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Author Topic: Why I hate comedy in superhero comics  (Read 6615 times)
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JulianPerez
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« on: August 15, 2006, 06:21:50 AM »

The single worst trend of the 1980s to today, many, many times WORSE than the whole shadowy vigilante aesthetic, is the unwanted and totally inappropriate insertion of comedic elements. It's apalling to find that there is a whole generation of comics fans emerging that view the Keith Giffen JUSTICE LEAGUE INTERNATIONAL as a sacrosanct high point of comics history.

Yeah, there's a special circle of hell reserved for people that imitate Frank Miller in the eighties, only without Frank's panache (Mike Grell, are you listening?), but as terrible as some of the post-Crisis takeovers were, the worst, the absolute worst, was the Giffen/de Matteis League. The worst part of it was, it wasn't even that funny, either. It was like watching the most unfunny stand-up comic in the world choking big time on Open-Mic Night; it was physically painful.

This "comedy problem" takes two forms:

The first problem is the way that characters are portrayed out of character to get a laugh, compromising their dignity and mischaracterizing them, often irreperably. The Giffen League was the worst violator in this regard. The thing is, humor has to extend logically from the character: it was a hilarious moment in Moore's WATCHMEN when, a guy that became a criminal to be beaten up by heroes's final fate was "Well, he tried it on Rorschach and got pushed down an elevator shaft." The reason that moment was funny was because Rorschach would TOTALLY do something like that.

On the other hand, there was Captain Marvel, who Giffen portrayed as an inexperienced goon with a pollyanna personality, who played second banana to more experienced characters, particularly Batman, a caricature and a self-parody that urged the others to sing "Row Row Row Your Boat" on the way. No wonder Guy Gardner didn't like him, I didn't like him either! Marvel was written out of character to get a laugh.

And then there was Blue Beetle. Coming on the heels of the extraordinary Len Wein BLUE BEETLE series naught a year before, where Beetle is at his peak as a swashbuckling crimefighter, to have Beetle be portrayed as a ridiculous, paunchy loser with a hundred get-rich-quick schemes...it's a long slippery road. Blue Beetle was not only written wildly out of character, but his dignity as a hero was compromised.

This brings me to the other problem with comedy is the creation of a specific character niche, the "joke loser" hero.

Here's the thing:

I have no idea why Johnny Thunder was in the Justice Society. He was, well...he was really LAME. He wasn't even a gutsy "normal guy" like Comissioner Gordon or Ben Urich; he had no interesting powers, origin, or costume, and his presence in the Justice Society was meant to be a "joke." He was a lame-o that killed space on the roster, and in many ways, the Justice Society adventures would have been better off without him. Same thing for annoying characters like Uncle Marvel or Etta Candy.

Little did anyone know that Johnny Thunder, a guy not exactly worth duplicating in the first place, became the model for a whole category of characters come the 1980s: the "joke loser."

There have been Rocky-type underdogs ever since the Substitute Heroes and their questionable-at-best powers, and the story of a superguy that never does anything right was made poignant and powerful under writers like Busiek and Englehart.

But this is a different phenomenon, a character made goofy and foolish deliberately for "comedy," occasionally in contrast to the heroic, sober, and competent way he or she was previously portrayed as being.

G'Nort is the ultimate example, though there are others (including the thankfully dead Microbe from NEW WARRIORS), and the worst are previously competent characters that because of their low recognizeablity, are deliberately metamorphosed into being losers from an objective point of view as well as sales, particularly if the writer in question does not like the character. The worst example of this would be Warren Ellis and his portrayal of Monica Rambeau as a washed-up has-been in NEXTWAVE, hung-up on her past glories, traits totally inconsistent with Monica's previously assertive, confident personality.

It's become a tiresome character type, and the refuge of lazy writing. Every writer has an obligation to write a character as if they were someone's favorite, and every writer has an obligation to write a character consistently with how they were previously characterized as being.

There is a way to use comedy that totally undermines heroism and grandeur, but also undermines and usurps characterization and the superhero genre itself: the subplot in the League about Power Girl discovering she is crabby all the time because (and I'm not making this up) SHE DRINKS DIET SODA A LOT.

