I picked up a copy of Chris Garrison’s Our Heroes: Secret Pencils Edition #1 at this summer’s Birmingham, Alabama comics and sci-fi con, Phoenix Fest. Our Heroes is one of those indy, self-produced comicbooks that are ubiquitous at cons. The first thing I noticed was that it was rough around the edges, a really home-made looking production. It’s not even inked, hence the “Secret Pencils Edition” subtitle. I read it, as I read a lot of other stuff that I picked up over that weekend. Then I read it again. Then I gave it to my daughter to read. Then I read it two or three more times.
I liked it. My daughter liked it. We really liked it. It has superheroes. Funny superheroes.
Our Heroes, first appearing as an online serial, has just recently been published by Garrison and co-writer John Walker at indyplanet.com. (It is available in both digital and print-on-demand formats here. along with Garrison’s more adult comics.) It is the story of Fritter, a super-powered cat from Dimension Mek, who travels to Earth to stop the evil plans of arch-criminal Master Gila. Once on Earth, or “Erf” as the inter-dimensional cat calls it, Fritter teams up with “our heroes”, a super-team that goes by the name of Crimes Patrol. The Crimes Patrol, under the leadership of The Decker, famous for her incredible power punch, is a second-rate super team, always in the shadow of the more famous Uber Force. In addition to The Decker, the Crimes Patrol consists of Chicakadee, who has “the power of gravity at her command”; Black Sheep, a sheep who is also the “Mistress of Dark Energy”; Sun Bear, a bear with “hot plasma coursing through his veins”; Guise, “the Man of a Million Faces”; and the Human Mallet – “He’s a mallet!”
Now, I like superheroes when they are dark and serious (like Batman, sometimes), and I like them when they are light and swashbuckling (like Batman, at other times), but I really like them when they are funny (like Batman, at still other times). Perhaps my affection for funny superheroes can be traced back to the fact that when I was a kid in the 1970s representatives of the long underwear crowd were often presented on television in a humorous way, I suppose to make sure that they met some set of guidelines for non-violent children’s programming as well as to appeal to the kids who might not go in for the straight adventure stuff.
It is true that I watched the very sincere Adventures of Superman in black-and-white repeats, but the old-fashioned, Brylcreem-haired George Reeves couldn’t hope to compete with the pop-art, pop-culture wonder that was Adam West’s hilarious Batman. There was the Shazam! Isis Power Hour, of course, but the heavy handed “after-school special” brand of moralizing on those shows made them seem less like superhero adventures and more like Sunday School lessons. And while Super Friends in all its incarnations was nothing if not sincere, it had its own comedy elements that I always loved at least as much as the corny adventures. (I am, of course, talking about the Wonder Twins—Zan and Jayna—and their super-tailed, green-furred, space monkey Gleek but also about Wendy, Marvin and Wonder Dog, the Super Friends version of Scooby-Doo and the gang.)
On children’s television in those days there was the Batman/Green Hornet parody, Batfink; the utterly, completely, totally bizarre Captain Caveman and the Teen Angels; repeats of the Superman rip-off, Mighty Mouse (“Here I come to save the day!”); The Electric Company’s Letterman (Somehow, inexplicably, I had a Letterman poster on my bedroom wall!); and the marvelous Underdog, whose star popped super energy pills, exploded phone booths, and spoke in awful doggerel verse:
There’s no need to fear –
Underdog is here!
Not plane, nor bird, nor even frog,
It’s just little old me . . . Underdog!
Funny television superheroes didn’t go away with Jimmy Carter and the Reagan Revolution. There are countless examples from television and movies through the years, some aimed at kids and some at the adults that comicbook-loving kids grew into. Bruce Timm’s Freakazoid! and SpongeBob Square Pants’ Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy are fine examples of the former. Robert Smigel’s and J.J. Sedelmaier’s The Ambiguously Gay Duo and South Park’s Coon and Friends are great examples of the latter. Disney’s The Incredibles and The Simpsons’ Radioactive Man and Fallout Boy are for the young and old alike.
Of course, comicbooks are the original home of superheroes and have featured many funny heroes of their own. As a kid, I couldn’t get enough of the the MAD Magazine superhero parodies, especially reprints from the old comicbook version of MAD, like Harvey Kurtzman’s and Wally Wood’s “Superduperman!” Other than that, I didn’t know much about funny superhero comicbooks as a kid. Other than in the pages of Mad, as a matter of fact, I was almost constitutionally opposed to humor in my comics. Part of this was, I suppose, a reaction against those who thought comicbooks were for kids, unserious creations for the entertainment of the young and uneducated. But I was also reacting against my father who was a comicbook lover himself but who, much to my dismay, insisted on calling them “funny books.” It must have been some sort of generational thing. I found his ignorance about something so basic completely infuriating. He must have found my reaction both funny and comic.
