to realize he wasn't getting out of it what he was supposed
to. That's what he was looking for. The personal experience of God."
Vaughn now felt compelled to attain full enlightenment. But instead
of spending years meditating in a cell or on a mountaintop or prayer
mat, he would settle on autoerotic asphyxiation as his vehicle.
after this meeting, Vaughn and Todd came to San Francisco to see what
blessings underground comix might bestow. They hosteled in the warehouse
of the infamous cartoonist collective, the Air Pirates, led by the inimitable
Dan O'Neill. 5
appearance alone was enough to have resonated like a blast of "The
Star Spangled Banner" at an anarchists' convention. No man - and
damn few women - among the underground wore nail polish. (None of them
thought much about how they dressed except, maybe, S.Clay Wilson, who
was partial to white suits that conveyed a decadent, Tennessee Williams
air. Wilson was so universally outrageous he was entitled.) And Vaughn's
show-me-the-money (and-don't-forget-the-tie-ins) approach to cartooning
was even more incendiary. The underground, coincident with counterculture's
vision for national, if not worldly, reformation, was dominated by a
Crumb/Spiegelman/Bill Griffith ethic of "Don't work commercially;
don't sell out; don't go to New York." (While this mind-set left
adherents feeling pure and proud, revolutionarily defiant, a number
would later wish it had made more provision for retirement plans and
health coverage.) To the committed, the acquisition of property was
such a betrayal that, according to Shary Flenniken, one of the Pirates,
when the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers earned Gilbert Shelton enough
to buy a house, he had to keep it a secret lest some of his compatriots
demand he put it up for bail.
Flenniken, who was beginning to formulate her own idea of what being
an artist meant, Vaughn's professionalism was epiphenomenal. "He
already had a lot of work; he was looking for more, and his style was
unusual and polished and good." He was the antithesis of a Spiegelman
or a Justin Green, whose philosophy, "Put lots of ink on the page"
was anti-commercial to the core. Such artists spent hours applying lines
to paper, when time, after all, was money. "And here comes Vaughn,"
Flenniken says, "with this incredible, loose, non-detailed style
that didn't involve a tedious, crude look. 'Crude' was a big thing then.
A lot of people were putting a lot of effort into their work, but they
couldn't necessarily draw."
decided to stay in San Francisco to "run with the big dogs."
Vaughn returned to Syracuse - but not before securing contracts with
Company & Sons, Last Gasp, and The Print Mint to publish his comics. 6
came back to Baghdad-by-the-Bay in February 1972. His time had come
for LSD. Acid had been on his mind for years. For many, it had been
a veritable act of communion, an affirmation of faith with the new age;
but Vaughn had feared it would constitute a "mental suicide,"
doing for him what alcohol had for his father, imprisoning him in a
fantasy world of no escape. Now he felt "compelled spiritually"
to take the risk. At Larry Todd's, with a photo of his guru keeping
watch, Vaughn dissolved the tabs of acid in a champagne glass of water
rug moved. The guru's eyes emitted beams of light. The world beyond
Todd's windows turned black. As Vaughn experienced this "new bright
mad existence of absolute immediacy," time, the world, purpose,
and failure vanished. Reality became "an arbitrarily fixed fraud,"
perpetuated by "dumb, primitive brains." He was, he realized,
a true holy man - "an alien priest."
reveled in his strength. He had stood up to and conquered his fear of
insanity. The next morning, he looked in the mirror and saw a rosette
in the area of his third eye.
May 11, 1972, Barbara was granted a divorce from Vaughn on the grounds
of cruel and inhuman treatment. He greeted her outside the courthouse
with a bouquet of pastel daisies and a note: "I love you."
