Saturday, January 24, 2009

Birthday Review #3 - Not Brand Echh #11

Not Brand Echh #11 (published by Marvel Comics, December 1968)

  1. "King Konk '68" by Roy Thomas (writer); Tom Sutton (penciller); Marie Severin (inker)
  2. "Super-Hero Daydreams" by Marie Severin (writer/penciller); John Tartaglione (inker)
  3. "Dark Moon Rise, Heck Hound Hurt" by Arnold Drake (writer); Frank Springer (penciller); Tom Sutton (inker)
  4. "It's A Mad, Mad Ave." by Stu Schwartzberg (writer); Marie Severin (penciller/inker)
  5. "The Puns of Will Bonnet" by Arnold Drake (writer); Tom Sutton (penciller/inker)
  6. "How To Be A Comic Book Artist" by Marie Severin (writer/penciller/inker)
  7. "Don't Rock The Vote" by Arnold Drake (writer); Tom Sutton (penciller/inker)
  8. "Auntie Goose Rhymes Dept." by Roy Thomas (writer); John Verpoorten (penciller/inker)
  9. "Ivanshmoe" by Roy Thomas/Stan Lee (writers); Tom Sutton (penciller/inker)
  10. "Fame Is A Cross-Eyed Blind Date With B-A-A-A-D Breath" by Arnold Drake (writer); Marie Severin (penciller); John Tartaglione (inker)
About halfway through this oversized issue of humor strips based on the Marvel Universe, it suddenly struck me that very rarely are mainstream superhero comics fun anymore!

Not that fun is the only measure of quality, but the trend toward gritty, ultra-realistic dystopian darkness has turned most superhero comics into bleak morality tales. Endless images of a corrupt, unjust world, overcome with violence and sex, pervade the genre, and even in those rare stories where a more light-hearted approach is taken (e.g. Giffen and DeMatteis's Justice League or John Byrne's She-Hulk), none achieve the outright silliness and manic energy of this late 60s series.

All that being said, I wouldn't exactly call Not Brand Echh a masterpiece or anything. The book essentially follows the Mad Magazine format, with several short parodies and gag strips drawn in a distorted cartoonish style (a la Don Martin) using Marvel superheroes in odd, contrived and occasionally just plain stupid situations. It's not laugh-out-loud funny, but there is a certain persistent cleverness and wit that make it a satisfying reading experience.

There are a couple different types of humor in this book. The first is situational humor; Marvel superheroes are used as stooges in sitcom-style parodies. For example, in "Don't Rock the Vote," we have Namor (renamed "No-More, the Sunk Mariner") running for President against Aquaman (renamed "Aqualung Man"). The strip, which includes a ridiculous debate, outrageous campaign ads and a whole lot of other nonsense, can, occassionly induces a chuckle or two, but the real joy is searching for the literally dozens of subtle visual gags that Tom Sutton works into every panel.

Similarly, in the book's opening story, a slapstick parody of King Kong called "King Konk '68," the alliterative attempts at humor ("another mind-boggling milestone along mighty Marble's momentous migration toward mediocrity") are tedious at times, but the story is saved by the sheer tenacity of Sutton's visuals. The scan above is a typical example. The page is dense with text balloons, most of which are punchlines or random asides, but the real joy is the artwork, which crams dozens of buffoonish variations of familiar characters into an otherwise iconic scene.

The comic also has a lot of inside jokes and not-so-subtle jabs at many of Marvel's artists at the time. For example, "Auntie Goose Rhymes Dept." features Aunt May reading nursery rhymes which poke fun at Jack Kirby. The best example of this insider humor is ""Dark Moon Rise, Heck Hound Hurt." The entire point of this strip is to poke fun at Jim Steranko's page designs from his classic Nick Fury #3 and Frank Springer does an excellent job mimicking and exaggerating Steranko's worst visual habits, especially his confusing page arrangements, where it's hard to determine which order to read the text balloons. The lead character, "Knock Furious, Agent of S.H.E.E.S.H." is bumbling and oafish, the antithesis of masculine perfection that usually typifies Marvel's superheroes.

And that's kind of the point of the whole book. All of these stories feature Marvel heroes acting decidedly unheroic; rather, they're cloyingly clumsy and catastrophically clueless (sorry!).

The highlight of the book, and perhaps its only real source of enduring humor, is the old advertisements for all kinds of ridiculous products like "electronic computer brains" and "giant stallion murals." And of course, no 60s Marvel comic would be complete without ads for "the secrets of muscle power," "new scientific discoveries to help you gain weight," remedies to prevent hair loss, and quick study guides to earn your G.E.D. But my personal favorite is the ad for the "Perfect Voice Institute" which promises "you can have a He-Man voice if you send away for the free booklet, "Voice Power and Personal Power" by Eugene Feuchtinger. I mean, who wouldn't want a He-Man voice?

1 comment:

Mr. On said...

Re: Not Brand Ecch #11;

I've a fond recollection of NBE from Marvel's halcyon days, especially #11 as it was the issue instrumental in me winning the 8th Grade Spelling Bee sponsored by Scipps-Howard Newspapers.

The winning word?

Snoopy said it best in "King Konk '68"- viscount, as in "vermillion viscount".

Even beat out the (other) nerds and eggheads, except (ha! ha!) I wasn't either.

Just guy who liked humor mags.

I'm telling you, everything I ever needed to know I learned from Marvel Comics...

Regrettably, they just don't write 'em like that anymore.