Ultimately, comedy, when relied exclusively on, is far, far worse than the whole "dark" trend that hit comics around the same time (though the Giffen League and Ostrander's HAWKWORLD, the greatest case of missing the point in history, are neck in neck). Because at least in order to be dark you have to play it straight. Giffen's League, and his kraken-like intellectual strangehold that lasted on the Justice League that went on for a decade, made me nostalgic for Aquaman, Vibe, and Gypsy.
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Permanus
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« Reply #1 on: August 15, 2006, 09:33:38 AM »

I certainly don't mind comedy in superhero comics as such, and in fact there is something inherently comical about the superhero genre, but you're quite right about how badly it's been handled. The Giffen Justice League business was simply embarrassing, coming across as a very poorly written sitcom. It relied heavily on people saying something stupid (it works for Homer Simpson, but only because his lines are written by clever people) or using far-fetched similes in conversation. Tellingly, the only characters in the series that didn't come across as airheads were Batman and the Martian Manhunter, who were therefore written as humourless spoilsports. I can't explain this series' popularity, but then I was increasingly apalled by it and still bought it quite regularly. Giffen recently did the same thing to the Defenders, to even sillier effect.

Honestly, Giffen doing comedy is like watching an eight-year-old kid trying to act like Jerry Seinfeld; you just want to pick him up and tell him: "Nobody's laughing. Go away and play". While I'm ragging on Keith Giffen, I should mention that I still haven't forgiven him for plagiarising the Argentinian cartoonists Munoz and Sampayo back in the 80s. I know it's all water under the bridge and all that, but it gives me a further reason to dislike him, so I like to remind people about it every now and then. "Unconsciously influenced," my eye, Giffen.

I think the weak point about this type of title is that the writers' only idea about comedy is what they have seen on TV, usually humdrum sitcoms. Unfortunately, comics don't work the same way: you can't rely on the Blue Beetle's timing to deliver a punchline, because there is no timing in comics. It's not working to the strengths of the medium, which is first and foremost a pictorial medium (rather than a visual medium, I mean - it relies on static images), and is ideally suited to sight gags and subtle touches. Think of Punch or New Yorker cartoons from the 30s and 40s,  which was their heyday in my opinion, and the way the caption seamlessly meshed with the image, that's what comics should be doing.
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JulianPerez
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« Reply #2 on: August 15, 2006, 11:30:56 AM »

Quote from: "Permanus"
I certainly don't mind comedy in superhero comics as such, and in fact there is something inherently comical about the superhero genre,


Me neither. If you can, check out the Steve Gerber run on METAL MEN in the 1970s - funny, funny stuff: Platinum awakening with a sexpot personality, Doctor Magnus plotting the Metal Men's deaths when insane...oh, it's a lot funnier than I'm making it sound!

Quote from: "Permanus"
but you're quite right about how badly it's been handled.


I have no idea why people call the 1980s and the Modern Age in general the "Grim and Gritty" age (meaning blame is unjustly placed on very, very worthy works and character types) when all the too-precious-for words "funny" stylings of Giffen and his imitators get a free pass when they aren't praised (gag) for "bucking the dark trend."

(And though that period of Avengers history wasn't that great...the Avengers matching jackets were a pretty cool fashoin statement. I want one!)

I said the Giffen League was by far, the worst of the Post-Crisis reimaginings. That's a shocking stament, but I'll defend it to the end. Byrne's Superman reboot eliminated a lot that worked about Superman, true, but at least Johnny Redbeard's version of the character kept his dignity. I can't say the same about poor Beetle and Captain Marvel. Lois under Byrne had an annoying personality, but at least she had a PERSONALITY - unlike Black Canary under Giffen. I can't think of one thing she really did in that entire run.

(This is a gigantic problem. Nobody ever really did anything cool except Giffen's favorites, Batman and John Jones. In the first seven issues, Mister Miracle, an escape artist, doesn't...ESCAPE from anything! He doesn't pick a lock, he doesn't fool a trap. Not till the JLI founding issue do we even have his technical skills mentioned. And then we have the very interesting and underused Kimiyo Hoshi Dr. Light, a character that also never does anything really that neat.)

