Comic books started with comedy, and have returned to it in its down periods ever since. Originally, comic books reprinted newspaper comic strips. This is where we get the ‘comic’ in comic books.
Superheroes and drama took over – mostly. There were still comic sidekicks almost none of whom are ever remembered by anyone except aficionados. Sure, we remember Wing and Chop Chop, but not Stuff the Chinatown Kid. We tend to forget Doiby Dickles and the Fatman.
After the collapse of the superhero market, that is, during the Dark Age, a lot of comics returned to humor. There was teen humor in Archie comics, Patsy Walker (yes, later Hellcat) and others. There were funny animals like DC’s Terrific Whatzit and Marvel’s Buck Duck (bet you forgot about him, too). There were also the slew of funny animals mostly licensed from television from minor companies Dell and Gold Key. This includes Woody Woodpecker, Heckle and Jeckle, the Road Runner, and others. Again, almost nobody remembers there but we do remember their adventure, superhero, gothic, and horror comics.
The humor we do remember is not form the comics because it’s Disney. Yes, once Disney was unconglomerate enough to farm out its precious characters to outside companies (insert Fox/Sony/Marvel joke way up here).
But there are two cases of comics with surreal or absurdist humor. They succeeded in a limited sense and, any sense of logic would lead you to not connect them. However, surreal humor does not depend on logic, in fact, it depends on breaking the bonds of logic.
The first of these is Krazy Kat, created by George Herriman. It ran from 1913 to 944. Like Peanuts, the comic died with its creator for much the same reason: his style was so singular no on else could do it right.
Herriman had a life of being on the outside that made him ready to see things in the cock-eyed way that the comic required. He was part black, mulatto was the term at the time and he would have to choose to identify as white or black and ignore the other half of his ancestry. In that sense he would always be an outsider.
This showed in his work. In Musical Mose he wrote about a black man who imitated other ethnicities and paid the price for it when he was caught out. If we can find meaning in the fact that Superman creator Jerry Siegel’s father was shot in a robbery (actually he had a heart attack shortly after, but I still wouldn’t call the two unconnected) why can’t we get meaning from Herriman’s experience?
It’s worth noting that Herriman’s Mose never failed to deliver the goods. When people listened to his music they thought he was a member of the ethnicity whose music he was playing. It was when they saw him that they beat him up. It’s more of a satire against racism than anything else.
Herriman’s family moved to Los Angeles, and Geroge Herriman hopped a freight train (that is, took an illegal ride on a freight train) and went to New York where he thought he would have a better chance at making a living as an artist. Going from L.A. to New York to be a success: that idea went out the window in the sixties.
He started trying to break into the magazine market, which was prominent, profitable, and largely closed. He turned to a newer market that was still open to newcomers. He got into newspaper comic strips for the Hearst Papers. It took him a while and several efforts, but he eventually came up with the idea of the Family Upstairs, later called the Dingbat Family.
Since he was a hard worker and Hearst Papers made him work an eight-hour day he had time on his hands. So, in a slight distinction to the usual topper, he put an extra bit of comic in the bottom 1 ½ inches of the comic. This ‘bottomer’ was like a topper which ran at the top of the comic but it had a single and narrow theme. It was what the house of the people upstairs did to the cat of the people in the comic.
If you think the structure of mouse beating cat sounds familiar, keep thinking that. We’ll get back to it.
Hearst liked the man’s style and the idea, and from April 1916 Krazy Kat became a series in its own right. It would never get a large following, but it would gain the support of the intellectual elites of America. So though it was only in 35 papers or so, Hearst paid substantial money to Herriman. This probably wasn’t indulgence. Krazy Kat would inspire the interest of people who would join the profession.
Krazy Kat was set in a mythical Southwest, which would inspire the background and hence the characters of the Road Runner. The mouse attacked the cat, which would inspire a lot else in Warner Brothers, and possibly have a hand in inspiring Tom and Jerry as well. A dozen other prominent cartoonists would name Krazy Kat as a significant or even primary inspiration. It was as if the Beeales had never sold many records but everyone you’ve heard of bought their records.
