A Funny Thing About Comics…

images-1Funny 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 ofimages-3 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?

images-2There 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 imagescomedic 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.

Comments

  1. newway12 says:

    I don’t know, the Giffen era Justice league was pretty goofy, and it lasted for a long while. I often find that funny superheroes do better outside the comicbook market. The Teen Titan’s cartoon was one of Cartoon Networks biggest hits for example.

  2. icn1983 icn1983 says:

    The most recent iteration of “Deadpool” by Brian Posehn, Gerry Duggan, and Tony Moore was hilarious. I also thought the first volume of “Marvel Zombies” was a hoot.

  3. flakbait flakbait says:

    There’s so much about comedy (and horror, too) that’s difficult or impossible for comics to pull off. Timing has to be left up to the reader. There’s no sound, or music, no real movement, no breath, limited facial expressions. It’s just a tough medium for comedy. You get the occasional gem like The Tick or Quantum & Woody, but it’s tough to elicit real, consistent laughs.

    Plenty of clever, but lolz are tough.

  4. batverine batverine says:

    I think one of the strengths of Jason Aaron’s current run on Wolverine and the X-Men is its ability to blend comedy and drama. Nick Bradshaw’s cartoony style fits with that (when he’s drawing the book), and when it’s not trying to be traditionally funny, it’s still just a fun book. The long-running Doop gags are the most obvious example of that, and he’s used in a subtle enough way that it doesn’t detract from the gravitas of the larger story.

    Saga, the current darling of so many comic readers, also comes to mind. Beginning with Alana’s first few lines (“Am I shitting? It feels like I’m shitting.”) and continuing with pretty much every Page 1 after that, the book makes me laugh out loud on a regular basis. Be it Sextillion’s bizarre bacchanalia or Lying Cat’s well-timed chiming, BKV and Fiona Staples (who I recently and briefly met at Emerald City, and she’s downright charming) have been hitting both gut-wrenching and belly-busting moments with uncommon consistency.

  5. TiQuinn TiQuinn says:

    Giffen’s Justice League was pretty much a comedy and was hilarious.
    Bendis’ All New X-Men, while not strictly a comedy, has several long sequences that are simply played for laughs and work well.
    Saga makes me laugh every issue.

    Yeah, I think it can be done.

  6. Grandturk says:

    “Return of the Dark Knight changed everything.”

    The which what now?

  7. stevetwo stevetwo says:

    I got the “funny books” remark once long ago when a friend and I were going through a flea market. “No funny books today, boys,” the grizzled man told us college guys.

    Only a few superhero comics come to mind that are expressly written to be light-hearted: Jason Aaron’s Wolverine books come to mind. Otherwise it depends on the book’s writer – and of course how the artist interprets that writer’s vision – whether you’re going to laugh, and even then, it all boils down to what’s happening at that MOMENT.

    Just to name a few — Bendis’ story in which Luke Cage is thrown out of the Avengers Tower during a big fight: He gets up, walks back into the building, steps into the elevator, and there’s a panel of him listening to elevator muzak before jumping back into the fray. More recently, Bendis’ line between two firemen in Ultimate Spider-man: “Told ya Spider-man was black.” Peter David’s Hulk in which the Hulk and Rhino inadvertently take over as a shopping mall Santa and helper. The funny moment is suddenly seeing a panel with those two actually dressed for the parts. Spider-man is laced with humorous situations all the time, it just depends on if the scene can be played that way. Every now and then lately, I’m laughing at Doc Ock’s frustrations while (temporarily) inside Peter Parker’s body. (“Now why did I turn around and help that foolish old man?!”).

    It’s all about the moments. That’s good enough for me.

  8. pppiquer pppiquer says:

    To me, Fred Van Lente is funniest comics writer, I literally laughed out loud during mostof his and Pak’s Incredible Hercules run, his Power Man & Iron Fist mini and nowadays with Archer & Armstrong

  9. pppiquer pppiquer says:

    To me, Fred Van Lente is the funniest comics writer, I literally laughed out loud during mostof his and Pak’s Incredible Hercules run, his Power Man & Iron Fist mini and nowadays with Archer & Armstrong

  10. zero2680 zero2680 says:

    peter david’s young justice was light hearted and fun while once and awhile having serious points, but i feel like once you do that publisher feel the need to make things angsty and drama filled,i mean even though johns’s teen titans was great it was missing the fun that group used to have

  11. ososnilknarf ososnilknarf says:

    I think that Hawkeye has had a great sense of humor.

  12. kev26 kev26 says:

    Peter David’s X-Factor always seems to find the right balance between drama and humour and I could confidently describe it as a ‘funny book’. Can’t think of many others though

  13. LeviHunt15 LeviHunt15 says:

    Wolverine and the X-Men, X-Factor, Hawkeye, Daredevil, All-New X-Men, Deadpool, Avengers Assemble, the list of today’s “funny” books goes on and on.

    While none of those books are all-out laugh fests on a per issue basis, these books all manage to juggle drama and humor in really impressive ways. I don’t think the answer is to have books that are strictly comedy or strictly serious. A book works bestnwhen there’s a balance,you just might not be looking in the right places.

    Marvel in particular seems to be in a golden age of telling compelling stories that also don’t take everything too seriously.

  14. jimmyboy says:

    would Jack Cole’s Plastic Man fit your criteria?

  15. You know wht book was freakin’ hilarious? Dan Slott’s She-Hulk!

  16. WillMc WillMc says:

    I laugh my ass off every month over Hawkeye too. That’s my go to for laughs. Also when Grant Morrison pulls something particularly referential or meta I find myself giggling in delight.

  17. MutantSentry MutantSentry says:

    The Agent X book, which replaced Deadpool for a time, had its moments. Fighting a germaphobe with an fetish for superhuman undies… cause crippling psychological issues are funny…

  18. bangboom says:

    I think Atomic Robo is very funny. The FCBD issue that introduced Dr. Dinosaur may be one if the funniest single issues of a comic I have ever read.

  19. jwaesch jwaesch says:

    Books that I’ve read recently that made me laugh out loud include Blast Furnace by Ryan Browne, James Stokoe’s Wonton Soup, Mysterious the Unfathomable by Jeff Parker and Tom Fowler, the current Popeye books from IDW(the series by Langridge, as well as the reprints). I also find Savage Dragon to be quite funny at times. There are lots of genuinely funny books out there if you know what you’re looking for.

  20. CharlieRock CharlieRock says:

    The last half of the New 52 Blue Beetle (from issue #0 and onward) had at least one good humorous moment per issue, usually more.