He did love Barbara; he did love Mark. But as he saw it, life had four
stages: Youth; Family; Teaching; Buddhahood; and he was ready for Stage
days later, Vaughn and Jeff Jones signed a lease on a 40-year-old stone-and-wood
English country house three miles outside Woodstock. Vaughn saw it as
a positive sign that the first owner had been named Rosette, exactly
what the LSD had materialized on his forehead.
evening, Vaughn had a three-way with Barbara and another woman. "Oh
God, I am a comet," he wrote, "glowing, growing intense as
I draw breathlessly closer to light."
Lampoon had published its first issue in April 1970. Before the year
was out, its savage satires had established it as the country's leading
humor magazine. Among its cartoonists were Gahan Wilson, Edward Gorey,
B.Kliban, Bobby London and Shary Flenniken. Vaughn became a contributor
in February 1972, unveiling a re-re-retooled Cheech Wizard. Cheech appeared
in 32 of the next 40 issues, missing six months until the editors acceded
to Vaughn's demand that he command a full page, instead of a half.
Cheech had put much ground between himself and Little Lulu. He dealt
drugs. He enjoyed anal sex, oral sex, nasal sex, under-age sex, sex
with nuns. He disrespected his betters, brutalized his lessers, and
was cruel toward his lovers. In short, the repellent little bugger perfectly
fit a publication rising from the ashes of the crashing-in-flames '60s,
and whose motto might have been "No values but the mocking of all
values," sung to a country that John Mitchell, Nixon's Attorney
General, presciently quipped, was "going to swing so far right
you will not recognize it."
sex and more drugs seemed to have been the only parts of the '60s' promise
to survive its passing. In his first several months, Cheech established
his bona fides in these areas. But as Vaughn's guru-fortified belief
in his messianic calling deepened, his creation felt the influence.
In December 1973, this climaxed in the Lampoon's "Self-Indulgence"
issue, which featured a "worship poster" by Vincent of his
brother as a unisexual Christ figure, longhaired and gowned. In Cheech's
strip that month, Vaughn appeared with this poster. (His arrival was
heralded as "da first coming of da Bode.") He explained to
the other characters that, as an artist, he had "created...this
subjective reality as a vehicle to lead us...to the laughing light."
(Cheech responded by kicking him in the groin.) By mid-1974, Cheech
had proclaimed himself "da Cartoon Messiah" and announced
that any teaching would be done by him. The strip now spoke regularly
of sensitizing chakras, attaining higher states of consciousness and
finding God. But at a time of competing, questionable gurus - bhagawans
and babas, reverends and rabbis, swamis and sris - calling out from
every poster tree and café bulletin board to those adrift or
unhinged, it was comforting to find one who laid his cards directly
on the table. Cheech spent donations to his church on "booze and
broads." He enlightened followers through "twisted thoughts,
perverted acts, and a kick in the balls." Whatever his faults,
no one ever accused Cheech of hypocrisy.
a jealous disciple killed him. But when townspeople came to dig up the
corpse, they found Cheech had "risen." He had miraculously
escaped his coffin and found lodging within the trunk of a dead tree,
where he continued to drink beer, smoke pot, and ball.
was still there when Vaughn's more resurrection-resistant passage into
Trismegistus's Eighth Sphere curtailed his mission.
lived in Woodstock with Jeff Jones from June 1, 1972, until April 1973.
During those ten months, Bode had periods of rage, frustration, depression,
paranoia and loneliness. He suffered stomach cramps, disturbed sleep,
freakish dreams, the flu and a mild case of VD. He feared, at moments,
he was "an idiot," "insane," "lost," "a
clown," "all fucked up." In others, he reveled at how
"very high" and "intense and blown out" he had become.
