American Odd: The Book of the SubGenius, by J.R. “Bob” Dobbs


The Book of the SubGenius
By J.R. “Bob” Dobbs
Fireside Books/Simon and Schuster (1987)
Review by Karl Wolff

“I dunno what the hell’s in there, but it’s weird and pissed off, whatever it is.” A memorable line from John Carpenter’s science fiction masterpiece The Thing (from 1982). A novice reader might feel the same way opening to a random page of The Book of the SubGenius (the first edition from 1983). Including the infamous “bible” of this parody religion is a foregone conclusion for an essay series called “American Odd.” The book is very odd and very American in equal measure.

Growing up in the Eighties, I consumed my share of Saturday morning cartoons, Transformers, G.I. Joe, and other more obscure animated franchises. Anyone else remember Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors? Besides these cartoons, I discovered Mad Magazine with occasional detours to Cracked and Eerie. I learned about the mechanics of satire and parody at a very early age. Mad softened the ground for more explorations into oddball and underground American culture. Before I entered college in 1997, if I desired to know about strange things I really had to dig. The Internet was a shadow of its former self in the 1990s. It took forever to load images and Napster’s availability meant waiting and waiting.

So I headed back to the printed word. Mad led to ‘zines. I discovered RE/Search, The Illuminatus! Trilogy, Discordianism, George Carlin, and Bill Hicks. I remember seeing Bill Hicks on Ha!, the first incarnation of Comedy Central. Back then the channel had to fill time, so it dumped tons of stand-up comic footage on air and broadcast things like Higgins Boys and Gruber and Short Attention Span Theater (one of Jon Stewart’s earliest TV gigs). Among my many searches for the strange and unusual, I came across The Book of the SubGenius. It is only recently that I’ve read it from cover to cover.

The Book is a collection of pieces done for the SubGenius ‘zine, The Stark Fist of Removal. The Church originated in the minds of three men – Ivan Stang, Philo Drummond, and Dr. X – and putting out their first pamphlet in Dallas, Texas in 1979. Living in Texas in the Eighties must not have been easy, especially for those of weird tendencies. In addition, Dallas was where JFK was assassinated and operated as a vortex for conspiracy theorists. “Bob” Dobbs assures the reader its appearance in Dallas is merely a coincidence.

Church doctrine and history is a bombastic admixture of surrealism, absurdism, DIY ‘zine style, apocalypse, conspiracy theory, and generic men’s fashion. J.R. “Bob” Dobbs is the central figure, a satirical subversion of Fifties Establishment salesmanship and Sixties yahoo New Agey idealism. Like Mad Magazine, the Church of the SubGenius pokes fun at both The Silent Majority and hippies. But buried beneath the crazy conspiracy theories, crackpot origin myths, and medicine show hucksterism are nuggets of wisdom. Being a SubGenius isn’t about intelligence or race or wealth, it is about attitude. Mainly it is about Slack. Defining Slack is about as easy as defining Zen.

Hilobrow’s Joshua Glenn eloquenty described the SubGenius attitude by saying,

“To their immediate juniors, the Boomers’ serial absorption in, for example, the anti-war movement, drug experimentation, the women’s movement, the anti-nukes movement, environmentalism, and various self-actualization fads was a turn-off. In reaction to the Boomers’ example, OGXers* have attempted — with greater and lesser degrees of success — to render themselves un-suggestible. At worst, this means that OGXers are a cynical bunch; at best, however, it means they’re serious (not earnest) and ironic, though in a philosophical way. Their immunity to suggestibility, acquired at an early age, came in handy during the Reagan era, when many of their elders and juniors allowed themselves to be persuaded by the dogma/myth that propositions considered extreme just a few years earlier — lowering taxes on the rich, shrinking the domestic safety net, prying the poor off welfare rolls — were actually good common sense.”

While Glenn’s essay was about comix artist Daniel Clowes, the same holds true for the Church of the SubGenius. Reading The Book of the SubGenius is an exercise of un-suggestibility. To paraphrase The Book, “If you think The Church of the SubGenius is a parody religion, then you don’t get the joke.”

Unlike regular religious dogma, the Church of the SubGenius openly encourages schisms. They have no rules except one: don’t discriminate based on gender, orientation, social standing, and so forth. The Church of the SubGenius is to organized religion what Dadaism is to art. The authorship of The Book of the SubGenius reads like an art-punk Who’s Who. Besides Stang, Drummond, and Dr. X, there is Bob Black, Mark Mothersbaugh, and Robert Williams, among dozens more.

“Bob” isn’t your regular garden variety messiah either. With his ever-present pipe, he intercedes on behalf of humanity. He worked as a two-bit men’s fashion model and was an extra in B-grade sci-fi movies. He works on behalf of JHVH-1, god of wrath and/or space alien.** In the book, he warns of X-Day when the Xists will arrive to enslave humanity. The Xists are aliens from the Planet X. Besides Jehovah-1, there are elder gods, space aliens, conspiracy theory (mainly aimed at the Trilateral Commission and the Federal Reserve), and positive affirmations. With “Bob,” one has to be brave enough to pull the wool over one’s own eyes. The Book packages these kooky theories and crazy rants in pages crowded with collage. It is somehow both ridiculous and sublime. It’s also a small miracle Simon and Schuster published this.

While X-Day (July 5th, 1998) is in the distant past, The Book of the SubGenius remains a literary oddity. A weird charisma radiates from the writing and art work. Who knows, you may already be a SubGenius?

*OGXers, meaning The Original Gen-Xers. A term based on Glenn’s idiosyncratic system of generational periodicity.

**The Church of the SubGenius endorses “cinematic cheesiness.” While hipsters (or the caricature thereof) view pop culture through nine layers of irony, the SubGenius consumes B-grade sci fi movies with an unironic joy.

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