On Heroes 3: Secret Wars

I’d never written an encyclopedia article before last week. My 2,000 word entry for The Encyclopedia of Black Comics was enthusiastically accepted. It’s a good feeling, getting a job done; Sheena Howard was extremely kind and looking over her credentials, I’m very happy to be a small part of her big thing.

Here’s the thing about a biographical article, though. You leave a lot out.

You don’t speculate. You report but don’t observe. And you don’t draw many, if any, conclusions. You research the facts of a person’s life, organize them, write them– conclusions and lessons learned are the readers’ jobs. You don’t sing a man’s praises.

You don’t judge.

And yet, here I am.

By George Herriman – Image from GreatCaricatures.com, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10471525

When I picked George Herriman I didn’t think it was a difficult article. As the creator of Krazy Kat, Herriman’s famous enough that I figured resources would be abundant. I was ignorant enough going in that I didn’t even realize that Herriman was black. I didn’t string together the facts of his time, place, and race at all until I started reading. I put in my requests for library books, looked in encyclopedias, did preliminary research online. A picture began to emerge– blurry, strange, contradictory and unconvincing.

herriman_1902 mothman-jpeg

Herriman and Mothman– separated at birth?

Herriman was born in New Orleans; his parents were French-speaking “Creoles of color.” On his birth certificate he is “colored.” When he was 13, his family moved to Los Angeles, and census records show that the Herriman family was white from that point forward.

The great, ugly fact my brain had failed to process is simple and terrible. Race had huge legal consequences in the late 19th and early 20th century. Regardless of his skin color, Herriman was a black man on paper, and as crappy as racism still is today it has nothing on the legally required racism of past America. In a time before instant access to information, the light-skinned Herrimans were escaping the prison of a corrupt and racist system. Hooray?

On the one hand, they were literally claiming their basic human rights. On the other, they were (figuratively) abandoning millions of people caught in the same corrupt and dehumanizing system. Not that they could have helped anyone by staying in New Orleans, but… there’s a moral trade off in joining a corrupt privileged class. An endorsement of the system implicit in joining the system’s “good” side.

I’d be a huge asshole if I blamed them. Not just for the obvious reasons of white privilege. When my wife was researching my family tree, she found a similar situation. A second husband– to my knowledge not a blood relative, but certainly family– had moved two counties over in the 1880s and stopped being an “Indian.” He was white on paper from then on.

Sadly and tellingly, I was disappointed to realize that I had an American Indian relative but no native blood in me. For a brief moment I mourned the loss of my 1/16th Cherokee identity– a status that imparts minority cred to those of us with rosy cheeks and blue-eyed daughters, but still preserves us from any associated hardship. Oh how lucky I would be, to be able to trot that out when it was convenient while still cashing all of my white privilege checks at the Race Bank.

My point is I grinned when I saw how step-great-great grandpappy Tandy had slipped the noose that race had put around his neck. I didn’t see any of the unintended consequences of his actions. Looking at Herriman’s life made me realize their reality.

Because the smartest part of me is my wife, she’s the one who asked if Herriman’s wife knew about his secret. After much hemming and hawing, I was forced to admit she probably did not. He met her after his move to LA, and I can only imagine the conversations the young adolescent George’s parents had with their children prior to and during their move. “No one can know,” must have been the refrain. They could be prosecuted, persecuted, lynched. George’s wife, Mabel, was Caucasian and– as much as they obviously loved each other– he could have lost her if the truth had come out.

I don’t think this secret grew like a cancer at the heart of their marriage. All the evidence points to George and Mabel being quiet people; all the pictures look like pictures of a family filled with love. Still, I can’t imagine keeping something fundamental to my identity from my spouse the way George Herriman did.

If his racial identity was fundamental to his identity.

The documentary OJ Simpson: Made in America talks about how O.J. essentially left his black identity behind, starting in college if not before. He didn’t date black women, he marketed himself to white audiences, he didn’t even have any pictures of black people in his house– until, you know, his defense team told him to get some. Not surprisingly, I think Herriman was a much better guy than O.J. “the convicted felon” Simpson. Still, once Herriman reached early adolescence it was his job to deny his racial background. As he got older, and incredibly successful– he owned a mansion, met Frank Capra, was admired by Woodrow Wilson, lived next door to John Huston– Herriman’s secret identity must have only been a threat to him and his children. He had much more to lose than his parents ever did. Race was the strange fact that could discredit him, destroy him, take everything away. Obviously, I can’t imagine what that was like; obviously, I’m trying.

