11 October 2013

bwah-ha-what?

There are few things in this life I enjoy more than side-splitting laughter.  Experiencing it or watching it.  I'm not talking about a light chuckle.  I'm talking about the kind of laughter that will make you roll around on the floor of a car's backseat, gasping for breath and punching the back of the front seat as hard as you can.  It is impossible to have a bad time while laughing that hard.  

Despite the plethora of really good comics that are on the stands now, or that have been on the stands at some point in the past, there are very few that invoke that type of reaction.  There are lots of comics that are effective at mixing bits of humor in with a more serious story - a joke here, a light-hearted aside there - but there are very few that master straight-up comedy.

The problem is that comics as a medium face some inherent challenges when it comes to comedy.  As anyone will tell you, comedy is all about timing.  That's a problem in a medium where the creators don't have control over the timing with which the product is experienced.  Even assuming the writer and artist are on the same page, they're at the mercy of a reader who may be reading the story exactly the way they intended, or may not be.  Movies and television don't have this problem, because they have actors and actresses who choose how and when to deliver lines (within the context of their direction, at least).  The effectiveness of their comedy lies not only in what they say or so, but in how and exactly when they say or do it.  Their cadence, their facial expressions, their mannerisms - it's all part of the package, and comics have trouble replicating that.  

The gold standard for funny mainstream comics is, and might always be, the Giffen/ DeMatties/ Maguire Justice League International.  I've referenced my love of that era many times.  A ton of it has to do with Maguire, who is probably better than anyone in the medium at making his characters look like people, with varied facial expressions and the like.  I have to confess, though, that I've gotten to the point where I don't have any interest in more stuff from that creative team.  Somewhere along the line, really just in the last couple of years, the joke they're telling has gotten stale.  That's the other curse of comedy, right?  The more times you hear a joke, the less funny it becomes.  Giffen & DeMatties are both, without question, skilled craftsmen, but they're using the same formula for comedy that they've used since 1987.  Copious amounts of dialog, complete with under-the-breath asides, over-the-top pomposity from some characters and buffoonery from others (or sometimes from the same folks).  It's a good formula.  It's just... been done.  By them.

I have a bad habit of comparing all allegedly funny comics to JLI; I have done it multiple times on this blog.  As of today I am declaring a moratorium on that.  You'll not see me compare anything else to JLI - ever.  If I ever break this pronouncement in the future, you have permission to internet-tase me.  JLI was great, but it has been over for a really long time, and my tendency to treat it the be-all and end-all of comic comedy doesn't speak particularly well of the twenty-plus years of later funny material. 

And I guess that's not entirely unfair, because there haven't been a ton of genuinely funny books during those two decades.  There aren't a ton of those types of books now either.  But there are a few.  There is comedy out there, and not just the hugely self-conscious wakka-wakka kind.*  I thought it might be fun to spotlight a few funny funnybooks that I'm enjoying at the moment.  By way of background, I have a warped sense of humor.  I like wrong humor particularly well.  I'll take It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia or Children's Hospital over Modern Family any day of the week.  So just bear that in mind.

Todd, the Ugliest Kid on Earth (Ken Kristiansen/ M.K. Perkar/ Image Comics) - This series is a farce about a collection of thoroughly selfish people doing awful, selfish things.  Definitely in the "wrong humor" camp.  The title character is an unloved little boy who wears a bag over his head, presumably because he is the ugliest child on the planet.  This started out as a miniseries but recently was upgraded to an ongoing.  The most recent issue (#6) was without question the nastiest, meanest issue yet, and also the most hilarious.  Also it provided me with a disturbing bit of serendipity by referencing "seven minutes in heaven" one day after I had learned, to my horror, exactly what that is.

Chew (John Layman/ Rob Guillory/ Image Comics) - I've praised this one here before.  I'll be honest - it has slipped a bit.  It goes back to the whole "tell the joke too many times and it loses its potency" thing.  Chew has been around a long time now, and it's not novel anymore.  The jokes don't change all that much.  What it does really well now, though, is trade off the accumulated goodwill its key characters have built.  You know how sitcoms take awhile before everyone develops their chemistry and it finds a voice?  Chew has been kind of like that, except without actors.  There's enough of it now that we can laugh at the familiar, even if we're not laughing quite as hard.

Superior Foes of Spider-Man (Nick Spencer/ Steve Lieber/ Marvel Comics) - Without a doubt my favorite new Marvel book of the year.  I had no idea that either Spencer or Lieber had comedy chops, but they both do.  I guess that Jimmy Olsen thing Spencer did at DC was cute - this is way better though.  It's a series about Spider-Man's second-string villians - they're trying to be the Sinister Six but there's only five of them and they're pretty much all doofuses.  It has nothing to do with the rest of the Spider-Man titles, in case that was a deterrent.  As of the fourth issue Spidey hasn't shown up at all.

The new Quantum & Woody (James Asmus/ Tom Fowler/ Valiant Comics) was a pleasant surprise.  I liked the old series (which I just read in the last year) but thought it fizzled near the end, and I just wasn't sure about the book being done by anyone other than Priest and Bright.  Valiant recently put the first two issues on sale for 99 cents each, though, so I picked them up and probably will be continuing with it.  The first issue is mostly setup but #2 brings the funny.  It's a little too self-conscious, I think, a problem the original series had at times as well.  Overall, though, it's a good read.

The first issue of Sex Criminals was outstanding but I'm not sure yet whether I'd really call it a comedy, plus it's only one issue.  Satellite Sam was the first thing of Fraction's I read lately that I didn't really like - if it wasn't for that recent miss I'd be even more bullish on Criminals.  I'm digging Batman '66 an awful lot but that one's not really a comedy, either.  It's light-hearted and at times funny, but not in a yuck-yuck way.  Four books doesn't seem like a lot, but then again we live in a world where even Arrested Development isn't all that funny anymore.  Transcendent comedy seems really hard to pull off - so much of it feels like schtick, and schtick isn't funny.

A lot of folks seem to lament the lack of "funny" books out there as a reflection of a narrow-minded idea that comics are locked into being serious and dark all the time.  I don't really think that's it.  I think there are few good comedies for the same reason there are few really good mysteries - they're really hard to get right. Man, but on those rare occasions when they do nail it?  Nothing better....


* The template for this kind of "trying too hard" thing for me has always been the movie poster for the 1990's movie Junior, wherein apparently Ah-nold gets pregnant or something.  The poster has Danny Devito stooped down near Arnold's growing belly and looking at the audience, with an "Eh?  Eh?  What do you think about this?  Isn't this some funny shit?  Eh?" look.  Having to work that hard to sell the joke = it's not worth selling.  See also: every Deadpool comic I've ever read.  No, I haven't read Joe Kelly's run.  Probably should get on that.

2 comments:

Deep Space Transmissions said...

Not much to offer on the ongoing front, but Michael Kupperman's Tales Designed To Thrizzle (now over and done with I think) is, I think, genuinely laugh out loud funny. Fantagraphics have put a couple of collections out recently and you should definitley give it a try if you haven't before.

The only other thing that sprung to mind was Ben Edlund's original run on The Tick, but I probably haven't read any of those in 15+ years, and some of it might be even older than JLI.

allstarmatches said...

I read the first collection of Thrizzle and generally liked it. It's a different sort of humor, though - more akin to a series of comic strips than a comic book. Lots of sight gags and whatnot. I did enjoy it but I tend to favor funny narratives over funny gags.