10 Jun

When I was a kid there were two comic strips in the Listener.* They were Footrot Flats by Murray Ball and Bogor by Burton Silver. Footrot Flats is I guess, iconic. It's widely touted as part of the nation’s history and identity. As such a lot has been written about the strip, some of it by me, and I do love Pongo, Dog, Cooch, the water tank, Horse being reluctantly cuddled, the drawing, the jokes, the creeping complexity of the universe and all the other stuff (though I also recognise its problematic ‘kiwi’ status).

There does not seem to be any equivalent hype for Bogor. And this, combined with my aging brain, mean I had forgotten about the comic. That is until I saw a couple of books of collected strips at the New Lynn Hospice Shop. Obviously I bought them and what the actual fuck?!

Bogor is legit weird. Gloriously and joyfully so. It rules mega-much. But the comic is so strange I cannot fathom how it ran for 22 YEARS (1973 to 1995)** in a mainstream publication. Everything about this situation is mindboggling.

First there is the way Bogor looks and feels. In this it encompasses everything I think is important and beautiful about the comics aesthetic and form. The strips are short. The drawing is idiosyncratic, ‘ugly’ and things do not so much look like things as they do indications or symbols of things. There is humour and pathos (often combined) and they usually rely on the text-image tangle to make sense. It celebrates flatness and illogical stillness. It's unencumbered by backstories or explanations or perspectives or shading. It is clearly ‘made’ by someone. All of this together means that when you read Bogor you know you are reading a comic. And this is what I love.

I feel like I never see regular comic strips in the Aotearoa mainstream now, let along anything that's really beautifully incompetent or weird (if you know of anything please tell me). But from 1973 to 1995, in the most middle-NZ of magazines there was Bogor!***  And everyone seemed fine with this. And hooray!

It also seemed fine with everyone that the strip’s content was forest pondering, marijuana jokes and a snail soap opera - a most unexpected and fascinating combination.

The forest pondering is the domain of the main character ‘Bogor’ (duh). Bogor is a woodsman whose primary relationship is with trees. They are really all he thinks about, talks to and interacts with. They are his friends. His tree life manifests in various ways:

  • Physical comedy, where he explores the ways in which trees can be anthropomorphised to enhance his life. For example as a victorious crowd at a football match.

  • As answers to the ‘Woodsmen’s Annual Examination’. Apart from the forest setting this is the only part of the comic that refers to his actual job. Bogor always sits  in a tree to take the exam and his responses are variously funny and philosophical. E.g.

Exam: Question 1: Describe one quality unique to trees and say how this has benefitted man over the centuries (5 marks)
Bogor: Trees die standing up. This has benefitted man by them not falling on him all the time.

Exam: Environmental ethics question 1: In the forest service we have a policy of clearing native forests and replanting with faster growing exotics. How would you justify this policy to a nature lover?
Bogor: By pointing out that you only really appreciate something when it’s gone.

(Bogor is also philosophical in other contexts. He is smart and sweet and honest and I like him a lot).

  • Through discussion and banter with the wasted hedgehog who is his sidekick.

For me, in the context of the Listener, this hedgehog is the single most perplexing, astounding and kind-of-wonderful thing. 

In Aotearoa hedgehogs are an introduced species and a long-standing pain in the arse ecosystem-wise. But the hedgehog in Bogor is a jolly forest-dweller and it would appear that no one in the Listener’s staff or audience noticed the contradiction, or if they did they didn't give a shit.

Likewise the MAINSTREAM magazine and its readers seem to have given no fucks that this hedgehog is a total stoner and drug dealer. Personally I too give no fucks and think weed can be funny (like anything). But ...um... ILLEGAL... socially complex ... fiercely contested...media responsibility etc. Just the Listener sticking it to the man I guess.****

Finally are the snails. They do not turn up that often. The stories are about their daily lives and relationships, pretty straightforward.

So that is Bogor. The comic the Listener returned with from that time it slipped into that alternate universe.

P.S. The comic’s creator Burton Silver is very interesting. As well as a cartoonist he is a boilermaker, polyglot and inventor. One of his inventions is ‘Golfcross’ which is played on a golf course with goal-nets instead of holes and a golf ball shaped like a rugby ball. Apparently there are Golfcross courses in France, Germany, Argentina, Scotland, England and Ireland. Who knew?

Burton Silver is also responsible for those cat books, the most successful of which is ‘Why Cats Paint’. This has sold over 750,000 copies worldwide.

*The Listener is a weekly current affairs magazine. I am not sure what it’s like now but in its pre-streaming glory print days it was - for me at least – the country’s prime source for TV programme listings. I used to go through them and circle the ones I wanted to watch. Oh the nostalgia.  
**Aotearoa’s longest-running published comic strip in fact!
*** As far as I can tell The Listener now mostly runs political cartoons. These are generally on-point, skilfully drawn by artists who care and completely valuable. But they are something different to Bogor.

****The Listener was funded by the Government until 1990!

* The email will not be published on the website.