The cartoon itself made little logical sense, but unlike most absurdism, it made emotional sense. There were three main characters. There was Krazy Kat was normally referred to as “he” but in a minority of times, as “she.” Krazy was innocent and oddly in love with the mouse, Ignatz.
Unrequited love was nothing new, it was the mechanisms that were involved that were unusual. Because the mouse, Ignatz, kept throwing bricks at the kat, which Krazy thought was the mouse returning its affections. Unrequited love, yes, bricks, what the hell?
Almost fortunately there is a police officer who saves Krazy’s hide. He is Offica Pup, Officapup, and Offica Bull Pup, among other things. One of the least imitable aspects of the comic is the inconsistent spelling. Offica Pup begins just foiling Ignatz, which Krazy thinks is just them playing tag. Eventually, Offica Pup falls in love with Krazy – from a distance.
Within this there was a wide variety of things they did. For example, they met their first echo, as Ignatz the mouse, Gooseberry Spring the Duck, and Offica Pup all fear whoever is out there. When Krazy shows up, Ignatz finds out what an echo is, and realizes it’s now possible to hit Krazy in the head with a brick. Which he does, to Krazy’s great pleasure.
Though short, it’s a story which covers a wide range of issues. How we react to the unknown, the bad side of leadership, the incidental or chance elements that actually affect a situation.
And yet Krazy Kat can also be a venue for a stupid joke. Somebody doesn’t drink like a fish because fish don’t drink. Then again, it’s true. Fish don’t need to drink, so the expression “drink like a fish” is a falsehood we all accept. There is no Krazy Kat cartoon that doesn’t have some element that can be pondered.
Compare this to Jack Cole, the creator of Plastic Man. Jack was born in New Castle, Pennsylvania and rode his bike to California. He would sell his story to an unknown publication, possibly the local paper. Today he’d be on television and could possibly make a career out of that. If he went to California to look for work as an artist, he failed. He returned to New Castle and shortly after went to New York City. When he finally did succeed there, Cole came back to pick up his childhood sweetheart and marry her. Strangely, George Herriman did exactly the same thing. Two men with absurdist tastes who returned home to marry childhood sweethearts.
Like Herriman, Cole first approached magazines. He had some success, but soon turned to the new medium of the day, comic books. It was more open and welcoming to newcomers. Cole, by the way, had no artistic training beyond a correspondence course. Hopefully better than the ones advertised in comic books in the sixties which were bad enough that DC had an issue of Superman devoted to a story about how bad they were. Biting the hand that feeds you. When did DC last do that in a good cause?
But Cole would always be a bit on the margin in an artistic world. What he would have was a remarkable grasp of ideas. One of his first tasks was to rework the original Daredevil. He would go on to kill the Comet and put his brother in his place. It was the first death of a superhero in comics.
An early element of surreal humor came when Cole was charged with creating some insurance. Eisner might be called into the army and his very popular character might become unavailable. So Jack Cole created Midnight, who wore the same suit, fedora, and domino mask the Spirit had. But instead of Ebony White, the African-American with a face based on minstrel shows, Midnight had a talking monkey sidekick. I’m not sure if that’s satire, but is absurd.
Cole went on to create Plastic Man as a backup story in Police Comics. Plastic Man is usually referred to as a stretching superhero but he is no such thing. He is a kind of shape shifter. Not only do his limbs and body elongate but they get thinner without getting longer, they expand, contract, and change shape.
It is that change which marks Plastic Man as absurdist in that people will walk into a room with a red, black, and yellow rug or table totally outside the decor of the room. He has formed himself into a covered wagon, a kind of roulette wheel or bowl, a garden hose, or, in one remarkable case, a kite that carries two men, one on his back and one in his hands.
So Plastic Man’s pre-hero criminal career with Charles (Chuck) Brown, alias Kiteman, makes a weird kind of sense. Chalk one up for The Brave and The Bold: The Animated Series.
