End of Summer
 
Anything For A Laugh!
by Michael Hutchison
Featuring fan art by Bill Wiist, Tony Moore and Rod Owen

Click on any fan art to download the full-sized graphic

In an age where comic books cost the same as four Hershey Bars, it's unsurprising that there isn't a large audience willing to pay for a comic that focuses on laughs over action. This most recent decade has seen only a few successful humor offerings, all of which were combinations of superheroics and humor such as Keith Giffen's Justice League and Alan Grant's Lobo. But this hasn't always been the case.

DC Comics began with New Fun Comics(later More Fun Comics) and soon carried such humor titles as Mutt and Jeff, Funny Stuff, Peter Porkchops, All Funny Comics, Leave It To Binky, Dodo and the Frog, Nutsy Squirrel and even The Adventures of Jerry Lewis.

During the heyday of Warner Brothers and Walt Disney cartoons, DC's Funny Stuff (1944-46) introduced us to The Terrific Whatzit, the Three Mouseketeers (pre-dating Disney's use of the name), Jerry Lewis Peter Porkchops and numerous other funny animals, some of whom later starred in their own series. These characters resurfaced in the 1980s' DC Blue Ribbon Digests, Captain Carrot and can also usually be seen as characters in theme parks of the DCU.

Ma Hunkel had a long-running comic series in All-American Comics. She also became the first Red Tornado when she adopted red underwear and put a washtub over her head. She would have actually become a member of the Justice Society of America if she hadn't torn her costume on the way to their headquarters for the first meeting.

This may be hard to believe, but licensed character comics such as Adventures of Bob Hope (1950-1968) and Adventures of (Dean Martin and) Jerry Lewis (1952-1971) actually had successful comic books that lasted over 100 issues during the 50s and 60s! Other licensed properties such as Jackie Gleason and the Honeymooners, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, Sgt. Bilko, Sgt. Bilko's Pvt. Doberman and Welcome Back, Kotter did not last as long.
Sugar and Spike Sugar and Spike
Sugar and Spike ran from 1956-1971, managing to fall just short of the 100 issue mark (I'm assuming it didn't run continuously). Sugar and Spike featured the antics of two baby-talking kids who are still old enough to get into all sorts of trouble.
Plastic Man was bought by DC and was introduced to the DC Universe in House of Mystery. Plas had his own series from 1966-1968, which was revived in 1976-1977. The character is remembered by the public more for his animated shows in the 70s than for any successful comic book appearances. He was re-introduced in a four-issue mini-series in the late 80s. Although not a success, the mini has introduced a lasting character trait: Plas' cartoonish view of reality. This explains why his outlandish adventures can take place in the DCU.
Inferior 5
The Inferior Five (1967)were created in the 60s as one of the first funny superhero books, although they were more in the vein of parody. One of the major problems with this comic book is that the humor was too obvious. There is a clutzy guy and his name is Awkwardman. There is a ditzy blond and her name is Dumb Bunny. There is a fat flying guy and his name is The Blimp. Not exactly pushing the envelope of subtle comedy. Although it's a cute idea (second-generation superheroes who fail miserably to live up to their heritage), there wasn't too much about the premise that one could consider funny. The only real attempt at irony is that Dumb Bunny's real name is Minerva, although no one's really rolling in the aisles about that, either.
Angel and the Ape (1968-1969) lasted 7 issues. Stanley and His Monster (1968) lasted only 4. Both would be revived by Phil Foglio in the 90s and we'll discuss them more later.

The 60s and early 70s also saw a few experimental comics by DC which could be described as on the fringe of comedy (as in not being funny whatsoever). Brother Power, the Geek (lasting all of 2 issues in 1968), featuring the tales of an animated dummie dressed as a hippie, and Prez (4 issues from 1973-1974), covering the first 18-year-old president and the smiley-faced corporate badguy who opposes him, were weird attempts to appeal to the youth market during those tumultuous times. The comics were satirical/farcical without containing anything close to humor. I think the failure of these books proves that not everyone was doing drugs in the 60s.

In the 70s, Mad Magazine was a hot property, and Plop! (1973-1976) featured bizarre, twisted cartoons of the same vein.

Now, I'm going to take a break here and discuss something I noticed during my research. While Bob Hope and Jerry Lewis managed sizeable runs, most of the other comics here have not had long lifespans. I guess I carried a pre-conceived notion that funny books had sold better when they were 20 cents, but very few lasted long at all.

AND, of those which lasted a decade, the numbering sometimes does not match the years. Notice, as an example, that Jerry Lewis lasted only 124 issues, despite being published for 19 years! Presumably, the comic either ran on an irregular basis such as bi-monthly or it was put on hiatus every so often. If bi-monthly was the case (and this seems more likely), it may indicate that, even when comic prices cost a smaller percentage of one's earnings, people were more willing to buy "funny books" when they weren't coming out every month.