There’s a loss there. Not just that Herriman consciously severed ties to his heritage so he could vanish into white society. His children almost certainly never knew about the family secret– you can’t reveal a secret you don’t know. On his death certificate his daughter Mabel (yes, the daughter was named for the mother) wrote that her father’s father was from Paris and his mother from Alsace-Lorraine. When Herriman’s friend Tad Dorgan wrote a playful article about Herriman, he wrote “we didn’t know what he was, so I named him the Greek, and he still goes by that name.” I’m talking about a loss of honesty, a loss of intimacy throughout Herriman’s life.

Herriman came to New York in 1900 and his career as a cartoonist really started in 1901. Everything before that is peppered with anecdotes– how George lost his job as a baker because he baked a mouse into a loaf of bread or ate too many cream puffs, how George came to New York on a freight train, hurt himself when he fell off a trellis painting signs, worked as a carnival barker on Coney Island. These unverifiable stories filter inconsistently into Herriman’s various online biographies and origin myths. I think of them as misdirections– they all sound like things Herriman’s comics characters would do. This is speculation at its rankest, but it feels like Herriman was obfuscating his origins, spinning stories about himself in place of revealing any facts about his past and family.

George Herriman was a gentleman in every sense of the word that matters, a quiet, funny, kind soul. A fully realized artist and probably the most influential comics creator ever to work in newspapers. He created an incredible 24 comic strips throughout his lifetime, often running concurrently; Krazy Kat ran for 31 years. He also illustrated magazine covers, painted gorgeous watercolors, collaborated on a ballet, wrote film reviews, illustrated books of poetry. He’s still my hero at the end of the day. Without him, I doubt Peanuts would have existed; I doubt Will Eisner would have invented graphic novels. I have nothing but admiration for George Herriman.

Nothing but admiration and questions and sympathy for his secrets and his lies.

On Heroes 2: Scott’s Pilgrimage


This is a rewrite of an article I wrote for UNC’s Games4Learning Blog a few years back. Evidently, I was the last person to update that blog, in 2011. I oughtta see if I can help them out. Anyhow, in that Scott Pilgrim’s life imitates video games, that wasn’t a bad home for this piece. This is a better one.

I’m very interested in heroes and their opposite numbers. Especially in the cape-and-tights set, a good hero is often defined by his villains. What would Batman be without The Joker? The Fantastic Four without Doctor Doom? Captain Sunshine without Boggles the Clue Clown? Their relationships can be simple or complex, allegorical or abstract, literal or symbolic. I could be reductive and say it’s all about the struggle between good and evil and… I wouldn’t be wrong? I also wouldn’t be illuminating anything new. At the very least, the types of good and evil heroes and villains represent are important. Which brings us to to Scott Pilgrim and the Seven Evil Exes.

Scott Pilgrim is a successful graphic novel series from Oni Press, written and drawn by Bryan Lee O’Malley, detailing the adventures of Canadian 20-something congenitally awesome slacker Scott Pilgrim. Scott is given an unexpected mission in life when his new girlfriend announces that he must fight/defeat her Seven Evil Exes if he wants to date her. What follows is a series of video game style battles, full of super powers and sometimes robots, as Scott tries to move towards both having a real life and winning not just cartoon fights but also self respect and Ramona’s heart.

It’s good stuff. The comic series ran from 2004 to 2010; the movie was released in 2010 and is similarly good. Not as weird and nuanced as the comic series, certainly, but it did a nice job translating the story, characters, and weird Anime video game atmosphere to the screen. Plus it’s funny, which always wins points in my world. Humor is that spoonful of sugar that lets us savor complex ideas instead of pulling out a shotgun and shooting them down the moment they appear on the horizon. Literally? Yes probably. Humans are a superstitious, cowardly lot but– to our credit– we love to laugh.