The background and the plots are as insane as anything in Krazy Kat. For example, a man is cursed so his hands can detach themselves from him. His hands aren’t honest and go and steal stuff. Plastic Man saves the man by throwing his hands in a furnace and burning them.
Seriously? No. Not seriously at all. But making a point. Without the social point, Plastic Man is just stupid, not absurdist.
In another case, a man falls into a volcano where he meets a five-hundred-year-old man. The man teaches him to turn himself into lava. As you do. For a while the ability gave the man a way of avoiding Plastic Man, but eventually he cools and hardens, fatally. It’s treated as a joke, but the reader gets the point: an advantage is never permanent.
There are degrees of absurd, here. Krazy Kat did not always use panels. And sometimes it would have a row of circular panels along one line. Or the panels would be of odd sizes so one would overlap with another. And sometimes the comic used perfectly conventional plain old box panels.
Plastic Man often had more conventional escapades but “more” is a relative term. His origin is, for the time, fairly standard. He falls into a vat of acid when wounded and the acid seeps into his wound giving him superpowers (who has all these uncovered vats of dangerous chemicals, anyways?).
But he goes on to being told to catch one crook a month – Police Comics was published once a month. Not breaking the fourth wall but certainly leaning against it. So Plastic Man goes and breaks up a criminal gang with a pinball racket. If you can’t do quality, do quantity.
But things happened to Jack Cole and Plastic Man that didn’t happen to George Herriman and Krazy Kat. Plastic Man became generally popular, took over the cover of Police Comics and they started a new comic, Plastic Man. When Cole left for greener pastures, they kept going with new writers and artists and the stories weren’t good enough. Sales dropped.
The mistake they made was a desire to make Plastic Man into what they expected to create. It’s still done today in that Plastic Man keeps hanging around the Justice League or trying is teamed up with Batman and admits he hated the clowning persona he had. He doesn’t really fit into this system and he has never again been a commercial hit with the public.
They have tried to integrate him with superheroes generally. Only where he is allowed some level of being bizarre (if not surreal) like Brave and Bold: TAS, does he work in the plot. As soon as Batman goes back to being dark and brooding over his throat cancer, Plsatic Man’s out of there.
The same thing happened with Krazy Kat. Having found something with a following, there were people who thought they could dumb it down and get more fans. The loss of old fans is never countenanced in these moves.
Though some animated versions show deference to the source material, a fair bit of it was an imitation of Felix the Cat and Mickey Mouse (who himself was an imitator of Felix). The market would eventually decide it didn’t need two characters, let alone three of a type.
Both characters seem to work best outside of the system of other characters. That would kind of be what surrealism is about.
Like Krazy, Plastic Man has been a hit with comic book creators. People like Grant Morrison have been inspired by him. Like Krazy Kat, Plastic Man is now the comic that the intellectual elite enjoys and, as with Hearst’s backing of Krazy Kat years ago, that intellectual elite will push their favorite product.
Jack Cole, of course, left Plastic Man and comics and went off to do better paid and better recognized work. He went to Playboy which at the time actually had a circulation. It became the biggest payer for one-panel cartoons outside of syndicates. Punch was second, if you’re interested. Cole could make a living through a single panel a month, the odd extra illustration, and merchandize. After the bunny-head cufflinks came napkins with Cole’s cartoons on them.
Life was comfortable and he was accepted. But somehow he remained an outsider. He didn’t see things as others did, or so I believe because he committed suicide. Why he did, precisely, no one’s ever said even in court.
Two outsiders who both had a preference for the absurd. I do not know of any reliable connection that has ever been made between personality and type of humor. The results of types of humor has been expounded very badly (using self-defeating humor will defeat yourself). But this seems to be a link.
Certainly these are among the best surreal comics America ever produced. Most things that call themselves surreal are just lazy. Krazy Kat and Plastic Man stand in opposite corners of the map, were made in different eras for different audiences. As such, it’s remarkable that their creators should have so many significant parallels in their lives.