Dan O’Neill is America’s foremost overground underground cartoonist. His nationally syndicated comic strip Odd Bodkins is carried by 11 daily newspapers and 50 or 60 college weeklies. Two years ago, he animated his familiar characters, Huey and Fred, into three television spot commercials for the television company via the mammoth ad agency, B.B.D.&O. Last year he published his first Odd Bodkins book. To top it off, he has a manager, Barry Johnson, who helps arrange and watches over a whirlwind schedule of deadlines, interviews and, most recently, location filming for a pilot program prepared for educational television.
Despite these apparent badges of Establishment success, O’Neill offers his million plus readers a daily diet of heavy fantasy and unsugarcoated truth. Odd Bodkins deals consistently and directly with the realities (and hypocrisies) of politics, drugs, religion, revolution and war, as well as the more profound hang-ups, games and identity quests that help define where an individual’s, or society’s, head is at. Its barbs are leveled with equal areverence at the 100 Percent American Dog, the Commie Turtle and The Great Hoo Hoo in the Sky.
In a field where stereotype is the rule for content, as well as a means of reproduction, O’Neill has experimented persistently with style, format and ideas. In the last two years, he has developed Odd Bodkins from a cute imitation of Jules Feiffer into a unique amalgam which partakes of satire, humor, metaphysics and prophecy, but which is essentially a profoundly personal projection of O’Neill’s own journey through the absurd in search of meaning. “I project myself trying to deal with things,” he says. I tell myself something. Other people get to watch.”
O‘Neill is, naturally enough, a paradox “peerless,” as he puts it in an entirely modest, self-effacing way. A slight figure with thick-lensed glasses, a brushy mustache, and a slow-motion manner, he wore faded levis and a shapeless buckskin jacket — more in keeping with a horse, or a beat-out pick-up than the 715 Norton motorcycle that he roars around on near his home in Occidental, a bucolic town of Italian restaurants and antique shops in the Russian River country north of San Francisco.
Contrary to what one might expect, O’Neill is not rich, nor even well off, an extremely modest income from Odd Bodkins being subject to drastic fluctuations, mainly downward, in accord with the number of papers that buy — or drop — the strip, currently at an all-time low; “I have a record for fatalities,” he shrugs.
Soft spoken and mild mannered, O’Neill is obsessed with violence. Criticized by some establishment media as being too political, he is disgusted with politics — “politics is pig-shit” (or “poop-odoodle” as it came out in a recent strip); though he conceives a “plot to change the world every month,” he is convinced that people first have to change themselves. At the age of 28, O’Neill is equally turned off by Liberalism, The Revolution and The Establishment, a kind of incarnate generation gap — “I feel like an empty space”; it is tempting me to see him as part Don Quixote, part Charles Chaplin, walking along the endless highway that snakes through the desolate landscape in his cartoon panels. “With fantasy, I think I can get a grasp on reality,” O’Neill says, and in his conversation — dotted with suppositional sentences that begin with “if” and trail off unfinished — it is often hard to distinguish between Odd Bodkins and a history text, or the daily news.
“Mars invaded earth in the 17th century, because they saw the Puritans had taken over America. A computer told them the United States would eventually set up the world and then outer space. The only thing to do was wipe out America, so they invaded and gave us the industrial revolution. They figured if they fed us the right inventions, we’d eat ourselfes first. The Puritan is so greedy, he doesn’t see the poison coming out the end of the car.”
That is a plot resume of a recent Odd Bodkins episode.
“I’m convinced the Pentagon is running the revolution I’m supposed to be a part of. “They shout ‘blacks’ and get all the blacks angry. Then all the longhairs roll along with the blacks and they all shoot it out. Then the Pentagon has a fine excuse for shooting back.”
That is a Dan O’Neill rap. It could be an Odd Bodkins episode, or a news analysis in tomorrow’s paper.
O‘Neill was born April 21 — “six hours off Hitler’s chart” — 1942, in Virginia, and was “raised in the Navy,” where his father was a career officer. His mother, a fashion designer, encouraged his early artistic talents, though he says he went into cartooning “to spite her.” He was the kid who scribbled pictures in the margins while everyone else studied; “the class artist,” attending 17 schools in 16 years, mostly around Northern California. One of these schools was a Catholic seminary in Los Altos, conducted by the Maryknoll misisonary fathers. “I was go-in to save the Chinese from Billy Graham,” O’Neill said. “They got me early; they get you in puberty, make you feel guilty, then you join up and fight it all your life. They sold me that immortality stuff real hard. Now, I’m trying to find mortality. If you can just lay down and die when the time comes, and dig it…this is more important. The church is no longer a visible form of human society. You cannot love a spook.”