The only place where Giffen's League might have competition is with Ostrander's HAWKWORLD, which has the singular distinction of being an update that screwed any chance of DC's history ever making sense, and also serves as the most cynical and mean-spirited of all the reboots: assuming everything we know about the characters is a lie. The Hawks can't be happily married, it's a cover story; they came to earth as spies, not as policemen...to say nothing of royally missing the point: Silver Age Hawkman's absurdity was the most interesting thing about him.

Quote from: "Permanus"
The Giffen Justice League business was simply embarrassing, coming across as a very poorly written sitcom. It relied heavily on people saying something stupid (it works for Homer Simpson, but only because his lines are written by clever people) or using far-fetched similes in conversation. Tellingly, the only characters in the series that didn't come across as airheads were Batman and the Martian Manhunter, who were therefore written as humourless spoilsports.


Strangely, I always thought the best character in the Giffen League was Guy Gardner. At first he might seem the epitome of the pain-in-the-behind spirit of Giffen's League, but actually, he worked: he was the only one where the humor fit the character. Beetle was made a moron to get jokes, Black Canary didn't really do anything, but Guy was...well, Guy was Guy. Everybody else was annoying, but it's IN character for Guy to be annoying. So actually, he's the only one being written correctly!

On Bizarro World, losing = winning!

Quote from: "Permanus"
I can't explain this series' popularity, but then I was increasingly apalled by it and still bought it quite regularly. Giffen recently did the same thing to the Defenders, to even sillier effect.


GET YOUR HANDS THE HELL OFF DEFENDERS, GIFFEN!

Steve Gerber must be doing 400,000 RPMs in his grave - and yeah, I know he's not dead yet! That's how bad it is.

I was able to pick up the first issue. It had the usual Giffen stuff. Doctor Strange and Bruce Banner were going back and forth.

    BRUCE BANNER: Who is it this time? Necrodamus?
    DOCTOR STRANGE: No.
    BRUCE BANNER: The Presence?
    DOCTOR STRANGE: No.
    BRUCE BANNER: How about Dormammu?
    DOCTOR STRANGE: No! Wait...yes. [/list]

    AHAHAHAHAHA! Oh, Giffen, you animal you! I can just hear the BOI-OI-OING! sound effect at the tail there, and the canned studio laugh track.

    Also: way to be the sixth or seventh person to do a Defenders revamp starring Hulk, Silver Surfer, Doctor Strange, and Namor. True, Englehart did some OKAY stories with this roster (the book didn't get cooking until the Valkyrie was introduced and her falling in love with a statue subplot), but DEFENDERS, especially under Gerber, was always was driven by the subplots of the less famous but more interesting characters: the Valkyrie, Nighthawk, and later, Son of Satan. Filling the Defenders list with big names is a showy, but emotionally hollow thing to do.

    To be fair, the mistake Giffen makes is a common one: the Defenders are not about the fact they have a reverse pride in their non-team status; this was the gimmick that sold the book, but not why people read it and why it lasted as long as it did. The Defenders are each at some level, dysfunctional and very lonely, alienated from others, a common Gerber theme.
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    « Reply #3 on: August 16, 2006, 12:57:50 AM »

    Don't have much to add here, except to say I agree with all you've said.  Giffen's "Justice League" was execrable, with the sole mitigating factor at the time being Kevin McGuire's art (which I've since grown tired of, as well).

    The funny thing is, some of the same fanboys who hold this series up as great stuff are the very same ones who blast the Adam West Batman show as a "travesty" and a crime against the character.  Sorry, the only thing that show did that Giffen didn't was entertain.  

    The trouble is modern writers aren't nearly as funny as they seem to think they are (Giffen isn't alone...Chuck Austen seems to think he's funny, too, and Joe Kelly and so on).  Comedy is one of the most difficult things there is to do well, and considering how far from competent most writers are today, the last thing they should ever do is attempt comedy.

    Then again, in an age where mega-hit "comedy" films include the likes of "American Pie," "Scary Movie" and the immortal works of the Wayans brothers, you can't blame the Giffens of the world for thinking, "Hey, I can do that!"
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    ShinDangaioh
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    « Reply #4 on: August 16, 2006, 08:41:46 AM »

    There are some characters that you can use comedy with.

