Anyone following mainstream superhero comics (especially DC and Marvel’s offerings) knows that it’s been getting dark for a while now. Heroes are killing people, mind-wiping villains, people are getting raped and tortured, and it’s gotten bad enough that the government is going to step in. It’s all gotten so… grim. And, as these things tend to do, it’s generating a backlash among people who don’t want their four-color crack to be so dark. People who want comics to be, well, fun.
That’s the best explanation for BOOM! Studios’ recent What Were They Thinking? Some People Never Learn. The premise is simple: Keith Giffen & company (as they are identified on the cover) take old sci-fi comics (the look of the art definitely suggests the ‘40s and ‘50s era), throw away the dialogue and narration, and write their own What’s Up, Tiger Lily? style—the cover description is “Classic Comics Remixed.” There are five short stories contained in this book, which screams Mystery Science Theater 3000 so loudly that I can’t get through two panels without imagining the words being spoken by smartass robots. (On second thought, perhaps a more appropriate comparison is Adult Swim’s Sealab 2021.)
The overall effect is funny as hell. In the first tale, Giffen and Mike Leib turn an alien invasion story (drawn by Basil Wolverton, apparently the only artist who could be identified) into the adventures of “Drew Fist: Earth’s Fussiest Defender”—a germ-phobic, metrosexual mystery man who foils a plot by a dastardly alien race to drop all of their garbage on Earth. (The women on the planet Harridan 7 are enormous, so a flying saucer crashing through a building becomes a giant diaphragm.) This is the longest story of the bunch, and probably the funniest (Drew’s change into a superhero suit with gas mask is explained, “I’ll have to break out a maximum strength sani-suit! Can’t risk coming into contact with girl cooties!” To which the narrator replies, “That’s right. You heard right. ‘Girl cooties.’ Hey! It’s a legitimate concern!”)
Next up, John Rogers turns a tale of intrigue aboard a luxury liner into one man’s journey into his own mind and tortured libido. (Sample dialogue: “Pardon me, are those space-pants Wait. MOM!?!?! What are you doing here?” “What are you doing here? I’ve got a nooner with Ralph Bellamy and Orson Welles.”) Then Chris Ward (in the first of two very short stories) adapts an Egyptian archaeological dig into a futuristic world ruled by fast-food chains. Ward’s second story involves a ‘50s-template gentleman spouting “jive” pick-up lines and getting hypnotized back into a medieval, Prince Valiant-like world. (When he meets a girl there, she says “Praise you, brave knight! I am called Linda. Verily, my interests are: arranged marriages at 14, serfing, rat catching and dying in childbirth.”)
Finally, Andrew Cosby’s story is “Fan Boy,” the harrowing tale of George Lucas being held hostage by a twelve-year-old boy from the future (think Misery) and forced to rewrite the Star Wars movies. The horror comes when the boy finds that his interference has led to a world with not six movies in the series, but 22 (complete with requisite “NOOOOOOOO!!!!!”).
The art is exactly what you would conjure to mind with the phrase “generic sci-fi” or “stock ‘40s comic art.” And here, Giffen and the rest use it purely as a foil to have a good laugh. And it is funny, for the most part. I could go on quoting lines of dialogue, but it might be one of those “you had to be there” things. Keith Giffen is definitely the headlining name, which is appropriate, since along with J.M. DeMatteis, he is perhaps best known as the architect of the funny, pre-angst incarnation of the Justice League of America. The writers all have a good deal of fun at the expense of the dour sci-fi/fantasy clichés—alien invasions, archaeological digs, Medieval transplants—as if to remind us that comics has a place for levity as well.
There’s also something interesting about the relationship between the art and the words in comics. This relationship can be anywhere from meshing seamlessly together to working completely at cross-purposes; here, the words puncture any sense of gravity that the original artists may have been trying for. Since words and pictures were written decades apart, and the words tell a story that is surely very different than what the original creative team must have intended, we face the question of originality—what, exactly, are the writers’ roles here? Creators? Co-creators? Or merely re-mixers (or worse yet, scavengers)? Much like no one is really sure what to make of a “mash-up” DJ who superimposes two different songs, What Were They Thinking? could force us to re-examine our categories and ideas of originality and creativity in the comics industry.
Still, maybe we shouldn’t worry about all that too much. Maybe we should just sit back and have a good laugh. Because academics and cultural theorists fall into the same trap as grim ‘n gritty superhero comics and their writers: forgetting that it’s supposed to be fun. And, well, the stories here are just too silly to think about too long without laughing.
The world of comics has been steeped in nostalgia for a long time. Love of one’s childhood favorites just might be the most powerful force in the industry today. And while most of the nostalgia seems to be focused in the “Silver Age” characters of the ‘60s and ‘70s, there is also quite a bit of reverence for older stories. (The art in What Were They Thinking? seems to come from the era before the superhero genre came to dominate comics publishing in the US.) But it is worth noticing that, while some of the older stuff may be classic, a lot of it was pretty goofy. Gloriously goofy.