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.

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