I’ve been reading comics for over 50 years, but in the last few years, my reading list has dwindled; the last DC series I bought was the Captain Carrot mini-series that tied in with Final Crisis. For the last few years, my comics list is Astro City, Usagi Yojimbo, Sergio Aragonés’ Funnies, Groo the Wanderer, and IDW’s Rocketeer Adventures. Occasionally I’ll add another title like Hawkeye (Fraction & Aja’s run was spectacular, and I’m really looking forward to Kelly Thompson’s Kate Bishop-centered version), Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Howard the Duck (though I wish they’d stop drawing him to look like that crappy movie; I want the real Howard, the Gene Colan version, dammit), and whatever catches my eye. What do all these comics have in common? They’re fun.
In recent years, there’s been a lot of press about comics starring girls and women; Ms. Marvel, Captain Marvel, the aforementioned Squirrel Girl, plus less superhero-oriented fare like Gotham Academy and Lumberjanes. While much has been made about the emphasis on diversity, I think one of the reasons why these books are popular is that they are fun. In some cases, they’re laugh-out-loud funny, while in others the fun is in the adventure and interplay between the characters.
For more than a while now, the dominant ethos in comics has been the “grim & gritty” mode; dark stories about morally-ambiguous heroes fighting equally morally-ambiguous villains in a world that always looks like 4:30 on a drizzly February afternoon in Seattle. Dan DiDio famously declared that “heroes can’t be happy,” and then killed off all the characters who violated that edict. Sorry, Ralph and Sue Dibny, but your Nick & Nora banter is unacceptable. It’s curtains for you.
Look, I get it. I was there. Back in the ’70s, when having a comic book in your possession at school was an open invitation for a wedgie or swirlie, we were pretty defensive. What hurt more than the physical assault was the ridicule, and it always started the same way. “You like COMICS?!!? Haw haw! ‘BIFF! BAM! POW! Na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-BATMAN!” To the cool kids, comics equaled Adam West in his baby blue tights, lecturing Robin like a Scoutmaster, engaging in absurd battles with ridiculous villains who wanted to commit pointless crimes. To a teenage boy, ’60s Batman was the height of juvenile stupidity, mostly because they were embarrassed at having liked it when they were little. To those of us who were reading Marvel, digging on the insane psychedelia of Dr. Strange, the man-out-of-his-time drama of Captain America, and the outsider morality play that was the X-Men, hearing our philosophical comics derided as childishness burned deeply. We were enraged at the ignorance of the accusation, ashamed at having to acknowledge that guys leaping around in leotards did look a little goofy, and offended at the injustice of it all. So we dug in.
Some guys never let go of that attitude. You can see it in Zack Snyder’s films, that paralyzing fear that somebody is going to start singing “na-na-na-na” and invoke the dreaded “Holy [verb], Batman!” Their only hope is to make Batman so dark that nobody will ever remember the goofy version. Just to make doubly-sure, they need to also give Batman’s grim origin to every other hero. Barry Allen can’t be the Flash because of optimism or idealism, he needs to be wallowing in grief and self-flagellation over the death of his mother. Hell, even his bowtie needs a grim and gritty origin story.
But today, with the stranglehold of the Direct Market being increasingly broken by digital delivery and more alternatives appearing every day, things like Sensation Comics (some of the best Wonder Woman comics ever produced) are putting the lie to the rule that comics have to be deadly serious and relentlessly bleak in order to be legitimate. And it’s about damn time.
When I was a kid, I loved comics because it was the one place in my world where justice prevailed and people looked out for each other. But I also liked comics because they were fun. Humor comics like Jerry Lewis and Bob Hope, Stanley and His Monster, Sad Sack, and so many others, as well as semi-serious comics like Metal Men, Metamorpho, Plastic Man (and his later imitator, Elongated Man), all served to provide a few giggles for the princely sum of 12 cents. It was well worth it, and still appreciated today. I’m one of those freaks who wants his imaginary escapist worlds to be nicer than his real one. I prefer Steve Gerber’s elf with a gun to any of the constipated-looking mesomorphs punching each other at sundown today. But maybe that’s just me.
I thought I’d trot out a few of my favorite fun comics from the last few decades. Some are outright comedy books, mostly of the parody sort, but several are straight-ahead action with a comedic touch.
This was one of the first funny comics I ever got into, apart from MAD; it seemed to be rooted in the Kurtzman-era MAD, where Wally Wood eviscerated “Superduperman” and “Prince Violent.” Plop! was largely driven by MAD’s Maddest Artist, Sergio Aragones, with occasional riffs on DC’s superheroes, but more often dipping into the mystery and horror comics like House of Secrets. Berni Wrightson’s “The Gourmet” was the perfect blend of comedy and horror, inspired by the brilliant single-panel “Frog’s Legs” cartoon by Sam Gross.
Showcase was DC’s “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” book; it was where the Silver Age began, with the introduction of Barry Allen as the Flash, and later issues spanned the gamut from teen comedy (Leave it to Binky) to war (Sgt. Rock), with a few detours into absurdity. My favorite, of course, is the Inferior Five. On the one hand, the premise is so obvious as to be stupid; “see, there’s a clumsy guy and he’s called Awkwardman, and a dumb blonde called Dumb Bunny,,,” but that’s not where the genius is. The smart part of the comic is that the Inferior Five are the children of Earth’s Greatest Heroes, and they are expected to step up and carry on the legacy, but they know (or at least believe) that they haven’t got the goods. Torn between duty and reality, they choose to lean into their weaknesses, embrace their failings, and stumble through to heroism anyway. The trick, which even they don’t notice, is that each of them has the right stuff, but not where they were looking. Merryman (he dresses as a court jester because “if I’m going to make a fool of myself, I might as well look the part”) lacks the strength and skill of his parents, but he is a shrewd tactician and a natural leader, even though he’s constantly surprised to find the others following him. To a weird awkward kid reading the comics, the Inferior Five resonated, even if he couldn’t put his finger on why. In the sixth issue, the Five crash the offices of DC Comics to find out why their latest issue is late, in a story where the reader gets to see precisely how much Mike Sekowsky hated Carmine Infantino.
Angel & the Ape
Another of the comedy-adventure books that emerged from Showcase, Angel & the Ape follows Angel O’Day, an incredibly capable private detective that most people assume is an airhead because she’s a gorgeous blonde. In a gambit somewhat similar to TV’s Remington Steele, Angel takes on a partner to add some muscle and a masculine presence. Her partner is Sam Simian, a comic book artist who also happens to be a gorilla, which nobody seems to notice, since he usually dresses like a hippie. A couple of misguided attempts to revive the comic have failed. The original ’60s version is the way to go.
Not Brand Ecch
This was Marvel’s attempt at self-parody, with Cracked artist Marie Severin and others being turned loose on characters like “Ironed Man” and “Scaredevil.” Most of the stories involved pop culture mash-ups, such as Dr. Strange as the star of a West Side Story parody, or the Marble Comics characters squaring off against parodic versions of other publishers’ characters. It’s just dumb fun.
With E-Man, we start to move away from parody, though the First Comics revival in the ’80s featured a lot of that. The original Charlton run didn’t depend so much on the satirical aspects; it was just a goofy comic book. The basic setup is that E-Man is a blob of sentient energy from space who ends up on Earth and learns that he can assume any form he chooses, because energy and mass can be converted back and forth, hence the “E=MC²” emblazoned on his chest. Teaming up with a stripper/archaeology student named Nova Kane, our hero adopts the heroic identity of E-Man and the civilian identity of Alec Tronn and begins a life of adventure at the hands of writer Nicola Cuti and artist Joe Staton (who today draws the Dick Tracy comic strip).
JLA: the “BWAH-HA-HA” Era
For a while in the ’80s, writers Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis and artist Kevin Maquire turned the Justice League into high farce; they had leader J’Onn J’Onzz, the Martian Manhunter, develop an addiction to Oreos (they get him high because he’s martian); Guy Gardner took on an alternate personality when he got clonked on the head; Fire and Ice became the bad girl/good girl pair, while Blue Beetle and Booster Gold bumbled into one disastrous get rich quick scheme after another, which usually required the team’s help to bail them out. This was the perfect balance of great comic book action punctuated by laugh-out-loud character-based comedy.
Captain Carrot and His Amazing Zoo Crew!
Even more absurd than the JLA, Captain Carrot followed in the tradition of Carl Barks’ Donald Duck, pairing action-adventure with heavily pun-based comedy. The series began development as a funny animal version of the JLA (Just a Lotta Animals) before becoming its own original thing. Roy Thomas and Scott Shaw! ran with the ridiculousness and got the reader to embrace it, though the rotten puns did get a little worn after a while.
Howard the Duck
Sure, an existentialist duck; why not? Howard began as a one-off sight gag in one issue of Marvel’s Man-Thing, but you can’t keep a good duck down. The outlandish villains are amusing enough- a vampire cow; the Space Turnip; the Kidney Lady; Sudd, the Scrubbing Bubble that Walked Like a Man – but it was the Howard that engaged people; the surly curmudgeon who can’t help but care, showing that inside every cynic is a battered idealist. His quirky relationship with artist’s model Beverly Switzler provided ample opportunity for rants about the absurd things we “upright apes” do, channeling writer Steve Gerber’s own misanthropic frustration with his species. I wrote a lot more about Howard after his cameo in Guardians of the Galaxy.
Untold Tales of Spider-Man
At the height of the ’90s, when comics were at their grimmest and grittiest and the speculator market was being driven by gimmicks like hologram covers and near infinite variants, Marvel tried taking an alternate tack; they created a line of books aimed at younger readers, priced at 99 cents, about 2/3 the price of the regular comics. Most of these titles weren’t very good, but there was one gem in the mix: Kurt Busiek and Pat Oliffe telling stories of the young Peter Parker at the beginning of his career, each story dropping neatly between the events of the classic Ditko issues from the early ’60s. It was a breath of fresh air at the time.
Pat Oliffe’s next project after Untold Tales was this alternate-universe series in which Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson’s daughter May inherits her dad’s powers and follows in his footsteps. Occasional team-ups with the children of other Marvel characters further cement the “next generation” theme, while at the same time being a throwback to the early Spider-Man comics, balancing heroics with high school drama. Writer Tom DeFalco used the book as an excuse to continue the stories of a lot of second-banana characters he had previously introduced in the main Spider-Man book.
Leave it to Chance
One of the greatest comics of the ’90s, which sadly never found its audience. I recently wrote about Chance for her 20th anniversary over at GeekDad. Leave it to Chance illustrates the perils of being 20 years too soon; if she were created now, she’d be a huge hit, but back then, the people who would have loved her didn’t go into comic book shops.
Hands down the best superhero comic series of the last 20 years, Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson perfectly balance the serious with the comical, giving us a living cartoon character, a life-size sentient Barbie doll, and a collection of heroes, villains, innocent bystanders, gods, aliens and monsters, in a grand tapestry of stories. If you’re not reading Astro City, you just hate fun.
This isn’t a comprehensive list, just a handful of my favorites. I’m sure you’re appalled that I overlooked some gem. That’s why we have a comment section.