Though constantly pressured by deadlines at Cavalier and Lampoon, he
was submitting cartoons to Playboy and Penthouse, negotiating with New
Times about editing a national comics tabloid, and seeking to interest
Last Gasp in a "coming out" comic that he envisioned as a
major step for himself, personally and professionally. He would ink
14 hours straight, sleep three, and color another eight. But he had
little money - his income both in 1971 and 1972 was about $22,000 -
and the IRS was after him for back taxes. Part of him wanted to return
to the comfortable, familiar world of Barbara and Mark; another saw
that as a suffocating, spirit-sapping "heavy collar to slow Allah's
design." He must stick to his chosen path if he was to become "valuable
to our time and culture. To mankind and beyond."
leg of his journey was spiritual. He read Ram Das, Krishnamurti, Jonathan
Livingstone Seagull. He delved into Scientology, Silva Mind Control,
tarot, kabala, Aleister Crowley. This research led him to the witch's
swing, a procedure in which, while seated, the participant twists the
ropes until they can be stressed no further and then releases the tension,
causing the seat to rotate rapidly. By stopping this rotation abruptly,
he can then propel his astral body out of its physical sphere into an
astral experience. (This behavior was not unusual. As a friend noted,
"Anybody taking LSD was going into themselves and out of themselves
and going on astral projections. We were all finding the inner you,
the outer you.") He visited Buddhist ashrams, listened to Tibetan
bells, achieved tantric unity. He penetrated the deepest levels of his
mind and learned that not only "the light child, the seed, the
embryo" lived within him, but so did many of "the dear holy
men" he had presumed dead. He was, he wrote, "wholly involved
with my intensity with the Universe (God) and I love that force more
than I love life." God was now his "carrot," not money.
His goal was union with the Totality of Allness. He was a caterpillar,
seeking to become a butterfly, hoping to soar into the light.
second leg was sexual. He and Jones would loll about in mini-skirts
and earrings and joke about salesmen coming to the door and asking for
the woman of the house. Either because Vaughn was becoming more daring
in his entries or less restrained in his behavior, new specifics emerge
in his diaries: rope; tape; harnesses; a cross; latex masks; rubber
stockings and brassieres; whips. He records "bazaar [sic] onistic
[sic] sex"; his enclosure in a box for 45 minutes; a "satisfying
Death/Rebirth ritual"; a two-hour "hanging number"; another
90-minute "kind of bondage, violence, hanging trip." 7 He reports photographing himself dominating a female partner but reveals
he usually takes the submissive role. He begins several new relationships,
including one with a male drag performer, which leads to a night in
a gay bathhouse. (Listening to the wrap-around sounds of orgasm, Vaughn
wishes sex could always be this easy.) He notes a "fascination
for getting my head hit" and the bruises, black eye, and split
lip that result. (I ran into a car door, he explains to others.) He
buys ballet slippers, bikini underpants, ivory, and lavender leather
bellbottoms, mauve high-heeled boots. (He tries out, but rejects, falsies
and a dress.) He has six weeks of hormone injections before deciding
not to become a woman after all. He liked the breasts, but not at the
cost of his erections.
am Normal to me," he insisted. "Everything I do is right and
serves all purposes." The response of most, though, is expressed
by Bernie Wrightson: "It was a point of speculation with his friends
what happened to Vaughn. When he came out, as it were, it took us all
by surprise." One person who professes not to have been so taken
is Shary Flenniken. She sees Vaughn's behavior as consistent with his
pattern. "He was a smart, curious guy, interested in many aspects
of life, who became competent at many things, some of which happened
to be peculiar."
most significant creative achievement at Woodstock was "The Bode
Cartoon Concert." (The title replaced "Bode's Underground
Cartoon Concert," which had replaced "Bode's Pictography Performance.")
It was his "personalized art form" and he its sole producer,
director, writer, set and costume designer, star. Eventually 90-minutes
long, it consisted of a slide show of his cartoons, with him standing
to one side, in full make-up, his hair loose to his shoulders, dressed
in a body suit and leather bellbottoms, wearing several rings, necklaces
of bone and sharks' teeth, and assuming the personality of and providing
the voice for each projected character. He developed the show through
rehearsals in front of Mark, Jeff Jones, and friends, with dolls and
toys filling out the house. Vaughn spoke of the show in terms of "ego
death" and "rebirth." He viewed it as a celebration of
his sexual and spiritual growth, by which he would "reprogram"
his audience; but he promoted it in terms more likely to sell tickets:
"A full-color fantasy projection. A total happening in sight and
sound. A sexual-social satire in words and images. The ultimate replacement
for Mickey Mouse." The concert offered him the chance to be simultaneously
artist and rock star, wo/man and priest. He might, he feared, explode
on the launching pad. But he might launch a new career.
