When I was a kid, Dad had a term for people who looked disheveled and messy: Rag-picker Joe. Eventually, I discovered it was a mild version of “Joe Shit the Rag Man”. Maybe Dad picked it up in the Marine Corps. It’s listed on a site of Marine slang, and Dad was a Drill Instructor in the early 1970s, when this phrase seems to have been at the peak of its popularity.
Rag-picker Joe made regular appearances in my childhood: sometimes as me when I couldn’t get my shirt tucked in or my cowlick to lie down, and sometimes as random people on the street seen from a car window, or someone in a retail store. Rag-picker Joe was everywhere.
In the summer of 2019, while looking through my late father’s personal effects, I found papers about a family tree that seemed to be the work of Dad’s mom—my grammy, who died in 2005. I’m sure it was her distinctive handwriting.
Back in the mid-1980s, I asked both sets of my grandparents for any information they could contribute to my junior-high genealogy project. They gave me next to nothing to go on, so I suspect Grammy gained additional information over the years.
Reviewing her notes was how I learned that Rag-picker Joe was not just a bit of slang. He was one of my ancestors.
I forget his last name, but his first name was Joseph, and he was from enough generations ago that I didn’t even bother to figure out the great-great-great or however many greats it was. His occupation of record? Ragman.
If you don’t know what a ragman is, don’t feel bad. I didn’t know either, and I had to look it up. A ragman collected what we might think of now as junk or scrap, and even bones. I don’t know why people would buy bones, but I assume it was either for their nutritious value (soup stock, perhaps?) or for their household utility as material for buttons and knife handles.
The cousin of Joe Shit the Ragman was the Bone man, and these nearly extinct characters from more than a century ago went from town to town, supporting themselves on what meager coin they could make from selling other people’s cast-offs and throwaways.
Bleak as it sounds, the rag-and-bone man was a mobile thrift store and scrap yard, and he was “upcycling” before any of us invented hipster words for re-using old garbage. I imagine that being a ragman required Joe Shit to be a salesman, and no song expresses that rag-selling energy as well as Rag and Bones by the White Stripes.
Sell me that old junk, baby. Come on and give it to me!
In the fifteen months that passed since discovering the ragman of my childhood was part of my family, I have often wondered if Dad ever put that connection together. I wonder if he knew Rag-picker Joe was his great-grand-uncle or whatever it was. Did he know this bit of information when I was a kid, when he used Joe as an insult on a regular basis? Or did he, like me, have an epiphany about Joe when he saw Grammy’s research?
I also wonder about things the genealogy documents didn’t tell me but seem apparent from reading between the lines. If you go back just a generation or two beyond my grandparents, my family tree is full of immigrants who came to this country and survived in abject poverty, somehow, even if it meant carrying bones and rags from town to town in a fucking wheelbarrow.
It upsets me to see our national attitude and policies becoming so obviously anti-immigrant and anti-poor. But this isn’t the first time. This always happens in our country whenever our economy is disastrous or when people feel threatened. Anti-immigrant and overtly racist attitudes flourish in times of economic trouble. The rich pit the middle-class against the poor as enemies, and the rich get richer. These aren’t mysterious ideas any longer; they are statistical conclusions verified with data from more than two centuries of U.S. history.
I only bring it up because I think of Joseph, my distant relative, a man who died long before I was born. A man who died before he became a piece of slang in the urban dictionary. A man whose station in life was used as an insult, even though he was family. A man who must have lived at the absolute ass-end of society, but somehow survived to be listed in my family tree.
In memory of Rag-picker Joe and Joe Shit the Ragman, I’ll share with you the complete issue of The Brave and the Bold #196, where Batman teams up with Ragman.
I had this comic when I was around seven years old. Coming back to it forty years later reveals why I loved it so much. The prose from Bob Kanigher could use a little editing for adult readers, but his captions are more fun than most prose I see in novels these days, and Jim Aparo’s artwork is in fine form here.
This is obviously a comic for boys and, though I was a boy once, I would not recommend it to adult women due to the short shrift the women characters get here. None of them pass the Bechdel Test. They only exist as motivating plot points for male action.
This issue also has some too-convenient plotting in the way that serious injuries take exactly as much time to heal as the plot requires. Is that how it works when falling out of a window? I should fall out of the motherfuckers more often. In spandex.
Also, the re-cap of Ragman’s origin is pointless filler and stupid. Getting electrocuted with other people does not give you their traits. That’s the lowest rung of idiocy on the ladder of superhero origins, right below “Holy shit, gamma-ray exposure makes me bad-ass!”
Actually, gamma rays kill you. I’d prefer that authors stop insulting me with bogus reasons for powers, and instead tell me a story about an awesome character who has powers.
For these reasons, I wouldn’t put this issue in my list of all-time favorite comics, but it’s a cool time capsule from the late 1970s at DC, and it stars one of my ancestors.
Now let’s see how my great-great-grand-uncle Joe Shit the Ragman teams up with Batman to kick all kinds of ass.
Collector’s Guide: The Brave and the Bold #196; DC Comics, 1983.