Except for his unexplained super powers, Scott is a pretty regular guy. An affable underachiever, he’s clearly scared of growing up; wearing out his friends’ generosity. A good guy, to be sure, but also a guy who’s learning that being a good guy is not enough in life. In short, he’s a post-teenage Everyman, architect of his own wasteland. Ramona Flowers is the person that finally fires Scott’s ambition and drags him, somewhat reluctantly, towards becoming his own person. Of course, he has some obstacles to overcome along the way.

What do Scott’s villains, the Seven Evil Exes, reveal about him? Well, the early Christian hermits known as the Desert Fathers came up with something known as the Seven Deadly Sins; when Captain Marvel approaches the Rock of Eternity they’re the Seven Deadly Enemies of Man. Either way, they are ready-made for allegories, inner forces for ordinary people to face down or succumb to.

When Saul Bunyan wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress, he didn’t quite talk about the Seven Deadlies by name. Instead of Lust, his character is named Wanton, instead of Pride he lists Pride-of-Life and early contender for worst-named supervillain, Mr. Self-Will. Instead of  a girl named Envy, Bunyan writes about a character named… Envy. So yeah, you get the idea.

Scott’s villains are parts of himself. Using the black and white morality of old-school console games as an allegory, O’Malley is giving his readers a post-modern story that resists simple answers. And yet, here we are. For the record, I know Scott’s name comes from a song by Plumtree, but in a story all about self knowledge and self growth, the parallels between the Evil Exes and the Deadly Sins– intended or not– are too good to ignore. Some of the bad guys– Envy Adams, Todd Ingram, Gideon Graves– even have allegorical or semi-allegorical names. This time, though, the hero isn’t trying to be a good Christian. He’s trying to be an adult, a good guy, and finding that morality you learn from fight games (don’t show initiative, just fight the bad guys in the order they’re handed to you) is not exactly getting the job done. Before long he’s winning all the fights and losing Ramona (and his friends’ respect) at the same time.

The Seven Evil Exes. From Matthew Patel to Gideon Gordon Graves, a few of them are characters in their own right, but mostly they represent parts of Scott, just like the even more obvious Nega-Scott (no, really!) that Scott grapples with in an effort to  keep himself from learning anything from his past. Scott doesn’t like learning– learning HURTS! He still plugs away, though; as the story advances, the Exes become harder to defeat as they force Scott to confront distasteful parts of himself. The Evil Exes are a part of Scott. And Ramona. And especially that sarcastibastard Gideon.

Here’s the breakdown as I see it. Since this is “original research” (also known as opinion) feel free to tell me how wrong I am.


1) Matthew Patel=Wrath. Matthew comes busting through the wall at Club Rockit, summoning hipster demon ladies, throwing fireballs and wanting nothing more than to incinerate Scott. He’s a pure engine of rage, and for all of his magic powers, can’t do much against Scott. Why? Scott just doesn’t have a lot of anger in him to exploit. Not this early in the story, anyway…





lucas_lee2) Lucas Lee=Pride. The full-of-himself Hollywood actor and pro-skater is almost too much for Scott to handle. However, he’s easily manipulated into his suicidal run down the Casa Loma stair rails on his skateboard. Why does Scott have so much trouble fighting him head on, when Scott has so little to be proud about? Maybe there are some sins we can’t challenge head on without falling victim to them. That seems to fit Pride’s bill.



todd_ingram3) Todd Ingram=Envy. Since Todd is Scott’s ex’s boyfriend, and said ex is named Envy, this one is kind of a gimme. Todd has everything Scott thinks he wants. He’s a bass player in a successful band. He has actual musical skills, and a beautiful rock star girlfriend who also happens to have broken Scott’s heart. Incredible psychic powers somehow based in Veganism. And of course Todd also envies us carnivores our gelato… which is Gluttony? Greed?

Hmm. Yeah, even though this is a post-modern non-allegory I’m analyzing and I don’t have to make everything fit together perfectly, I still think this works out. See Evil Ex #7 for details.



Roxanne_Roxie_Richter4) Roxy Richter=Lust. Yes, even her name kind of makes me think of sex, the kind that makes the earth shake. Roxy is Ramona’s only female ex, which Scott thinks of as her “sexy phase.” In his immaturity, Scott has the same fascination with lesbians that a lot of young dudes have. Need I go on? I’d rather not. However, considering Scott’s infamous confusion of the L-Word “love” with the L-Word “lesbians,” I don’t think this is a bankrupt point.





pilgrim_twins5) and 6) Kyle and Ken Katayanagi=Gluttony and Sloth. Maybe? The Katayanagi twins are complicated.