an audience of 80, The Bode Cartoon Concert made its debut on October
21 at the Detroit Triple Fan Fair. Vaughn repeated it a few weeks later,
for 200 people, at Bowling Green University, where he had been invited
by the Popular Culture Department, and then, ten days after that, before
400 at Creation Con in New York City. He was most nervous at Bowling
Green, where he thought few people would have heard of him. (His fear
that he would be attacked as sexist was eased when he learned most of
the campus feminists would be at another event.) But without exception
his audiences laughed and applauded, requested his autograph, offered
him joints. Their reactions brought him to "the highest conscious
and spiritual state" of his life. They also led the Bantam Lecture
Bureau to sign him. It would book him, for fees as high as $2500, for
over 50 performances, to audiences of 2000, in the United States, Canada
and Europe. He even played the Louvre.
Vaughn never reached his goal of opening for Alice Cooper or the Rolling
Stones, other cartoonists were impressed. "Amazing," they
said. "Phenomenal." "No one was doing anything like it."
"I didn't even necessarily like the guy," Flenniken says.
"But when I saw the slide show, I got it. He was entertaining these
people and promoting himself. A door opened. 'This is professionalism.
He's not fighting a war. He's not fighting anybody. He's promoting himself
as an artist.' If Vaughn had lived, he'd be in France now, too." 8
the spring of 1973, Vaughn started to seek a place in Utica to spend
weekends. He wanted to be closer to Barbara, Mark - and the woman who
had bloodied his lip. Once he had found a $125-a-month apartment, which
reminded him of a room in an insane asylum, and whose previous tenant
had been a $3-a-trick, 63-year-old prostitute, he began to consider
giving up Woodstock. The thought shook him enough that he sought - and
received - signs: the reflection of a skeleton in his shirt pattern
upon his car widow; the snapping of a cord on a necklace he wore; the
rabbit he almost ran over. He had almost decided to stay when he read
the tarot. The Six of Cups showed him fulfillment lay ahead. 9
in Utica, Vaughn tried again with Barbara and Mark. They rented a house
and, she says, attempted "'a normal life,' whatever that is."
For Vaughn, it included coming home with fresh welts and scars. The
reconciliation failed. "He was an excellent father when he was
around," Barbara says, "and I truly loved him. But in the
end, I no longer could deal with his sickness." She moved with
Mark to Rochester, where she found work with a community organization
that assisted underprivileged teenagers. Vaughn still brought her his
problems, but now all she had to give was advice. "It was a rough
time," Mark says. "I was going to all-black schools, only
surviving because my father had taught me to draw tits. I would draw
naked black girls for the biggest guys, and they would become my bodyguards."
had now achieved a breadth of popular success beyond any other contemporary
alternative cartoonist. (He insisted he was never an "underground"
cartoonist. He preferred the terms "allground" or "otherground.")
He had his Deadbone collections, with print runs in six figures, and
a limited edition, French "art" book. He had four comics.
He had covers on Screw and Crazy and a strip about a druggie crow in
The Funny Papers. He had his images (and name) on T-shirts, posters,
address labels, flyers, stationery, decals, even a Cheech Wizard jigsaw
puzzle. He had written, directed, voiced and recorded a never-aired
"radio cartoon concert." He had his own newsletter for collectors.
he had not compromised. His prose remained fresh and effective. His
characters' fractured syntax and garbled pronunciations slipped toward
readers, from amusing angles, ideas and attitudes that were daring and
provocative. His art was so ripe and lush that his beauties' figures
almost seemed perfumed. Viewers lingered and were pollinated by his
effusions. 10 As his audience grew,
Vaughn never censored himself to insure he would maintain his hold.
