On Heroes 1: The Importance of Being Funny

I love funny superheroes.

I’ve been writing out a lot of dry details– with some fun stuff mixed in– about funny heroes and their history, their meaning, their successes and (many many) failures for more than a week now.

Then I thought “what do they mean to me?”

Why do I love funny heroes? Why am I excited that we have so many of them?

Superheroes dominate pop culture in the U.S. today. How lucky did I get? My stupid obsession is culturally significant! Well, one of them– you probably don’t care about the Fairy Faith in the Celtic Counties as much as I do. And yeah, super people have been steadily taking over the media– well, television, movies, video games, and the internets– for the last several decades. Comic books were already conquered, of course, but also considered marginal and weird. Now, somehow, the success of their more motion-oriented brethren has made even 4-color pages filled with men in tights brawling… somewhat cool. So yes, a good time to be me.

In the last couple years, though, something bigger changed.

I’m not saying there was no humor in the early X-Men films; Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man had some great dorky fun throughout. Today, though, the majority of superhero films are comedies, featuring heroes who are champions but also colossal doofuses. I love Rocket Raccoon, for example– I have for decades. Never thought anyone else would remember the character, though… and while the lovable monster from Guardians of the Galaxy is considerably less of a hero– and has fewer jetpacks– than the funny animal freedom fighter I remember, it’s still thrilling to know that people know his name. These things that were orphaned and adored inside my head are finding new traction, new audiences, new love. Even Captain Carrot, the superhero rabbit I adored in 6th grade, found new life in Grant Morrison’s recent Multiversity series. When I spoke to the Captain’s creator, Scott Shaw!, at Comic-Con few years back he was working on a Captain Carrot mini-series that he thought would be the last we’d ever hear from the Captain and his Zoo Crew. But they live.

Cartoon physics never dies.

It’s not all beer and skittles, of course. I’ve never been a big Deadpool or Ant Man fan, and they’re probably the best known comedy heroes right now. I enjoyed their movies. I’m happy they’re out there doing their thing, paving the way for more funny stuff. Still, funny heroes were always cult favorites or complete failures– Herbie Popnecker, Hoppy the Marvel Bunny, Terrific Whatzit, the original Red Tornado, the Sensational She-Hulk, Frog-Man, The Heckler, The Inferior Five, Darkwing Duck, Super Goof, Pureheart the Powerful, Howard the Duck, The Detective Chimp, Inspector Gadget– Okay, not Gadget. Gadget is the exception, not because he’s the best or worst. He just is. Gadget endures.

It feels like a confession, talking about these freaks affectionately. It’s like I’m coming out of the closet as a funny heroes fan; basically no one talked about these guys for my 40-odd years on Earth. Howard the Duck wasn’t mentioned in the last couple decades except as a sideswipe at George Lucas. It’s bizarre to be laughing at The Guardians of the Galaxy along with everyone else and not just because Charlie-27 is so damned funny-looking.

No joke, his known aliases in include "Chunky" and "Extra-Large."

No joke, his known aliases include “Chunky” and “Extra-Large.”

What changed?

Well, video games changed superheroes. Yes, there are plenty of great dark and savage superhero games out there– Batman’s Arkham Asylum franchise, Infamous, even God of War might count. That said, video games provided the template for goofy heroes very early in their development. Quite possibly the world’s best known character (according to Jeff Ryan’s Super Mario, well worth your time) is a pudgy plumber in overalls with the power to jump high (when he’s not racing go-karts). His descendants include bizarre but fun heroes like Earthworm Jim— a worm in a humanoid robot suit with the power to literally crack his slimy little body like a whip– Sonic the Hedgehog, Banjo and Kazooie, Bentley Bear, Parappa the Rapper, Rayman, Bub and Bob, Sackboy, Manny Calavera, Sam and Max (also the heroes of a less famous comic series), Kirby, Crash Bandicoot, Abe of Oddworld,  Guybrush Threepwood, and The Crimson Tape.

Like Indiana Jones, if self decapitation was a feature.

Like Indiana Jones, if self decapitation was a feature.

Video games showed millions of people that sure, it’s fun to be a badass, but it’s also fun to identify with a flawed or ridiculous hero. Heroes whose virtues are in their quick wits and absurd sensibilities, heroes who embrace or ignore their own flaws, appreciate the absurdity of their existence, and turn their weaknesses into strengths. You’ll notice that, just like in the case of funny comic book heroes, a lot of these characters are funny animals, and that their powers tend towards the “super farts” end of the spectrum. They are not the heroes we deserve but the heroes who won’t be too embarrassed to fight Purple Tentacle when he tries to take over the world.

This realization that it’s fun, even poignant, to be a super goofus is an important one for the zeitgeist. For me it’s important because, in spite of 30 years practicing kung fu, it’s a lot closer to the way I see myself. It’s the old problem of Superman or Galahad– in competent hands, a nearly flawless hero can be interesting– he can have secret flaws, flawlessness can become a flaw. I think it’s easier to appreciate Batman or Lancelot, though– heroes that make mistakes, feel pain and get their hands dirty. By this same virtue, it’s even easier for me to appreciate Howard the Duck– not at all super, a small, frustrated, reasonably smart, angry guy who can barely make a living and can’t have a conversation that doesn’t begin with “You’re– you’re a duck!” He’s depressed, mean, and half the time he’s hard to be around, and sometimes he only holds on by the skin of his teeth– and ducks don’t have teeth. He still never gives up, amazingly, and even though it’s a thankless job he saves the world– a world he never made– as often as it needs saving.

And then he runs for president.

And then he runs for president.

We need heroes who are halfway ridiculous, halfway losers. I think most of the smart people I know have spent more time than they should seeing themselves in exactly that light. That’s why people like a good underdog story, and that’s why it’s satisfying to see someone as ridiculous as Ant-Man holding his own in a fight with Tony Stark in Civil War— though he should’ve flooded the Iron Man armor with ants, just sayin’. And that’s why we need these heroes to remind ourselves that, losers or not, we can make a difference. We can win.

Who we definitely aren’t is Superman. It’s good to have aspirations and inspirations; as long as we don’t imagine that some hero– imaginary or otherwise– is going to save the world without any work on our part. Believing in the best in all of us is always worthwhile. We still aren’t Superman, though. We are Frog-Man, blundering into villains and never quite giving up. We are Deadpool, dark humor pouring out of every orifice as we sit in traction in a hospital bed. We are Howard, we are Darkwing, we are Ma Hunkel, we are Guybrush, we are Rocket.

When we are very very lucky, we are Groot.