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Superheroes and Laughter

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Superheroes and Laughter

Superheroes are not, as a rule, funny. Or rather while individual characters may use humor, the genre is not a, so to speak, comical one. Sure Batman was campy for a while on TV and there was Howard the Duck …'nuff said. There are a ton of examples of humorous heroes, but what sells is brooding, angst and turmoil. And black and white. And in this seriousness, even behind the laughs, is a (perhaps antiquated) moral stance that seems permeate mainstream comics. That is not to say there are not self-reflective heroes or meta-critiques of what it means to be a god among humans (The Watchmen for instance), only that most of those insights still seem to be within a less than light-hearted framework. I would love suggestions in the comments for truly funny looks at what it means to be superhuman.

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Humor and Parody

Humor is difficult to do well. Having watched 150+ episodes of Comedy Central Presents, I might even say humor is difficult to do moderately well. Parody may be somewhat easier, as you have timeworn material and convenient tropes to work with, but the writers and producers of Epic Movie and other such drivel demonstrate with clarity-inducing pain that parody cannot prevail with ham-fisted stupidity in the driver's seat. Or something like that.

The Pro415.jpg

Which brings me to The Pro. By Garth Ennis. This is an adult comic book. Really. Language, nudity, sex, urination, violence, a few of my favorite things. This books is intentionally and noisily offensive and yet, peel away the over-the-top trappings and you find an exploration of the morality and hypocrisy of superheroes. A humorous exploration.

The protagonist is a waitress by day and streetwalker by night, trying to survive as a single mother. A parody of the Watcher wages a kind of reverse Jobian bet with his robot companion and grants the woman superpowers. A Justice League-like band, the League of Honor, finds her and assumes her heroic powers compel her to follow their morality, a notion disabused quite quickly.

All of the superhero conventions are in place. The League has it's god-like Saint; it's dark, brooding avenger; it's heroic Amazon. They fight a group of super-villains, their arch-enemies; a lone psychopath; and terrorists. Someone makes a heroic sacrifice and there is much talk of right and wrong. The thing is, The Pro is not motivated by ideals no one can live up to, she is motivated by the pragmatic reality of her previous existence.

There are numerous scenes that are quite funny, some in their shock value, some in their lampooning of classic characters, some for both reasons. Character reactions, a look, a background image—the art work contributes a great deal to the enjoyment. And an illustration of an idea from Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex makes Larry Niven's point all the more obvious, in a completely crude but effective panel.

The Pro versus The Ho

While I enjoyed the skewering of pompous hypocrisy, the examination of “realistic” reactions to the sudden flowering of super powers and the many jokes at the industry's expense, I was not fond of the follow up: The Pro Versus The Ho. It lacked many of the deeper considerations that made the first work. I felt like it was trying too hard. It felt lost, without point except to offend. Which sometimes is an ok thing, but in this case it just left me unentertained.

Check out "The Pro" on Amazon

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Look no farther than Ben Edlund, dude.

THE TICK

One of the first superhero comics I ever bought, just because of its hilarity to me. The cartoon TV show was also very good, for the most part. The live action show...not so much, IMO.

One of the best parody superheroes ever.

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Superheroes and humor don't always mix as well as they could, because superheroes are the relatives/precursors of the action movies, and action movies are rarely funny on purpose, with a few exceptions.

Action movies are funny as a way of relieving tension, and oftentimes an inept action movie becomes funny by accident, but fundamentally action movies are about shocking amounts of violence so the protagonist gets what they want (often justice, often revenge - the two prime motivations for superheroes, too.) That's not that funny on the surface of it.

For superheroes, the tension is even more taut than it is in action movies. At least in action movies people only DO ridiculous things like survive being shot. Superheroes do even more ridiculous things and look ridiculous too, and oftentimes the stakes are even higher - entire cities, if not the whole damn world, ready to die if the hero doesn't pull through. There are funny superheroes, to be sure - Spider-Man being the most famous example - but comedy isn't the driving point of their existence. Spider-Man doesn't get into a fight with Doctor Octopus because it's open mike night at Yuk Yuk's, but because Doctor Octopus is up to something bad and Spider-Man cracking jokes during the fight is just him being him.

