Scores of graffiti art’s greatest masterpieces, many of which now exist only in the frames of documentary films like Style Wars and on the pages of pictorials like the book Subway Art, feature distinctive-looking characters created by the late underground cartoonist Vaughn Bode. (Rumor has it that a controversial animated film does, too.)
Presented here, in observance of Bode’s 78th birthday and the 44th year anniversary of his passing, is a brief biography on one of the most influential but little-known artists in American pop culture.
The Birth of Cheech Wizard
Vaughn Frederic Bode was born in Utica, NY on July 22, 1941. From a very early age, the young Bode displayed an uncanny tenacity for drawing and for the combining of words with pictures. It was an extraordinary gift that helped to lay the foundation for a fantastic world of cartoon characters that would set the imaginations of millions ablaze.
And so it was, sometime in the year of our Lord 1957, at the age of sixteen, that Vaughn Bode first penciled the cartoon sorcerer of dubious magical powers draped in an over-sized wizard’s hat that he named Cheech Wizard. The oddly costumed sorcerer was soon joined by an assortment of other characters who co-inhabited his warped little world. Their often vulgar and hilarious and sexy and sometimes surprisingly sensitive cartoon exploits were featured in the pages of Playboy-style spank mags like Cavalier and heady laugh rags like National Lampoon between 1972 and 1975.
In retrospect, it probably wasn’t by any coincidence that during the same years that Bode’s work was appearing in National Lampoon and various underground publications that the soon-to-be omnipresent phenomenon of graffiti writing began to spread throughout the boroughs of New York City. There on walls and on trains, young taggers touting aliases like Stay High 149, Blade, Fab 5 Freddy, Phase 2, Futura, Dondi, Lee, and countless others began developing the one-dimensional scrawl of tagging into the complex, two-dimensional art form recognized today as graffiti art.
As an added display of artistic talent, many graffiti writers soon began incorporating recognizable cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse, Snoopy, Woody Woodpecker, Howard the Duck, and many more into masterpieces tattooed onto the steel skin of subway trains traversing New York’s boroughs. But it was Vaughn Bode’s less well-known Cheech Wizard, Green Lizard and his voluptuous “broads” characters that would find themselves painted into the technicolor dreamscapes more frequently than any of the others — almost to the point of becoming standards in the visual vocabulary of graffiti.
According to graffiti legend Stash, during a brief interview published in The Source: “The creativity and simplicity of Bode’s characters lent themselves to be re-interpreted. [They] blended with the flowing movement of graffiti letters themselves.”
And it could probably be argued that even the bubble letters or “softies,” introduced into graff culture by writing legend Phase 2 around 1972 echo the influence of the same letter forms found in Bode’s National Lampoon strips, which appeared in the magazine that same year.
War & Peace 99
The desire to reinterpret Vaughn Bode’s distinctive cartoon style was hardly limited to the underground realms of graffiti. In 1977, Bode’s work also inspired the production of the animated fantasy film Wizards, directed by Lord of the Rings animator Ralph Bakshi. Six years before, Bakshi garnered scads of lowbrow notoriety for bringing the adults only creation of cartoonist R. Crumb to life with the animated film Fritz the Cat (1971). Just over a decade later, Bakshi also produced the collaborative effort Fire and Ice (1982) with veteran comic book artist and master fantasy painter Frank Frazetta. But in sharp contrast to the collaborative efforts behind the creation of Fritz the Cat (a film which R. Crumb ultimately grew to despise) and Fire and Ice, the production of Bakshi’s Wizards feature was a completely selfish pursuit.
Bakshi, hungry to imitate his success with Fritz the Cat, actually started production on his animated adaptation of Bode’s work before actually seeking permission from the artist. Ultimately, Bode would forbid Bakshi from using his creations. The animator, having already borrowed heavily from at least two of his best known works, Cobalt 60 and Cheech Wizard, reworked the production — however slightly — to mask its resemblance to its obvious source material. Bakshi’s Wizards was released to theaters in 1977, two years after the tragic and untimely passing of Vaughn Bode.
