The Strangest Pictures I Have Seen #11

Posted by on October 22nd, 2010 at 10:58 PM

Michael O’Donoghue, founding member of National Lampoon and the guy opposite John Belushi in the very first Saturday Night Live sketch, is one of my favorite literary assholes, up there with James Joyce. I guess I’m amused by Irish misogynists whose asses I could easily kick. Until his death in 1994, O’Donoghue was a prim, mannered sadist whose approach to comedy was to take it too far, but to be impeccably clever about it. The man never met a dead-Vietnamese-baby joke he couldn’t turn into a cocktail-party witticism. One of his classic recurring bits on SNL was doing impressions of celebrities getting steel needles plunged into their eyes; he also wrote a rejected sketch in which the Nazis get everyone to forgive them because it turns out they had a really good reason for what they did. (Still, O’Donoghue’s dark sense of humor paled in comparison to that of his then-girlfriend Anne Beatts, who wrote the classic Lampoon ad parody, “If Ted Kennedy drove a Volkswagen, he’d be President today.”)

But before SNL or National Lampoon, O’Donoghue was hired by the Evergreen Review to write a comic. An eclectic literary magazine, the Review had started publishing a lot of softcore cartoons and illustrations, classy-artsy stuff along the lines of Playboy or European comics albums. Reportedly, the editors asked O’Donoghue and up-and-coming Marvel artist Frank Springer, whose celebrated run on Nick Fury was just beginning around this time, to produce something along the lines of Jean-Claude Forest’s sexy sci-fi romp Barbarella.

O’Donoghue, naturally, took it too far.

Phoebe Zeit-Geist
by Frank Springer and Michael O’Donoghue

Phoebe Zeit-Geist is a parody of exploitative porno action comics that manages to be more exploitative, pornographic and action-packed than any of the material it sends up. You can feel O’Donoghue’s presence behind every page, one hand on a revolver and the other down his pants, still trying to decide whether or not he’s enjoying this ironically. Springer, for his part, realizes that the only way for an artist to play this material is totally straight, and he plays it to the hilt, rendering O’Donoghue’s bizarre flights of fancy in lush, dramatic black-and-white. His renderings of Phoebe’s eternally nude form, in an endless variety of action poses, are gorgeous, exactly what the editors of The Evergreen Review were probably looking for. It’s just that the story surrounding them doesn’t want to play along.

So. At “one of those elegant garden parties in Antwerp,” beautiful and multi-talented heiress Phoebe Zeit-Geist is kidnapped by an ex-Nazi who strips her naked, whips her, and ties her to a helicopter to be flown naked through the city. She will not regain her clothes for the rest of the series. From there, Phoebe hurtles helplessly through a series of violent, erotic adventures, each more ridiculous than the last. At various times she is:

— imprisoned by a shoe fetishist who makes her wear boots on her head and dreams of shrinking her feet to an inch long;
— thrown headfirst into a garbage can, sealed inside, and shipped overseas;
— chained in a dungeon behind the Iron Curtain, there to be raped by a Komodo Dragon;
— kidnapped by a serial-killer tattoo artist who plans to cover her with ink (“your buttocks will be devoted to lyrical themes such as ‘Fortitude Slaying Avarice with the Lance of Sagacity'”) before killing her;
— locked in a cage on the coast of New Zealand by The Blob Princess and her Band of Incredible Lesbians; and
— dead.

In fact Phoebe spends a sizable chunk of the story as a corpse, which has remarkably little effect on her role. The only thing she never does is have sex, at least as most people would define it.

The “Perils of Penelope” plot gets more fragmented, and more self-aware, as the serial continues. At one point Phoebe is rescued from one weird and hideous fate, only to have her rescuer immediately spring another one on her. (To wit: “My intention is to transport you to Japan, there to tie you to the railway tracks, whereupon you’ll be mashed by a speeding locomotive!”) Another chapter introduces a square-jawed savior for Phoebe, only to kill him off before the two even meet.

O’Donoghue is good at keeping the shaggy-dog story going as long as he can, but the material, by its nature, can only last so long before burning itself out. The final chapter dissolves into a free-for-all, with all of Phoebe’s many tormentors descending en masse, in a two-page spread lovingly rendered by Springer.

The whole thing gives the impression of O’Donoghue throwing the readers’ lascivious desires back in their faces: “You think you want pervy pictures, do you? I’ll show you perversion! How d’ya like them apples?” (Here, “apples” means “drawings of a naked woman in chains having dead beetles glued to her armpits in preparation for being set upon by a swarm of half-starved gila monsters.”) It’s a cruel, mocking rebuke to anyone who opened the magazine in search of Barbarella-style sexytime fun. But at the same time it is sexy, at least the way Springer draws it. It’s hard not to imagine that O’Donoghue was genuinely turned on by Phoebe’s adventures, or at least more than he would have been by a conventional softcore romp.

It’s also, of course, completely tasteless, but it wants to be tasteless, and tasteless wasn’t that hard to do even in 1968. What’s much more impressive is that it’s funny. I would write more, but suddenly I am run over by a truck.

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2 Responses to “The Strangest Pictures I Have Seen #11”

  1. Bob Levin says:

    Nice to see attention called to Phoebe G. and for more on O’Donoghue, see Dennis Perrin’s bio “Mr. Mike:…The Man Who Made Comedy Dangerous.”

  2. Mike Hunter says:

    Once, Michael O’Donoghue got a phone call from his father. (One of his mother’s toes was crushed in an accident and had to be amputated.)

    The conversation:

    “Son, I don’t know how to tell you this, but your mother lost one of her toes.”

    M. O’D: “Did she look behind the refrigerator?”