    Ambush Bug for example.  Superman or Supergirl plays straight person to the Ambush Bug's loonieness.

    Superman: He might not be the most dangerous villian, but he can be the most annoying.

    I've always enjoyed the Kobra, Superman, Ambush Bug comic.  The Bug showed up with a piece of Red K and Superman and Bug's mind switched places.
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    Gangbuster
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    « Reply #5 on: August 16, 2006, 07:04:54 PM »

    I agree with some of your examples, but not Johnny Thunder.  Smiley

    He was in the Justice Society because he bumbled his way into the first meeting. Those comics used to contain a full page with a (text) Johnny Thunder story, but at that time All-Star Comics was just a quarterly comic for everyone who wasn't Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman or Robin. Still, I agree that he probably wasn't worth duplicating.

    I like a little humor in my Superhero comics. All-Star Superman has some humor in it. Bizarro Comics is one of the best things I've read in the last several years. I particularly like for villians to be funny, though...Mxyzptlk or the Joker, for example.

    In the case of the Giffen League, the humor wasn't the problem...it was the fact that the characters were supposed to be funny, but really were not. Still, I'd prefer the Giffen League be only kind-of funny, as opposed to the fate that Infinite Crisis dealt them: burnt wife, brains splattered, etc....that wasn't very funny at all.
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    « Reply #6 on: August 16, 2006, 08:22:08 PM »

    Gangbuster Thorul writes:

    Quote
    He was in the Justice Society because he bumbled his way into the first meeting. Those comics used to contain a full page with a (text) Johnny Thunder story, but at that time All-Star Comics was just a quarterly comic for everyone who wasn't Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman or Robin. Still, I agree that he probably wasn't worth duplicating.


    I was one of the crowd who rejoiced when Johnny lost his spot to Black Canary and those pages were no longer wasted.

    And don't forget, Johnny was the granddaddy of all useless team mascots, paving the way for Snapper Carr, Wendy, Marvin and Wonderdog and of course, Xan, Jayna and Gleek!  :roll:

    Quote
    I like a little humor in my Superhero comics. All-Star Superman has some humor in it. Bizarro Comics is one of the best things I've read in the last several years. I particularly like for villians to be funny, though...Mxyzptlk or the Joker, for example.


    Humor is a great thing when it's done right and, as Julian says, you don't have to destroy the integrity of the characters to make it happen.  But turning the League into the Not Ready for Prime Time Players was as heinous an act, in the end, as making Superman a killer.  If you can't write the characters you've been assigned to, then go to another book or make up your own characters.

    And I agree about Bizarro Comics, at least the first one (haven't got round to the second yet)...it's a delightful read.  Also the recent "Solo" comic spotlighting Mike Allred had a lot of fun superhero humor, done with charm and affection for the characters.

    Quote
    In the case of the Giffen League, the humor wasn't the problem...it was the fact that the characters were supposed to be funny, but really were not. Still, I'd prefer the Giffen League be only kind-of funny, as opposed to the fate that Infinite Crisis dealt them: burnt wife, brains splattered, etc....that wasn't very funny at all.


    But there's a connection, you know!  Giffen started the whole notion of "third-string losers" in the JLA and Blue Beetle was the biggest dope of the lot.  He never bounced back from that bad PR, which led inevitably to his status as a sacrificial lamb in IC.

    Proof that humor can do real harm to a character.

    Oh, and by the way, I actually enjoyed the Ambush Bug/Superman/Substitute Legion team-up in DCCP all those years ago.  But then Ambush Bug was supposed to be annoying, sort of like watching a Woody Woodpecker cartoon...half the time you chuckle and the rest of the time you just want to kill the character and the artist for being so gratingly juvenile.  That type of humor didn't translate so well to other characters, though, much less a whole team full of them.
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    « Reply #7 on: August 17, 2006, 12:30:21 AM »

    I take it this isn't the thread to cry out SPOOOOON!?  Or praise the virtues of folks like Dan Slott?
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