Bob Burden seems to be eternally befuddled by what he does for a living. And rightfully so. Few people have built had their entire lives and careers so completely defined by what amounts to a one-night drunken joke. Few peoples’ party shenanigans have led to original art of that drunken joke being auctioned at Sotheby’s, cashing a big fat movie check from Hollywood for a feature film based on your drunken joke, and you and that drunken joke even being an answer (or is that question?) on the TV quiz show Jeopardy!
Does that sound somewhat surreal? As well it should, because no one other than a strange man could write and draw the adventures of the Strangest Man Alive, the Flaming Carrot.
Here is the incredibly true-life yet almost-unbelievable origin of the Flaming Carrot. Bob Burden was what we might call in the old-fashioned vernacular a huckster. In the pre-internet age, hucksters traveled around to conventions and bought, sold and traded old comics and collectables. They might have a stack of some Golden Age Actions, a few key Silvers, and whatever random knick-knacks they could pick up here and there to deal if the price was right. They were responsible for circulating the comic goodness and bridging the gap betweens the “haves” and “wants.”
Now, at the time (1979) Bob Burden had a roommate with visions of glory. He was looking to get out of the dealing of, and into the making of, comics. His exit-ticket was a self-published comic magazine called Visions that was going to be a masterpiece of superb comic art and fandom. He had Neal Adams lined up to draw the cover, and an interview with Steranko to print. This was serious stuff. Burden watched his roommate fuss over a splash page that was set to appear in Visions, erasing here and fixing there, for over a week. A week on a single page. One night when the bottle was being passed around, Burden mocked his roommate saying he could both write and draw an entire eight-page comic in a single night, and if he did the roommate would have to print it in Visions.
And thus the Flaming Carrot was born.
I am sometimes amazed that I picked up my first issue of Flaming Carrot (Issue #11 in 1986). For one thing, the cover price was outrageous. It sold for a buck-seventy, which is huge when you consider that the average cover price was sixty cents. Imagine going to the stands nowadays, with an average price of around $3, and seeing a standard-sized black-and-white comic of an odd character you have never heard of selling for $9; three times the price and cheaply printed to boot. Would you be likely to pick it up, or would you think of the three comics you could buy in its stead?
But it was an experimental time for both comics and me. I had just broken out of the mainstream superhero comics with Pacific’s Groo the Wanderer, and I was doing some exploring. There was a lot of zeitgeist going on, and several independents were making a grab for it. There was still a year to go before the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles lost their hard-edge and became pizza-chowing morons and the market would be flooded with imitation titles like Pre-Teen Dirty-Gene Kung Fu Kangaroos and Adolescent Radioactive Black Belt Hamsters. Things were weird in comic book land, and I loved it.
I picked up a lot of strange stuff then. Stanley, the Snake with the Overactive Imagination. Mr. Creampuff. Most of them, to be honest, were terrible. I got one issue of the series and then never looked at them again. Most of them, to be honest, never made it to a second issue. Flaming Carrot Comic on the other hand…over thirty years later I still break out my old issues and give them a read. Why? Because although Flaming Carrot started as a drunken joke, it was a good joke. And a smart one.
Burden decided that Flaming Carrot would be the anti-everything. 1970s comics were full of cosmic heroes and leftist-leaning political allusions, so the Flaming Carrot was a throw-back to the 1950s gun-toting commie-fighting action star, battling villains like the Red Dyke. Not only would the Flaming Carrot be a non-powered superhero, but just to make sure no one confused him with Batman the Flaming Carrot was also a complete idiot. Flaming Carrot shot from the id, with no forethought or planning. He got drunk and had sex with loose women. He shot people who annoyed him. He did everything superheroes weren’t supposed to do.
However, to call Flaming Carrot just a superhero parody is too limiting. Burden had the full mental library of a lifetime of comic collecting and dealing to pull from, not to mention a literary and cinematic background. He pulled from every source creating a chaotic mix of madness and mainstream. He referenced Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman when the Flaming Carrot met Death, but refused a chess match insisting on settling things with a game of Jarts. He packed his stories with obscure literary and historical references (One issue the Flaming Carrot goes undercover with the codename of Greensleeves. In David Cornwell’s autobiography A Perfect Spy Operation Greensleeves was the project dedicated to creating perfect spies. Now that is an obscure literary reference.).
A few other little known Flaming Carrot Factoids:
Flaming Carrot is Don Quixote
Flaming Carrot’s superhero origin (“having read 5,000 comics in a single sitting to win a bet, this poor man suffered brain damage and appeared directly thereafter as – the Flaming Carrot!”) is a riff on Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote whose haphazard titular hero lost his mind from a marathon reading session of books of chivalry and awoke believing himself to be a true knight on a quest.
Flaming Carrot is Jim Morrison
Well, maybe. Burden always stated that the Flaming Carrot indeed did have a secret identity, but it remained secret. All he would say is that the man under the carrot mask was once an international celebrity, a rock star “from long ago, when the scene was psychedelic, star-spangled hippies, electric guitars and Flaming Carrot was known by a different name.” Lyrics from The Doors pepper the comic, with occasionally muttering things like weird scenes inside the gold mine and the west is the best. In the letters column, Burden confirmed that some fans had guessed correctly, but he still wouldn’t publicly acknowledge the answer. (Which I am glad of. Jim Morrison as a surrealistic superhero may have been cool back in 1979, but now it just seems kind of…lame.)
Flaming Carrot is SpongeBob SquarePants
Actually, not at all. But the creator of SpongeBob originally wanted to call his happy-go-lucky sea sponge creation SpongeBoy, but couldn’t when he found out that SpongeBoy was already a character in Flaming Carrot Comics. Instead, he named the character SpongeBob after Bob Burden.
And of course, one of the best parts of Flaming Carrot Comics was Bob Burden himself, and his continual befuddlement with what he did for a living. Every issue, Burden would write some rambling note about future plans, about his serious writing, about his attempts to escape from Flaming Carrot. Burden was never bitter about Flaming Carrot. It did “keep him in chips” as he wrote, but he bemoaned the fact the he could sell so little non-Carrot material.
His house was
packed with manuscripts, he said, and he always had some grand plan to farm out the drawing chores to someone else, or to publish text-and-pictures versions of Flaming Carrot (called Version A comics, of which only two were released). He didn’t want to draw. He wanted to be a writer, but no one would let him.
Ever the huckster, Burden still took the opportunity to hawk back issues of Visions and Flaming Carrot Comics at dealer prices in the back of his comics. (Burden always had time for a chuckle at the irony that the sole reason anyone was even slightly interested in owning a copy of Visions #1 wasn’t because of his roommates finely-crafted, one-week-to-draw splash page but instead the drunken eight-page comic scribbled out in a single night.)
And even just to confuse Bob Burden a little more, the only time he ever won a major industry award it was for a character he didn’t create or draw. In 1998 he won the Eisner Award for Best Single Issue for the comic Gumby’s Summer Fun Special. Drawn by Art Adams.