You Were Just Kidding, Here, Right?
Comics we thought were jokes.
By Louise Freeman Davis, Kent Orlando and Michael Hutchison
Into each life a little rain must fall, and occasionally that means a really nasty hailstorm. In honor of this April Fools, anything-goes, Joker's Wild edition of FANZING, we're taking an up-close look at some of the most laughable comics of recent years. Unfortunately, in some cases, that means downright silly. Ludicrous. Insane, at best, or for the worst, drop the "s" in that last one. Comics that made you want to scratch your head and say, "What were they thinking of?" Comics you thought were a bad April Fool's joke. Comics you'd like to teleport up to the Satellite of Love for dissection by Crow and Tom Servo. Comics that made you feel embarrassed to call yourself a fan.
The Silver Age, it should be pointed out, was a virtual gold mine for those types of stories, where Jimmy Olsen married a gorilla, or Superman developed a head of an ant, or the like. But in the 1990's, we're supposed to know better than that. It's possible some or all of the comics reviewed her were intentionally trying to parody that particular type of "silly story" comic book, but the scary part is, we'll never know for sure.
The Cheeks the Toy Wonder Homepage is a literal showplace for Silver Age comics, if you want to see some of the silliest of that era (see our links page for the URL). But this month in FANZING, we're pleased to have the esteemed owner of that site chime in here with a review of the decidedly non-Silver Extreme Justice. FANZING Editor-in-Chief Michael Hutchison nominated the "Club JLI" arc of Justice League America and two late issues of Mister Miracle, while fiction editor Louise Freeman Davis chose the Titans $ell-Out Special.
On with the show, with barf bags recommended for the feint of heart. Or stomach.
'Extreme' This, DC -- !
... Being a Not-So-Terribly-Fond Recollection On the Absolute Storytelling Nadir of the Noble and Venerable DC Comics JUSTICE LEAGUE Franchise, circa 1995 PM*
(* = "Pre-Morrison")
I shall tell you of the days back when DC Comics, Inc. was Completely and Terminally Bereft of All Things Even Remotely Resembling a Clue.
I shall tell you of: Extreme Justice.
Put. The. Gun. Down, O Prince.
Way, waaaaaayyyy back in the bad old days -- back when people still (inexplicably) thought Rob Liefeld was talented, and major comics publishers were scrambling like frightened field mice to make their stuff look as much like various and sundry Image comics as they (in)decently could, short of actually reprinting copies of Team Youngblood and slapping a quick'n'shoddy Batman cover on 'em -- DC's storied and venerable JUSTICE LEAGUE franchise was in right sad and sorry shape, you betcha.
Year upon miserable and misguided year of treating their flagship characters -- their bread and butter, if you like; their entrepreneurial raison d'etre -- as little more than pratfalling, rubber chicken-brandishing, "BWAH-ha-ha"-ing halfwits had taken their inevitable toll.
To wit: if you keep telling and telling and telling your readership that their (putative) "heroes" are all just big, dumb, disposable clucks
then -- sooner, rather than later -- said readers will come 'round to believing you in that regard.
And then, by golly: they'll go out looking for some other comic books to read, instead.
One of these still saw print under the banner JUSTICE LEAGUE (never, ever throw away a trademark or copyright you might find some conceivable use for, someday) but: its roster of characters differed from that of (say) Primal Force in that they were even more deservedly obscure (Guy Gardner? Obsidian? CIVET -- ?!?); and markedly less interesting, overall.
Still another one was published with the title Justice League Task Force, working under the not-altogether-unreasonable theory that A REALLY AMAZINGLY DULL AND POINTLESS J'ONN J'ONZZ COMIC might not have been as readily marketable a header. Not that anyone was fooled for long, mind.
Most meretricious of them all, however, was the awful offal achieving a true and lasting infamy under the large, blaring banner: Extreme Justice
or -- more honestly, methinks, as it quickly came to be known in certain fannish circles -- "Liefeld Lite."
The writing (its certainly far too late to find a happier term for it now) concerned itself with the hyper-steroidal adventures of the following five characters: The Blue Beetle (who -- after having been artlessly portrayed as a worthless dink for the better part of a decade, mind -- we were all now expected to take stone seriously as a super-intelligent crime-fighting machine. Didn't happen.); Booster Gold (see: the Blue Beetle); Amazing Man (whose chiefest meta-ability seemed to be an apparent willingness to be addressed while in public as "Amazing Man"); Maxima (a reformed super-villainess, who was defined solely by her relentless and prodigious libido, and her ummmmmm prolifigate utilization of same); and -- last, and by all means least -- the almost stupefyingly boring Captain Atom: a "hero" with all the native flash and charisma of a Happy Meal, and whose strongest "selling point" was that he never wore pants.
