Jan 31, 2013

The Wizard of Id


During the early 1950s, Brant Parker, a political cartoonist living in Binghamton, New York, befriended high school student Johnny Hart, and encouraged him to submit his cartoons to magazines.  Hart placed a few in The Saturday Evening Post, but his big break came in 1958, when B.C., a comic strip about sarcastic cavemen (modeled after his friends), was picked up by Comic Creators’ Syndicate.  Soon he was being lauded as the most promising of the new crop of hip young comic artists.  Always an iconoclast, he presaged Doonesbury in introducing political satire into his daily strips, and even had characters voicing his evangelical Christian beliefs, a taboo during the period.  A few years later, Hart approached Brant Parker, who had remained a close friend, and again breaking tradition, asked him to collaborate on a strip about the sarcastic residents of a Medieval kingdom; The Wizard of Id and the partnership has endured ever since.    

Though named after the inept Wizard,  Brant Parker and Johnny Hart’s Wizard of Id is an ensemble strip, involving the daily interactions of many strongly drawn characters: tiny, blustering King Id; Troub, a hippie troubadour; Bung, the drunken court jester; Spook, who has been in the dungeon for so long that he is a mass of  hair; the Lone Haraunger, who scrawls his slogan, “The King is a Fink,” under the King’s nose; Robbing Hood, who “takes from the wretch, and gives to the peer”; and Rodney, a cowardly knight.  Id is a decidedly male preserve where women are demonized or simply ignored: the Wizard’s wife Blanche is the fat, ugly harridan who figures so prominently in the sets of Borscht Belt comedians, and the Lady Gwen has no strong personality traits, and seems to exist simply to express an unrequited love for Rodney.  Eschewing the heterosexual hijinks that preoccupy the minds of most characters in non-nuclear family strips, from Peanuts to Garfield and even Johnny Hart’s earlier B.C., residents of Id spend most of their time buddy-bonding.  When Rodney is released from a curse that turned him into a statue, it is Bung, not the Lady Gwen, who joyfully reunited with him.  Yodey, a dumb but massive squire, treats Rodney with an admiration that treads the line between hero worship and romance.  Even the King, who never expresses interest in women, rarely appears without Rodney or the Duke at his side.

The buddy-bonding alone would make The Wizard of Id a rarity on the comic page, where men usually treat each other as competitors and enemies in their incessant quest after feminine smiles.  But during the 1970s, Rodney failed to express much heterosexual interest.  In The Wizard of Id: There’s a Fly in My Swill (1973), a shapely woman passes him in the castle courtyard, while he stands oblivious.  She turns back and slaps him.  “I didn’t do anything!” he protests.  She exclaims “Don’t let it happen again!”

The Lady Gwen spends her life ardently pursuing Rodney, who acquiesces to a few dates, but otherwise displays no interest in her.  Generally in comic strips unrequited love is the domain of crude, fat, and ugly women, but Gwen is quite shapely and sophisticated.  In a world where every man is explicitly attracted to every women (except for fat and ugly ones), Rodney’s lack of passion is singularly puzzling.  In The Wizard of Id: Long Live the King (1975), Rodney takes Gwen out for a movie and a sundae, and “in appreciation,” she kisses him.  He walks away unimpressed, thinking “Now I wish I’d gotten the butterscotch.”  It is a puzzling punchline.  Does he wish that he had ordered a superior flavor to make up for Gwen’s tepid kiss, or does he believe that he might have avoided the kiss altogether by ordering for a different sundae flavor?

In The Wizard of Id: The Peasants Are Revolting (1971), at the end of another date, Rodney refuses the kiss.  Exasperated, Gwen exclaims “I’m a girl, you’re a boy!  Doesn’t that mean anything to you?”  Rodney responds: “Yeah, you can beat the draft.”  He nicely demolishes the presumption that the desire must adhere in sexual difference, that if we are boys we can only ever be attracted to girls.

  Of course, Rodney’s distinguishing character trait, cowardliness, has been code for gay since before the Cowardly Lion sang about being a Dandy in The Wizard of Oz (1939), but occasional strips go beyond code or a simple lack of interest in the other sex to suggest more overtly that Rodney’s interests may lie in men. In The Wizard of Id: Yield (1974), Rodney and Gwen are sitting in a bar when a tough approaches them and asks “How about a kiss?”  Rodney asks him to step outside.  We assume, of course, that he is going to fight the tough for flirting with Gwen.  But he returns a short time later, sits down, and says “If I had kissed him in here, people would have laughed at me.”  Did Rodney merely misunderstand the request? But he is never characterized as stupid, and besides, the tough would certainly have objected if he wanted a kiss from Gwen and got Rodney instead.  Did he kiss the tough because he was too cowardly to fight him?  Again, surely the tough would have objected.  The most logical conclusion is that the tough was flirting with Rodney, not Gwen, and Rodney knew it.