Tales Designed To Thrizzle, by Michael Kupperman (Fantagraphics, $4.95)
Writing about humor is extremely difficult and usually quite boring. In addition to being a matter of personal taste more than anything else in the arts, analyzing a scene to find out why it's funny often results in a killing-the-goose-that-laid-the-golden-eggs scenario. As an aside, I think humor being a matter of personal taste is the biggest reason why comedies in general and humorous comics in particular are so often looked down upon by critics.
Well, get me my carving knife, because that goose is about to get sliced up. First, let me discuss what I think is funny and what isn't. I think strips that rely on some sub-genre that requires specific knowledge of that sub-genre are perhaps my least favorite form of humor. I'm thinking of strips about video games or role-playing games here, like the extremely popular PvP or Penny Arcade. I suppose the authors of said strips are to be commended for finding an audience and giving it exactly what it wants, but my selfish concern is for what I find funny, and it's clear that I'm not a desired part of their audience.
The same goes for strips that rely heavily on pop culture references. Those go stale quite quickly, and rarely have anything interesting to say. I also detest the kind of frat-boy humor that several alternative artists throw out there; sexual innuendo is easy, but writing jokes with actual punchlines is hard. On the other side of the fence, I don't have much use for strips that shock for the sake of shocking or rely almost entirely on scatological humor in the world of alternative comics.
So what do I like? I love the exaggerated satire of Peter Bagge, the gag writing of Kyle Baker, the manic energy of Evan Dorkin, the stoopid-but-smart cleverness of Sam Henderson, the brutal willingness to go all the way that Ivan Brunetti possesses, and the postmodern silliness of Martha Keavney. But above all others, I love the absurd humor of Michael Kupperman.
There's a density to his work that adds power to every panel. He's a skilled gag writer, often choosing jokes that deliberately contrast his illustrative style. That style can best be described as using heavily rendered backgrounds (often almost looking like woodcuts) and often realistic figures doing absolutely insane things. Non sequiturs are common but always manage to be funny. His drawings themselves can be amusing, but he rarely uses stylistic exaggeration to make his punchlines. His work has what can be described as an "old-timey" feel, with the illustrations looking like something out of the 1930's, and he uses this to his advantage when coming up with his punchlines. It's Dada in the best sense of the word: unpredictable, cannabilizing other images, and absurd.
Let's look at the first issue of his new series. First of, I love the conceptual humor of dividing the issue into adult, kid's and old people's sections, with only the appropriate age groups allowed to read each one (for example, you must be over 82 to read the old people's section). In the adult section, we get an ad where a lurking Mickey Rourke sells his pubic hair stencil designs to an office worker in order to impress women ("Death Of A Bullfighter: This one I started as a novel, then I realized the story would work better within the medium of pubic hair). The art here perfectly mimics the sort of stiff comic-book ads that most everyone is familiar with.
Visually, the best strip is "Holiday Frolics", which begins as a standard educational strip about Christmas and Easter, and quickly moves into a paean to "Jesus' half-brother PAGUS!" Pagus is this sort of 1980's cartoon character that one might have seen in Thundarr or Thundercats. A sort of lion character with a tiara, a blanket tied into a cape, and wrestling tights with a big P on them. The simpler, more iconic character provides a hilarious weird contrast to the more heavily rendered scenes in the strip, which gets steadily more absurd as it progresses (surfing on lava in his underground kingdom, his CD Pagus Sings available through his website, and Pagus constantly laughing "HA HA HA HA HA HA!").
In the kid's section, Kupperman introduces a boy band (the closest he comes to using a recent topic) called Boybank, which also devolves into extreme absurdity after starting with mild absurdity. Then it takes a left turn into following their manager, a mustachioed 1800's villain-type. The narrator tells us what he's doing, going into a bad part of town, entering a building and then taking things out of a cupboard. The drawing here relies on heavy blacks: the black-adorned character, the shadowy streets, the woodcut-looking room, all to reveal him painting an easter egg…for Pagus! The last panel switches to that that 80's-cartoon look once again, as we see Pagus laughing. I love this strip because he switches visual styles (Boybank themselves get blue backgrounds and simpler rendering) and then brings back an older joke in the manner of a skilled improv artist who builds layers of references into sketches, repeating them at unexpected moments.
There are other repeating motifs, like his detective characters Snake 'n Bacon (literally, a snake and a talking piece of bacon that says things like "I'm tasty in a sandwich"), Sex Holes and Sex Blimps, and variations on using tired genre clichés to fuel funny stories. Perhaps my favorite along those lines is "Are Comics Serious Literature?", where two cowboys engage in a fistfight over that very topic. After the "good guy" wins, he asks "Now who else says comics aren't serious literature?" The genius of that strip is that it looks and feels exactly like a cowboy fistfight comic should look like in terms of action and character design, but it all serves to tell the joke.
In the end, this level of detail is what draws me to Kupperman's work. It's not just that he writes good punchlines, it's that every single panel is funny. It's not just that I find his non sequiturs funny (though I do), it's that he makes everything leading up to them hilarious. All throughout, he constantly deflects reader expectation, sometimes even from panel to panel. The result is a book that is steeped in comics, genre and illustration history that works without the reader needing to know specific information about any of that history in order to find it funny. Even stranger for a humor book, Kupperman's art and design sense is genuinely beautiful, and that aesthetic appeal is yet another tool in his comedic arsenal, because he uses that as part of technique of turning reader expectation on its head. The next issue of this series will arrive in stores in February.