So it doesn't surprise me that some fans don't want comedy in their superheroes because they are into the serious aspects of it, while other people like comedic superheroes because how else can you enjoy a story of a guy in blue tights punching other tights-wearing people out? I have run into this problem in gaming too. Bringing a character like, say, Knockout into a world like Aberrant which is sold as Serious Shit, Baby creates clashes that are tough to solve.

As for The Pro, I'm usually a fan of Garth Ennis' work, but The Pro felt mean-spirited and slightly hypocritical, talking about how superheroes were childish and juvenile while making jokes about all the Johns a hooker can see when she has super-speed. I also took issue with the scene where the Pro criticizes the superheroes for not stopping the World Trade Center from blowing up, as if a fictional character could leap off the pages and go solve a real world problem. It's like asking why Harry Potter doesn't use his powers to go find Osama Bin Laden. It's asking a fictional creation to do something it cannot do by design, then criticizing its failure to do so. It's the definition of a strawman argument.

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Garth Ennis seems to be following Warren Ellis' take on the negative aspects of the whole superhero/superpowers genre. IIRC, both writers seem to resent having to do supers comics in the first place, when they'd rather be doing science fiction. But since their supers-based work pays the bills & they have considerable creative freedom (understatement!), they just have a forum to express their dislike. A nice gig for them, but it gets old for the readers quick. I'm waiting for Supergod #5 not with anticipation as much as a morbid interest in how low Ellis will go for atrocity/shock value.

But dragging things back on topic, The Pro didn't seem to work as a parody of standard superhero comics AFAICT. Too much of it felt forced AFA the humor, but YMMV. That said, perhaps the concept would work better if revamped by a competent female author? While the aforementioned juvenile sex trade jokes would likely be scrapped, the perspective shift could only help.

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Originally Posted By: Sprocket
Garth Ennis seems to be following Warren Ellis' take on the negative aspects of the whole superhero/superpowers genre. IIRC, both writers seem to resent having to do supers comics in the first place, when they'd rather be doing science fiction. But since their supers-based work pays the bills & they have considerable creative freedom (understatement!), they just have a forum to express their dislike. A nice gig for them, but it gets old for the readers quick. I'm waiting for Supergod #5 not with anticipation as much as a morbid interest in how low Ellis will go for atrocity/shock value.


Agreed, but I find Ennis to be particularly hypocritical. When he did Punisher he didn't have to include Spiderman or Daredevil but made sure to do so in order to have the normal human beat the superhumans. It's absurd. Read his Punisher Kills the Marvel Universe to see how shamelessly rabid he is in his hate for super-types. His willingness to write superhero comics makes me shake my head in wonder.

And if you want to check out a truly vitriolic (but still well done) attack on four color comic books check out his The Boys done by Dynamite Comics.

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Originally Posted By: VileBill
Agreed, but I find Ennis to be particularly hypocritical. When he did Punisher he didn't have to include Spiderman or Daredevil but made sure to do so in order to have the normal human beat the superhumans. It's absurd. Read his Punisher Kills the Marvel Universe to see how shamelessly rabid he is in his hate for super-types. His willingness to write superhero comics makes me shake my head in wonder.
Like I said, it's a good gig for him. Ennis gets to befoul the supers genre - in much the same manner as a family pet will befoul a nice rug or carpet - & get paid a very decent amount of money for doing so. There are still enough new people buying his comics to make anything with his name on it profitable.

Quote:
And if you want to check out a truly vitriolic (but still well done) attack on four color comic books check out his The Boys done by Dynamite Comics.
Yah, I read the first few issues before giving up in disgust. It seemed to divide all of humanity (powered and otherwise) into either sociopaths or victims, with the latter state being inevitable - and often fatal - and the survivors becoming the former if they want to be at all effective. High production values aside, it was a waste of wood pulp - the comics equivalent of the movie Requiem For A Dream, if you will. Read it once, then never look at it again.

Returning to the topic of The Pro, it'd be interesting to see an expy of her written by a competent female writer in a setting such as Astro City. In that way maybe some actual "slice of life" humor could be used instead of the male juvenilia we saw in The Pro. (Shoot, even just using female juvenilia would make for a nice change!) Irrationally optimistic of me, but hey.

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