See You in the Funny Pages

See You in the Funny Pages

All Apologies…

To those of you that were expecting the long-awaited MegaCon column here, a little mea culpa: I’m so far behind where I wanted to be on this column right now that it seems pointless to rehash the events of one (very fun) weekend nearly two months ago. What I plan to do, instead, is share anecdotes and photos from the con over the next several columns, especially as I plan to cover a lot of books I either picked up at the con or spent time speaking with creators about. Suffice to say, there will be plenty of things to talk about.

But now (to paraphrase a certain Circus of guys that are much wittier than I) for something completely different…

Comical Comics

The primary definition of “comic,” according to Webster’s, is “of or characteristic of comedy.” But the medium is dominated by non-humorous titles (or at least, comics that aren’t intentionally funny), and “funny books” that are actually, well, funny have been few and far between for some time, until recently. Thankfully, funny comics are experiencing something of a renaissance right now. Certainly, masters of the humor comic are still at work — both those that never went away, like the legendary Sergio Aragones, and those that are making a compelling return to form, as Steve Gerber has done by returning to his greatest creation, Howard The Duck (don’t let the ’80s Lucasfilm fool you, Howard was originally one of the sharpest satires around, and Gerber’s new mini-series has the long-suffering anthropomorphic duck once again “trapped in a world he never made” — I plan to dedicate a full column to Howard‘s rebirth once the mini-series is complete).

Even more interesting are the up-and-coming younger guns that are taking the art form in new and different directions — from the macabre humor of Jhonen Vasquez (Johnny the Homicidal Maniac and Nickelodeon’s brilliant cartoon, Invader ZIM) and Roman Dirge (Lenore) to the off-the-wall work of the likes of Evan Dorkin (Dork, Milk & Cheese) and Tony Millionaire (Sock Monkey, Maakies), to the sharp pop-culture satire of Gail Simone (Killer Princesses, Deadpool), to name but a few.

Today, I’m taking a look at four new comics from some even-newer newcomers that were both intentionally funny and exceptionally well-done; two new books on the indie level, and two issues of one of the most mainstream super-hero books around.

Halo & Sprocket is a new series from writer/artist Kerry Callen, published by Slave Labor Graphics (generally a good house for humor comics — they publish the aforementioned Vasquez, Dirge, and Dorkin, as well as other fun titles like Little Gloomy and Ranklechick and His Three-Legged Cat). While some of the better-known Slave Labor books are noted for a darker (yet still funny) tone — Lenore is a little dead girl, Little Gloomy is populated with Archie Comics-like versions of monsters straight out of the Golden Age of Universal Studios horror films, and Johnny the Homicidal Maniac… well, that title should speak for itself — but Halo & Sprocket is decidedly lighter and more whimsical than those titles; yet it’s every bit as fun.

The three short stories in the newly-released first issue introduce you to Sprocket, a naïve but hugely intelligent robot; Halo, a super-powerful and friendly angel; and Katie, the human girl they live with. Halo and Sprocket both don’t really understand humanity, and in the issue’s three vignettes, they try to learn. It’s a simple premise that has virtually limitless potential, and Callen is off to a great start with it in this first issue. The first story, “Half Wits,” addresses the age-old question of “is the glass half-empty or half-full,” and Katie is both shocked and dismayed to find that Halo and Sprocket have some surprisingly precise answers to the question that have little to do with what we’ve come to think of as the underlying philosophy of the question. “Names” is a short meditation on the significance of names, both of products and of people — kind of a twist on the ol’ “with a name like Smuckers, it has to be good” line, but with a fun twist.

Finally, the longest story, “Exhibitions” has more of a plot to it than the first two (which are really more of character sketches). Halo and Sprocket decide to visit a museum. Unfortunately, having no concept of human laws, they do so in the middle of the night. Wacky hijinks ensue.

The book’s tone is very light and whimsical, and Callen’s clean, cartoony art suits the stories well. This first issue is a real winner in my book, and I’m looking forward to seeing what Callen does in future issues.

The back of the first issue of Halo & Sprocket includes several pin-ups of Halo, Sprocket, and Katie, including one by one of my favorite indie comics artists, Jim Mahfood. And coincidentally, he’s partially responsible for the next two books on our hit list today. In a rare shot at some mainstream work, Mahfood handles the art chores for Marvel Comics’ Peter Parker: Spider Man #42 and #43, a special two-part story written by newcomer Zeb Wells. Wells broke into comics by winning Wizard‘s video contest, and while that can be considered a dubious achievement, he’s quickly proving himself worthy of a shot at the big time (he also wrote an excellent — if somewhat more serious — recent issue of the ancillary Spider-Man anthology Tangled Web).

Battling a cold, Peter Parker (alias Spider-Man) is home vegging out in front of the television when he finds himself unable to turn away from the train wreck that is the “Sonic TV Beach House.” And it’s a lucky thing, too. It’s not long before a giant, sandy hand reaches up out of the beach and engulfs salacious R&B star “Crisqó.” While Spidey wants nothing more than to take a sick day, his conscience won’t let him, and it’s not long before he’s off to the Beach House to investigate.

