Hi, and welcome to Comics You Should Own, a semi-regular series about comics I think you should own. I began writing these a little over fifteen years ago, and I’m still doing it, because I dig writing long-form essays about comics. I republished my early posts, which I originally wrote on my personal blog, at Comics Should Be Good about ten years ago, but since their redesign, most of the images have been lost, so I figured it was about time I published these a third time, here on our new blog. I plan on keeping them exactly the same, which is why my references might be a bit out of date and, early on, I don’t write about art as much as I do now. But I hope you enjoy these, and if you’ve never read them before, I hope they give you something to read that you might have missed. I’m planning on doing these once a week until I have all the old ones here at the blog. Today it’s time to check out one of the funniest comics you might ever read! This post was originally published on 11 May 2008. As always, you can click on the images to see them better. Enjoy!
The Heckler by Keith Giffen (plotter/penciller), Tom and Mary Bierbaum (scripters), Malcolm Jones III (inker, issues #1-3), Bob Lewis (inker, issues #4-5), Steve Mitchell (inker, issue #6), Tom McCraw (colorist), and Bob Pinaha (letterer).
Published by DC, 6 issues (#1-6), cover dated September 1992 – February 1993.
What is there to write about The Heckler? It’s probably one of the five funniest comics ever published by DC or Marvel. However, it was published at the wrong time in comic book history – if DC had planned it, they couldn’t have published it at a worse time! If it had come out a decade earlier, it might have found a home in the pre-Dark Knight world of DC. If it had come out five years later, like Chase, Aztek, Young Heroes in Love, Xero, Major Bummer … okay, bad examples. But if it had come out a decade later, it might have become an Internet darling like Nextwave … okay, another bad example. But still – 1992, at the absolute height of the Image explosion, was the absolute worst time for this book to come out. Which is a damned shame, because it’s so freakin’ brilliant.
When we look at The Heckler from a purely “what happens” point of view, it’s not terribly brilliant. We never learn what powers the Heckler has. We never learn why Stu Mosely decided to become the Heckler. He’s amazingly tough, fights big bad guys, but never seems to break a sweat. Each issue is pretty much a one-and-done, except for issues #5-6, which is a two-part epic. Boss Glitter, the king of the Delta City underworld, is a presence throughout, but he never confronts the Heckler directly. For the most part, this series is just a place for Giffen and the Bierbaums to cut loose with jokes and more sight gags than should be allowed in a comic book. Giffen’s famous (infamous?) nine-panel grid means that he can jam a lot into this, and the Bierbaums’ snappy patter keeps everything jumping. If you don’t expect much in the way of “plot,” then you’ll just go along with the ride and love every panel – all 1096 of them (Giffen breaks the grid once, in issue #1, and there are 8 full-page splashes)!
There are a few interesting ideas running throughout the series. The madness of Delta City, with its proliferation of neon (I’ll get to that), its pathetic sports team (the Blue Hens always lose, and when they do win, it’s a literal sign of the Apocalypse), its odd anti-Heckler cartoon programming (on a network run by P. C. Rabid, who is not what he seems!), its strange streets and neighborhoods (Nasal Avenue, Staccato Street, Anthrax Boulevard, Bobtown, Droolers’ Park, Little Phnom Penh), and its wonderful businesses (Just Dickies, which sells … well, just dickies, Styrofoam Emporium, Pets: New and Used, Bassoon Hut – Delta City seems to have an odd connection to bassoons, as they also have a Miss Bassoon Festival, the Ig-Pay Atin-Lay Otel-Hay, Sushi & Bait Shop, Sproing & Son: Your Trampoline Source since 1989, Still Alive Retirement Village, Okra Palace, The Wonderful World of Runny Cheeses), is a strange reflection of our own world. In the only really poignant part of the book, Officer McDougal stands by a vacant lot, which is the future site of a McDonald’s, and weeps. He only shows up a few times in the series, but he’s always crying over this invasion of mass culture into the town. Delta City is a weird vision of a world where everything is hyper-real and everything matters, even the six exploding pigeons in Droolers’ Park. It’s a gaudy and untamed world, but one in which the people feel safe because of the Heckler’s presence. Delta City is beset by odd villains, true, but the Heckler is always there, and he’s their hero. As C’est Hay, the bad guy in issue #5, learns when he tries to subject a theater audience to his own brand of acting: he hears our hero interrupt his scene and he says “Good gosh! A hekkler!” and the entire audience responds: “Not a heckler! THE Heckler!” Despite its out-of-control weirdness, this is a title that reflects what we would hope we’d feel if a superhero was in our midst: we’d feel safe, because the hero would always save us.
