One way or another, Keith Giffen was going to influence this post.
I had originally planned to look at Mr. Giffen’s recent thoughts on continuity in the context of two fan-shattering events: Sunday’s flashback episode of “The Simpsons,” and the Star Trek trailer implying that the Enterprise was (horror!) built on Earth. The more I got into those topics, though, the more I felt mired in a futile debate. It was looking like mutually assured destruction, and while it might have garnered a lot of comments, in the end I doubt it would have been that productive.
Thankfully, though, yesterday brought the official announcement of Mr. Giffen’s new Ambush Bug miniseries, reuniting him with scripter Robert Loren Fleming in order to lead the Bug through DC’s last few big events. I eagerly switched topics, from the traps of continuity to the giddy anarchy of parody. If I’m going to be unproductive, I might as well have fun.
My first exposure to Ambush Bug was in the pages of his original miniseries, so I didn’t learn until later that he started out as a light-hearted Superman villain. I have no idea how that was working out, but it couldn’t have been better than the vehicle for satire the miniseries made him. The four issues of Ambush Bug pointed up, with wit and style, all the silly, goofy, and sometimes just plain stupid aspects of DC’s superheroes. It also came out right in the middle of Crisis On Infinite Earths, so it hardly lacked for targets. Likewise, it’s good that the new miniseries is timed to coincide with Final Crisis.
Ambush Bug’s migration from the “serious” DC realm to a more whimsical, metatextual one is a rare, but not necessarily unwelcome, character development. It places the character outside of the regular universe and therefore allows him to comment on it. No portion of the original Ambush Bug miniseries took itself seriously, and much of it evoked — and made merciless fun of — the lost aspects of the Silver Age which DC had been trying to ignore.
In that respect the description of the new miniseries reminds me of one of the best pieces of DC-centric parody I’ve ever read: Evan Dorkin’s World’s Funnest one-shot. You’ve probably read it too, but if not, it’s a titanic battle between Bat-Mite and Mr. Mxyzptlk which decimates several versions of the DC universe. As depicted by an all-star roster of artists (including Dave Gibbons, Frank Miller, Alex Ross, Frank Cho, Bruce Timm, David Mazzucchelli, and Stephen DeStefano), the two imps wreak havoc on the worlds of the Silver Age, Apokolips, Kingdom Come, The Dark Knight, Crisis, and “Super Friends.” Although there’s a certain amount of Milk & Cheese-flavored mayhem (Mxy just wants to destroy), Bat-Mite is actually driven by a desire to emulate his hero, Batman. When the two finally meet up on the “real” DC-Earth, however, Bat-Mite gets a rude awakening. It’s all good fun, though, and well worth your time.
Another bit of crossover-bashing comes in “The Age of Crisis on Infinite Clones Saga Starring Plastic Man Red and Plastic Man Blue, Chapter One Million: Onslaught of the Secret Genesis Wars Agenda,” drawn by Rick Burchett for Ty Templeton’s 1999 Plastic Man Special. The title pretty much tells you everything you need to know, and it might sound a bit over-the-top, but it (and the special generally) are pretty entertaining. Unfortunately, I haven’t read any of the Kyle Baker Plastic Man beyond the first paperback (or, actually, plastic-back), so I can’t compare the two except to say that the Special is more of a conventional approach to the character.
While I also somehow missed out on the much-praised Major Bummer, I have managed to read a few of DC’s other superhero-parody series. Young Heroes In Love, written by Dan Raspler and drawn by Dev Madan, was a funny and sometimes moving look at a group of Z-list superheroes trying to find their place in the wide world of DC-Earth. It wasn’t shy about exploiting those ties, either: issue #3 guest-starred Electro-Superman, and it crossed over with the Big Events of 1997 and ‘98, Genesis and DC One Million. Mostly, though, it billed itself as DC’s answer to “Melrose Place,” with a lot of coupling and decoupling interspersed with the superheroics. It hasn’t been collected, although it probably deserves at least a Showcase edition.
Speaking of Showcase volumes, I’m still waiting for DC to release that Captain Carrot collection. The recent miniseries was a good-hearted but uneven tale that apparently intended to reposition the Zoo Crew more squarely within the regular DC universe, but if you’ve read it you know its ending was … probably not what anyone expected. I tracked down all 20 issues of the original series in the summer of 1985, around the time I was enjoying the first Ambush Bug miniseries, and found it to be somewhat uneven too. The earlier issues were better, and more inventive, which I attributed to the influence of creator Scott Shaw! Once Rick Hoberg took over the pencils, though, the book seemed to lose a lot of its energy. I’ve been meaning to re-read those issues, but they weren’t in the best shape to begin with — hence, my wanting the paperback. I do remember the Oz-Wonderland War miniseries looking fantastic (no wonder — art by Carol Lay), and being more of an adventure story, so I’ll have to dig those issues out as well to see how different they might have been.
I’ve already sung the praises of ‘Mazing Man and Architecture & Mortality on this site, but I have to point out a couple of things. First, if Young Heroes was DC’s “Melrose Place,” ‘Mazing Man was the closest I think the company’s ever come to doing a straight-up situation comedy. I really can’t praise its regular twelve-issue run highly enough — they were great comic books. Second, I admired A & M’s audacity in skewering the “architects” of 52 and, by extension, DC’s superhero line while the Big Events were still ongoing. Next to that, the new Ambush Bug’s directive against making fun of particular creators looks like a concession.
This is hardly an exhaustive examination. I know I haven’t covered all of DC’s humor books, and I don’t have space to talk about the main-line “funny superhero” titles like Justice League International and Young Justice.
By way of wrapping up, though, I want to mention those instances where a funny character “goes grim.” Not to SPOIL this week’s Batman, but I’m not sure it counts: Bat-Mite shows up in the middle of a very serious flashback, and is himself something of a dark harbinger. He still has the big googly eyes, though, and he’s not exactly prevented from being more light-hearted in future issues.
And that reminds me — I don’t know that I’d count the “Legends of the Dark Mite” and “Mitefall” issues from the mid-‘90s as “grim ‘n’ gritty” either. Written by Alan Grant and drawn by Kevin O’Neill, they were more cheerfully anarchic, on the order of Grant’s work on Lobo or O’Neill’s own Marshal Law.
Still, the Captain Carrot characters got Crisis-fied not too long ago, and the Toyman and Mr. Mxyzptlk have had their own dark turns. The Toyman murdered Cat Grant’s young son some ten years ago, Mxy was recently tortured in “Countdown,” and that issue also referenced his diabolical role in “Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow?”
I’d rather end on a more optimistic note, though, and the thought of a new Giffen/Fleming Ambush Bug does make me very happy. For the most part, DC’s attempts at superhero humor have been done pretty well, at least in my experience, but they’ve always had to overcome the perception of being “safe,” or otherwise “allowed” by the company. Nevertheless, I trust Giffen and Fleming to go pretty far, get in some pretty good digs, and have a lot of fun doing it.