They’re arrogant, conjuring up images of Pride. They’ve dedicated themselves to a kind of cooperative revenge on Ramona, which is Wrathful but also kinda… admirable? One is dark, the other light, representing a Yin and Yang motif. And they build punchbots, which is just cool and a good use of their time. Except in the movie they’re musicians with no dialog who summon some kinda ice dragon to fight Sex Bob-omb. Post-modernism again? Bah.

Gluttony and Sloth themselves do make good twins. One is ebb the other flow, consumption followed by laziness, gorging ourselves at Thanksgiving then falling comatose on the couch. Interestingly, the twins won’t even fight Scott themselves for most of the story, throwing egregious robot after robot at him to do their work for him while they attend self-indulgent party after party. It’s an interesting combination of the two sins in one.

Since Scott has a fair portion of these sins, not to mention the other sins they overflow into, no wonder they’re so hard for him to beat. Of course, he’s made significant progress defeating his tendency towards Sloth at this point, starting with when he abandons his lazy kind-sorta relationship with Knives Chao and starts pursuing Ramona. But then he kinda tried to have his new girlfriend while not breaking up with his old one and he’s still a huge food mooch. Gluttonous.

At the end of the day, maybe the twins are just tough to defeat because there’s two of them and they cheat a lot. Hard to say.

gideon_graves7) Gideon Graves=Greed. Yeah, no way around this one. If it exists, Gideon wants to own it. Not just Ramona, not just Ramona and Envy (whom he enjoys showing off his ownership of by dressing her up like a doll). He puts his logo on everything he can, even Scott (via t-shirt). He wants to own music, he wants to own the world… oh yeah, and he has all of those frozen Future Girlfriends in storage. He really does want to have it all!

And so does Scott. Or at the very least, he wants all of Ramona, and wants her for himself. Scott wants to keep his past and still have a future. He still exerts a kind of ownership over his friend Kim Pine, long after he should have let her go. Gideon’s the king of self-loathing, the self-defeating thing inside us that we hate, and he has a way of infiltrating everyone– even the other Exes. He made them greedy for the revenge he offered them, got inside them, committed them to his corrupt agenda. No wonder so few of them represent just one sin– Greed/Self-Loathing’s at the heart of it all, and it won’t even let sins stay pure.

For Scott, his resentment of Ramona keeping any part of herself hidden from him almost sends her away forever, to a place not even Gideon knew about or could follow (until, being Gideon, he could). Self-hate is Scott’s ultimate evil. Highlighting Gideon’s status as a final boss, his “GGG” logo is a modified “666″ that he marks everyone with. Self-loathing is Scott and Ramona’s devil, their judgement, their Beast. They have to become less selfish together, less stuck in their own heads, to defeat Gideon.

Wait… doesn’t Gideon=Greed? Maybe they hate themselves because they see themselves as greedy? Or… wait. I know this one.



On Heroes 3: Plumbing the Depths of Funny

I’ve been doing more research on Funny Heroes for my panel at Coeur d’Con on Saturday, August 13 (1:30pm). I’ve always believed in the power of comedy but I’ve been pleasantly surprised. There’s treasure buried here.

It’s common knowledge, both for nerds and norms, that Superman’s appearance in Action Comics #1 (April 1938) marked the advent of the superhero. Nothing quite like him had ever been seen before– though the ancient Greek hero Herakles might beg to differ. That said, the costume, the powers, the comics medium– it was a potent combination that set the stage for all the superhuman heroes that followed him.

Not for the comics superhumans that preceded him, though.

Two major funny heroes graced the funny pages before The Man of Steel rewrote the book on comic books. Al Capp’s L’il Abner’s super strength and resilience probably had some influence on the Man of Steel. However, what I’d overlooked up until this point is that the king of the funny heroes preceded The Man of Tomorrow by almost 10 years.

Adventures of Popeye by Segar, E. C.

He is what he is.

