The Early Days of New England Comics Press #2: This Foul Romper Room
The second in a 3-part series revisiting the NEC Press of the late 1980s and early 1990s, focusing on that monolith of Japanese propriety, Paul the Samurai.
Paul the Samurai was the first spin-off of the wildly popular comic book, The Tick. Writing of the new book in 1989, creator Ben Edlund wrote that Paul essentially worked as a straight man in his surreal adventures. And while there is certainly a kernel of truth to this, to end there when defining the character would be inaccurate.
The straight man has long been the overlooked member of any comedy team—just ask Zeppo Marx. It seems doubtful that anyone would remember Bud Abbott if his name had not always come first on the marquee. This was a necessary sacrifice on the part of these performers. In order for the funny man to shine, he needs his lines fed to him by the straight man. A straight man is a lot like a stagehand: if he is doing his job, you will not even notice him.
But over time, the role of the straight man began to evolve within its constraints. Monty Python’s Graham Chapman often depicted serious figures of authority like policemen and army generals, and his pompous reactions to the silliness going on all around him only served to bring the comedy to new levels. The Naked Trucker and T-Bones, a comedy duo still working today, are perfectly mismatched: David Koechner plays the mostly insane redneck T-Bones, and Dave “Gruber” Allen exactly counteracts him by playing his own role completely straight. Except, of course, for the fact that he is always nude.
Paul the Samurai fits well into the role of this new, post-modern straight man. For one thing, he was born in Japan, yet answers to the decidedly un-Japanese name, Paul. As near as this writer can tell, this discrepancy is never addressed within the comics, and therefore adds to the slight off-ness of the whole character.
Also, Paul in his dialogue and narration dips into some very odd metaphors. Steeped in the tradition of martial-arts heroes, Paul speaks in a way that is clearly informed by the Zen koans of the Far East, but his choice of words often reflects something else entirely. When Paul battles the sinister Boilermen, he rallies his troops towards “the destruction of this foul Romper Room!” In another issue, distracted by a bag lady, thus allowing his enemies to escape, Paul berates her and adds, “And I would suggest some hydrogen peroxide for your hands, although it’s more than you deserve.”
A personal favorite sequence in the initial mini-series brings these new notions of the straight man together. Having been drugged and taken captive, Paul flashes back to his youth, when his grandfather trained him in the ancient ways. Like many martial-arts teachers of lore, Paul’s grandfather does not begin with the basics of combat, preferring to work his way up from a more noble and peaceful task. In this case, it is the preparation of a good salad that the young Paul must master: “Now, boll weevil, get the bacony BacOs.” As Paul comes out of his reverie, he narrates, “I seem to suffer from irrelevant flashbacks.” Irrelevant, yes, as well as delightfully irreverent.
Though the character Paul the Samurai began as a parody of the grim, serious kung-fu hero, Ben Edlund seemed to feel that The Tick was already covering that level of superheroic satire, and so Paul the Samurai was to be more of a martial-arts/detective book—still comedic, but also “a ground-breaking bastardization of theme and genre.” And while the book did reach that specific goal in its short 13-issue span, it also managed to address this other sort of “bastardization” of the straight man and his role in comedy. The funny man may be the traditional attraction to audiences, but find the right straight man for the act, and he may shine well on his own.