Funny books. That’s what my parents used to call comics. I’d be sitting in my room head deep into some Bronze Age goodness and inevitably one of my parents would pop their head in and say something like, “How you doing with those funny books?” or “I remember when funny books were a dime.” Now I’m admittedly making my parents sound like prototypical geezers (which they may have been), but allow me a bit of artistic license here. It was a long time ago and the geezer of it all is about all I can remember. The point is they called my cherished comics “funny” books for whatever reason and that just didn’t feel right.
Truth is, I always found my parents’ label odd because, generally speaking, what I was reading wasn’t particularly funny, witty, laugh-inducing or otherwise. In fact, to my tender young sensibilities, it was quiet the opposite. Comics were drama. Important drama. There was nothing funny about The Amazing Spider-Man facing off with both the Lizard and Stregron. Dual reptilian baddies out to defeat ol’ webhead himself? Where’s the humor in that? And there was nothing funny about the Fantastic Four and their repeated battles with Doctor Doom. We’re talking Doom here, folks. Dude was (and is still) after world domination. Again, these comics were serious business. Lives were at stake and the fate of the world was hanging in the balance. I wasn’t laughing. “Keep your dated terminology to yourselves!“ is what I would have said if my younger self were a bit more clever and better with words. Instead, I just ignored the geezers, kept my head down and continued reading my decidedly serious comics.
But the echo of the term “funny books” still rings in my mind today and I find myself thinking about the notion of comics and their ability to make us laugh. Truth is, it’s very rare to find a comic that can bring me to laughter these days. I’m a tough crowd, admittedly, but generally speaking, today’s books seem to be geared for a much darker, more serious-minded experience. I’m okay with that. I like that most of the time. The Dark Knight Returns changed everything. I get it. With obvious exceptions, comics are drama if not melodrama most of the time. They are geek-friendly soap operas without a whole lot of room for “bits” and belly laughs. And while Spider-Man still cracks wise in the heat of battle and writers still manage to sneak in the occasional inside joke into the action, the core experience of reading the typical Marvel or DC comic these days is one that is earnest, fairly serious and supremely lacking in the levity seen in what some might describe as “simpler times.” So what happened to the funny?
There was a time when comic publishers (Marvels most notably) were willing to be a bit more playful. The issue of Avengers featuring Dave Letterman comes to mind. Or the Marvel Team-Up that brings together Spider-Man and Saturday Night Live’s Not Ready for Prime Time Players. What If…? #11, the one with the silly plot involving the familiar faces of Marvel’s legendary bullpen is another example. These books were of a time when the folks making the decisions were willing to try something different, to lighten things up a bit and to be silly. Not a lot of pure silliness going on these days. They also worked because they brought real life people into a fictional comic book world. I suppose there are certainly humorous books out there. The Goon comes to mind as a book that manages to deliver both humor and pathos in a balanced manner. Posehn and Duggan are doing something right, too, as Deadpool for once is actually bringing a smile to my face. One could argue that events like Marvel Apes and Marvel Zombies were essentially attempts to take familiar Marvel faces and offer them up in a slightly less serious manner. Can’t say that they made me laugh a whole lot, but I applaud that willingness to take serious characters and do something at least conceptually playful with them.
The track record for genuinely funny comics in past decades isn’t all that strong, truth be told. The original Howard the Duck was essentially a comedic spin on the superhero genre, but even that book was more about oddness and absurdity than conventional comedy. I managed to read through some issues of Marvel’s Not Brand Echh series from 1967-69 recently. For those who don’t know, this was essentially Marvel’s answer to Mad Magazine, complete with an Alfred E. Newman knockoff by the name of Forbush Man. And for the most part, the humor is sophomoric and silly, perhaps by design. But the real problem with Not Brand Echh (and the series only ran 13 issues) is the fact that the whole premise is based on making fun of the characters you know and love. The Silver Surfer becomes the “Silver Burper,” for example. And the book’s goofy version of the Fantastic Four are dubbed “The Fantastical Four.” Comedy gold this is not.
But there’s something other than just the groan-inducing comedic style. Sure the books were rife with bad puns, but it was a golden time for bad puns. People were making bad puns left and right. It was part of the zeitgeist. No, I think the real reason something like “Echh” didn’t work was that people don’t really like to poke fun at their heroes. After all, they’re…well…heroes. They’re supposed to be beyond the reach of being roasted. We like to see the humanity in our heroes, the faults the foibles, but we ultimately want to identify with them, not make fun of them. Aquaman may be the one exception to the rule. Let’s face it, it’s sort of enjoyable to poke fun at a guy whose core power is the ability to chat with clams.
Can superhero comics be genuinely funny? I have my doubts. I’ll be the first to admit that comics elicit a lot of emotions in me when I read them, but genuine laughter is probably the least common of those emotions. Simply put, comics don’t really seem to do funny all that well. What comics have you read that made you laugh? What’s the funniest comic you ever read? Let us discuss. Let us laugh. Let us analyze these so-called “funny” books.
Trapped in L.A., Gabe Roth is a TV writer and reluctant suburbanite who firmly believes that laughter is the second best medicine. He’s @gaberoth on Twitter.