Friday, September 24, 2010

The Worst Comic Book of All Time

The term "worst comic book of all time" or "worst comic ever" gets bandied about quite a bit, and while there have been some recent strong contenders to that title (make that "one contender"), such assessments lack some historical scope in order to make such a claim.

In my recent research, I have come across the worst comic of all time, and after reading it, I longed for the simple pleasures of a drug-addicted teen sidekick beating people with a dead cat. That would have been infinitely better than what I experienced.

In fact, I kind of find it quaint that some people can read comics their entire lives, only to have Justice League of America: The Rise of Arsenal 3 end up being the worst comic they ever read. I also envy them.

Because, unless there's some lost comic out there written by Hermann Goering and drawn by Adolph Hitler himself, then I cannot imagine a worse comic book than this:



Published by Specialty Book Company of Columbus, Ohio, in 1944, Clean Fun Starring Shoogafoots Jones is a one-shot comic that was apparently popular enough to go through multiple printings, yet it looks like a very cheaply produced, self-published comic. It fails in every conceivable way that a comic could fail: the art and writing (credited to "McDaniel") are amateurish at best, the so-called "jokes" are not funny, and, most important, the book is racist as hell. Plus, it purports to provide moral instruction from something called "Stray Thoughts" by Crump J. Strickland, which is the most Southern name ever this side of Saxby Chambliss. The overt hypocrisy (immediately clear on the cover) of a comic that presents itself as moral instruction while also containing some of the most awful racism imaginable really puts it over the top to be far and away the worst comic book ever made.

In fact, it makes me want to punch the Greatest Generation right in the face.

The book consists of a series of one-page, four-panel gags, loosely tied together by something of a plot that involves Shoogafoots escaping his abusive wife (as seen on the cover), trying but failing to hold down a job, and getting beset by young pranksters who take advantage of his limited intelligence. (Many of these pranksters, by the way, are Shoogafoots children by different mothers, another running gag in the book.) Then, running along the bottom of each page, we get Crump J. Strickland's words of Christian advice, many of which warn against the dangers of introducing immoral "dirt" and "filth" into your mind.

Here is the inside cover and first page of the book. The gag on the inside cover gets extra points for also drawing humor out of a physical disability. The first page sets up the characters for us while also putting the plot in motion:



I would also like to point out that every panel is numbered 1-4, obviously to help the book's target audience, who wasn't yet quite used to the habit of reading from left to right.

Shoogafoots gets a construction job, but he falls off the building and gets fired. He then goes to see a doctor, who beats him and then throws him out. We start to see here a common pattern in Shoogafoots life: failure, followed by abuse at the hands of every authority figure he meets. For example, Shoogafoots later takes a train, and when he asks the conductor if he "know de way," the conductor beats him with a coal shovel. All this physical abuse, especially from his wife, creates a vicious cycle for Shoogafoots: he's abused because he doesn't work, but then his injuries prevent him from working.

And he is also guilty of perpetuating this cycle of violence, as we see on this page, when one of his illegitimate children asks him an innocent, albeit ignorant question that ironically comments on Shoogafoots's own trauma:



And again, bonus points for drawing humor from post-traumatic stress disorder.

On the road, Shoogafoots meets up with Skin Johnson, who has just joined the Army. As it's time for yet another nap, Shoogafoots falls asleep beside a tree and dreams of life in the Army. As a pilot, he bombs the Japanese fleet, but he's shot down and wakes up. Then his wife beats him some more.

We see, however, that Shoogafoots is not incapable of exertion when pressed into it, usually by a prank that capitalizes on his ignorant superstitions, as with this encounter with a ghost:



To the writer's credit, he does not have Shoogafoots shout out, "Feets, don't fail me now!"

In the following incident, Shoogafoots has a run-in with a ill-advisedly placed Halloween skeleton on a junk pile.



We get to see a kind of hierarchy of fear at work by comparing the two above images. A ghost causes Shoogafoots to run 12 miles, while a skeleton causes him to run 14 miles. Also, the skeleton turns him temporarily white, for some hilarious and ironic racial inversion.

The evidence presented here strongly suggests that Clean Fun Starring Shoogafoots Jones is hands-down the worst comic book of all time, as well as proving that human beings pretty much suck in general. It is a demoralizing and angering book to read, not least when one comes across an epigram promoting universal brotherhood appearing underneath a horribly racist joke.

The images here are from photographs I took of the copy I read at the Michigan State University library. That school's excellent comics archive actually has two copies of the comic, both in pretty good shape. Subsequent research shows that this comic is hardly rare, and cheap copies can be found for a comic from 1944. This leads me to believe that the book was fairly successful for the Specialty Book Company, which is again saddening.

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Dr. K, for rounding out my day, which included a galling exchange with a student who, when questioned as to why Obama and not any other president has been questioned about his birth certificate if not due to his race, that he, the student insisting his and others' suspicions weren't racially motivated, thought Obama had been questioned "because he's a Muslim."

And so you don't lose out on context, this bit of conversation was provided as an example of the student's practice thinking critically, something he reportedly does "all the time."

Let us not forget who made the Greatest Generation the GG--a bunch of nimrods from lots of subsequent generations.

For an excellent antidote to Sugafoots et al, see immediately the current issue of Gulf Coast!

pblfsda said...

