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.
People say that the comic-book industry is no longer set up to support new characters, and that the only recent addition to a major universe – Deadpool – was an anomaly we’ll never see again. And as Marvel snapped their doors shut this year to keep out any characters who aren’t X-Men or Avengers that does seem to be the case. Relatively new concepts like the characters from Joe Casey’s Vengeance miniseries will probably never been seen again, while the cast of Avengers Academy or Generation Hope don’t seem set to have much of a life outside the books they were introduced in.
But all the complaints saying that Marvel will never be able to create new, lasting characters is completely off the mark, actually. Because for the past few years, one character has slowly risen up to become the most popular member of the X-Men – and she was only created in 2004! Not only that, but she didn’t move past background cameos until a few years later when she was graduated into the main X-Men cast. PIXIE.
What Pixie has going for her above any of the other X-Men is that she has a light-hearted sense of humour and that’s something you don’t see in comics often enough anymore. Spider-Man is the most recognisably good-humoured character in mainstream comics with DC struggling to find anyone beyond Nightwing who can make flippant, fun jokes at a frequent level. And even Spider-Man has spent decades in the wringer. For the most part, comic-book heroes are either grim and serious, or dark-humoured and cynical.
I put this down to the Warren Ellis effect, which started to have a bearing on comics perhaps twenty or so years ago and still influences them today. A series of writers who came into the industry offered a reaction against camp superheroics and gave us morally-dubious heroes who were cynical, grumpy, sarcastic, wore trenchcoats and smoked. Ellis in particular became known for this style – perhaps because he never moved beyond it – and this ‘contemporary’ approach interested an aging demographic. The people reading comics in the 60s and 70s were now reaching middle-age and seeing Batman and Robin go on capers wasn’t so appealing anymore. The idea that Batman could have moral conflict and drama was tremendously exciting.
So in came writers like Ellis, Garth Ennis and Mark Millar – people who chose to write superheroes in a realistic but downbeat fashion. Marvel, in particular, was influenced by this style of writing. Ennis took over Punisher and redefined the character in numerous grim ways, while Ellis made the X-Men cynical and gave Kitty Pryde’s virginity to the rough-edged Pete Wisdom. Mark Millar wrote Civil War, defining the era of Marvel and making it clear that only the villains were allowed to have fun anymore. Ellis used this to launch Thunderbolts, emphasising this point and ultimately we arrived at a Marvel universe where Bullseye enjoyed his life far more than Tony Stark! Things grew more and more cynical and downbeat. Just look at Ruins, a thing which Marvel ACTUALLY PUBLISHED.
In that series, Ellis basically applies real-world science to comic-book heroes and shows how every single Marvel character would likely be killed by their powers. Quicksilver’s legs were ripped apart, Hulk broke out in toxic tumours and Spider-Man … well. After the Gold and Silver Age of Comics came an Ice Age, where traditionally fun and exciting characters became grim and miserable. Even Spider-Man became a walking sack of neurosis which crippled him for years with successive writers gleefully piling on depression after depression until he snapped midway through House of M and had to be reset by cosmic devilry.
But even as the Ice Age was a reaction to the camp fun of the original style of comics, so a new series of writers came in to react against the misery. Dan Slott led the charge here with his runs on She-Hulk, The Thing and especially Great Lakes Avengers showing us that comics could still be madcap and anarchic without the characters having to sit down and cry every other issue. New writers, buoyed by this, came to Marvel to suggest new fun ways to tell stories and combined the darkness of Ellis-esque dialogue with the high concepts of Stan Lee. Jonathan Hickman springs to mind here – look at a summary of his work on Fantastic Four and look at how silly they seem on paper until you read the stories themselves. It’s mad and fantastic and brilliant.
Which leads us to now, where we have comedic sensibilities returning to a number of Marvel properties. Mark Waid has reinvented Daredevil, while Kieron Gillen is working hard to make the X-Men into a community of people who once more can share a joke and a drink together. Dan Slott’s work has gifted him the headline role writing Amazing Spider-Man, while offbeat kinetics like Matt Fraction are allowed to do oddball work like Defenders. Joyfulness is returning to comics, and the woman at the forefront of this wave? Megan Gwynn, Pixie.
Pixie is one of the most in-demand characters in comics right now with writers fighting for the chance to use her. She has pink hair, is Welsh and has fluttery wings … and people WANT to write her! It’s a clear indication of a sea-change in the approach writers now take to comics. Writers like Brian Wood have made it clear that they view the character as a lightener, who lifts the mood and energy of any comics she is in. In interviews he’s stated that including Pixie in a story means he can finally write something for his young daughter to enjoy because the character is a carefree, happy moral centre for the other characters to feel protective over. It’s because her sense of humour is giddy and silly that she appeals to all-ages of readers and not just to cynical readers who think they’ve outgrown the medium.
What has happened with Pixie is a strange kind of miracle, especially when you see what happened to her predecessors. Kitty Pryde was the original Pixie – the child who hung around with the X-Men and provided an entry level for new readers. But then Kitty grew disillusioned and writers made her more acerbic and grumpy and eventually Joss Whedon turned her into Buffy and ruined her for several months. Again, it took one of the new wave of camp, humorous writers – in this case Kieron Gillen – to fix the damage. And then there’s Jubilee, who was depowered, left in a bedsit and eventually turned into a vampire. The problem with comics is that everybody wants to be the person who takes innocent characters and BREAK them to emphasis the danger of being a hero.
But in Pixie&
rsquo;s case, we’re seeing Marvel act to keep the character safe, for once. Matt Fraction’s first act with the X-Men franchise was to have her be attacked, brutally – and readers hated it. For once, they didn’t want to see the only source of joy and optimism be broken down, and they protested the decision online, in writing and everywhere. It made Marvel aware that perhaps readers were tired of feeling depressed whenever they picked up a comic and that perhaps it was time for some fun characters to be rewarded for their sense of humour once more. And that actually happened in the end! Pixie was not only rehabilitated, but she received her own four-issue miniseries from quirky queen Kathryn Immonen which emphasised everything fun, silly and crazy about the character.
Pixie Strikes Back was an all-ages story which gave plum comedic roles to characters who had long been tarnished with a depressed image: Nightcrawler, Psylocke and Emma Frost. The influence of Pixie was enough to take long-term characters and soften them, finally and make them enjoyable to read again. If you look at the writers who have written Pixie recently, it reads as a who’s who of comedically-inclined comic writers – Kieron Gillen, Jeff Parker, Kathryn Immonen, James Asmus. What we’re seeing is a new wave of writers who want comics to be fun, light, enjoyable experiences again and Marvel have been forced to understand this desire. It’s the reason why Squirrel Girl was brought into Brian Michael Bendis’ Avengers books and the reason to give the disturbing Warren Ellis Thunderbolts over to Jeff Parker for an overhaul.
In an industry where anybody can write a grim, dark steampunk series and publish it online, it takes a lot more craft to cultivate a fun, innocent character like Pixie and make her into one of the core draws of a decades-old, established franchise. But because writing has shifted from glee in grim to delight in delight, Pixie has been able to ride the new wave of writing and come out as one of Marvel’s most popular, entertaining, and prominent characters. Lush, innit.