Popeye lacks some of the traditional superheroic qualities. He doesn’t wear a costume– sailor suits don’t count if you’re an actual sailor– or conceal his identity. He doesn’t have a mission statement– the closest thing he has to Batman’s oath to wage war on crime or Green Lantern’s pledge is his simple “I yam what I yam.” He’s so small and homely that other characters frequently make fun of him and he has a kind of negative sex appeal built into his DNA. When not directly confronting evil he loses his moral compass. And yeah, when he’s not actively adventuring he’s basically a shiftless bum.

But his appearance in Thimble Theatre on January 17, 1929 was an important way station on the way towards the creation of the superhero. Popeye is super strong, nearly indestructible,and he hates bullies. He’s kind to animals, loyal to a fault, and he loves to fight. He looks out for the little guy and he’s utterly fearless, constantly seeking out danger and adventure. And, outside of the formulaic animations most people know him from, he almost NEVER CARED ABOUT SPINACH!

Sorry to shout. It was just a stupidly unfunny thing for the cartoons to fixate on. I should probably schedule a compare/contrast article on the differences between Segar’s newspaper strips and the cartoons. Little known fact: Olive Oyl, the perpetual hostage/victim in almost every one of the Sailor’s animated adventures (premiering in 1932, 8 years before Batman introduced the first super-kidnappable teen sidekick in 1940) was actually a badass in the comics. Yes, Popeye sometimes rescued her, and yes she screamed for help a lot, but a lot of the fights ended with her assailants hollering while she punched the poop out of them… while they both screamed for help.

That’s what they call a digression, isn’t it? I digressed.

Even not considering his probable influence on (Superman’s creators) Schuster and Siegel, Popeye’s influence on humor and adventure comics would be profound. Characters and creations as diverse as Asterix and Obelix, Dick Tracy, Uncle Scrooge and Terry and the Pirates owe clear debts to the grotesque nautical hero– I’d include Tintin as well, but it turns out he premiered exactly one week before Popeye, on January 10, 1929. Must have been something in the transatlantic water supply.

As a prototype for superheroes Popeye’s especially interesting because he’s also a kind of super-loser. He always ends up on top of his villains, sure, but Popeye’s status quo is profoundly depressing; the Great Depression was looming when he was created but even before the bottom fell out of the market it was hard to imagine Popeye as a guy with a real future. He’s practically homeless and completely unambitious; he has gambling problems and while he frequently earns or is rewarded large sums of money, he also immediately loses any cash he finds… or, demonstrating a kind of pathological generosity, gives it away and starts sponging off of his friends again. It took literal years before his most famous love, Olive Oyl, deigned to notice him and even then she had trouble believing in him. Worse, because of his physical resilience, she felt free to physically abuse him– in a lot of the comics, Popeye actually seems a little afraid of Olive. It’s weird stuff.

Then there’s the matter of the first Funny Superhero. It’s not like anyone keeps clear records on things like this, but there are several contenders. Captain Marvel, for example, brought a sense of whimsy to his adventures that I’ve always loved… but he didn’t show up until 1940. Plastic Man is an even later arrival– 1941. Funny animal The Terrific Whatzit? 1944. I thought it was Johnny Thunder– an incompetent with godlike powers, let me take this opportunity to dub Johnny Thunder inspirational for everyone from Inspector Gadget to Bat-Mite– for awhile, with his relatively early appearance in January of 1940.

But no. The first funny superhero appears to have been a fat, vaguely ethnic mom who was inspired by her kids’ adoration of the Green Lantern.

You saw where I was headed with this? Nerd.

You saw where I was headed with this? Nerd.

Ma Hunkel, aka the Golden Age Red Tornado, didn’t just inspire the weird robot hero you saw on Young Justice. She was also likely the first female superhero, first appearing in June of 1939– a full year and a half before Wonder Woman. Like Popeye before her, she started out as a supporting character in a strip with a wider cast (Sheldon Mayer’s Scribbly) but her unexpected popularity meant that her adventures soon took over the strip in its entirety. She’s also the second cross-dressing hero, for what it’s worth– her bulky costume meant that she was universally mistaken for a man.

