I loved Chicken Gutz when I was in high school and college –by my buddy, our brilliant cartoonist, Randy Enos. Randy writes about the strip here …
If I’m ever remembered for anything at all, after I pass on to that great slanted drawing board in the sky, it’ll most likely be for Chicken Gutz, the comic strip I created for The National Lampoon in the early 1970’s. Shortly after I started illustrating for them, they instituted their Funny Pages. They asked me and a goodly number of other cartoonists to come up with some strips that would run every month. My contribution was Chicken Gutz. He was a little man who wore a tall black hat upon which stood a bird. The bird was never named and functioned as a spokesman (or spokesbird) commenting on and criticizing the various goings on that unfolded below him. The little man in the hat was totally unaware of the bird but the bird was certainly aware of the man.
The name Chicken Gutz came from a phrase my high school friends were always saying, “suck chicken guts”. The idea of a bird on someone’s head came from a photo I once saw of a girl in a Greenwich Village club that had a big crow standing on her head. I started doing a little man with a bird on his head. Chicken Gutz first appeared in an animated commercial I had done for an insurance company. Later when I worked at Pablo Ferro Films, I did a painting that was on a piano hinge to cover our rear projection screen. The painting was of a man with a bird on his head confronted by a bird with a man on his head.
My intention with the strip was to create a really different kind of comic strip than was being seen in the venues of the day. I wanted to break some rules. I wanted it to be totally free to pursue any avenues I wished to pursue.
The first thing that was different was that I lettered most of the balloons in cursive or what we used to call “long-hand.” I left myself free to smudge the ink, spatter it, blob it, and to generally create a mess. In Chicken Gutz, trees and brooks and rocks could talk, God or the Devil might make an appearance, the characters could talk to the reader and even the very structure (the panel outlines, word balloons etc.) of the strip could be subject to break-downs. Gravity and other laws were always ignored in favor of, hopefully, a laugh. I indulged my interest in the nostalgia of the old radio days and my love of the old early comics. I didn’t want it to look like anyone else’s style and I think I succeeded. The strip could be a nightmare to the copy editor, the long-suffering and wonderful Louise Gikow, who once advised me to just put a comma after every word because it would be easier to remove the unnecessary ones than to put in all the necessary ones. But, she was great because she always understood the purposeful misspellings.
One important feature of the Gutz strip was the use of commentary around the edges of the panels in which I would write notes to friends, fake advertisements, and all sorts of ridiculous space fillers. I couldn’t seem to be able to tolerate empty space in the panels. All this seemed to appeal to my readers who would write to me in an effort to get their names in the strip. One fellow wanted to propose to his girlfriend through the strip –so he did. I lost a wallet in a taxi in New York (again) and I thanked the driver, Nelson Cisneros in the strip when he returned it to me. Another guy named Gene mailed me an old advertisement depicting a 50’s woman opening a refrigerator. He said that he was hoping to get his name in the strip by doing so. I replied (in a border of the strip) that “No, Gene, you don’t get your name in the strip by mailing me a lousy advertisement of a woman opening a refrigerator!” One of my friends “Kathryn from Nantucket” almost became a regular character in the strip because I mentioned her so much. In the strip shown here in the column, you can see my reference to her singing at the “Brotherhood of Thieves” in Nantucket over on the right side of the last panel. Because of this note, an old high school friend of hers reunited with her by showing up one day while she was singing.
I got a lot of fan mail on the strip even years and years after it had ceased publication. I also got presents from fans like a 16” high stained glass replica of Mr. Gutz. I got a little stuffed Chicken Gutz doll, an embroidered Gutz and also a denim shirt with a large Gutz embroidered on the back. I got an actual laboratory slide of chicken guts and some sort of a partial rubber face (medical?) and a big set of colorful Mexican cards that have pictures of animals, humans and objects with the Spanish names. I lined the doorway of my studio with them. My biggest fan was a girl named Snooki that wrote me voluminous tomes. She was very creative sometimes writing in mirror image. I never met Snooki but I was privy to every turn in her life from being a Black Oak Arkansas groupie to finally a married woman with a daughter. Snooki wrote to only three people, Charles Manson, David Bowie and me. She threatened to come to visit me a few times but never did. She phoned me once or twice. I actually heard from her a couple of years ago.
Gutz appeared as a half- page for a while and then a full page (or the other way around. I forget). He appeared only once in color in a Christmas issue.
He also appeared later on in two long features in the same issue of the Fantagraphics “Blab” (issue 18).
He has also appeared in a new magazine called American Bystander.
A while back, I wondered what it would be like to do a daily strip because I have never done one. So, I created a blog where I could resurrect my old tall hatted friend and do a strip a day. I think I did about 45 or so but got derailed by a big children’s book project. You can see my aborted daily strip efforts here: http://chickengutz.blogspot.com/
One experience with the fans sticks in my mind. Bobby London who did a strip for the Lampoon (and also Playboy) called Dirty Duck was staying with Leann and me for a while. I introduced Bobby to Bud Sagendorf who drew Popeye. Many years later after Bud died, Bobby ended up doing Popeye.
One day I got a letter from a Gutz fan and having nothing else to do that day, I suggested to Bobby that we both draw some fantastic pictures for the college kid. We spent all day making the most elaborate drawings and sent them off knowing that it would blow this kid’s mind. I was right –he sent back the most fantastic letter describing his incredulity when he opened our package. He promised to be our slave, wash our cars, etc., forever and ever.
You see, cartooning can sometimes be a whole lot of fun.
“Don’t neglect that right back fender there!”
Read more more of Randy’s cartooning memories: