I have never been a fan of comic books, nor have I developed a taste for graphic novels. I can admire the skill and inventiveness, but somehow I canâ€™t drum up genuine enthusiasm. Of course, as a child, I had my weekly diet of comics, including Pipsy Papsy, Factorum Et Dictorum Memorabilium, and The Dinky, but when I discovered proper books I was smitten by prose, and there was no turning back.
Until last week, that is, when I discovered a fantastic comic featuring the cartoon superhero Laundry Bag Boy. I have to admit it has been a revelation, and I am smitten all over again, this time by crude and cack-handed drawings and by storylines which have surely been devised by a dribbling toddler. Yet there is a majestic genius about Laundry Bag Boy, his adventures, his scrapes, his pratfalls, his laundry bag, that I find irresistible. The comic I picked up, absent-mindedly, from where it had been discarded on a bench under a sycamore by a path in a park, was fat and dog-eared and threatened by rainfall. I thought no more than to carry it to the nearest municipal waste bin and consign it to oblivion, but the waste bins had been commandeered by an avant garde arts project organised by a man called Simon, whose name was Peter, just like one of the apostles of Christ. But whereas the apostles were, as Charles Bradlaugh (1833-1891) observed, â€œilliterate half-starved visionaries in some dark corner of a Graeco-Syrian slumâ€, the artist Simon and his pals were goatee-bearded trendies from Shoreditch destined to rot in hell. Before they rotted, they had filled all the municipal waste bins in the park with some kind of compacted orange substance, hard as concrete, rendering the bins unusable. According to leaflets available from a temporary kiosk, this â€œart interventionâ€ was a â€œcourageous statement about
Issue 10, Volume 34 of Laundry Bag Boy contained a couple of short strips about Douglas The Pig, who was, I learned, Laundry Bag Boyâ€™s pet pig, and a few pages of adverts and promotions for other publications. The bulk of the comic, however, was a single full-length comic strip adventure called Laundry Bag Boy : The Shakatak Years. Now, just as in my adulthood I have never been a comics buff, nor have I ever cared much, or at all, for Shakatak, the British jazz-funk band who had hits in the 1980s with â€œNight Birdsâ€ and â€œDown On The Streetâ€, among others. Frankly, their smooth pap left me cold when first I heard it, and still does, two decades on. Readers who disagree with me, and who wish to champion the music of Shakatak and show me the error of my ways, are invited to argue their case in the Comments, but I will only pay attention to contributions which shake me to the core and force me to reassess my entire Weltanschauung. Those are the stakes. Be very careful before you tap that keyboard and hit â€œSendâ€.
The plot of the story, such as it is, posits that for a period of seven years â€“ precisely which years are maddeningly unspecified â€“ Laundry Bag Boy acts as a kind of familiar to the dull as ditchwater jazz-funksters. They remain unaware of his presence, but he is always there, haunting them, watching over them, in a patch of shadow on stage or perched up in the rafters of the recording studio, breathing softly, clutching his laundry bag, which is sometimes empty but more often about two-thirds full of filthy unmentionables long overdue for the washing machine. With his yellow hair and blazing eyes, we, the readers, can always spot the superhero, but to the Shakatak personnel, including roadies, sound engineers and hangers-on, he might as well be invisible. You may wonder why none of them smell the pong emanating from his laundry bag, at times when it is about two-thirds full. This is because one of Laundry Bag Boyâ€™s superpowers is an ability to pluck from the empty air a canister of air freshener and spray the contents of his noisome bag until it smells of roses and honey and lavender and poppy coral and citrus mango and pumpkin and neutradol and peach and apple and one other fragrance the name of which I cannot be bothered to look up right at this minute. More than one critic, reviewing a Shakatak concert, is claimed to have dubbed them the sweetest-smelling band in the world, although whether this really happened, outside the pages of the comic book, is not something I am competent to assert or deny, for I donâ€™t care one way or the other. I am less interested in Shakatak than in Laundry Bag Boy himself. I have read mountains of prose in my time, books upon books upon books, but never have I fallen so deeply under the spell of a fictitious being. Despite looking, from some angles, like an incompetent portrait of the columnist Peter Hitchens, Laundry Bag Boy, with his aforementioned yellow hair and blazing eyes, and his pet pig Douglas, and his conjured-up air fresheners, and his laundry bag, stands, in my view, above the heads of Emma Bovary or Oscar Crease or Sancho Panza or Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, or Hans Castorp or Molly Bloom or Murphy or Molloy or Malone or Tyrone Slothrop or Doctor Slop or the Widow Wadman or Ishmael or Ahab or Pangloss or Percival Bartlebooth or Bartleby, the scrivener, or Trilby or Svengali or Hazel Blears or Gregor Samsa or Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina, or Batman or Robin, The Boy Wonder, or Robin Hood or Humphrey Clinker or Pip or Magwitch or Geoffrey Firmin or Asenath Waite or the Mad Arab Abdul Alhazred or Pinkie Brown or Charles Swann or Quentin Durward or Martin Chuzzlewit or Fu Manchu or thousands of other fictional characters. He is a true superhero, and yet has a humanity that is palpable. Not literally palpable, of course, that would be stretching my enthusiasm too far, but figuratively, or so I would aver, and had already averred, during that very first skim reading, sheltering from the rain under the ruined bandstand in the park, as I became transfixed by the adventures of Laundry Bag Boyâ€™s Shakatak Years.
