Infinite Jest

February 6th, 2009 by | Tags:

A short while ago, I spent time brainstorming, trying any idea for a superhero or superhero team that I could think of.  I came up with octogenarians and toddlers, humans, animals, plants, outsiders and pageant winners, religious devotees and atheists, geniuses and halfwits.  I think I got a good cross-section of humanity, but there was one characteristic that all of the characters had; a smart mouth.

It occurs to me that one of the most common element in superhero comics is humor.  Whether it’s the grinding cynical humor of The Boys, the quips that seem to follow Gail Simone’s characters wherever they go, the screwball humor of the Booster Gold and Ted Kord, the flat-out parody of The Tick, or the cutesy silliness of the Tiny Titans, almost every book has it.

Of course there are reasons for this.  Humor is very useful.  It keeps the writing engaging, no matter what’s going on with the plot or how out of character it might be.  After all, even if you’ve heard a joke a thousand times, you don’t want to leave before hearing the punch line.

It shows character.  The pattern, word-choice, and subject matter of jokes show us how a characters mind works.  What is he contemptuous of?  What tickles him?  What gets past all the jokes and makes him serious? 

It can be used to show bravery.  A hero looking at certain doom might not be able to find a villain’s weakness or make an inspirational speech, but if he manages to get out a one-liner, he still looks pretty tough.

It can establish a sense of solidarity with a group.  A lot of comics about teams follow a pattern of characters outside the team setting up jokes, and members of the team coming up with a witty remark.  By the end of a few comics, even if as a reader you don’t like the group itself, you sure don’t want to be one of those dimwitted losers on the outside.

I can’t criticize this tendency.  Given the choice between light comedy and death n’ drama I’ll take the joke, even if it’s lame, every time.  I can’t help but wonder, though, at what point it changes from a tool to a crutch.  I’m trying to think of heroes, especially recent ones, who don’t end each fight with a wisecrack.  There are Batman and Superman, who are, shall we say, of the old school.  There was the Huntress mini-series, which I thought did a good job of focusing on a hero’s exploration of her religious and social standards.  Perhaps there is the Punisher, which is unrestrainedly grim.  Beyond that, I can’t think of that many series that don’t rely heavily on humor to get through each issue.

I don’t know if we’re losing something, gaining something, or riding out a trend.  What I do know is that perhaps it is time for me to look for something other than the punchline.

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6 comments to “Infinite Jest”

  1. I think humor’s a natural reaction to the concept of superheroes.

    The moment someone decides to put on a brightly-colored, form-fitting costume and go fight criminals, evil gods and the occasional invading alien army, that’s inherently ridiculous.

    The Batman gets away with it because only someone who’s batshit insane (ala the Joker) would be nuts enough to cross him*. Superman manages it because he just exudes an aura of “believe in me”.

    The best-written the Punisher’s been in the mainstream Marvel U was by Ennis and Fraction who both used a certain amount of humor. It’s no coincidence that when Ennis moved to MAX, the humor and spandex were dropped simultaneously.

    *Then again, I think every iteration of the Justice League he’s been in since the 80s has had someone try and take the piss out of Bats when his back’s apparently turned. Which of course it isn’t. Ever.

  2. It seems that humor is a nice compliment, but it is not enough to carry a series by itself. I mean, NextWave only lasted 12 issues even though it was pure humor (and explosions) because of low sales.

  3. Haha oh wow, Wilson. I really can’t agree with you on the Fraction remark. He really did not seem to have a good handle on what made the Punisher great. Different strokes for different folks, I guess.

    And Esther, you listed out a bunch of great reasons for humor, but I’m not quite sure what you’re saying here. You’re saying there’s too much humor in comics? The standard of humor is an odd one to list out in comics, as wisecracks in fighting seem like part of genre. That’s why I don’t think it’s a trend as much as a reasonably accepted convention in standard superhero comics. Even Batman traditionally dry humor. And the Punisher’s always had a dark sort of humor to him. One example is him in an 80s comic saying “I’m a compassionate guy” while blowing a guy’s head off with a shotgun. Even the king-of-grit MAX comic had strategic amounts of humor in it. One female cop threatened to beat the hell out of Frank in a diner and he said he wasn’t dating right now.

    But at what point does it turn into a crutch? Probably when it becomes stock lines and plastic-sounding, like someone saying something snarky because they are the “snarky guy/gal” but the situation doesn’t necessarily call for it. Comedy after all, is about defying expectation and enjoying the turn-around.

    But I do think a lot of “humor” that’s prevalent in comics is just a product of good natured characters. Many would argue people make light of stressful situations to cope with them. Hell, Spider-Man’s admitted that much numerous times. And maybe it all goes back to writers not trusting art to carry a fight, so they always have to have people saying SOMETHING, so it might as well be FUN.

    I’ve always seen comedy as a tool to match up with it’s source material, so I’m not sure if there’s an abundance in it or not, since Wilson mentioned super heroes are an inherently silly concept. It’s certain to make me think about it more in future readings.

  4. I was actually offended by the humor in I Can’t Believe It’s Not the Justice League – not because of the types of jokes, but because it was ALL jokes. I like my superheroes to be, y’know, kinda super… and occasionally heroic. It was more sillyheroic, if anything. To me, that felt like a crutch and I wanted to burn my issues. It was probably exactly what it was intended to be, but tasted terrible to me because of my different expectations. I don’t even recall if I thought the jokes were funny.

    Heroic incompetence wears thing really quickly, for me.

  5. I think humor in stories about superhumans goes back to antiquity. Look at all the dumb things Hercules did, or the silly crap almost all western pantheons got up to. Compare all the weird stuff that happened in Superman or Batman comics in the 60’s with Hercules doing all kinds of weird stuff and they come off pretty similar.

    I’ll posit that the humor turns into a crutch once it stops being good. If it’s well written and organic to the story, it’s fine, but once it’s turned to lousy jokes or inappropriate snark for the sake of snark, you can start to blame the writers for not being able to come up with better material.

  6. Read the comments fast and they seem all right but there’s something I thought: the humor the heroes use, it’s to look past the death & drama. Spider-Man cracks joke all the time because it’s scary fighting people with tentacles and big Rhino horns and he needs to look past that to save the people.