Monday, 15 June 2009

277: The Adventures of Phoebe Zeit-Geist

in “Evergreen Review”, December 1966
Written by Michael O’Donoghue
Illustrated by Frank Springer

Michael O’Donoghue was the great, wonderful marvellous revelation of my first explorations into “National Lampoon” magazine. To say I could almost love him, given his offensive propensities, might seem an extreme, let alone unlikely, reaction. Yet his erudition, his mastery of linguistic style, his surrealism, his accurate satirisation of current culture, and also his penchant for savage black humour exposing the worst of human nature up to and including genocide, all make him a one-man equivalent of Monty Python at its best. There isn’t a collection of his best work. You either have to collect the original magazines, or the earliest “National Lampoon” best of anthologies. They’re worth it. He’s certainly worth it.

Anyway, O’Donoghue first made his name with his collaboration “The Adventures of Phoebe Zeit-Geist”. It was a comic strip, drawn by professional comics artist Frank Springer, appearing in “Evergreen Review” in the mid 1960s. “Phoebe Zeit-Geist” was an unlikely experiment for “Evergreen Review”, a respected alternative literary journal which first featured the postwar European avant-garde and then became a venue for the new Beat writers. Cartoons were beneath anyone’s critical radar, but an early advert for the magazine in the style of Charles Atlas was O’Donoghue’s first collaboration with the comics artist Frank Springer.

O’Donoghue was a huge devotee of Terry Southern and William Burroughs, and his work extends their brand of pinpoint accurate irony and bad taste. “Phoebe Zeitgeist” was a cartoon strip in the tradition of “The Perils of Pauline” damsel in distress. In each instalment, the titular heroine is menaced by some new villainy. But, as in Terry Southern’s novel, “Candy”, these menaces are usually exercises in sexual perversity. Instalments will feature necrophiles cultist, sadists, shoe fetishists, lesbians, torture and humiliation, mad scientists, and Norman Mailer. It’s inevitable that homosexuals will have to feature at some point.

The comic strip became a cult hit, and was much spoken about for often conflicting reasons. Springer executed Southern’s detailed scenarios with matching dedication, and it therefore had a following with genuine comics fans. Some readers objected to the idea of any comics in their beloved highbrow journal (and “Evergreen Review” also ran “Barbarella” at exactly the same time). Some objected to its deliberately provocative content, its sexual imagery, its violence against women, its racist stereotypes. O’Donoghue’s fascination with Nazis, meant that one issue was banned in Germany because it featured banned Nazi imagery, which only made for further publicity. And let’s not overlook the fact that it was chock full of drawings of a naked women in weird sexual situations, which could appeal to some people, I suppose.

“Evergreen Review” wasn’t afraid to feature homosexual content. It had featured serious works with gay content by the Beats, John Rechy, excerpts from “Last Exit to Brooklyn”, explorations of contemporary homosexual life as a previously unexplored underclass. With this comic effort we get fashion-obsessed bitches, camp, petulant, and violently misogynist. Fey, petty or peevish expressions. Hands splayed out, ear-rings, ID bracelets, and note the rather fetishised trousers. Preening and effeminately house-pround, possessed of a trivial manner wholly incommensurate with the effective running of a submarine. Yet they’re not transvestites, or wearing make-up, so it is a thought-out execution of clichés, which is what one would expect of O’Donoghue. Think of them as untrammelled characters from “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”.

As to what I really think of the sailors? Several people have said this one has made them feel a bit uncomfortable. I’ve been doing this for so long I’ve almost got over most feelings of offence. I look at it and I can see how the high cultural furnishings of Captain Nemo’s submarine might make you think there was an interior designer knocking about the place. And then there’s all the ancient clichés about sailors and homosexuality. So I can see that O’Donoghue’s shown some ingenuity in bringing it altogether to create yet another surprising scenario in which to humiliate his heroine.

Then the two characters are only making brief appearances, and at least he’s got them doing something in every panel. And honestly, is their behaviour much different from “The Boys in the Band”, a couple of years later? It’s a cliché that’s stuck for a reason. A large part of the debate over Gay Pride that crops up in the gay media every bloody year is embarrassment over the “bad homosexuals” who someone always perceives as letting the side down in some way. Or to put it another way: I am gay, You are queer, They are faggots. Straight-acting is a matter of perception.

I just found an old SNL sketch, “The Gloria Brigade” from 1992, and it’s so slow, and the performances are so weak that I find that more insulting, because they don’t think they need to try. That some hack work about gay stereotypes is enough to make people laugh, says more about ideas of gays as a source of humour. So, yes, the two sailors make me wince a little, but it is over 40 years. The clip of a camp young Oliver Reed is occasionally dragged out for laughs, but it was from 1960 when homosexuality was illegal, and any mention had usually be censored from TV, film, radio and theatre. So some outdated stereotype is part of the process of social relaxation about taboos. But in the specific case of “Phoebe Zeitgeist”, everything is attacked, subverted and degraded. If gays were left out, it would mean that they were beyond the pale. Not because our sensibilities are too soft for attack, but because at this time, we would have been censored from the picture. Although there is the underlying assumption that gays naturally fit into this indecent world.

It’s an irony of the 1960s that almost every instance of a gay comedic character or some piece of sustained comedy involving homosexuals originates from a writer or comedian we can assume to be liberal and positively-inclined towards gays and their rights. Homophobes at this time wouldn’t feature them in their jokes, because their attitudes would be that homosexuals were too offensive even to make jokes about.

And finally, as villains, the pair foreshadow the trend of the late 1960s when it seemed like every other stylish thriller/crime caper featured some sort of camp or gay character: Modesty Blaise, Kaleidoscope, Deadfall, The Italian Job, Anderson Tapes, Kremlin Letter (besides the non-gay but camp villains of Batman and The Monkees). It adds a little titillation of perversity and outré mannerisms to plain criminality.

No comments: