Archive for the ‘Satire’ Category

On the cutting edge of relevance

March 8, 2007

Dick Hyacinth asked people last week for more hilarious and original parodies of Marvel’s recent cross-over Civil War. One week later, the best entries would win a prize!

Well, I think that’s what he said; I don’t read too good. Anyway, my picture below is all the more relevant now that there’s a new “meme” sweeping the interblogosphere (someone died, I guess?) and everyone’s already forgotten how much they hated/loved Civil War #7.

BTW, you probably can’t tell, but this was created in MS Paint, not Photoshop. I hope it still counts!


It’s been a week now, Dick, so how about it–do I win a Bloody Shirt? Or at least a No-Prize?

Next week: I post panels from Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen with humorous commentary, and prove that bold text is always funny. Also–did somebody say “Green Goblin ‘o’ face”?*

* NB: I am lying.


I’ll rip off your head and s**t down your neck

March 7, 2007

Hey, it’s still Wednesday in my part of the world.


Ultimate Muscle, Vols 14 & 15, Yudetamago. Viz, 2006. Each $7.95, 232 pages.

…and then there’s the really weird contest manga, like Ultimate Muscle. Addicts of Death Note may recognise the title as another part of Viz’ Shonen Jump imprint. That was, frankly, all I knew of it until leafing through these two volumes in a used bookstore. What convinced me to buy them was a scene two-thirds into Volume 15, where, well, I’ll just show you the scene:


(Click to embiggen; apologies for my crappy scanning un-skills)

That’s Hollywood Bowl, toilet-themed superhuman, making his grand entrance on the (literal and figurative) throne. Ultimate Muscle protagonist Kid Muscle is in the bottom right corner, freaking out at the Bowl’s bling. The two proceed to have a very silly wrestling match, all part of the “Superhuman Olympics” which are evidently the plot engine for the series right now. These Olympics involve outlandish characters competing with one another to become the “superhuman champion of the world”, sometimes through wrestling matches, and sometimes through three-legged races or giant pachinko machines. These two volumes take us through several of these unlikely qualifying rounds.

Yudetamago is a joint pseudonym for writer Takashi Shimada and artist Yoshinori Nakai. Nakai’s art is nothing to write home about, but its light, cartoonish feel carries Shimada’s goofy scripts. Between them they simultaneously parody and indulge in the conventions of contest manga, such as over-the-top contests, unfair judges with a grudge against the hero, and so on. The result works perfectly well as light, semi-surreal action comedy, with an emphasis on the comedy.

And in grand comedic tradition, most of the laughs come at the expense of the nominal hero. Kid Muscle is the son of former superhuman champion King Muscle (who was himself the hero of a similar series by the same creators in the 80s). Not unusually for a comedic hero, Kid Muscle is sleazy, lazy, cowardly, clumsy and not too bright. On the other hand, he’s got a good heart (or so we’re told), so we’re inclined to root for him. More importantly, he takes a good pratfall.

Kid Muscle’s plain design also makes him an effective straight man against his bizarro competitors, many of whom are based on ideas submitted by readers. Kid Muscle is basically a buff guy in a luchador mask. But his opponents include Hollywood Bowl; Sly Scraper, who is half-man half-skyscraper; and Bobby Wasabi, whose special move is “Sensational Sushi Paper!” It’s the rogue’s gallery from Dick Tracy on LSD.

Ultimate Muscle is much like what you might expect if Garth Ennis wrote manga. Gruesome, bloody violence alternates with occasionally very funny toilet humour, characters who are walking punchlines, and comical nudity (we see Kid Muscle’s pixellated member several times), all of it wrapped up with a general disrespect for guys in silly costumes. If Hitman had been called Wrestler instead, we might have got something like Ultimate Muscle.

Although I doubt even Ennis could have come up with Hollywood Bowl.

Recommended? If you’re in the right sort of mood, it’s a fun diversion (albeit nothing spectacular). Well, it made me laugh, anyway.

IYL: Iron Wok Jan!, Hitman, wrestling

PC Alert: On the one hand: (1) All the superhumans are men, and women appear to be sex objects/love interests, at best; (2) there are several crude or tasteless gags; and (3) there are more than a few gratuitous panty and bent-over shots. On the other hand, (4) most of those shots are of Kid Muscle’s apparent main squeeze Roxanne, who is spunky, tough, independent and doesn’t swoon over “her man”. Above all, she’s drawn realistically. She’s not quite a Crumb girl (or a Little or Hernandez girl, either) but she’s definitely not anorexic. Also, (5) despite the setting of the superhuman olympics, international fans aren’t depicted as stereotypes. On the whole: PC approved.

Don’t buy this book: Adventures in the Rifle Brigade

March 2, 2007

Adventures in the Rifle Brigade, Garth Ennis, Carlos Ezquerra, Brian Bolland, Glenn Fabry, Patricia Mulvihill, Kevin Somers and Clem Robins. Vertigo/DC, 2004. $14.95, 144 pages.

Writer Garth Ennis was in the comics news recently, when DC head honcho Pulpin’ Paul Levitz cancelled Ennis’ new ongoing series The Boys over concerns about content. The book’s fans were pleased to learn, however, that it would continue at a different company.

I was not, to put it mildly, one of those fans. To me, The Boys seemed to have been written by some sophisticated computer program that cut and pasted the worst of Ennis’ excesses and writerly tics: among other things, various forms of stereotype and cliché, mean-spirited slapstick, toilet humour and a fundamental discomfort with sex.

Come to think of it, it needn’t have been a computer program. A monkey with a typewriter would have sufficed.

I stopped reading The Boys after two issues, supposing that it represented the lowest point of Ennis’ recent decline into self-parody. After reading Adventures of the Rifle Brigade, however, I am happy to report that I was wrong. The Boys could have been so much worse.

Rifle Brigade reprints two three-issue series published between 2001 and 2003. It is intended as a parody of the boys’ ripping war yarns that Ennis evidently grew up on. Ennis’ dedication in the frontispiece is to British war comics such as Battle Picture Weekly and Commando, but it might as well have been to the gutter-dwelling, scatological humour comic, Viz.*

The Rifle Brigade themselves are a rag-tag team of fightin’ misfits, including: the straight man captain; a mad Scotsman; an American; a lower-class yob; a fat guy; and–get this, it’s the funniest thing ever–a fag. It would be too kind to call these characters one-note. They can barely muster a note between the lot of them.

This goes especially for the fat guy, the yob and the American. The big–all right, the only–joke about them is their catchphrases, the only dialogue they ever speak. It’s funny once, maybe twice, but Ennis uses the catchphrases to fill any lacunae in the otherwise non-stop flow of unfunny business. And never just one catchphrase from one character; we must always get all three in unison. It’s like a Greek chorus, if the chorus was that annoying guy at the office who won’t stop parroting catchphrases from the latest sitcom.

Just as the characters broadly parody stock types from British war comics, so does the plot parody their plots. This stuff might have played a little better in Ennis’ neck of the woods, but even the non-British reader can make do with a general knowledge of common war-story motifs. And by “make do”, I mean “realise how completely unfunny it all is”.

There’s nothing wrong per se with dumb humour or scatological gags. Hell, I read Johhny Ryan’s strips every week. But there’s one cardinal rule of humour. Pay attention, because you’re about to learn something. Humour has to be funny. You can occasionally appreciate a horror movie that isn’t scary, or a romance movie that isn’t romantic, because they can still have other virtues. But a humour comic, a comic whose only intention is to be humorous, such a comic without humour is nothing.

Which is exactly what Ennis has given us. Apart from a few bits that might elicit a brief chuckle, this book is worthless. Carlos Ezquerra’s pencils and inks are decent but, tied as they are to a putrid and unfunny script, hardly to be praised. That would be like praising the sound design on a snuff movie.

It’s particularly frustrating to see an artist of Ennis’ talent producing this putrid tripe, as though Orson Welles had lived to direct one of the Porky’s sequels. In books like Preacher, Punisher, Hitman and War Stories, Ennis has proved himself a master of gross-out comedy and gallows humour while revealing a surprisingly sentimental humanity underneath.

If the black comedy is the baby and Ennis’ humanity is the bathwater, Adventures of the Rifle Brigade throws out the baby with the bathwater.

And then the bathtub and the rest of the plumbing, too.

*NB: nothing to do with the manga publishers.

Recommended? Only if you think a German officer named Venkschaft is the funniest thing ever, or (what is probably redundant) you’re a developmentally arrested eleven year-old boy.

IYL: Preacher or Hitman, but wish that they had any depth or humour removed.

PC Alert: The whole book is pretty offensive. Which would be fine if it weren’t also aesthetically offensive.

Antinomies of pure reason in the Bullpen Bulletins

February 13, 2007

Review later tonight. In the meantime, it’s wonkarama time:

You can guess from my email address, on the right, that I’m a big fan of the idea of parallax…well, all right, maybe Professor Marc Singer can guess that, at least, and the rest of you are scratching your head. In any case, I was stunned–stunned I tell you–to read this essay by Roger Whitson over at ImageTexT, which explores William Blake and Alan Moore through the lens of parallax.

What caught my eye, however, wasn’t Whitson’s discussion of parallax (which, BTW, has nothing to do with this guy, more’s the pity). It was his discussion of Immanuel Kant’s transcendental unity of apperception.

Now, everybody knows that the Kantian categorical imperative was a big influence on Moore’s use of the nine-panel grid, although there is some scholarly debate about whether this influence comes directly from Kant or is mediated through post-Kantian idealists like Schelling and Fichte.*

But it does my heart glad to see broader discussion of Kantian themes in funnybooks. The critical revolution starts here! My contribution to this revolution is an upcoming series of posts, based on my dissertation, called “Face front, true believers: antinomies of pure reason in the Bullpen Bulletins.”

Part one explores the construct of the synthetic a priori, as expressed in Stan Lee’s use of the word “excelsior!”.

Part two postulates that Lee’s depiction of the Marvel Bullpen was intended as a representation of the unrepresentable noumenal realm (=x), the Ding-an-sich that lay behind the phenomenal realm of four-coloured superheroics.

Part three argues that the Mighty Marvel Method is an alternative solution to the paralogisms of pure reason, in many ways preferable to Kant’s transcendental idealism.

So tune in next time, for a discussion of the synthetic unity of the apperception of the manifold in the Galactus saga. Until then, make mine Immanuel!

* To see the influence of the categorical imperative, consider what it would be to will a page without nine-panels. Such a will would contradict itself, and so pure reason legislates itself to will only nine-panel pages.

PS: Yeah, I’m kidding. Come back later for more reviews.

PPS: No slam really meant on Whitson. I’m in no position to ridicule other critics for pretension!

The New Adventures of Jesus

February 9, 2007

Once upon a time, religious satire was a daring proposition. It’s hard to believe if you’ve grown up with The Simpsons, South Park–hell, even Mad Magazine–but, back in the day, respectable citizens were scandalised by merely flippant attitudes to religion, much less pointed satire. Confronted with an apostate satirist, outraged citizens tended to respond with gnashing and wailing and stoning. It rarely ended well for the apostate.

Luckily, of course, those benighted days are far behind us.

(Ha! And you thought I was going to link to certain recent controversies involving the Prophet. Not me, that would be blasphemous.)

Changing public attitudes to religion, and mainstream acceptance of religious satire, might explain why the material reprinted in Frank Stack’s The New Adventures of Jesus: The Second Coming now has all the satiric bite of a wet sponge. But that’s okay, because the attractions of this volume (published by Fantagraphics in 2006) have nothing to do with the “infamous […] satirical assaults on beliefs held dear by Middle America” which are promised by the back-cover copy. In fact, they have nothing to do with the religious content at all.

The book mostly reprints material from the late 60s and 70s, with a couple of pieces from the 80s and one new story. We start out with short stories (1-2 pages each) poking fun at various biblical incidents or characters: John the Baptist, Doubting Thomas, Jesus’ temptation by Satan, the arrest at Gethsemane, and so on. There’s a lot of miracle-based humour here, but it’s pretty moderate stuff–although there is a good sight gag about walking on water, and the Xenophanes-inspired bit “The Dog Messiah” is laugh-out-loud funny.

Soon enough, however, Stack moves into longer stories. The central conceit of these longer pieces is that Jesus has had his second coming in modern times, but no one cares. The first story of this kind sets the tone. Jesus returns, meets some hippies and gets beaten up by the pigs.

Hey, man, it’s the 60s.

In later stories, Jesus goes to see a film about his life, which turns out to be a crude travesty composed of every Hollywood action movie cliche you can think of. He also gets drafted, joins the US presidential staff, and gets arrested (not all in the same story!).

There are laughs to be had throughout this material, but most of it doesn’t come from religious satire as such. Unlike, say, Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon in Preacher, or William S. Burroughs in pretty much everything he wrote, Stack doesn’t care to mock the content of religious belief, or even religious institutions. The satire, instead, comes from the reactions of those around Jesus, and the general folly of their political, military and academic settings. So it’s religious satire in roughly the same sense that Borat was Kazakhstani satire, i.e. not really.

Even the impact of this sociocultural satire is muted these days. Robert Crumb’s satire still packs a punch because it’s so misanthropic, not to mention misogynistic, racist, etc. Stack might have seemed just as far-out, back in the heyday of underground comics, but his material is really a lot milder. That said, it’s often very funny, regardless.

But the best part of The New Adventures of Jesus isn’t the satire, or the jokes, or the generally merely serviceable cartooning. Rather, it’s the remarkable 14-page story “Jesus goes to a faculty party”. This story does what it says on the tin, but it also does much, much more. Having recently joined the faculty at an American university, Jesus goes along to a faculty party one night. Then, for the next twelve pages, he basically drops out of sight as Stack presents a sprawling panorama of faculty life. Characters weave in and out of panel, while competing conversations continue in the background. Various “types” are introduced and examined. Characters square off into groups, then scatter back into the main group.

It’s really like nothing else I’ve seen in comics–at least, I’ve never seen it so skilfully executed. The only real comparison is Robert Altman, both in the vignette structure and the framing of the sequences themselves. These aren’t stories we see here, or episodes in characters’ lives. We see the characters themselves, careening in a social void, colliding and rebounding like Democritean atoms. This story captures the rich and chaotic texture of social life better than most comics you’ll ever read.

In a way, the story is too good for its own good, or at least the good of this volume. Everything else seems slighter by comparison, even the shorter story “Top level meeting” which has a similar structure to somewhat lesser effect.

But in that, the book is only following the example of its hero. After all, once you’ve died and been reborn one time, anything else is a come-down.

Recommended: Come for the laughs; stay for the formal brilliance of the stories “Jesus goes to a faculty party” and “Top level meeting”.

IYL: Gilbert Shelton and Robert Crumb (both of whom contribute introductions), Robert Altman

The skinny: The New Adventures of Jesus: The Second Coming, Frank Stack, Fantagraphics 2006. $19.95, 160 pages