He refused to spoon feed a recycled product just because he knew it
would be comfortably consumed. As he redefined himself, so he adjusted
his art, interweaving it amidst his own groping and growth, daring rejection,
risking the cost.
drew from his inner depths," Mark says. "His characters had
real problems and real hang-ups. His universe was real. When you read
it, you were there. That's what makes him a timeless artist. He was
the first cartoonist to take his cute Disney characters and blow their
brains out." This may be an achievement of note. But it is also
something to which critics of Vaughn's work react. He was, they say,
too quick to dispatch a character. He seemed unable to sustain the interest
or discipline to develop a narrative. He appeared more interested in
finding a new way to push someone off a cliff than to strengthen a limb
on which one stood. "If he could deliver a gag every six panels,"
they say, "he was happy." While the worlds of Cheech Wizard
and Deadbone may have been as detailed and well conceived as Walt Kelly's
Okefenokee or Kenneth Grahame's Wild Wood, it may have been this inability
to maintain a relationship with, as well as between, his characters
that kept him from winning the degree of respect and admiration and,
indeed, love, that history has bestowed on them. The wised-up and cynical
among us may correctly judge empathy to be a useless myth, a deluded
shuck, a wimpy, futile shield to wave in the face of fate; but it may
remain, nevertheless, a requisite for any work that humanity, in the
final counting, is to welcome to the highest levels of its canon.
any event, let it be said that, in the last two years of his life, Vaughn
produced a pictographic story and an essay that were among the most
courageous and compelling creations of any sequential artist of his
generation. The story, "Bode," ran alongside, but below, a
collection of Cheech Wizard strips in the comic Schizophrenia, published
by Last Gasp in 1974. The essay, "Confessions of a Cartoon Gooroo,"
appeared posthumously in Mediascene in 1975.
consists of a monologue delivered by the author. He inhabits a barren
moon. He wears knee-high boots, a full-length gown. He has rings on
his fingers, a garland of flowers in his hair. His nails are polished.
In "Confessions," his jumpy-jivey voice conjures up an image
equally colorful. Both efforts are part of the same manifesto. For a
long time, Vaughn writes, he wanted to die. The source of this despair
was his forcing himself to live as one "thing" when he was
many things: "auto-sexual, heterosexual homosexual, mano-sexual,
sado-sexual, trans-sexual, uni-sexual, omni-sexual..." He had suppressed
these aspects of himself because they terrified and shamed him. Then
he had understood that he must loose their restraints, no matter what
behavior they commanded. Some of these impulses would depart; others
would linger; but the result would be whom he was meant to be.
works were Vaughn's greatest gift. In them he assumed the responsibility
of a man who has received a truth he must deliver. The small boy who
hid beneath the bed to avoid his father's strap now stood on stages
before applauding thousands. The young man who had burned his work in
shame now had collectors scrambling for it. The adolescent who had screened
pleasures in the privacy of his imagination now played them in flesh
in bedrooms of his choice. How could he not believe that his way had
been anointed to command a following?
he delivered his exhortation. Fear nothing! Repress nothing! Dare anything!
Become anything! This is, he cried, the key to work, to art, to life.
If he could emerge from his terrifying traumas and weirdly wired knots
into bliss, so could anyone.
quicken to the call still. Faces smile. Feet tentatively march.
late 1974, Vaughn moved to San Francisco. Vincent, who was working as
an air traffic controller at the Oakland airport, after serving 10 years
in the Air Force, had convinced him it was where he belonged. So had
the weather, the geography, the pre-AIDs sexual license that seemed
as deserving of a picture postcard as the Golden Gate Bridge. He took
an apartment in the Sunset District. In November he moved in with Helene.
