Phoebe Zeit-Geist is a comic strip featuring a heroine of the same name which was created by writer Michael O’Donoghue and drawn by comics artist Frank Springer. It appeared over several years in the pages of the literary magazine Evergreen Review, founded in 1957 by Grove Press editor Barney Rosset, which may be the reason for its unfamiliarity to the majority of comics readers. O’Donghue contributed to National Lampoon and became Saturday Night Live’s first head writer. Springer started out as an assistant to Terry and the Pirates cartoonist George Wunder and moved to comic books, first to Dell, then DC, and Marvel. Phoebe Zeit-Geist was an experiment for the magazine and from accounts I’ve come across it was meant to be a satire on the damsel in distress trope. The strip, as you’ll find out from reading this chapter, would’ve given the Comics Code Authority reviewers aneurysms!
This chapter first came to my attention via blog writer UK Jarry on his Street Laughter blog because of its inclusion of two gay characters, “Puff” Branigan and “Flit” Whittaker. My first impression of the characters is that they are outright stereotypes. They’re also misogonystic and violent toward Phoebe. O’Donoghue describes the men on page two as the “most notorious white slavers ever to cruise the seven seas”. The following caption describes the pair as “gay gobs” who are “purveyors to the world” while another caption on page three refers to them as “nautical nances” with “inverted hostilities”. Springer is quite skilled with the visual depictions: Flit’s tight fitting jeans and striped shirt, cravat, bracelet, and earrings; Flit’s hand gestures and fingernails in the last panel on page two; presumably checking makeup at the top of page 3. Flit and Puff are a couple, however that might have been perceived in 1966, based on some of the dialog and interactions between them. If there was any doubt the second to last panel showing them holding hands subtly drives the point home.
It’s difficult for me to get past the stereotypes and the violence. Uk Jarry wrote at some length in his post about O’Donoghue and Evergreen Review. O’Donoghue was quite taken by William Burroughs’ ironic writing style, and Burroughs is a writer whose work I’m unable to appreciate also. In comparison to this strip, O’Donoghue’s bizarre and tasteless sense of humor shown in 1979’s Mr Mike’s Mondo Video seems tame and at other times just odd. Evergreen Review founder Barney Rosset and managing editor Fred Jordan were unafraid to include work from gay men. Its second issue included work by gay and or supportive Beat writers Allen Ginsberg, whose Howl had been confiscated on obscenity charges, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the publisher of Howl, and Jack Kerouac. Howl’s homoerotic content didn’t endear it to officials either. William Burroughs and Jean Genet were also among its numerous contributors. A year after the Stonewall Riots of 1969 the magazine featured a Richard Avedon photo of a nude Allen Ginsburg and Peter Orlovsky embracing. Given the supportive editorial stance I find it difficult to think the magazine would have published a comic strip with patently offensive gay characters, and O’Donoghue quite possibly might have been a brilliant satirist…an outright, hard core Poe with the Phoebe strip whose work I simply don’t understand.
The letter column in this issue printed a letter in reaction to a previous chapter of Phoebe from a reader named David Sammons. Here’s what Mr Sammons had to say:
“Over a year ago I subscribed to Evergreen Review because I was convinced it represented an important part of our cultural life that was being ignored by other journals. On the whole, I have been pleased with what you have done, although perhaps ‘pleased’ is a poor word, for the outlook on our society you represent is not one full of ‘joyous hope!’
Your last two episodes of Phoebe Zeit-Geist, though, have been too sick to put into print. I hope you are trying to prove a point by the, i.e., that the Post Office is nuts in trying to stop the mailing of material with erotic content and allowing something through the mails (in spite of its restrictions against obscenity) that is as debasing and filthy as P.Z.
You’ve really hit rock bottom with this ‘comic’ or perhaps I should withhold that comment for your next issue. Sex, even pornopgraphy, has a place in the arts – as it has in our lives – but the utter debasement of the human being, which you seem to be trying to carry to its ultimate in P.Z., does not belong in your magazine. If we want to show the reality of our debasement, let’s stop being poetic and show what we are doing in Vietnam to those once lovely people.”
Geek note: the strip originally appeared in B & W. The strips were then colored either with spot color like this one while others were in full color when Grove Press collected them in a hardcover book.