Make no mistake, part of the joke is that Ma Hunkel is a really butch lady who is almost unnaturally strong. And yes, she’s also kind of clumsy, and makes rookie mistakes like falling off a ledge when she’s trying to make an impressive entrance. This is the kind of thing that Frank Miller plays straight in Batman: Year One, though, and I don’t think anyone would argue that the Dark Knight is the butt of the joke there. Most of the time, the funny in Red Tornado adventures comes from the incompetence of the cops and crooks that surround The Red Tornado, and the fact that becoming an accidental superhero kind of takes over Ma Hunkel’s life. People laugh at her weight, call her the “Red Tomato,” but she triumphs through her own effort and competence, with only a little bit of luck in the mixture.

I’ve never thought of Wonder Woman as a step backwards for female heroes before, but when I look at the confident, smart, non-beautiful, and fully-clothed character described above I kind of have to think twice. This is the power of comedy. You can be outwardly ridiculous and not just get away with ideas that people would reject in a serious context, but give an audience the chance to unashamedly love something they might otherwise feel obligated to hate. It’s not like newspaper readers in 1939 were more progressive than comics readers are today (I HOPE?) but I don’t think a serious, respectful book about a cross-dressing fat lady hero would thrive today.

Holy long underwear! Funny business can be serious stuff.

On Heroes 2: Tick-le Me Fancy


My friend Steph pointed out a critical omission from my essay on funny heroes. The subject of a successful comic, several spin-off series, an animated series and an underfunded live-action sit-com, Ben Edlund’s The Tick is too significant to ignore. The hero whose power set can be summed up as “nigh-invulnerable” + “I. Am. Mighty!” and whose moral compass always points to “Spoon!” is perhaps the greatest of all funny heroes. While the character himself is– and is partnered with– a lovable loser, he hardly belongs in the same category as Bananaman or The Inferior Five. He’s closer in spirit to The Venture Brothers (which Edlund has also had a hand in creating), though unlike VB his stories are not about failure but about unlikely triumph. I can’t think of another franchise that so perfectly combines loving genre-mockery with truly likable heroes. Cult hero? Most certainly. The Saturday morning cartoon was the highest profile product with The Big Blue Bug of Justice’s name on it, and it lasted 2 seasons. But oh, it is so good… and it isn’t even the best example of Tickness.

If your local library does not have The Tick: The Complete Edlund Edition then buy it for a loved one and then read it yourself. I’ll say nothing against the animated series and little against the Warburton live action, but nothing compares to those original issues written and drawn by Ben Edlund. It ends on a cliff hanger, which is sad but I understand it– Edlund started making TV money and has since written/produced for such luminaries of geekdom as AngelFirefly, and many of the best and funniest episodes of SupernaturalThe Tick comics were both a means to an end and a labor of love. Tracing the character’s path of development in the comics is as fascinating as it is hilarious, as he starts out as a super-powered mental patient (but, you know, funny), transitions immediately to nigh-invulnerable Daffy Duck (or, as Superman-spoof Clark Oppenheimer observes, Woody Woodpecker), before meeting his loyal sidekick Arthur and finding a kind of equilibrium. The Tick will never be in touch with reality or truly competent, but he is among the best superheroes in his world, the most competent in a world where superheroes are more of a burden than a blessing.

The pudgy hero we need AND deserve.

The pudgy hero we need AND deserve.

Why is The Tick funny? The character himself is magnetic– it’s obvious that he does have a sort of greatness to him. He’s more Powerpuff than Gadget, more Freakazoid than Ambush Bug. With accountant-turned-sidekick Arthur there to dilute his terrible enthusiasm, to provide reason to an unreasonable world, he can actually help solve real problems. He also looks like a superhero and acts exactly like he thinks a hero should– 7 feet tall and bulging with improbable muscles, nothing ever hurts The Tick for any appreciable amount of time. Doing things properly– witty repartee, letting villains escape so you can fight them again later, obeying convention at all times– is far more important to The Tick’s original incarnation than anything concrete like ending poverty or saving the world. He’s unimaginative but deranged, with surprising bursts of creativity applied to minor problems– fighting muggers with noogies– and bigger problems ignored or otherwise left to burn themselves out. He’s certainly Good, just in the least inspired way possible.

In short, he’s a typical superhero stripped down to bare bones, set down in a world as ridiculous as himself.