When I got home, I reread the comic with closer attention, three or four times I think. I learned more about Laundry Bag Boy, that he had many more superpowers, and ones that made the air freshener thing seem like a party trick. He could, for example, meld his brainwaves with those of
I soon learned that such a sky is a constant throughout the canon, for I was so enthused by The Shakatak Years that I took myself off to a specialist supplier of comic books and bought as many other Laundry Bag Boy titles as I could fit into my own, non-laundry, bag. Regrettably, most if not quite all of the stories had a subplot related in some way to jazz funk, though not specifically to Shakatak, and yet this did not dim my glee. I deduced that either the writer or the artist, neither of whose names appeared in any of the comics as far as I could see, was a devotee of that devilish music, and lacked the self-control to expunge their aberrant leanings from the otherwise stupendous stories. Yet how often we forgive writers and artists for what are, after all, minor irritants. For example, I have never been able to stomach Dennis Beerpintâ€™s infuriating habit of conflating dishcloths with other kinds of rags and sponges, yet I am still able to enjoy his verse for its vigour and punctilio. I feel the same about Laundry Bag Boy, much as I might wish that William Hurlstoneâ€™s Bassoon Sonata, say, could stand as a substitute for True Colours by Level 42.
Another thing I have noticed about Laundry Bag Boy is that he never blinks. This may be a limitation of the cartoon strip medium, or it may be that his eyes are Ã¼bereyes, piercing and all-seeing and never for a moment at rest. And there is a lot for him to look at. Although the quality of the drawing is scrappy and fumbled, occasionally looking as if created by a cretin on a damaged Etch-A-Sketch, throughout the series there is an incredible amount of detail. The sky may be shown as flat and birdless and cloudless, but everywhere else in these pictures is a magnificent clutter of things. To take a picture at random, consider the opening frame from Laundry Bag Boy Gets Into The Groove With Herbie Hancock (Issue 4, Volume 28). Examining this with a Winckelmannscope reveals, in a rectangle taking up half the page, potatoes, bloaters, the weirdstone of Brisingamen, fourteen owls, dental floss diagrams, cotton, pins, pork rind, fur balls, rotating things, custard, muck, shoelaces, coat-hangers, an aerodrome, flame retardant fabric samples, snappy-cap tin cans, a glazed bowl, a Viking helmet, a syrinx, a rickshaw, geese, pots and pans, Edvard Shevardnadzeâ€™s golden tooth mug, bunsen burners and other burners, a tea strainer, a fencepost, gravel, cloth, sand, effluvium, ectoplasm, railings, a Brothers Johnson compilation compact disc, basil, hornets, dust, tweaking mechanisms, a pail of lugworms, a dictaphone belt, sandpaper, grimy unpleasantness, winches and pulleys, talcum powder, country and western paraphernalia, lozenges, screwdrivers, shredded wheat, box cutters, Basho trug holders, shipping timetables, phosphorescence, a spiderâ€™s web, a fountain pen, mysterious hat-like objects which are not hats, a basin, a dimity scrap, a bathtub, a shoe tree, a bee, an ice bucket, an immortal, a puppet crow with one button eye dangling loose, a puppet cow, a tap and an outside spigot, a copy of The Protocols Of The Elders Of Pointy Town, dubbin, flock wallpaper, old manâ€™s beard, Mary Westmacottâ€™s cot, hinges, blubber, fruit, clamps, sugar, goo, pond life, a desk sergeant, a calendar, litmus paper, an Unanugu jumper (darned), salivating weasels, snapping turtles, basalt, tonic water, goat pens, hacks and traps and charabancs, Wolfe Toneâ€™s death mask, an earwig, a selection of different berries ready for the crusher, and the berry crusher, and another crusher, and yet other crushers, and crushers galore. It really is extraordinarily packed with detail. Laundry Bag Boy himself does not appear in this opening frame of the cartoon, and nor does Herbie Hancock. Their absence at the beginning is a crucial part of the plot, but I will not spoil it for you by explaining why.
While I was buying up back numbers in the comics shop, I took the opportunity to pump the proprietor for more information about Laundry Bag Boy. Intriguingly, the shop was run not by a geeky nerdy nerd geek, the kind we tend to associate with such establishments, but by a batty crone with a Quakerly air about her. Her hair was white and wild and she had a decided plum in her mouth. She was kind enough to offer me, from a somewhat battered tin, a choice of arrowroot and Garibaldi biscuits to munch while I browsed the cardboard boxes packed with comics. Unlikely as it seemed, she knew everything there was to know about my new-found fictional hero, a walking encyclopaedia of Laundry Bag Boy lore and learning, arcana and imponderabilities, facts and figures. One thing she told me in particular had me quite perplexed. In spite of the popularity of the yellow-haired, blazing-eyed superhero, there was no official worldwide fan club to which I could apply. This seemed anomalous, when there are such organisations devoted to virtually everyone you can think of, from fictional detectives such as Sherlock Holmes and Solar Pons, to real detectives like Sir Ian Blair and Cargpan of the Yard, from Sir Granville Bantock to Rock Hudson, from Lascelles Abercrombie to Spiderman, from Mike Huckabee to Ayn Rand, from Brutus Maximus to Popeye, from Arianna Huffington to Ringo Starr, from Krishnan Guru-Murthy to Tuesday Weld. Yet in this seething maelstrom of often ill-advised fandom, there was an unfathomable void where Laundry Bag Boy ought to have been.
I have decided to correct this preposterous state of affairs. Tomorrow, at
NB :Â Please check the Comments on this piece, for a particularly enlightening contribution from reader Randi Mooney.