For a brief period in 1958, O’Neill drew editorial cartoons for a short-lived offset paper in Berkeley, where he was first introduced to Bob Bastian, long-time editorial cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle. When he entered the University of San Francisco, O’Neill decided to “draw cartoons instead of study,” and left “with a pile of drawings and a lot of bad grades.” He took a job with the forest service in Nevada County, and moonlighted as a three-dollar-a-week cartoonist for the Nevada City weekly, campaigning against freeways and serving other liberal Causes.
“After two years, I put together 500 brochures, and spent $450 — all my money in the world — and began presenting my things to newspapers. None of them bought it. Then I ran into Bastian at the Chronicle, and he got my stuff before the editor. Two weeks later, I got a call. I was 21 years old. I’m sure they never would have bought it if they’d known. From the cynicism, they all thought I was much older.”
O’Neill says that Odd Bodkins‘ first years were largely a product of the “mindless media apparatus. I was extremely proper. I did the strip five or six years before I really knew I was doing it. I did it mostly out of paranoia. I didn’t understand it.”
The original strip featured stick people engaged in political and philosophical dialogue, and was heavily influenced by Feiffer’s “format and sarcasm”; it was picked up from the Chronicle Features Syndicate by some 40 papers. “At the start, I was just what they wanted — cute and liberal,” O’Neill says. “I was their boy. But I’ve changed as the times changed. I snuck up on them.”
A radical change began two or three years ago, and stemmed from a number of reasons. For one, “I realized I’d been sloppy, a cop-out cartoonist. I was doing mostly two people monologues, but the more coherent I got, my characters didn’t know how to talk to each other. Lately, I’ve given up words altogether, except for pop words. They don’t mean anything anymore.”
A more profound reason was O’Neill’s disillusionment with the standard tenets of the liberal political philosophy. “All liberals eventually get into despair,” he said. “I found out being a liberal was a dirty thing — a half-way step. I’d rather be a bigot than a liberal. You have something to stand on. I don’t want to be a morality cop. I did it for six or seven years. While I felt responsible for the public morality, I let mine slide. The hell with the public. If I’m going to save the world, I have to save myself. If I can get calm in an hysterical world, I can at least deescalate myself.”
O’Neill has not soured on liberalism in any Al Capp sense, nor has he gone over to the radical Left.
“I gave up the good and evil archetypes,” he said. “They have the ability to become identical. Good needs evil, and evil needs good. But if you’re good all the time, you waste your life fighting evil. I can’t deal with something if all my energy goes into hating it. Everyone is so willing to go out and throw a rock. I’m much more interested in my personal self. I’m trying to find an alternative.”
The new Odd Bodkins emerged most emphatically in O’Neill’s book, Hear the Sound of My Feet Walking..Drown the Sound of My Voice Talking. Published by Glide Urban Center Publications, a Methodist-affiliated San Francisco group engaged in a number of projects aimed at helping ghetto-dwellers, homosexuals, prostitutes and others, the book was O’Neill’s first venture into an extended story format. He has continued the format in his subsequent newspaper strips, which he plans to compile into another book, the second in a projected trilogy.
The book contains ten contiguous stories following the adventures of O’Neill, two major characters. Huey, a scraggly, bespectacled humanoid who could almost pass for O’Neill himself, is the gullible introvert, a naive optimist but given to crippling self-doubts and a tendency to lapse into solipsism and semantic juggling. Fred is an indeterminate breed of bird, the typical American pragmatist with the sarcastic comment for everything, although he will run off saying “I can’t cope” when confronted with the inexplicable.
In one episode, Huey searches for God under a nearby rock, but succeeds only in disturbing an irritable snake who lives there. Fred says: “Well…this book says God is everywhere…but then, who wrote the book?” Huey eventually reasons himself into believing that the entire world is God’s belly, or God’s toe, but then worries that God might stub it on a rock, or meet with snapping turtles.
Other characters appear from time to time: The 100 Percent American Dog, who succeeds in driving Carl Marks, the Commie Turtle, back into his shell (“Hooray! Sam the 100 Per Cent American Dog has contained communism”); the Bat-Winged Hamburger-Snatcher, devoted single-mindedly to wiping out the American hamburger; a nameless figure who lives in a glass jug “because I am so virile that I’m dangerous,” but goes berserk after Fred has broken the bottle and he steps on some shattered glass.
One of the heaviest characters is an anonymous nihilist given to practicing all forms of violence, and particularly to stomping frogs, because “I belong to a violent nation in a violent species. So I exercise my violence…purge it on metaphysical villains. I use noise and action to release hostile energy that is my birthright as a human being.” He eventually sets off down a road called despair. I am automatically on the road of hope.”