The 1970s were truly a dead time for humor comics. The mid-70s saw only Plop and the short revival of Plastic Man. Then nothing from 1977-1982. This could have something to do with President Jimmy Carter and the gas crisis. I doubt there's any correlation…but it seems a strange coincidence that the economy's upswing in 1982 coincided with the debut of Captain Carrot and His Amazing Zoo Crew.
Fastback
Captain Carrot and His Amazing Zoo Crew was "a funny animal book for people who don't like funny animal books." Inspired by an animal version of the Justice League of America, creators Roy Thomas, E. Nelson Bridwell and Scott Shaw developed the concept into original characters. (You'll read more about them in this issue's "Hall Of Justice.") Although plagued by an overload of animal puns in place of jokes (Califurnia, Gnu York, Steven Spielbird-dog, etc.), the series was quite funny and the concept would still make for a great Saturday morning animated series. Re-reading it as an adult, I now get a lot of jokes that were over my head before; this could be interpreted as either "humor enjoyed on many levels" or "a comic not certain of its audience". The title lasted 20 issues, then had a three issue miniseries featuring The Oz/Wonderland War.

The 1980s saw a tremendous shift in humor comics, away from the idle silliness of everyday humans like Jerry Lewis and Binky. After all, is it really worth sixty or seventy-five cents just to see people telling jokes when that same money could buy an issue of New Teen Titans or Crisis on Infinite Earths? Comic books are best suited to telling action stories. Thus, the new emphasis was on funny superhero books, either in the form of goofy, continuity-questionable books like Ambush Bug and Hero Hotline or wisecracking superheroes such as Blue Devil and Keith Giffen's various Justice League books.

The 80s also saw Keith Giffen's reign as undisputed DC King of marketable humor comics. Ambush Bug appeared in several issues of DC Comics Presents, then in Supergirl, Action Comics (see DCU 101 this issue) and finally appearing in several mini-series and Specials. His last feature appearance was in Secret Origins several years ago, but there are rumors that he will appear again soon, possibly even in JLA #17 (in which case, it would be his first post-Giffen appearance). Ambush Bug was an hilarious character on the edge of the DCU, meaning that he could interact with DC characters, but those events were certainly not in continuity. Ambush Bug also knew that he was in a comic book.
Legion Subs
The Legion of Substitute Heroes Special brought us the hilarious attempts of an inept superhero team trying to take down Pulsar Stargrave. Characters such as Color Kid, Infectious Lass and Stone Boy (he can turn to solid stone and stay immobile for great lengths of time) proved to us why they just weren't Legion material! The Legion Subs (first introduced in Superboy #201) also appeared in issue #81 of DC Comics Presents. Not surprisingly, both were by Keith Giffen.
Blue Devil featured the comical exploits of a movie stuntman welded into a cybersuit. Highlighted by the not-too-cartoony-yet-not-quite-serious art of Paris Cullins, Blue Devil had a substantial run of 31 issues. The title benefitted from the use of the villain Trickster as a supporting character.
'Mazing Man by Bob Rozakis and Stephen DeStefano was an out-of-continuity series set in New York. It has many similarities to Seinfeld, in the sense that there are many quirky neighborhood characters and no earth-shattering plots. DeStefano's crisp, clean art made it an enjoyable read, as cartoonish characters like the behelmeted 'Mazing Man and dog-faced Denton Fixx mixed with realistic people such as Guido Garibaldi. The series was quite enjoyable and lasted precisely 12 issues. Three subsequent Specials brought us more of Maze and his crew, but DeStefano had been "experimenting" with his style and his new, more outlandish art changed the feel of the series.

In 1986, Keith Giffen took over the reins of DC's flagship superteam, the Justice League, which had languished ever since Gerry Conway had disbanded the big-name team and focused on a smaller group unknown to the general public. Justice League (later Justice League International, then Justice League America) brought in some big-name characters such as Batman, Black Canary, Captain Marvel and J'onn J'onzz, the Martian Manhunter. It also featured the then-amazingly-popular Guy Gardner and a few minor favorites such as Mister Miracle and the newly-acquired Blue Beetle. The team was, despite the absence of Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Arrow et al, an extremely powerful group dealing with world-threatening menaces. They were also quite funny! While many stodgy people didn't like the fact that this group laid claim to the name which was synonymous with "The World's Greatest Heroes," no one could deny that the book was hilarious. Over time, the book became more and more farcical, as ex-millionaires Blue Beetle and Booster Gold embarked on numerous get-rich schemes and Guy Gardner met his favorite real-life comic book hero, General Glory.

Giffen's humorous storytelling could also be found in the slightly more serious L.E.G.I.O.N. * title which ran for many, many years.
Lobo

Keith Giffen's Justice League and L.E.G.I.O.N. books also brought another "humor" character to prominence: Lobo. Lobo went from obscurity to such fame that he is now ranked as one of DC's biggest characters. I must admit that I, personally, have a big problem with Lobo. I know that the character is supposed to be outlandish and over-the-top repulsive; the problem is that he resides in the DC Universe along with Superman and Batman. If Lobo was in his own universe, similar to 'Mazing Man's universe, we could appreciate the dark comedy of the Lobo comics and watch him maim and torture and molest people because it's all a big joke. But in the DC Universe, a person who has killed millions of people doesn't deserve to shake Superman's hand and be ranked as a hero in Who's Who! Look at it this way: Captain Cold robs banks and he's a villain; Lobo murders everyone on his home planet and he's a hero. Does that make sense?

