Visuals: Underground Cartoonist Dan O’Neill
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.
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