The scenes are played against stark, black and white backdrops of endless roads stretching across desolate wastes ringed by volcanic mountains, while a malevolent sun beams down upon the violence and tragedies and occasionally engages in conversation with a more sympathetic, but helpless, moon. An exception is the final episode, in which Hugh partakes of a “magic cookie,” and everything explodes into vivid, felt pen colors. The magic bubble bursts when the 100 Percent American Dog takes a cookie too, and turns into Adolph Hitler; he orders Mickey Mouse to gun down the “dirty commie Jewish monolithic hippy anarchist.”
The magic cookie is, of course, another ingredient that has entered into the new Odd Bodkins.
“One of the things that showed up right along with birth control pills were psychedelic drugs,” O’Neill commented. “They can be really nasty. But being numb is worse. It was better than going to church. It made a lot more sense.”
O’Neill describes Huey as “where I used to be. He’s got a lot to learn. Fred is the greatest American cynic. He has all the answers, but he’s asking the wrong questions. Cynicism is a bad premise. There’s a big negative tide rolling over everything now. A cynic applauds the negativism, but keeps it rolling harder.”
The Bat-Winged Hamburger-Snatcher is another reflection of O’Neill: “He deals with the one thing that he can deal with — the obnoxious hamburger. I don’t know if I can handle anything else, but I can handle that one strip.”
O’Neill says his sun is an “energy symbol. It is hungry for humanity. As soon as we destroy ourselves, we’re going to release a lot of energy and it can be picked up by the sun. To get it really evil, I put a Disney face on it. The sun is indifferent to me as a human being. But I can learn from it. I should be getting warmth from it, and not let it get warmth from me.”
The moon, on the other hand, “belongs to earth, to men and women. It is much concerned with humanity, because the moon is dead.”
A cliche is the best place to start. Then you twist the end of the cliche,” O’Neill said, and that is about the best possible capsule summation of his basic technique. The most common of these cliches — as in almost all cartoons — is violence, often in the form of helpless things being gobbled up by stronger things.
“If you talk to a lot of violent people in non-violent terms, they won’t understand,” O’Neill said. “I’m a violent American. Humor is the only thing that rips off violence and hostility. And fantasy. It’s too hard to get a grasp on reality, but I can walk my characters up to a bottomless cliff, look over and see it’s not as bad as I thought. Then maybe I can believe it.”
Just as often, however, O’Neill will begin with a premise of cartoon humor, and then give it an ominous, sinister twist, verging on horror.
More important than technique or style, is the sense of personal honesty that O’Neill projects into his strip. The road appears so often in his cartoons because “I’m traveling,” he says, and he is not about to project a destination he has not yet reached.
“It only takes one positive action to stop the tide of negativism,” he said. “The reason no one in the strip has assumed a positive role yet is because that’s what they have to learn. It’s what I have to learn. Cartooning is real communication, and you have to be responsible. So few good things are happening in the media. It’s important that people don’t feel they’re being lied to.”
O’Neill says that Odd Bodkins has decisively grown away from the “overground market.” Recent circumstances unfortunately tend to bear him out. Major newspapers in Boston and Cleveland have dropped the strip. The San Francisco Chronicle — the daily, not the syndicate — has dropped Odd Bodkins twice for short periods of time. The last time, it was restored after a mass of protest letters.
O’Neill has contradictory feelings about continuing with the overground press. “There are so many no-nos,” he said. I’ve learned to get around some of them. You sort of come at them from a different directions. For example, I’ve been using figures from the Tarot cards in my strip lately. The audience knows what they mean. But the editors often don’t. The whole thing has been kind of crippling to me.”
He said he is “trying to adapt to the underground comic market,” and hopes to form a group that would involve itself with comics and “a hundred other things as well.” Recently, O’Neill was involved in his first film project, a two-minute movie made as a TV pilot for KQED. He appears as a Jack Palance-style villain in a mock shoot-out filmed in a ghost town in the Sacramento delta country.
On the other hand, he says he is “reluctant to let go. The Chronicle alone provides a potential of a million readers every day.”
O’Neill has contradictory feelings about any number of other things as well. He plans to move soon farther up the coast, and he has eyes for retreating to the western Canadian wilderness. “I think when I was a baby they shot me full of asphalt so I can’t get more than three miles from the road. I want to move from the Norton to a horse. I highly resent civilization. Most of the world can crap on the ground, but I have to go inside and look for that little porcelain thing. If I could loudly leave, become my own pied piper… My absence is a lot harder to deal with than with a gun.”
But he concedes that he would like to “have a lot of money,” a somewhat difficult time to come by in the northwest woods.
Similarly, O’Neill says he has “a lot of optimism,” though it is often hard to see. “The good times were the Johnson years,” he says wryly. “The good times are over. There’s this big thing trying to eat the world. There’s no getting away from it. If it’s a revolution, I have 15 or 20 years to do what evolution demands of me before the politicians blow it up.”