Let's put it this way, people: when DC later chose to incorporate the old Super-Friends "Wonder Twins" characters of "Jan" and "Zayna" (or whatever their silly little names were, if you please) into the mix
they genuinely didn't seem all that out of place.
Ultimately, however: it was the sheer, howling spectacle of the writing -- with our putative "heroes" pointlessly spitting and posturing at one another like so many brain-damaged bantam roosters every second or third panel, and coughing up such expository hairballs as: "I'm back! I'm mad! And I'm coming for YOU!" [Captain Atom; Extreme Justice #3] -- which managed to emergency air-lift this title from merest mediocrity all the way to the very topmost peaks of Genuine Super-Hero Imbecility.
(At no point whatsoever along the storytelling way, by the by, are we ever given so much as Reason One why such wildly disparate characters as these five -- an alien princess in perpetual "heat"; a strutting martinet; two overage class clowns; and a complete and total costumed cipher -- are even hanging out together in the first bloody place. Apparently, the fact that all five of them had their own costumes and "kewl" code names was all the impetus needed for the lot of 'em to I dunno imprint upon one another for the long haul. Sort of like little, spandexed baby goslings, I guess.)
(Remarkably stupid baby goslings, I mean.)
In the immortal words, then, of the estimable Dorothy Parker: "This is not a book to be set aside lightly; it should be hurtled, with great force."
Thankfully: the fans were not (in this one, nigh-miraculous instance) fooled for long. Extreme Justice -- what a perfectly ridiculous title, incidentally; "justice" can no more be "extreme" than it can be "ecstatic" or "vermillion" -- spluttered and staggered to its well-merited end a mere eighteen issues after it began; a victim of its own crassness and stupidity. (Meaning: Image Comics was peddling precisely the same sort of pablum, just down the street except that they really seemed to mean it, ninety-nine times out of every hundred.)
Even the poorest of jokes, you see, requires a certain sincerity in the telling.
"Club JLI" in Justice League America #34 & 35
This story arc ran in "Justice League America". In it, Blue Beetle and Booster Gold (both of them ex-millionaires who hate living on their JLI stipend) decide to turn the island of KooeyKooeyKooey into a resort casino. The League's tech genius, Kilowog, is able to build the resort in record time, using Max Lord's funds without his knowledge. Complications arise when villain Major Disaster discovers that Big Sir can count cards and breaks the bank of Club JLI. Then the living island of KooeyKooeyKooey is disturbed and breaks loose from its foundation to begin floating around the Pacific. Max Lord, Ice, Huntress and Oberon teleport to the island, only to arrive in tubes resting at the bottom of the ocean. Ice, delirious from a jellyfish sting, keeps them alive on a very small ice floe. Max finds his money floating by. Everybody gets saved by Aquaman.
Partly, it was the swipes from such sources as Rain Man, Lifeboat, Dr. Dolittle" and even Daffy Duck in "Ali Baba Bunny" (although the latter is an obvious inside joke).
The Justice League should be protecting the world from monsters, supervillains and planetary threats, not spend two episodes rescuing Wally and the Beave from all the trouble they caused.
Mister Miracle #26-27, "The Albanian Noodle Factory"
I'd just like to say that the "Mister Miracle" comic book, while uneven, had some very great stories. Professor Ivo's droids run amok. G'nort trying to help Scott Free beat a mafia protection racket. Mr. Miracle and Lobo meet Mogo. Mr. Miracle teaching a rambunctious young turk named Maxi-Man that heroism and glory-seeking are not the same. And through it all, an ambitious tale of a Superhero and his Amazonian wife who escape a hell-planet and try to live a boring life in a New Hampshire town to no avail.
However, despite a cute concept and some fun stories, the tumultuous creative teams brought too many changes in direction to the title. Directionless and confusing, the MM title had begun a downward slide involving a heavy-handed animal rights lecture, women's wrestling, Shiloh Norman taking over as Mister Miracle (in a move NO ONE asked for) and the Frees relocating to (ugh, how original) New York City. And this final stinker:
Titans $ell-Out Special #1
This "special" was one of the hallmarks of the era even die-hard Titans fans refer to as the "Darkening," when the one-time flagship team of the DCU underwent several ill-advised and ultimately pointless revamps, losing old members and adding newcomers who in the end, failed to capture even a fraction of the spark of the Wolfman/Perez glory days. Heck, by that point we'd have settled for a fraction of the spark of the groovy-doovy years of campus protests and Ding-Dong Daddy.