As the 1980s drew to a close, we were also given the Blasters Special, a one-shot by Peter David focusing on Snapper Carr's team introduced in Invasion. Although it certainly wasn't good enough to spin off into anything else, the Special truly is quite funny and is worth reading just for all of the inside jokes.
Elongated Man and Plastic Man
Elongated Man, after 30 years of back-up stories and Justice League membership, finally got his own mini-series in 1992. Elongated Man isn't really a humor character; rather, like Blue Beetle, he's a light-hearted, quick-witted adventurer. But his 1992 mini definitely falls into the humor vein, as Ralph Dibny and his wife, Sue, attend a European Monetary conference which is disrupted by Eurocrime. The fact that the Eurocrime villains are all wearing gimmicky costumes based on the cuisine of their nation allays any fears that this might be a serious comic book. Although not a hilarious book, Gerard Jones did an above-average job of mixing farce and satire (I loved the Italian representative, Trampolina).

Rozakis and DeStefano returned to comedy with Hero Hotline, a six-issue mini-series detailing the exploits of a group of heroes-for-hire, lead by an unseen administrator who may have been a superhero at one time (all clues point to it being the Americommando, although this was never revealed). This title is well worth collecting, although it is highly unlikely that they will return in the future. One thought that springs to mind is that this series really isn't too outlandish; with a more serious artist, Hero Hotline could have been a mainstream superteam.
angel And The Ape

Speaking of outlandish, writer/artist Phil Foglio turned his attentions from his adult comics and brought his talents to bear on reviving two of DC's 60s humor comics, Angel & the Ape and Stanley & His Monster. Stanley and His Monster bears a large similarity to Calvin and Hobbes (perhaps Foglio's selling point when pushing for the relaunch), as it details a boy's friendship with a friendly, furry demon from hell. (Speaking of Hell, Vertigo readers got a bonus laugh at seeing the events in Sandman reflected in such a silly book.) Angel the the Ape managed to also bring back the Inferior Five (and make Dumb Bunny a real person). Foglio's gifts for great jokes, pathos, clear plotting…and, of course, sexy-yet-cartoonish women…made for two of the best attempts at funny comics for the 90s. Unfortunately, the 90s haven't been a kind marketplace for any genre…and these two titles disappeared quietly. I think the cover of Stanley and His Monster #1 was all too true. It depicted Phil Foglio trying to sell an editor on the concept of this little boy and his monster having fun; the editor eyes a sales chart labeled "Humor Sales" with a plunging arrow and favors a grim & gritty approach.
Back Issue BoxMost of these comics can be found cheap at your local comic book store and are well worth it!
Heckler #2, 3 & 4
Angel and the Ape #1-4
Elongated Man #1-4
'Mazing Man #4
Blue Devil #7-9, 21, 30, Special #1 Blasters Special #1
JL Quarterly #2-5
JL Quarterly #10 "When Titans Date"
JLA #23, 24, 33, 36, 37, 43, 44 & 51
JLA Annuals #2-4
Mister Miracle (II) #6-8

The last great humor title of the 90s was Keith Giffen's Heckler. Although humor hasn't been selling well, I truly think that this was a marketing failure. The house ads for Heckler gave no indication of what to expect, and the Heckler's blurbs of "Who Cares?" and "So What?" didn't help the audience to get a grasp of the concept. In a nutshell, Heckler is nothing more than a superhero version of Bugs Bunny! Heckler #1 wasn't very good, but issues 2, 3 and 4 are laugh-out-loud classics. In issue #2, Heckler goes up against the Generic Man, whose touch renders any object into a bland generalization with a label. Thus, a cat will suddenly lose all distinctiveness and have the word "cat" written on its side. Issue #3 introduces the Cosmic Clown, an extraterrestrial killer robot who has rebelled against his people and tries to terminate all clowns. Of course, Heckler matches the description of a clown and becomes its next target. Complicating things is the arrival of an obsessed fan of a Star Trek-esque TV show who tries to subdue the Clown. Issue #4 is another winner, as the Heckler is unknowingly attacked by the Bushwack'r while on patrol. I say unknowingly because Bushwack'r's traps constantly fail. In the same way that Heckler plays the Bugs Bunny role, Bushwack'r talks about what a genius he is as he sets his traps and waits for his prey. Sound like a certain coyote we all know? Issues 5 and 6 are something of a letdown; by this time, Giffen knows the book is canceled and tries to resolve it into a 6-issue miniseries.

So, as the 90s begin to draw to a close and the comic book industry flounders, the outlook for humor titles is not good. Right now, the only humor titles are those published under the WB license, such as Pinky and the Brain. But here's an idea: perhaps DC could publish a humor quarterly, featuring any of the humor characters owned by DC. It would give a chance for Foglio to bring us more of Angel and the Ape, Giffen to run more Heckler stories…and maybe Rozakis and DeStefano could finally conclude that Hero Hotline mystery for us!

 
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