The term "worst comic book of all time" or "worst comic ever" gets bandied about quite a bit, and while there have been some recent strong contenders to that title (make that "one contender"), such assessments lack some historical scope in order to make such a claim.
In my recent research, I have come across the worst comic of all time, and after reading it, I longed for the simple pleasures of a drug-addicted teen sidekick beating people with a dead cat. That would have been infinitely better than what I experienced.
In fact, I kind of find it quaint that some people can read comics their entire lives, only to have Justice League of America: The Rise of Arsenal 3 end up being the worst comic they ever read. I also envy them.
Because, unless there's some lost comic out there written by Hermann Goering and drawn by Adolph Hitler himself, then I cannot imagine a worse comic book than this:
Published by Specialty Book Company of Columbus, Ohio, in 1944, Clean Fun Starring Shoogafoots Jones is a one-shot comic that was apparently popular enough to go through multiple printings, yet it looks like a very cheaply produced, self-published comic. It fails in every conceivable way that a comic could fail: the art and writing (credited to "McDaniel") are amateurish at best, the so-called "jokes" are not funny, and, most important, the book is racist as hell. Plus, it purports to provide moral instruction from something called "Stray Thoughts" by Crump J. Strickland, which is the most Southern name ever this side of Saxby Chambliss. The overt hypocrisy (immediately clear on the cover) of a comic that presents itself as moral instruction while also containing some of the most awful racism imaginable really puts it over the top to be far and away the worst comic book ever made.
In fact, it makes me want to punch the Greatest Generation right in the face.
The book consists of a series of one-page, four-panel gags, loosely tied together by something of a plot that involves Shoogafoots escaping his abusive wife (as seen on the cover), trying but failing to hold down a job, and getting beset by young pranksters who take advantage of his limited intelligence. (Many of these pranksters, by the way, are Shoogafoots children by different mothers, another running gag in the book.) Then, running along the bottom of each page, we get Crump J. Strickland's words of Christian advice, many of which warn against the dangers of introducing immoral "dirt" and "filth" into your mind.
Here is the inside cover and first page of the book. The gag on the inside cover gets extra points for also drawing humor out of a physical disability. The first page sets up the characters for us while also putting the plot in motion:
I would also like to point out that every panel is numbered 1-4, obviously to help the book's target audience, who wasn't yet quite used to the habit of reading from left to right.
Shoogafoots gets a construction job, but he falls off the building and gets fired. He then goes to see a doctor, who beats him and then throws him out. We start to see here a common pattern in Shoogafoots life: failure, followed by abuse at the hands of every authority figure he meets. For example, Shoogafoots later takes a train, and when he asks the conductor if he "know de way," the conductor beats him with a coal shovel. All this physical abuse, especially from his wife, creates a vicious cycle for Shoogafoots: he's abused because he doesn't work, but then his injuries prevent him from working.
And he is also guilty of perpetuating this cycle of violence, as we see on this page, when one of his illegitimate children asks him an innocent, albeit ignorant question that ironically comments on Shoogafoots's own trauma:
And again, bonus points for drawing humor from post-traumatic stress disorder.
On the road, Shoogafoots meets up with Skin Johnson, who has just joined the Army. As it's time for yet another nap, Shoogafoots falls asleep beside a tree and dreams of life in the Army. As a pilot, he bombs the Japanese fleet, but he's shot down and wakes up. Then his wife beats him some more.
We see, however, that Shoogafoots is not incapable of exertion when pressed into it, usually by a prank that capitalizes on his ignorant superstitions, as with this encounter with a ghost:
To the writer's credit, he does not have Shoogafoots shout out, "Feets, don't fail me now!"
In the following incident, Shoogafoots has a run-in with a ill-advisedly placed Halloween skeleton on a junk pile.
We get to see a kind of hierarchy of fear at work by comparing the two above images. A ghost causes Shoogafoots to run 12 miles, while a skeleton causes him to run 14 miles. Also, the skeleton turns him temporarily white, for some hilarious and ironic racial inversion.
The evidence presented here strongly suggests that Clean Fun Starring Shoogafoots Jones is hands-down the worst comic book of all time, as well as proving that human beings pretty much suck in general. It is a demoralizing and angering book to read, not least when one comes across an epigram promoting universal brotherhood appearing underneath a horribly racist joke.
The images here are from photographs I took of the copy I read at the Michigan State University library. That school's excellent comics archive actually has two copies of the comic, both in pretty good shape. Subsequent research shows that this comic is hardly rare, and cheap copies can be found for a comic from 1944. This leads me to believe that the book was fairly successful for the Specialty Book Company, which is again saddening.