Steve Morris wants to know "What's so funny about funny books?" So each week in Killing Jokes he'll be examining humor in comics, from titles that are meant to be funny to jokes inserted in otherwise completely serious books.
When you’re writing an ongoing series for Marvel starring the Spectacular (or Amazing) Spider-Man, you can bank on the fact that fans will find every new issue important, worth reading, and of some merit. After all — even the worst Spider-Man stories still feature Marvel’s most iconic lead character web-slinging for his life, and every tiny action could lead you into a wider world. But when you’re writing a series starring a group of characters who haven’t been seen in some decades, have been forgotten by most everybody, and AREN’T called Spider-Man, Wolverine, Captain America and Iron Man? You’re going to have to start killing them, if you want the comic to feel *important*.
That’s the central joke surrounding writer Dan Slott’s 2005 parody miniseries Great Lakes Avengers: Misassembled. Playing off the imminent Avengers relaunch by Brian Michael Bendis and the subsequent Disassembling of their A-List cast (exercised through extreme violence, and establishing a strange correlation between Bendis and characters who get torn in half), GLA was a comic which spent its time wondering about why it existed. The team, who had to draft in Squirrel Girl in order to have one member you’d heard of even in passing, featured such luminaries as “Big Bertha”, “Doorman”, “Flatman” and “Dinah-Soar”, and knew that the only way readers would keep reading is if some kind of absurd *importance* were placed upon the storyline. Subsequently, Dan Slott decided that every issue he’d hit some BIG THEMES… and also he’d kill off somebody. And that’s the central joke which drives the story.
There’s a curious fascination about death within comics. It’s well-established by now that death is only as permanent as the next issue, and that the big-name characters will never truly die. But Slott gathers a bunch of long-forgotten characters into his story — people not famous enough to be resurrected, who are therefore in real danger each issue. Nobody cares if Dino Saur dies; nobody is going to clamour for her return or quit comics because they miss her. Each death or maiming or emotional trauma sticks to the characters forever, and leaves the comic seeming "important" and resonant. It also allows Slott the chance to create some surprisingly powerful satire about the nature of the comic-book industry in general. The joke, in this case, is on the reader.
Each of the four issues sees a different member of the cast killed off in various horrific ways – followed by Squirrel Girl directly addressing the reader and berating them for enjoying what they’re reading. Slott draws a contrast between fiction and reality, and asks the reader to decide just why they’re reading comics about such horrible subject-matter. In the real world, nobody (besides the admittedly-minimal "serial killer" demographic) are ever going to be okay with seeing real-world trauma, pain, heartbreak and death. But within the world of comics, where everything is cranked up to an impossible level, these things become just another tool for writers to keep readers excited. Where the characters see their friends dying, we see cool splash pages and edgy violence. Let’s not forget just how bizarre it is for us to be confronted by a character called Squirrel Girl, either! Her speeches address various aspects of the industry, establishing well-known ideas about how stories are pitched — the misogyny, the violence — and subverting them. And they’re very funny, because they make us feel guilty for even reading the mini.
It’s in these speeches that Slott most eloquently addresses his satire, and makes some of the best jokes. So her first speech is a parental advisory, warning readers not to read on, because “something” bad is going to happen later on. This immediately establishes the idea in our minds that SOMETHING IS GOING TO HAPPEN LATER ON. So we’d better pick up the issue and find out, because we might be missing out on something important! Within one page, Slott forces the reader to become a hypocrite, and in the process read something unsuitable which is nevertheless exciting. Slott also introduces a second character, the ill-fated Grasshopper, who makes fun of the readers. Again, this confrontation with Grasshopper serves to keep readers reading, because we know people are going to start dying and this guy seems like fresh meat for the Reaper. In many recent horror films, we’re invited to hate characters and root for them to die, and this setup is much the same.
Speech two is the most famous of the four, and sees Squirrel Girl excitedly discuss the Golden Age of comics. She talks about an age when comics were silly and bizarre, and characters “fought giant apes on the moon”. It was all innocent and in good fun… as opposed to this comic, we are forced to assume, where “SOMETHING” is going to happen. But while you’ll struggle to find somebody who doesn’t appreciate a good ol’-fashioned Moon-Monkey-Melee, those comics are dismissed by many current comic fans as interchangeable and unimportant. They may be fun, but nothing lasting occurs in them. Readers have grown out of nonsense and are now more interested in hyperviolent ‘realism’. Don’t forget, GLA came out as a tie-in to the violence-heavy Avengers Disassembled, and is in many ways a reaction against that kind of comic. Slott doesn’t want to write a comic where people die, and makes it clear that he’s only writing these death sequences in order to keep people hooked while he does what he really wants to do — which is tell jokes.
The third speech is essentially underlining a point which has been made several times over the past few months: comics are sexist. Squirrel Girl brings in her team-mate Big Bertha to complain about the way women are treated in comics, and how most superheroines are drawn with big boobs, tiny waists, and physically-inadvisable costumes. Slott then moves from this speech to a sequence (drawn in terrifying detail by Paul Pelletier) where Big Bertha throws up in order to lose her weight, and therefore put on her secret disguise. Because the public only know her as fat, when she throws up her weight and drops to the size of a tiny supermodel, she is unrecognisable. Bertha and Squirrel Girl also mention one
of the last few things left which is guaranteed to cause controversy and panic whenever it appears in a comic book: rape. This speech, however, is essentially a big red herring slapped in the face of the readers, as it suggests that one of the female characters is going to be subjected to a rape – the most potent sign that a comic is truly "dark and edgy." That doesn’t happen, but we do instead have to cope with the death of the team’s pet squirrel, Monkey Joe.
Which forms the subject of Squirrel Girl’s final monologue, where she breaks down in tears over the death of her pet. It’s a simple trauma, but one which many readers will be familiar with and sympathetic towards. By this point we’ve seen suicide, bulimia, spousal abuse, and so many other things Stan Lee would never put in a story. We’ve been dragged into three issues, and we’re buying the fourth one to find out what happens. In just four issues, Slott has, ridiculously, achieved his aims. He’s taken a light-hearted cast and ruined their lives, throwing in repeated horrors which both make them miserable and keep the readers excited for what might happen next. We’ve been suckered into the idea that death is meaningful, and now Slott can take a hearty laugh at us. It’s up to the reader to decide whether to join in on that laugh, or embrace the darkness of the satire.
While subsequent GLA stories have been rather less angry and violent, GLA: Misassembled’s satire still holds true today — showing that despite the humour of Slott’s writing and Pelletier’s purposefully goofy artwork, even the most child-friendly concept can be turned into a horrible nightmare. It showcases the nature of the industry, writers, artists, and fans, and how we can all team up sometimes to create fascinating disasters. The gags in GLA double-up as the most harrowing moments, and that boundary between “funny” and “painful” is something Dan Slott has continued to walk over as his career has gone from strength to strength, and he’s been hired to write that most IMPORTANT of comics — Amazing Spider-Man. Which is a pretty darn funny comic, too.
Steve Morris is the head and indeed only writer for Comics Vanguard, the internet’s 139th most-favourite comic-book website. You can find him on Twitter at @stevewmorris, which is mostly nonsensical gibberish you may enjoy or despise. His favourite Marvel character is Darkstar, while his favourite DC character is, also, Darkstar. Never forget! He writes The Book of Monsters, a webcomic which updates every Sunday with a new story, monster, and artist. Join in!