Across The Pond: Chortle, chortle, yoincks and ho ho

Bit of a schizoid headline there; a mish mash of British and American catch phrases. It’s like that because I’m going to have a look at British and American comic humour as well as some thoughts on 2000AD and humour. Growing up in the seventies, I got British humour from TV and from the extraordinary genre of humour comics, such as `Whizzer and Chips`, Cor! The Beano! and their ilk. These comics are variations on a very long running theme and change about as much as kabuki does; i.e. not at all. When I say `long running`, I mean they are descendents of Tom Brown’s Schooldays. The Beano is 65 years old. Whizzer and Chips was created in 1969, but follows the trusted and true formula which goes back ages…. you can trace some of the themes to the 1857 novel `Tom Brown’s Schooldays`.

The formula for most stories goes something like this: the character has some special gimmick that defines them (ludicrously rich, very strong, owner of a pet ghost etc):
-They get in a fix, often because of the gimmick
-They get out again, usually with the help of their gimmick
– They have a feed, the good are happy and the evil are mildly punished

All of the above often happens at a school in which the teachers wear academic gowns, are called `sir` and have tiny mortarboards perching on their heads.

As the man who created Japan’s most popular cartoon Doraemon said, these stories are like the stripes on a barbers pole; they seem to move but don’t go anywhere. British kids comics are like the stripes on a barber’s pole, which has turned off for the night. The style is so familiar in Britain that Private Eye calls one of the Boris Johnson, `Beano Boris. Boris* is an upper-class twit type who thinks he’s P.G. Woodhouse, and everyone knows exactly what Private Eye is getting at; the man is constantly using expressions such as `Cripes! `, `Crikey` and “Cheese It`.

In 1979, a young eccentric started a smutty version of these magazines, called Viz, in which the gimmick was uncontrollable farting, gigantic testicles or a weakness for smutty double entendres. Viz eventually became the most successful magazine on sale in the UK (apart from the one they have to buy to find out what’s on the telly). A lot of its humour also comes from sending up the excesses of British tabloid newspapers; “Vicar Denies Nazi Killer Wasp Claim”, “these days you’ve only got to have sex with a woman against her will to be accused of rape! It’s political correctness gone mad” – that kind of thing. It was also phenomenally successful in Australia.

I’m blessed with a very comics oriented family. We grew up on Don Martin’s cartoons in Mad Magazine in the sixties and seventies and my father still uses Martin’s sound effects unconsciously at home. When he moves something quickly, it’s with an `f-toon! ` and when he notices something unusual he says, “gad”. There is a Don Martin character in one of Walter the Wobot`s solo stories so I know 2000 AD artists have heard of him. The other shock Mad fan is Mark Harrison, who cites Mort Drucker as a big influence (have a look at his cover for Prog 2005; it brings back years of reading Mad`s movie parodies). The whole family use sound effects to talk; ” so he went “sit”” rather than “he sat down” (this isn’t as mad as it sounds; most of the time we talk like normal Australians. Pretty much).

Humour in 2000AD has always been a bit problematic. It seems to work best when done indirectly; a straight story like Judge Dredd including various odd crazes. Straight out humour has been less successful. There was “I was a teenage tax accountant” which was humour with a capital `h`. A teenage runaway is bitten by a tax accountant and turns into an accountant when there’s a full moon, growing glasses and a suit and spouting nonsensical tax advice. You’d never have guessed that from the title, would you now? I quite liked it, but it was very obvious stuff and didn’t go down well with the readership. There was the Space Girls, an attempt to cash in on the Spice Girls success with a wacky humorous story about a bunch of talented, cute super powered girls who had adventures in space. My heart sinks just typing this, but it wasn’t as bad as it sounds. `Space Girls` became the iconic “bad story” for 2000 AD with Tharg the alien editor making jokes about it and sending the Space Girls into a black hole when they showed up at his anniversary party. It was bad, but I think it has been convenient for 2000 AD to have as a token of badness, everything else being presumably better. They’ve done worse since!

Then there was Big Dave. This was 2000 AD does Viz in a big way. Big Dave was a Manchurian maniac (I mean, from Manchester) who liked drinking, screwing and violence. He was impossibly strong and once drove a car underwater from Manchester to Florida. The dialogue boxes were done in a tabloid style; so when Dave feeds a left-wing vicar to lions we get the comment “That’s it Dave; We don’t need these lefty vicars interfering in politics”. I thought Big Dave was a lot of fun, when I discovered it years later, but it didn’t go down too well with 2000 AD’s readers. It was cancelled after the author proposed a storyline involving a fantastic voyage inside the body of a dead baby (Big Dave had already had a threesome with Princess Diana and the Duchess of York by this stage). It was Viz but kind of ham-fisted Viz. For a start, the story was more than one page long.

Now the successful humour in 2000 AD is in Sinister Dexter (sample “he’s the kind of guy who thinks `irony` is Reagan’s biography) and reminds me a little of Mad. The funniest thing in the comic is `Droid Life`, a very fannish little strip about two of Tharg`s robot underlings. You have to have read 2000 AD for quite a while to get it but if you do it’s a scream.

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