Edlund displayed an impressive mastery of superhero tropes from the beginning. His early pairing with ninja-teen Oedipus Ashley Stevens to take on an incompetent ninja clan was a parody of Frank Miller’s Elektra storyline in Daredevil, but not knowing that didn’t make the comics less funny. A bunch of ninjas disguised as a hedge sells itself.  Likewise, the mad scientist filled town of Monolith, Iowa and over-the-top hero-hater The Chainsaw Vigilante were full of references and subtexts but required zero explanation to enjoy. Absurdism taken just far enough, they were easy to laugh at but also had a way of sticking inside the human mind, forcing us to think about all those gems Edlund effortlessly snuck into them.

Oedipu aka Not Elektra

Oedipus aka Not Elektra

The Chainsaw Vigilante-- exactly what he sounds like.

The Chainsaw Vigilante– exactly what he sounds like.

There are signs in the comics that the original vision for The Tick was weirdly dark. Short mini-comics embedded in the issues– a weird post-apocalyptic version of “Yogi’s Ark” called “Perfect Place,” a horror comic about The Red Eye that is less parody and more unadulterated oddity, at least until Tick and Arthur pick up the titular character hitchhiking and give him the full Woody Woodpecker treatment. Then there’s the original intent behind Arthur. I read an interview once where Edlund confessed that he’d planned to kill Arthur after a few issues, to take the character and make him a voice in The Tick’s head. He was supposed to become a giant inside The Tick’s mind, Tick’s image of a perfect superhero directing Tick to do terrible and heroic things. Oh yeah– and there were hints that Canada was turning into an authoritarian evil, opening Amish internment camps. Stuff like that.

I’m glad the comic and character went in a different direction– by the late 1980s comics fans were already drowning in darkness and grit– but it’s interesting to know those layers are there. To know that even the airiest parody can have textures and angles best left unexplored. Clay Griffith actually created a near-perfect parody of grim 90s superheroes in the Tick spin-off comic The Man-Eating Cow. His reformed “too mean for prime time” hero, The Crime Cannibal served as both a stand-in for The Tick and as a naive hero trying to keep others off the dark path he started down. A combination of great dialog and skillful manipulation of tropes made this and Griffith’s Paul the Samurai series worthwhile reads. Unfortunately, they were short-lived, but they live on in my heart.

I’ve met Edlund and Griffith. When I was working as a library assistant at North Carolina State University, I had the good fortune to glance at the ID I was checking books out to and recognized Clay Griffith’s name. When I unashamedly asked the tall, bearded Southern gentleman before me if he had written the Man-Eating Cow comics, he soberly replied that he had. Over the years I’ve made a point of it to say hello at conventions, keep up with his writing. I’m not really a fan of the Vampire Empire novels he and his wife have authored, but I think they’re worth mentioning. I’m still looking for their Deadlands novel, Banshee Screams.

I met Edlund very briefly at Comic Con; he was signing books at New England Comics’ table. He looked tired, as tired as day 3 awash in a sea of nerds can make a man. There was no sign identifying him, no line. My late friend Christopher J. Reilly had written a Tick story and sent me over because he knew I was a big fan. Ben was gracious as he grunted and signed a book I bought specifically for that purpose– I was well past my autograph hunting stage at that point, but this was special to me. I told him that The Tick had inspired me to write comics, something he’d heard a thousand times before. He still gave me a small smile. I wish I’d mentioned that I thought “Smile Time” was the best episode of Angel, Firefly’s “Jaynestown” some of the best writing ever on television.

Ah well. We do what we do. Thanks for all the Ticks, gentlemen.

There was a more recent “New Tick” comic book series, written by Benito Cereno and drawn by Les McClaine in a convincingly Edlundesque fashion back in 2010. It deserves a mention, but I haven’t read it. It’s already over and was never collected into a trade so I’m probably not going to go looking for it. Arthur’s death was apparently a plot point in the series– a plot point that Edlund specifically considered and rejected– so there’s another reason not to bother. I am looking forward to the upcoming Amazon live-action series. The Tick’s absurd humor is different from most current superhero comedies– instead of over-the-top violence, The Tick typically brings bizarre banter and ridiculous non-threatening villains. Early press for the upcoming series does indicate that this series is going to be darker than its television predecessors. Obviously that could go in a bad direction but, as I’ve noted above, the original comics had their bizarro dark side so I’m hopeful. Especially with Edlund in the creative mix, the Amazon series could be the best Tick-thing in a very long time.

Man, I hope he fights Multiple Santa.

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.