OK, so yes, the story is little more than an excuse for Wells to spend two issues brutally satirizing currently popular music and MTV’s slate of so-called “programming,” but he does a good job of it, with some particularly wry commentary from Spidey and Sonic TV producer Teale Hunter. And no target is spared, from Britney Spears (cleverly renamed Tiffany Gibson in a reference nobody under 21 will ever get) to N’Sync, Kid Rock to Lenny Kravitz, and Mariah Carey to Puff Diddy (or whatever his name is this week). There’s even time for sly takes on Jerry Springer, Jackass, and TV charlatan psychic John Edwards. The jokes are fast, furious, and almost always hit their mark — with Spidey making the same kinds of remarks about the sad state of today’s “popular” music that most intelligent people in their late-20s/early-30s would make — were they clever enough.

Beyond that, though, Mahfood’s cartoony characterizations of the pop stars we love to hate really carry the day — he retains his own unique and wonderful style while still conveying the likenesses convincingly. Even without punny names, it would be impossible not to recognize who’s being made fun of here.

I had a lot of fun with these two issues. They should be required reading for anyone in the music biz or anyone that closely follows pop music. Topping them off with snazzy covers from the great Kyle Baker only sweetens the deal.

Finally, we move on to a book that satirizes super-heroes and the comics industry itself.

Devil’s Due Publishing has made quite a name for itself in a very short time. The company snagged the highly lucrative G.I. Joe license for a song because nobody in the comics industry realized exactly how big ’80s nostalgia could be (Dreamwave Productions quickly followed with Transformers, and now the industry is falling all over itself to find the next hot ’80s property). While I’m not now nor have I ever been a Joe fan, I’m really pleased to see the company paying its early success forward with its “Indy Line,” which takes advantage of the company’s high profile to give a spotlight to new characters, creators, and concepts. One of the Indy Line’s first books is called Lovebunny & Mr. Hell, a one-shot from writer/artist Tim Seely. If this is the kind of book that G.I. Joe money is being used to support, then I say, “Go, Joe!”

Lovebunny & Mr. Hell exist in a world somewhere between ours and that of The Tick (which would be an obvious influence on this book even if Lovebunny didn’t live on Edlund Avenue, named for The Tick‘s creator). Super-heroes are real, and their lives don’t appear to be too different from those of comics creators — or anyone else in an entertainment-related industry. Lovebunny is a formerly hugely popular teen sidekick who’s grown up and still trying to have a career as a super-hero. She’s kindhearted, and while she doesn’t have any super-powers, she can fight pretty well, and knows the tricks of the trade — but she’s a little bit of a ditz, and that holds her back more than anything.

You can’t help but identify with ‘Bunny, and even feel a little sorry for her, especially when she heads out to the “Superhero Megacon” to try to get a job. It’s a sequence that will be very familiar to anyone that’s ever attended a comics convention, especially if they’re an aspiring artist — potential heroes are there showing their portfolios to pros in the hopes of finding work, and the competition is fierce. To make matters worse, her ex-boyfriend and partner, the smug Electric Bill, is there to brag about being invited to join the Protectors.

Our ‘Bunny is rescued from the dreariness of the con by a call from the police for an assist in cleaning up the demon-infested home of the now-deceased ’60s super-villainess, Conjura. It’s here that she meets her new sidekick, Mr. Hell, a grim-visaged, many-tentacled demon out of H.P. Lovecraft’s nighmares. But Mr. Hell’s actually a nice, puppy-like kind of demon, and follows ‘Bunny home, devotedly following her orders.

It’s a great set-up for future adventures, and I really hope Seely is given a chance to do more Lovebunny adventures. He keeps the tone light and the characters funny without letting them become mere caricatures. Lovebunny’s dialogue is clever and endearing, and Seely’s art, while occasionally stiff in places, is very clean and serves the story well. And the jokes fly as fast and furious as a Zucker-Abrams-Zucker comedy, with plenty of extra comedy hidng in the backgrounds of panels (I’m still chuckling over the scene that has Rob Liefeld’s Badrock character walking around with a sign reading “Liefeld victim — please help”).

A cute Behind The Music-style back-up story fills in the details of Lovebunny’s background, courtesy of the characters’ co-creator, Brendan Hay (a writer for one of the funniest shows on television, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart), with Seely and Matt Munn handling the art chores. The four-pager is clever and serves its purpose, and while it’s not as off-the-wall as the lead story, it’s still fun. Round the book out with a sketchbook, a one-page gag, and paper dolls of Lovebunny and Mr. Hell, and it’s a package well worth picking up.

Devil’s Due snagged the license to publish comics based on cult-favorite Internet toon Radiskull & Devil Doll, and Lovebunny & Mr. Hell convinces me that the company will do a good job with those characters. I hope Seely will get a chance to contribute to that comic, but moreover, I really want to see the further adventures of Lovebunny and Mr. Hell.

Coming Up

I’m not going to make any promises about what will be up next in the Treadmill, because I have a few columns rolling around in my head waiting to be turned into pixels. So join me, and we’ll all be surprised when I figure it out!

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