Humour in Comics
By Philip Schweier
Jul 14, 2003 - 9:02
Recently I read JLA: Welcome to the Working Week, written by comedian/actor Patton Oswalt. I've seen Oswalt's stand-up routine, and enjoyed it, so I was looking forward to something radically different from most super-hero stories. I thought the Justice League might lend themselves toward a lot more humor if they believed nobody was watching.
I wouldn't say the story wasn't without its humorous moments, and it certainly did present a side of the Justice League seldom (well, never) seen. It just wasn't the yuck-fest I was expecting it to be. Don't get me wrong. It's a great story and very original. It just wasn't what I expected. In thinking about it, I really don't have a problem with that. I hate it when a movie or book sinks into predictability, so for a book not to be what I expected is better than okay. It also adds depth to Oswalt's abilities as a writer. Not only can he write for comics (the stand-up kind), but he can write for comics (the super-hero kind). It was a different kind of JLA story, but for diehard super-hero fans, it was still JLA.
By his own admission, Patton Oswalt is not a lifelong comics' fan. "I read 'em a little in the late '70s, before I hit puberty," he has said. "I didn't get back into them until DARK KNIGHT RETURNS came out my senior year of high school. Then I was into them throughout college -- SANDMAN, HELLBLAZER, stuff like that." With that in mind, he has a firm grasp of the characters involved without getting bogged down in the minutiae of most anal-retentive continuity creeps.
Still, how much humor does a comic book really need? Should they be serious? Well, yeah, if it's Batman, but not if he's playing straight man to the Joker. Part of the long-lasting appeal of the Joker has been his complete lack of sanity juxtaposed against Batman dark, brooding persona. Batman is in a perpetual bad mood, and when you want to be in a bad mood and enjoy it, the last thing you want is some clown trying to cheer you up. The Joker does that.
Humor is an ingredient to storytelling, just as drama, tragedy, danger, and mystery can be. Like any ingredient, it must be used judiciously and in the proper amount. American Flagg, published by First Comics in the 1980s, was described as "violence tempered with humor tempered with sex." With characters such as a talking cat who gets elected mayor of Chicago, and an illegal basketball player who is selected to be the pope of a church based on worshipping Elvis, sure, humor becomes a key element.
For many years, Marvel and DC had a broader range of subjects; romance, horror, and comedy. Comedians like Bob Hope and Jerry Lewis lent their names to these comics, which included such titles as Angel & the Ape and The Inferior Five. Probably the last of these efforts was the Welcome Back, Kotter series, running for 12 issues, in the mid-70s.
There was a time when many super-heroes, in lieu of a kid sidekick, had some sort of comedy relief. In the Golden Age, Green Lantern had Doiby Dickles, Plastic Man had Woozy Winks, and Blackhawk had Chop-chop. In the Blackhawk series, Chop-chop had been portrayed as chubby, buck-toothed Asian, but Howard Chaykin's mini-series in 1987 offered a less offensive version of the character.
Some characters, such as Plas, still have a healthy amount of humor to them. Why? Because there are people in this world who see a lot more humor in life, and that comes out in their personality. Sometimes, such people are best taken in small doses. Not that they're not funny, but that constant wisecracking can become tiresome. Jim Carrey is a wonderful actor, but when he's in full funny mode, a little goes a long way.
There are also those who use humor as a defense. The worse the situation, the funnier they try to be. This often leads to gallows humor, common among funeral workers and the like. But for these kinds of people, it's how they deal with the emotional strain. With this in mind, many super-heroes, such as Robin (the Dick Grayson era) and Spider-Man are of the constantly wisecracking variety. Or maybe they're just trying to confuse the bad guy du jour.
Many may feel that saving the world on a daily basis is serious business, with no room for levity. Soldiers and emergency personnel going into action are often pretty stone faced about the task before them, and so should be your average costumed adventurer. If you want humorless reaction to real world threats, then put that comic book down and go read All Quiet on the Western Front or The Diary of Anne Frank. The world of costumed heroes, masked avengers, and caped crusaders just can't follow the restrictions of the world in which we, the readers, live.
Not every villain is a world-crusher like Galactus or Darkseid. Let's face it. Some are little more than pests looking for their moment in the spotlight. Ambush Bug vs. Superman is hardly a harrowing tale of danger, thrills, and excitement. Just the names alone, such as The Trickster and The Prankster, suggest a certain amount of comedic mayhem.
Lighter moments in a comic book serve to balance out the heavier chaos. But bear in mind, comedy is subjective. Sure, heroes like Batman or Martian Manhunter are "straight men." But wit sometimes manifests itself when someone very serious makes an off-the-cuff, dry remark. It's like Star Trek's Data trying to be funny (or sometimes, not trying).
Fun comes in different forms. For some, it's the shear spectacle of a Superman adventure, for others it's the action and intrigue of Weapon X. For some, it's the silliness of bad humor in an inappropriate time and place. Webster's defines "comic" as "adj. 1. of, like, or having to do with comedy. 2. amusing or intended to be amusing; humours; funny - n. a comedian. 2. the humorous element in art or life. 3. a) comic strip or comic book. b) a section of comic strips, as in a newspaper."
Some fans may argue that an actor/comedian has no business writing for comics. But acting is a creative experience, and many creative types can diversify their talents. Columnist Dave Barry plays music, singer Tony Bennett paints. To discard such efforts is to pigeonhole a person unfairly as a one-trick pony.
And you can't deny that the forthcoming Superman by Monte Python alumnus John Cleese promises to be "something completely different." Tentatively titled "True Brit," the book is expected to be out later this year. "How do we get a guy like John Cleese to do a comic book? Because comics are cool, and these guys love our characters," says DC Comics editor Mike Carlin.
Comic fans can be a fickle bunch. We want comics to be accepted by the mainstream, but when someone outside the industry takes an interest, it seems to be regarded as an intrusion. Granted, there is some justification for that; Hollywood and the media have done their share of mangling comic book concepts. But above all, comics are an entertainment medium. If the fun isn't there, the readers won't be either. I know of few people who would read a history of the Russian navy for fun, but many people will read the latest Harry Potter or Stephen King novel for the sheer enjoyment of it.
So yeah, humor has a place in comics. That is hardly a threat to the integrity of the medium. There are many titles out there, with more publishers than ever before. If you prefer your comics with a more serious tone, you're very likely to find what you're looking for. If you prefer something lighter, there's more than a few titles out there for you. If the comics' industry is to survive, it must be all things to all people, reaching the broadest audience possible. They're trying to do just that.
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