So I got another Jeff Parker digest — Marvel Adventures Fantastic Four Volume 2. The first three stories are fairly pedestrian: the FF battles dinosaurs in the first, then they fight something else in the second, and then they battle Namor the Sub-Mariner in the third. It’s standard-issue super-adventure, told professionally but without any particular spark.
The fourth one is the charm, though. Titled “It’s Slobberin Time”, it features a super-villain called the Street, who is, like the name says, a sentient piece of pavement, with a fire-hydrant stuck in him and everything. How did the Street come to be? Well, he tries to explain, but the FF is so busy bickering they can’t hear him…then the Thing goes off to get a specialty sandwich…Reed zaps the Street with some doohickey which makes him fall apart…and the subsonics summon Lockjaw, the giant dimension-traveling dog with the weird thingee on his head. Lockjaw is intensely and ominously interested in the Street’s fire-hydrant (“put that leg down!” wails the hapless supervillain.) But then the Thing comes back with his sandwich, Lockjaw eats it, which screws up his digestion, and then he starts burping himself across time and space, taking the FF with him.
My son loved, loved, loved this issue…or, as the boy himself put it, “I laughed so hard I farted!” I laughed out loud at several points myself, and even the rather indifferent artist seemed inspired; Lockjaw’s look as he tries to digest the sandwich is, for example, adorably hang-dog. Awwww.
In other words, “It’s Slobberin’ Time” isn’t so much an adventure with funny parts as it is a joke with loopy bits of adventure stuck on to create some sort of narrative. It’s not a tale of super-heroics, but a parody of super-heroics.
In thinking about super-hero stories, parodies are often seen as a kind of peripheral sub-genre — super-hero stories, qua super-hero stories are adventure pulp; parodies may be liked or disliked, but they aren’t really what the genre is about, either for its supporters or detractors.
But I’ve got to say that, at least for me, much of my sincere and long-term love of super-heroes is linked precisely to the way the genre is not only made for, but actually made of, parodies. All genres include parody of course, but for super-heroes, parodies are really central in a way that they’re not in…for instance, romance, or detective fiction. The earliest worthwhile super-hero comics were probably Jack Cole’s Plastic Man and C.C. Beck’s Shazam, and ever since then, super-heroes have consistently been at their best when going for laughs. The Mad Magazine parodies like “Superduperman,” Ambush Bug, Flaming Carrot, the Adam West Batman…even, say Super-Grover from Sesame Street. As far as public profile, and even, I think as far as aesthetic success, super-heroes are as likely to be parodic and silly as they are to be serious. Frank Miller’s Dark Knight drew a lot of its charm from its constant teetering on the verge of self-parody; Grant Morrison’s Animal Man was often indistinguishable from parody; even the dark, grim, Watchmen brought up classic super-hero parody tropes with some verve (how do you pee in that costume? and, of course, there’s the Silk Spectre Tijuana Bible….) On the alt comics side, it seems like everybody near about works with super-hero parodies Crumb, Ted Rall, Chris Ware, Dan Clowes (at least sort of), Jeff Brown, Johnny Ryan, Jaime Hernandez (I believe…I could be misremembering that one….). And, indeed, despite the ascendance of largely straight-faced movies like “Dark Knight,” parody remains extremely popular as a super-hero mode, whether within comicdom (Marvel Zombies) or outside it (Captain Underpants) (both of which, incidentally, are pretty bad…but that’s the way it goes, sometimes….)
In a lot of ways, I think, super-heroes are most adult (and somewhat contradictorily, most accessible to a varied audience) not when they’re violent or sexy or nostalgic, but when they’re funny and parodic. All those goofy powers and nutty costumes and bellowing about truth and justice while beating each other over the head… super-heroes are just funny. Which isn’t quite the same thing as saying that they’re stupid. Sure, lots of super-hero comics are witheringly and unforgiveably dumb, but the genre itself has virtually from the beginning also had practitioners who embraced and celebrated its own goofiness. The whole Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex thing…that’s not making fun of the super-hero genre; it’s an exercise occuring well within the boundaries of the super-hero genre itself.
I guess the point here for me is twofold; first, the super-hero genre really is smarter and more worthwhile than it’s often given credit for being; and, two, mainstream super-hero comics don’t take advantage of that as much as I wish they did. Maybe we are moving past the low water mark, though. I’m sort of hoping for the day when the Marvel Adventures line is the — parodic, smart — flagship for the company, and the continuity cluster-fucks are the undermarketed backwater. Dare to dream.