Pulp Fictions: Richard Gehr on Herbie and Rory Hayes


Comics come out on Wednesday, and so does Richard Gehr’s Pulp Fictions.

Herbie Volume One
Dark Horse Books

Where Demented Wented:
The Art and Comics of Rory Hayes

Edited by Dan Nadel and Glenn Bray

Procrastination, sloth, and a general slackosity—combined with sheer narcissistic omnipotence—were the primary characteristics of the first comics character I can recall falling head over heels for: Herbie Popnecker, AKA the Fat Fury, the Plump Lump, or, as his father, Pincus Popnecker, usually refers to him, “the little fat nothing.” Like so many fathers, Pincus is unaware that his roly-poly, droopy-eyed son is mightier than Satan and a lollipop-fueled master of time and space. Tellingly, Herbie would eventually become Alan Moore’s favorite superhero.

Introduced by the funky American Comics Group in a 1958 issue of Forbidden Worlds, Herbie also starred in 23 issues of his own book, which petered out in 1967. Herbie was written by Shane O’Shea, one of many pseudonyms used by ACG editor Richard E. Hughes (himself born Leo Rosenbaum). The even more enigmatic Ogden Whitney, a prolific and fascinating artist who descended into alcoholic obscurity, drew Herbie.

Hughes’s unhinged stories and Whitney’s bizarrely static clip-art style are on full-color display in volume one of Herbie, the latest in Dark Horse’s beautifully printed—if, at $50, rather pricey—hardcover archive series. Containing five complete issues and several random stories from other books, the surreally banal Herbie makes a great case for Whitney as the René Magritte of Golden Age comics artists. Some serious Whitney fans deem his romance comics even weirder, but the fury of Dark Horse’s slim volume will do until a more general Whitney anthology hits the shelves.

Whitney’s strangely static compositions of Mom and Dad grousing about Herbie’s Buddhist reserve seem positively Norman Rockwell-ian compared to work of the disturbing—and literally disturbed—San Francisco underground comics legend Rory Hayes. In 1969, Hayes managed to out-gross the grossest of gross-outers in Cunt, the violent comics catharsis he disgorged while allegedly still a virgin. You can experience Cunt first-hand, and plenty stranger, in Where Demented Wented: The Art and Comics of Rory Hayes (Fantagraphics), a fascinating and macabre perspective on ’60s underground art edited by Dan Nadel and Glenn Bray.

Hayes was born in 1949 and died from a drug overdose in 1983. He began drawing as a child alongside his brother, Geoffrey, whose touching tribute to Rory is included in this volume. The pair spun imaginary worlds out of the stuffed animals in their room, especially an A. A. Milne-like teddy bear that came to prominence in Hayes’ personal mythology—alongside the Bogeyman, Mazor Storn, and Granny Crackbaggy—as the morally ambivalent Pooh Rass. Hayes could transform the innocent into the perverse and seemed uninterested in reversing that trajectory.

Rory apparently favored LSD and amphetamines as gateways to the id, although EC Comics, H. P. Lovecraft, and the work of more popular contemporaries such as R. Crumb, S. Clay Wilson, and Rick Griffin (with whom he occasionally collaborated) also helped unleash his demons. While his stories, such as they are, seem like off-the-cuff shockers, Hayes’s pages VIIIBRAAATE with chemical voltage, and your throat may clench involuntarily as Hayes takes you way up, and then way back down, with him.