Here's what we got, instead.
Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
This issue has no real plot; it's instead a single joke dragged out for an entire "special" issue; which is waaaaay too long. (Picture your third or fourth viewing of a Goat-Boy sketch on Saturday Night Live and you'll get somewhat the same feeling.) The Titans preview the cartoon (as do the readers) and it's so incredibly bad (surprise, surprise!) that these good, law-abiding crimefighters toss aside their dutifully signed and legally binding contract and forbid its makers from ever showing it, lest Pantha turn them into "kibbles 'n bits." They head home again, in the same predicament that they started in.
It is very likely this issue was intended as comic relief, a breath of fresh air after a long and arduous journey. The Titans had achieved this effect before in various "vacation" episodes where the team "got away from it all," and had a little time together, as friends, in their civilian IDs before getting back to business. One example is New Teen Titans (vol. 2) #32, where the group recovers from a multi-issue Brother Blood ordeal at a mountain retreat "murder mystery" weekend. The sad part is, the Teeny Titans joke might have worked under other circumstances. If, for instance, it had been a 5-page or so diversion from a well-plotted and well-crafted storyline. But self-parody works only when the item parodied is, in fact, good. As it was, the rest of the Titans had gotten so laughably bad that many fans were no longer in the mood for a joke.
This Special followed the overly-drawn-out and intense "Total Chaos" storyline, which featured, among other things, a 50-foot gold-colored Donna Troy ripping the roofs off buildings as a way of demonstrating her affection for her husband, before losing her powers altogether. And before that had come the intense and way-way-overly-drawn out "Titans Hunt," in which longtime members such as Jericho, Raven and Cyborg had been killed or otherwise disabled. The Titans had been gutted, figuratively and (in Jericho's case) literally. The debut of Nighty-Night and Daddy's Little Princess, however, was enough to convince you that the departed members could perhaps be considered the fortunate ones.
Second, the cartoon only helped to illustrate how poorly conceived their replacements were; the true Baby Wildebeest was virtually interchangeable with "Beesty," and Pantha wasn't much better. Finally, when you consider the pseudodeath, de-aging, amnesia and overall character destruction Slade Wilson would undergo in his spin-off series, looking back, the "Toymanator" seems just another in a series of indignities. And it just wasn't funny anymore.
But perhaps more than anything, what made this "vacation" issue fall flat was the utter lack of characterization. New Titans #32, in contrast, was chock-full of character moments, as Starfire tries to reconcile with Nightwing and Raven tries to understand her newfound emotions. There, our favorite characters took the time to grow as people, and managed to solve a crime (albeit a minor one) in the process. We don't see the Titans do anything in the "Teeny Titans debacle"; it's all done to them. As in "Club JLI," the heroes' predicament is entirely their own doing Were they really so foolish as to fail to read the dumb contract before they signed? The one problem they solve (getting rid of the embarrassing pilot) is done by the quickest and dirtiest means possible (shred the contracts, and threaten to shred the producer). What happened to the days when Nightwing could think his team out of a fix? Couldn't the second best strategist in the DCU have found a loophole or something?
Even the title of this special had an unintentional poignancy, for the truth was, the Titans had "sold out" several years before, when it abandoned the team chemistry and multi-dimensional heroes that had worked so well for so long in favor of action-packed storylines with forgettable, one-note characters. And, like those SNL writers who really seemed to think one more Goat-Boy sketch was a really neat idea, the Titans writers didn't seem to know when to quit. In the next regular issue of the series (New Titans #93), we see the Teeny Titans cartoon is being shown to the public (gee, not only were they less than noble in their efforts to squelch it, they were also entirely ineffective!) This issue also included a special three-page Teeny Titans story (for those of us who hadn't had our fill in the Special) along with some erotic Starfire artwork. [Editor's note: Umm, Louise, if you have your scanner working, could you ] Gee, cheesecake and corny, recycled jokes It makes you wonder, had Titans fans truly changed since the days of The Judas Contract or only DC's opinion of their intelligence?
The only blessing of the Titans $ell-Out Special #1 is that there was, thankfully, never a Titans $ell-Out Special #2. Devin Grayson, if you're reading this, please don't get any funny ideas.
All scanned art is DC Comics (to their shame!)
This column is © 1999 by Louise F. Davis, Kent Orlando and Michael Hutchison.