This is the major theme of the series: the proliferation of the mass consumer culture and how it destroys individuality. Without going into it too much, because it’s such a light-hearted comic that shouldn’t be taken too seriously, Delta City, despite its obvious rampant capitalism, is a city run by small, quirky businesses. The invasion of McDonald’s that causes men to weep is one aspect of the deadening of the weirdness of it, as are the two truly evil villains in the comic. Boss Glitter, despite his iron grip on the city’s underworld, is not an evil villain. Mr. Creedy expresses this on the first page of the first issue, when he says that Glitter was a man who wouldn’t stand for crap, like the showing of too many reruns on television. Glitter wants to kill the Heckler, sure, but he’s amazingly ineffectual. His minions, such as El Gusano in issue #1 and Bushwack’r in issue #4, are very funny but not much of a threat. The Cosmic Clown from issue #3 battles the Heckler, but he’s largely misunderstood. C’est Hay just wants to entertain, while the Four Mopeds of the Apocalypse and Flying Buttress, who almost destroy the city in the two-parter that closes the series, are certainly dangerous, but when the newscasters spend the entire issue #6 trying to figure out which British character actor Flying Buttress looks like (it’s not John Gielgud, it’s not Alec Guinness – who could it be?), it’s not really that threatening. No, the two real villains in The Heckler are the aforementioned P. C. Rabid and the villain in issue #2, John Doe, otherwise known as the Generic Man (who used to be an accountant, naturally). Issue #2 is absolutely brilliant, mostly because of its deeper meaning with regard to the title’s overall theme. Anything the Generic Man touches becomes, well, generic. You can see this presaged on the cover, which includes a dynamic “Cover Blurb!” John Doe is just a crude drawing, with his feelings literally written on his face: when he is happy, the word “smile” is written on his face. His first line of dialogue is: “I am expressing pleasure.” He’s a hilarious yet sinister villain, because of his plan to spread his generic nature through the city’s water supply. He is the antithesis of the Heckler, and the antithesis of Delta City itself. And, unlike the other villains of the comic, he is not actually defeated. How can you defeat a concept, after all? The real evil of the Generic Man is the insidious way he spreads the blandness of the majority. Delta City embodies and celebrates the oddness of life, and the Generic Man is the worst threat to that. P. C. Rabid, the other truly evil villain, shows up first in issue #4. He’s the head of WPMS, a local television network, and he’s politically correct to a fault. He hates the Heckler and broadcasts a cartoon featuring an evil Heckler, and as we find out, is a very disturbed individual. Obviously, he’s a caricature, and we laugh when he seduces (off-panel) his assistant, because their banter is so “correct”:
And might I say, Mrs. Forthwright, you’re looking particularly attractive this evening … dressed for comfort and praticality, eschewing fashions that promote the treatment of women as objects.
Why, Mr. Rabid!
Oh, I hope you don’t take that as an unwelcome sexual advance …
No, no, Mr. Rabid, not at all …
Good … good … and I recognize that if you were to say “no” to my advances, you would mean “no” and not “maybe …”
Oh, Mr. Rabid …
But as the foreplay continues, we see that P. C. is wearing a mask, and we never see his real face. Then, when we learn Mrs. Forthwright’s fate, it’s even more creepy. P. C. only appears once more, in issue #6, but we understand that he’s like John Doe, in that he is committed to sucking the weirdness out of Delta City, symbolized by the wacky Heckler. Obviously, the death of the series meant that this theme was not fully explored, but you can tell that Giffen was setting this idea up.
Mainly, though, the joy of this series is in the manic art and the jokes. Some are fairly obvious, even though they’re still funny. When the Heckler shows up on Deja Vu Avenue in issue #4, Giffen simply uses the same panel two times in a row (three times, which is about the limit that the joke works). The abundance of neon signs in Delta City allows the creators to not only show us all the businesses, but work in clever sight gags as well. My favorite is the “Foreground Sign Outlet” in issue #4, which is, quite naturally, in the foreground. In issue #6, when Rabbi Zone shows up to help battle Flying Buttress, he takes along his young ward, Dreidel, who teleports by spinning madly with a “Hava-hava-hava” sound effect. In fact, sound effects are used in this book probably as well as in any comic this side of a Walt Simonson/John Workman title. When one of C’est Hay’s thugs fires his machine gun at the Heckler in issue #5, we get “Rat tat ouille ouille.” The sound effects are most interesting when they’re used to show what’s happening off-panel, which Giffen does quite often. The imaginative use of effects help us visualize what’s going on far better than an actual drawing would. Much of the fun with this book is simply trying to keep up with everything that’s going on, because there’s always something wild happening in Delta City.
I could go on about the series (like the fact that a noted DC letter writer is a supporting character in the book!), but it would basically turn into me giving away all the jokes, and it’s far more fun to discover them yourself (and no, I have’t even scratched the surface of the humor of the comic in this post). Perhaps not surprisingly, this series has not been collected in a trade paperback, even though, at six issues, it’s the perfect length! Despite Giffen’s relative high profile recently, he’s been around so long and worked on so many books that it’s unlikely people are going to demand a trade of this. It’s not too difficult to find, however, and it’s pretty cheap. I got all six issues in one package for $3.25, and they’re in good shape. This book even conforms to Brian’s very first theory of comics – he even cites The Heckler as an example! This site gives quite a bit of good information about the nuts and bolts of the series, including all the mentioned episodes of the Star Trek analog show, Quest Vision (my favorite, of course, is “Love Means Never Having To Say Centauri”). The Heckler is the kind of comic that you can pick up and re-read again and again and always laugh at something. It’s too bad it only lasted six issues, but who knows how long Giffen and the Bierbaums could have kept up the manic pace? At least we have these issues to love!
Always remember that you can peruse the archives. Who knows what you might find!
[I didn’t write too much about this, because as I noted, a book full of jokes doesn’t become better if you explain the jokes in it, so it’s just better to experience the craziness for yourself. The Heckler still hasn’t been collected (not shocking at all), but you can still find the single issues out there. It’s too bad – DC could do a nice trade for, heck, 15 bucks, and I bet it would sell if they made it clear how funny it is. Humor comics haven’t sold well in decades, but there’s still a niche for them, and it would be nice if the Heckler experienced even a tiny renaissance. These are really superb comics, and you could do a lot worse than track them down!]