Review: The Ultimate Droodles Compendium…by (the late author) Roger Price and Editor Fritz Holznagel

Reviewed by Rebecca Fish Ewan

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droodles cover - square book - author with a few cels of doodles

In 1961, wackadoodle comedic writer/artist/co-inventor of Mad Libs, Roger Price, got divorced for the fourth time. And I was born. Ten years before that, he published his first Droodle, a very still landscape titled A Scene in Texas. As a landscape design professor who once drove long-ways across Texas with a toddler screaming “Book! Book! Book!” for most of the drive through the life-sized version of Price’s Droodle, this one made me laugh outright. Many of the Droodles in his new book, The Ultimate Droodles Compendium: The Absurdly Complete Collection of All the Classic Zany Creations (Tallfellow Press, March 2019), make me laugh.

Not to be confused with a collection, this book compends the oeuvre of Droodles, with annotations, essays, bibliography, a forward, table of contents, and a lovely biography of the inventive mind and man that conjured what he referred to as “the new, IMPROVED [his emphasis] waste of time.” (From the essay by Price “Why Droodling Is Important to You,” also in the compendium.)

But wait, who am I to review this book? My parents were barely married a first time when Droodling took 1950s popular culture by storm. Still, Price and I have some overlap. Price wrote for Bob Hope. My grandmother lived around the corner from Bob Hope. Price wrote for television. She, aka Steffi Barrett, wrote for television. He was divorced in Las Vegas. She was divorced in Las Vegas. Maybe they met at a Hollywood soiree once. Lastly, I grew up in the sixties and seventies when watching reruns on TV was a national pastime, so I feel like I was almost alive in the fifties.

As I read The Ultimate Droodles Compendium, I could smell cigarette smoke, hear ice tinkling in a glass and the sound of my grandmother’s typewriter clacking away. Reading this book took me back to a time when people drank martinis extra dry, said things like “He’s a gagman!” to mean he wrote jokes (versus was partial to gag orders), and television shows were very quietly hilarious. Behind the tiny black and white TV screen, hordes of writers churned out joke after joke after joke for comic giants like Bob Hope, Milton Berle, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, and a lot of other men who got funnier as they and their audiences swigged lowballs and highballs and every ball in between.

So, what’s a Droodle? It’s a contraction for a drawing doodle. Don’t look for more clarity in the Oxford English Dictionary, because I already did. Doodle in the OED means: to play the bagpipe, to befool, and be a noodle, but NOT to draw simply to avoid doing something else, which is how Price thought about it and how I have mostly understood it. I’ve been a doodler all my life. As a child, I aspired to work for Disney like my great uncle Ernie Nordli, but I was a wandering scamp of a hippie girl living in Berkeley, not Los Angeles, where all the action was. Still, I am a doodler. But can I become a Droodler? Can you?

One of the brilliant features of Droodling is that, in Price’s words, “It is for EVERYBODY.” (from “Do-It-Yourself Droodling” extracted from his 1955 collection Oodles of Droodles, also in the new compendium).

We are currently experiencing a DIY revolution. People weary of watching other people on TV have begun to draw, make zines, use fountain pens and typewriters. Now is the perfect time, exactly 101 years since Roger Price took his first breath in Charleston, West Virginia, to make available in print (because print still lives) a definitive and carefully arranged and annotated compendium of one of the early pioneers of absurdist minimalist hybrid gag art. Annotator and Arranger, Fritz Holznagel does a thorough job of organizing over 350 Droodles, adding his notes to explain some references that 21st-century readers might not recognize. For example, Holznagel clarifies terms not common in today’s pop culture vocab, like canasta, stewed prunes, Prince Rainier’s moustache, falsies (not as a term for fake news), the Brooklyn Dodgers, and Epic Records.

The Ultimate Droodles Compendium is a delight and a historical text for any scholar of funny. Fair warning, some of Price’s text, Droodles (both the panel drawings and their titles) may make you wince. The particularly not-okay-for-2019-prime-time are in the Croodles chapter. I didn’t live in the 1950s, but as a cartoonist, writer, landscape history professor, rerun watcher and woman with a feminist POV, not everything in this book made me laugh. Women’s cleavage gags fell flat for me. But, this is a compendium that has been tendering composed by Price’s peers, friends and family, to offer the dry wit of Droodles, along with the story of how Price and his funny Droodles came to be. Price believed that Droodles are for everybody. EVERYBODY. That’s me. That’s you. That’s all the folks on Earth and on space stations.

So, if some of the Droodles in this compendium rub you wrong, make up your own titles. That’s how Droodles were designed to work. If Price were alive today, he might send you $100 if your title made him laugh as much as his own did. Droodles are pioneers of the open sandbox twitterscape of the internet. DIY your own Droodles. Post them on InstaGram. But remember to #RogerPriceInventedDroodles. Give credit where credit is due, not like the video I watched yesterday on YouTube that used the Tomato Sandwich Droodle, but never mentioned Roger Price, to illustrate Droodling to improve your critical thinking skills and elevate your cognitive function to the level of the world’s free-thinkers…kids six and younger (that’s what Price said about this very Droodle, see p. 40 of THE COMPENDIUM).

Now get Droodling!

rebecca fish ewan authorRebecca Fish Ewan is a poet/cartoonist/writer and founder of Plankton Press, where small is big enough. Her writing, cartoons and hybrid-form work has appeared in Brevity, Punctuate, Under the Gum Tree, Mutha and Hip Mama. She also creates zines and teaches in The Design School at Arizona State University (her creative writing MFA home). She has two books of creative nonfiction: A Land Between and By the Forces of Gravity (June 2018). Rebecca grew up in Berkeley, California, but now lives in Arizona with her family.

Author image by Charissa Lucille.

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