As someone who had worked in comics retail for years, I would like to point out that second market prices are always some combination of condition, supply and demand. If few copies are read more than once, and no one wants to be seen with something, there doesn't necessarily need to be many in circulation to drive the price down.

Although you are right about it being the worst. "U.S. 1", Tower Comics and '60's Teen Titans dialogue seem redeemable in comparison.

Anonymous said...

So is this worse than Memin Pinguin which is published still to this very day? Or since Memin is a Mexican comic it can't be racist because only whites can be racist?

Dr. K said...

Dear Anonymous: I think you take a big leap there, making an assumption about my beliefs on who can and cannot be racist--an assumption based on no evidence in the post whatsoever. I'm familiar with Memin Pinguin, and it is indeed racist as well as unfortunately still published. It ranks very high amongst the worst comics ever made. But when looking at an issue of that side-by-side with Shoogafoots Jones (something I have done, by the way), there is at least a minimal level of craft and style in the cartooning of Memin Pinguin that sets it apart from the comic I discuss in this post. I would never say that Memin Pinguin is a good comic, but at least it does look like it was drawn my marginally competent artists, which one cannot say about Shoogafoots Jones.

Anonymous said...

But still you had to dredge up something from 66 yrs. ago to slander the Greatest Generation with, instead of dealing with a more contemporary concern. Are you one of those that think America is only moments away from returning to the degradations of the past? That you will wake up tomorrow and the racists will have returned and the "Negro" will be "put in his place"? Do you really think so little of us,"sir"?

Anonymous said...

I would like to point out at this time that I am Anonymous the First, not Anonymous the Second who has twice now posted replies to Dr. K's blog entry that include wild logical leaps and strangely prissy defensiveness. Clearly, the purpose of the blog is not primarily to undermine the unchecked nostalgia that elected the Greatest Generation to greatness but to settle or start debate about bad comics. Recollecting that the GG, like all the other generations fore and aft, believed and behaved regrettably as well as admirably resulted from the discussion of this ugly part of history (the worst comic ever--or is it??). And importantly, recovering as complete a history as possible is needed, in my view, to avoid "returning to the degradations of the past," although I would argue the racists Anon II mentions have never gone away.

Dr. K said...

Dear Anonymous No. 2:

I know it's probably ill-advised to keep engaging you, but you really are making some wild leaps of logic beyond the evidence available in the post. If you look back on it, you will see that I opened with a call for historical perspective when referring to a comic as "the worst ever made," which is, admittedly, a subjective and highly ridiculous category. But my point there was that to call a recent comic "the worst" is to ignore the fact that there have been a lot of bad and hateful comics made over the past 70+, some of which are very, very racist.

So, I didn't dredge it up in order to slander to Greatest Generation, but to demonstrate that historical perspective. The shot at the so-called "Greatest Generation" was meant to emphasize that nostalgia for the past tends to elide some of the problems, like racism. And the Greatest Generation had some serious problems there.

Nothing in that post exhibits any kind of fear that the past will return, though I would agree with Anonymous 1 that racism hasn't really left.

In the end, though, your complaints seem to boil down to, "Why did you write about this, and not this?" And there is no real good way to answer that except, I didn't write about Memin Pinguin because I wrote about Shoogafoots Jones. There was no political agenda involved. And it wasn't like I sat there and thought, "Do I write about Shoogafoots Jones or Memin Pinguin?" Or Li'l Eight Ball, or Steamboat, or Ebony White, or any of the dozens of other racially caricatured characters in the history of comics. I would suggest, though, that if you do have a lot of thoughts about Memin Pinguin, that you consider writing them yourself in your own blog, where you would be free to write about whatever topics you please.

Steven said...

Crump Johnson Strickland (1904-1973) -
we don't know if he actually wrote or drew this comic, although he had other booklets published by this company - mainly on temperance. Lived in Ohio from the 40s-70s. conflicting reports on where he was prior to that.

Dr. K said...

Steven,

Thanks for that info. From what I've learned about the publication of this comic, the publisher just used the passages from Strickland's book that's credited on the cover in order to appeal to a Christian--especially Southern Baptist--audience. However, it does make for a strange combination.

Anonymous said...

This is the worst comic of all time? You're taking it way too seriously folks. It's obvious satire putting Strickland's little tidbits of wisdom at the bottom of the page. As far as racist I'd have to say it's pretty tame too. One point I'd like to make is blacks still talk like Shoogafoots to this day. I hear them every day. Lord forbid someone points that out tho. Most of you people crying racism at the drop of a hat just want to feel good about yourselves and feel you're above everyone else out there. There's other stuff to worry about than a slightly racist comic book from years ago.

Anonymous said...

FWIW, Memin Penguin isn't racist. When people treat him badly on account of his skin color, they're always the bad guys.

Anonymous said...

To the genius claiming that the comic isn't that racist because "black people still talk like that," first off, a lot of southerners (or people from big cities for that matter) from differing races use all types of slang. There's also horrendous "l33t-speak", text speak, "i haz teh cheezburger", and all sorts of affronts to the English language to find if the use of "y'all" offends you. If you don't find the depiction of black people as sub-human, lazy, sleepy creatures the least bit offensive, then I don't know how to help you. Trust me, I know that people are too cencerned nowadays about what's too offensive to say, etc., but as a Blck man, I'm telling you...this is a very racist comic.