Alexandria had met Larry Todd while she was belly dancing for some Hell's
Angels at the Hookers' Ball and he invited her to share a joint. They
were living together when Vaughn arrived. "He looked like a French
Musketeer," she says, "with long, blonde, curly hair; a white,
ruffled shirt; leather pants; black boots; lots of rings and jewelry;
and long, baby blue fingernails. He was absolutely gorgeous, far more
elegant and glamorous and flamboyant than your average hippie. He was
far more flamboyant than Spain or Wilson or Jim Morrison. His physical
presence when he walked into a room would blow people away. But he was
shy and reserved. Even though he was more gorgeous than anyone in the
room, his ego didn't fill it. He was charming and sweet and kind. I
never saw him angry. When I think of him I think of love, physical and
life was less angelic. He quickly plugged into San Francisco's S&M
scene. He was smoking, drinking, doing pot, coke, amyl nitrate, butyl
nitrate, Qualudes, black beauties, Valium, staying up all night, writing,
in a donut shop on Castro Street. 11 He was, Lenny Gotte says, "Going down real fast." Vaughn,
Vincent later told a reporter, was looking for a woman who would kill
him. (Larry Todd says that, strictly speaking, Vaughn was more into
bondage/domination than sado-masochism. "It was the game of control
and surrender that excited him. He was farting around with the paradox
of the master as slave, the slave as master." He was seeking, as
a test, a lover who would, theoretically, sacrifice herself to a life
in prison by carrying out a ritual murder of his creation.
responsibility of being the Cartoon Messiah also drove him. He asked
permission of the local branch of the Church of Scientology to deliver
a sermon that would promulgate the beliefs of his I Am Church. (Its
trinity was Humor, Sex and Religion. Its symbol was Cheech's hat nailed
to a cross with laughing light.) Then God came to him in a dream and
said, "No. Not in this lifetime."
was disappointed, but he followed God's directive.
the spring of 1975, Victor, who had remained in the Marines, visited
from Tokyo. His sensory attuned wife refused to stay in Vaughn's apartment
because of the unfriendly spirits. When they returned to Japan, they
developed the snapshots they had taken on cable cars, in Chinatown,
on Fisherman's Wharf. "I was there," Victor says. "My
wife was there. And I have memories Vaughn was there; but there is no
did not seem any longer to be an impulse upon which he would not act.
All the brakes were off, and the descent was as steep and tricky as
Lombard Street between Hyde and Levenworth. Whatever risk he perceived
was overborne by the belief that he could only become himself by making
real his urges. The idea that a self could be formed by a portion of
negation did not factor. To view his life in hindsight, from above the
body self-garroted on the floor, is to see the toboggan headed inexorably
toward the tree. To see, in more Bodean terms, the comet magnetized
by the Black Hole. The comet is fiery hot. It is dazzlingly bright.
Viewers of the comet, no matter how much they love or admire it, cannot
break its fall.
a comet to clean up its act; it will laugh you from the room. Tell it
again; it will lock the door.
Saturday, July 12, Vaughn returned from a comic book convention in New
York City. He spent the next few days fighting with Helene. Wednesday
night, he caught the Rolling Stones' Steel Wheels tour at the Cow Palace.
(At it, he proclaimed, "Mick Jagger is the Christ of rock 'n' roll,
and I'm the Christ of comics.") Thursday, he wanted his love making
with Helene to involve a Flash Gordon dildo. ("These things make
sex funner," he explained to Mark, who'd come upon him filling
it with warm water in the bathroom.) Her reaction - "You're too
fucked up, Vaughn" - led him to seek out an exotic, red-haired
belly dancer he had been seeing since Alexandria had introduced them.
They smoked pot and had some minimally bondage-enhanced sex, but she
refused his heavier, "Let it Bleed" requests. He reached his
apartment about 6:00 a.m.. Helene was leaving for work.
still desired the release complete domination afforded. Self-asphyxiation,
he thought, might work. A few hours after Vaughn told Mark he would
be doing his "God thing," Vincent called. He had a premonition
something was wrong. When Mark told his father Vincent was on the phone,
Vaughn said he did not want to be disturbed. When Vincent called 20
minutes later, Vaughn would not come to the door. Vincent left work
and rushed to San Francisco. By the time he arrived, Helene was there.
She was worried too.
broke down the door. Vaughn lay on his back with his feet in the closet.
He wore a leather mask with a slit for each eye and one for his mouth.
"A typical scene," the coroner would say. "Every big
city sees two or three a year. The only question is whether the mask's
going to be Frankenstein or Mickey Mouse or the Easter Bunny."
called Barbara with the news. After speaking with Mark, she sat by herself
in the den, still and quiet. All the lights were off, except a blue
one in the fish tank. Vaughn appeared before her almost immediately.
His head and hair glowed. His face showed peace and joy. It was his
way, she believed, of saying that he had achieved all he had sought.
He was happy and she need not worry. She was fine until the flight to
the funeral the next morning. She was hysterical the whole way.
and Valerie flew in too. So did Lenny Gotte and Jeff Jones. The underground
was represented by Larry Todd, Spain, Trina, the Air Pirates who were
still around. Vincent wore Vaughn's wizard's hat. He placed a small
statue of Cheech on the coffin. The body was cremated. The service was
the guests convened for a final good-bye. Two of the Pirates, Dan O'Neill
and Willie Murphy, had pooled funds for a bottle of wine. They were
in the kitchen, using a baggie for an ashtray, when a late-arriving
groupie/fan of Vaughn's found them.
of his closest friends received a small portion as a remembrance."
I have some?"
memory is far too precious."
give you $10."
bought another bottle.
ashes were later dropped from a Cessna into the Pacific. Directly below,
Angela Frucci reported in the New York Times, women lay naked on a yacht.
Barbara, after the funeral, life grew easier.
had tried repeatedly to convince her to move to San Francisco. If she
did, he promised, he would never question where she was or what she
was doing. But she had wanted no part of his life there. Now both Mark
and Vincent encouraged her.
October, she packed her Malibu convertible and returned. She and Mark
stayed with Vincent in Oakland until they found a place in south Berkeley.
Vaughn had always said he would communicate with her after he was gone.
One afternoon, before she had found work and was worrying about the
rent, a friend read her tarot cards. Look inside a metal box, the friend
said. When Barbara was preparing dinner that evening, Mark called out
to her. He had opened his father's metal Cheech Wizard trunk and found
a book in which Vaughn had lain four $100 bills. Vaughn had also said
he would signal by turning lights on and off. After she found the money,
every few days he would burn them out, making the apartment as dark
as if someone had slammed the lid on a trunk.
when she sunned in the back yard, he sent a Monarch butterfly to perch
Shameless Plug Dept.: Victor says Vaughn had made a figurine of his
favorite character, "Mr. O'Malley," and was devastated when
it fell through a household vent into the blast furnace. But O'Malley
was a central figure in Crockett Johnson's daily strip Barnaby. (See:
Levin, "Cushlomachree Revisited," TCJ #224, to be reprinted
in Levin, Rebels, Freethinkers, Pirates and Pornographers, Fantagraphics
2005, for explication as to the strip's appeal to and significance for
offbeat children of its time.) Any O'Malley figurine was likely to have
spun off from that.
Vaughn began his diaries in 1960. His approach seems to have been to
make daily notes which he would develop into full entries, sometimes
weeks or months later, with the expectation they would be read in the
future. I was shown the diaries for 1963, 1964, 1970, most of 1971,
which seems to be all there is, 1972, and the first few months of 1973,
at which point they stop. I have given them preference over conflicting
accounts of events from other sources. No restrictions were placed on
me, but I have chosen not to repeat remarks, often made when Vaughn
was feeling most vulnerable, that might hurt others or to identify any
of Vaughn's sexual partners from whom I did not receive permission.