As an adult I have more than made up for my childhood prejudices and Freudian psychoses, at least when it comes to funny comicbooks, especially of the superhero kind. I have sought them out whenever and wherever I could. I am now a fan of, to name just a few, the Inferior Five, Ambush Bug, Jack Cole’s Plastic Man, the Radioactive Man comic from Bongo and the absolutely sublime “little fat nothing,” the Fat Fury himself—Herbie Popnecker.
Of course, there are a lot of differences in the type and quality of funny superhero stories, whether from television, movies, comicbooks or other genres. Some are straight up parodies, like the Mad comicbook and magazine spoofs. These are all about the joke, about taking elements of the superhero and exaggerating them to the point of ridiculousness. The great Radioactive Man comic is a more nuanced version of this type. It is a sophisticated, point-by- point spoof of some of the greatest comicbook storylines, characters, and themes of all time.
Other funny superhero stories take a different approach. They may be parodies of the superhero genre in the broad sense, but they also have stories to tell and, most importantly, characters to develop. Sometimes when they are at their very best, like the aforementioned Incredibles, they are both funny and moving. At their best they tell a story, a superhero story, that just happens to also be laugh-out-loud funny.
One of the things that I enjoy most about funny superhero stories, I mean beyond the fact that they are funny and about superheroes, is that they always seem to be a bit subversive. To take something as serious as the crime-fighting, gang-busting, vengeance-driven, myth-making superhero and to laugh at it feels pretty good. When the laughter can also be at the expense of the big-corporations who control most of the mainstream superheroes that we all know and love, it feels even better.
So, here I am at Phoenix Fest. And Chris Garrison is trying to sell a few of his books to central Alabama comicbook fans and also drawing caricatures to make a few extra bucks. (If my book sales are any indication, his caricature work is probably more lucrative than his comicbook business.) His other comics look interesting, in the talking-animal-stories-for-adults sort of way. But Our Heroes has superheroes. Funny superheroes. And it hasn’t even been inked. It’s just pencils with a little bit of color; you can still see earlier erasures. It looks pretty indy. Funny superheroes from outside the mainstream. I was sure that it was going to stick it to the man.
Instead, Our Heroes made me care. The story wasn’t snarky. It wasn’t a sarcastic take-down of tired, old superhero stereotypes. It was, instead, improbably, as charming as hell.
Fritter, you see, can travel through dimensions by using his retractable claws to cut away at reality. He can access the internet by making the OK sign with his fingers. He can smell across dimensions in order to track down his notorious foe. He purrs and curls up in bed for a good night’s rest. He joins forces with a team that is led by a powerful female hero. The team drives to the scene of battle in a station wagon; they have their headquarters in an attached garage; they communicate with one another via radio retainers which fit onto their teeth. They bicker and quarrel, like post-Marvel Age superhero groups always do.
Garrison and Walker have perfectly captured the spirit of the funny superhero. Our Heroes is not a full-on parody in the spirit of a Mad spoof, nor is it an example of post-modern self-awareness like Ambush Bug. It is also not the stale and static funny superheroes of those old-time Saturday morning cartoons. Garrison and Walker tell a funny, interesting, heart-felt superhero story. I laughed at Fritter’s lactose intolerance. I care about The Human Mallet’s broken-handle injury and about Sun Bear’s battle scars. I thrilled when the rag-tag team, of course, came together at the end to join forces and save the day.
Garrison’s artwork, his pencils in this case, are a perfect fit for the story itself. He would do well on one of those talking animal funny books that I hated as a kid. (Except for his female form which seems influenced by R. Crumb, if you know what I mean.) Indeed, the story has something of the look of a Saturday morning cartoon, not like the look of Super Friends or Underdog which were both marked with a corporate, and cheap, imprint, but like a Saturday morning cartoon that never was but should have been, the one I would have killed for in the day, one that was really good, that had a strong narrative, and strong characters, and a fun look, and that was, indeed, funny.
I hope there is more to come. The Human Mallet has a lot of lessons yet to learn about anger management. The Decker needs a real boost in self-confidence. Black Sheep is just beginning to become a team player. And Sun Bear, well, Sun Bear just needs to be loved.
I’m glad I came across Chris Garrison in that Birmingham Marriot ballroom. I never, ever would have found this book otherwise. And I’m really glad that I got to read Our Heroes. I’m glad that I got to meet Fritter, Master Gila, Herr Master, Miss Amasia and all of the other funny superheroes from Planet Erf .
Hey Dad, look at me, I’m reading a funny book.