Despite his managing to capture at least some of Bode’s distinct science-fantasy aesthetic, Bakshi’s Wizards failed to capture any of the cleverness, philosophical perspective or the raunchy sexuality of Bode’s works. Now more than forty years since its release, Wizards is still viewed by many — especially by Bakshi’s most devoted fans — to be a “Bode inspired cult-classic.” While Bode’s most devoted fans see it as something else: a ballsy attempt by a hack to plagiarize Bode’s inimitable style.
The Lizard of Oz
In 1969, at the 27th World Science Fiction Convention (aka St. Louiscon), Bode was awarded a Hugo, the science fiction industry’s highest award, in recognition of the distinctive fantasy works for which he’d become known. In Lucca Italy six years later, he was also bestowed one of the cartoon industry’s highest awards, the Yellow Kid (1975). But the latter would be the last mark of recognition that Bode would receive during his lifetime. On July 18th 1975, Vaughn Bode became the self-induced victim of an accidental death: strangulation by autoerotic asphyxiation. He was 34.
In death, like so many other gone-too-soon-figures of the 1970s including Jimi Hendrix (1942–1970), Janis Joplin (1943–1970), Jim Morrison (1943–1971) and Bruce Lee (1940–1973), Vaughn Bode (1941–1975) would also ascend the ranks of cult figure for many fans. And due at least partly to them, in the four decades since his passing, his comics creations have become more read and more widely recognized than at any time during the artist’s life.
In spite of an artistic career spanning less than two decades, the prolific Bode managed to produce a staggering body of work. In addition to his monthly Cheech Wizard strips for National Lampoon, Bode produced the self-published Das Kampf (1963), recognized as the first underground comic book, Deadbone strips for Swank, Galaxy and Cavalier magazine (1969–1971) and still more “comix,” including The Man (1972), Cheech Wizard, Schizophrenia #1 (1973), Lizard Zen (1973), Junkwaffel #1–4 (1971–1972) and Zooks (1973). Collaborative artworks were also produced for the covers of horror magazines Creepy (1969), Eerie (1970) and Vampirella (1969–1970).
Bode’s “Sunpot” strips, originally printed in the science fiction fanzine Galaxy, were later re-printed in the pages of the international fantasy art magazine Heavy Metal. His best recognized works, Cheech Wizard and Deadbone Erotica were reissued in reprint volumes published by Fantagraphics Books. The torch of Bode’s Cobalt 60 was picked up and carried by his son, cartoonist and tattoo artist Mark Bode, who published a 4-part graphic novel based on the work in 1989. In 2004, Mark Bode also published the graphic novel The Lizard of Oz, a playful adult parody roughed out by his father before his passing based on the great American L. Frank Baum fairytale.
Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star
During his extraordinary life, Vaughn Bode would bestow upon his endlessly evolving self a variety of mysticism-inspired titles like ‘da Cartoon Messiah,’ ‘Western BodeSattva,’ ‘Tao-Toon Fool’ and ‘Pop-Mystic Transvestite’ (the artist had seriously considered sexual reassignment but reconsidered when the female hormones he’d been taking destroyed his libido). To family, friends and fans, this complex comix creator was all that and much more.
The previously mentioned Bronx graffiti writer Phase 2 described Bode as the “Salvador Dali of cartoon art,” likening his “insane” comic book works to the mind-bending array of works produced by the famed Spanish surrealist painter.
In an 1989 interview, the internationally acclaimed French cartoonist Jean “Moebius” Giraud (Arzach, Silver Surfer) offered his own description of his US-based colleague, whom he fondly described as one of the “lights of America.” According to Moebius, Bode “really was a star. He was the only artist who was like a star in that sense.”
As an illustrator, cartoonist, social commentator, fantasy world builder and artistic self-explorer, the body of works created during the short life of Vaughn Bode was nothing less than brilliant. And that brilliance still beams from the pages of Cheech Wizard, Deadbone, Junkwaffle and other comics with as much wit and relevance today as when first published more than 40 years ago. And that, perhaps, recalls for us the very essence of a star: a shining point of light that marks the passage of a celestial body that burned out from existence long ago.
Paco Taylor is a writer from Chicago. He loves old history books, Japanese giant monster movies, hip-hop, comics, Kit Kats, and kung fu flicks.