Kenneth Bode died in 1971, after suffering a heart attack or stroke
and falling, drunk, down a flight of stairs in his apartment building.
He lay there six hours before he was found.
Some of these negotiations had been with Ralph Bakshi, whose offers
Vaughn had spurned once he had seen what Bakshi had done to Crumb's
Fritz the Cat. After Vaughn's death, Bakshi released Wizards, which
Vaughn's admirers have branded a rip-off ever since. But Larry Todd
dissents: "Pushy, little, Napoleon complex enfant terrible that
Bakshi was, there wasn't anything wrong with him that wasn't wrong with
the rest of us. Crumb thought he was some guy behind a desk using the
intercom to tell others what to do. He didn't realize he had the tender
soul of a sensitive artist. It gave Bakshi a bad attitude about us;
it gave us a bad attitude about him. We should have taken this man to
our hearts and said, 'Yes, you are a true underground artist. Yes, you
are the only one of us who is an animator. Yes, we like. Welcome to
our parties. Drink our beer. Rip us off. But give us a share.' "Sure,
he ripped Wizards off from Vaughn. But he ripped Wally Wood off just
as much. Sure, you can see Barbara Bode in that princess character.
But he made her look better than Vaughn ever did."
Shameless Plug No.2: For more about the Air Pirates, see Levin, The
Pirates and the Mouse, Fantagraphics 2003.
These books mostly reprinted Vaughn's earlier work, leading many in
the underground to attack him as a "hack." His style also
had critics. It was, they said, too slick, too mindless; all women looked
the same. "And," says underground publisher Don Donohue, "people
When his self-asphyxiation began is unclear. Mark Bode dates it from
September 22, 1972, when his father wrote in a later essay, "I
married off my life to the Universe in Blood
" But Vaughn's
diary notes from that date record only a drive to Syracuse during which
"MOST IMPORTANT: on way up I put on the weeding band for God/Allah."
He refers at other times to the donning of this ring, but never ties
it into any other ritual.
Larry Todd again dissents: "I thought it was an interesting way
to make money, but sort of beside the point. Vaughn was a cartoonist,
not a performer. The more time he spent on stage, the less time he spent
cartooning, the further from his roots he got."
It is here, April 9, 1973, that Vaughn's diaries end. Mark explains
he became "too busy." The psychoanalytic social critic Ruth
Delhi shares my surmise that something more was involved. The diaries,
she suggests, were usurped by Vaughn's art. "He no longer had to
keep a separate record of what he was thinking and doing and becoming.
All this incorporated into the output of his creative process, which
probably gave him more of the gratification he was looking for as an
artist anyway. He no longer had to split himself between his private
writings and his public ones. He could be everything at one time, in
one place. An alternative view is that his schizophrenia was running
wild. There is a manic excitement that goes with that, until it crashes
or causes death. Stopping to reflect and write in his diaries would
have meant harnessing energies he didn't want to slow down."
The art was also invitingly accessible. "His protocols were so
succinct," Larry Todd says, "you could look at a half-dozen
of his pieces and draw just like him. He had refined his style to lines
and circles to such a degree it was impossible to extract unnecessary
details from it, because there were no unnecessary details." This
simplicity, as well as the eyeball-blistering visibility of his double-thick
holding lines and bubble lettering, led many in the first generation
of graffiti artists, in the late 1970s, to appropriate it. Even today,
it is basic to the repertoire of many young creators who have never
heard the name "Vaughn Bode," but whose work is encountered
on subway cars or building walls or in art class sketchbooks.
Mark does not believe his father was doing drugs much beyond hash and
pot. But he does think that "part of his demise was that a fan
gave him a bottle of Qualudes, and he had been taking them regularly.
I think they made his mind unclear, so when he did his auto-erotic thing,
he didn't take precautions he would have if he hadn't been lagged on
those pills." (Larry Todd believes it more likely that sleep deprivation
from too much coke fucked him up.)