« He works at night, which is fitting, since some of his best cartoons deal with the dark side of the psyche. A classic black humorist, he rummages around in violence, insanity, perversion, bigotry and scatology, looking for what he needs to create the typical Rodrigues effect: wild laughter with a cringe of repulsion. » [source]
Charles Rodrigues (1926-2014) is an American cartoonist of Portuguese descent. Fantagraphics published two collections of this work, and their blurb describes him as « the sick mind behind some of the most outrageous, inventive, and offensive cartoons ever to appear in mass circulation magazines, including Stereo Review, Playboy and (from its very first issue) the National Lampoon. » One of these books collects his one-panel cartoons, and is titled Gag On This: The Scrofulous Cartoons of Charles Rodrigues. Scrofulous, in case you didn’t know, means something like ‘morally contaminated’.
So it will come as no surprise that this post might provoke a few pouts of distaste. On the other hand, I am hoping that it will also elicit some chuckles.
I remember my reaction at first reading Chuck Palahniuk’s 2005 short story ‘Guts‘ (if unfamiliar but curious, read it here, at your own peril) and feeling a sort of amazed astonishment about how far the author was willing to go. ‘He’s not really going to go there, is he? Oh wow, he actually went that far.’
Well, reading Charles Rodrigues can be compared to that – at least in the slightly surreal surprise one feels when the gag winks at the reader, and trots happily across the invisible line nobody talks much about (but that we all know is there). If there’s a joke to be made, it doesn’t matter that it lies in the territory of the distinctly distasteful, Rodrigues will go for it with all arms blazing and nail it. Reading Guts is arguably an uncomfortable experience; reading a Rodrigues comic is wickedly entertaining… or incredibly offensive, depending on what floats (or sinks) your boat. He stuns the reader with a hilarious and crass barrage of absurdities reliant on scatology, taboos, and general indecency and sleaze. No one is safe – not the handicapped, nor the elderly; he flings dirt with equal aplomb at the women’s liberation front, gays and blacks, the terminally ill, rock stars, lepers, single mothers and ugly children, conjoined twins and cannibals — and this parade is only starting, chum.
Now I didn’t head into this with a desire to showcase the most stomach-churning of Rodrigues cartoons. This selection is based on a simple premise: some of my favourite instances of his sacrilegious* sense of humour. Gross-out gags and crudeness are actually really easy to come by, and often incredibly stupid — I worry about people who think a guy getting hit in the balls is hilarious. But I hope that this post demonstrates that in this case, there is a keen intelligence and a writer’s talent at work.
The following single-panel cartoons have been collected in Gag On This: The Scrofulous Cartoons of Charles Rodrigues.
« Cartoonists can look upon his work with a kind of awe. His staggering is perfection, his actors expressive, his architecture and perspective masterful. But I’ve heard more than one layperson comment that his work looked rough and unpolished. I beg to differ. His line was thick, lumpy and bled right into the very fiber of the paper, but it is controlled and deliberate. This was a craftsman in charge of his medium. » Bob Fingerman, from the introduction to Ray and Joe: The Story of a Man and His Dead Friend and Other Classic Comics.
While his panel cartoons hit hard and fast, when given the space to develop a longer story, Rodrigues takes the time to set up things up for maximum… nastiness, with every gag flowing the most naturally in the world into an even more over-the-top one. The following pages are excerpted from Ray and Joe: The Story of a Man and His Dead Friend and Other Classic Comics, which had been my first exposure to Rodrigues’ work, which « boggled the mind and challenged all sense of decency and propriety ». What can I say? I found it in a now-defunct comic bookstore, looked through a few pages and immediately purchased it.
I’ll wrap this with an unrelated one-pager which somehow seems appropriate in this pandemic new year –
*Interestingly, Rodrigues was actually a fairly religious, politically conservative man.