The Godfather of Graffiti Characters
When examining the many styles of graffiti and mural art we’re exposed to today, you’ll often come across pieces that involve cartoon characters, woven into the art that was made. Some of them are recognizable to mainstream audiences such as Looney Toons and Disney characters, but there are also specific little characters that make viewers go, “I’ve seen this before, I just don’t know where.” These characters are the creations of Vaughn Bode, the godfather of the underground comic world.
In 1963, Vaughn Bode self-published “Das Kamphf,” a work largely considered to be the first underground comic book. It was a war-themed comic, said to have been a spoof on Charles Shulz’s “Happiness is a Warm Puppy.” At the time, there wasn’t a place where comic writers with more of a tongue-and-cheek style of humor fit in. Newspapers and publishers often had pages for satirical comics, however the characters and topics within the strips were more literal and had to be fairly “appropriate” to be approved for press. Bode’s 52-page book wasn’t considered a hit at the time, however it’s now a cult classic among fans of his work. Still, the work was significant enough to land him a spot as a contributing cartoonist to “The Harvard Lampoon,” an unsanctioned yet popular humor magazine run by students at Syracuse University. This is where he began to feature a character named “Cheech Wizard,” a stubby wizard-like character whose body was mostly covered by his yellow hat. His comics outlined Cheech Wizard’s exploitations and explicit humor, his character always looking for a party. Bode’s character was a hit, and he continued to create comics with Cheech Wizard for the next decade.
From the late 1960’s to mid 1970’s, Vaughn Bode experienced a sort of creative renaissance, his works featured in dozens of underground comics and erotic magazines. He was also commissioned to create cover art for a number of science fiction novels such as R.A. Lafferty’s “Space Chantey.” The popularity of his comics drew from the blunt and often vulgar nature of the works as well as the simplistic style of the characters he created. With clean lines and rounded features, his creations naturally lended themselves to the graffiti boom of the 1970’s. As graffiti artists continued to push the boundaries of expressionism, they began adding cartoon characters to their pieces to make their works more decorative. Artists such as Dondi, SEEN, Tracy, and Mare 139 adapted his characters alongside of their names seen on subway trains and walls all over New York City.
Bode died suddenly in 1975 at the age of 33 years old, with his son Mark continuing his legacy through producing work similar in spirit and design to that of his father, even completing Vaughn’s popular “Cobalt-60” comic strips. To this day artists draw inspiration from Bode’s counterculture comics, his characters featured in street art all around the world. Some would argue that the popularity of Bode’s works were aided by the rise of graffiti art happening within the same period. The late 1960’s brought about a cultural boom, as the world of underground art continued to reveal itself in its many forms. It would be made clear that this bustling landscape of creativity was just as large as the world above it.