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Sep 08

Comics: A Beginner’s Guide: Humour Comics

The Brown Wedge1 comment • 1,400 views

Although those who know it in recent years might be surprised at this, most of the best humour comic artists link back to Mad. Don’t let the formulaic banality of so much of the recent material deter you. Mad was started by EC Comics in 1952 – I’ve mentioned their horror, SF and war comics elsewhere in this series. The editor was Harvey Kurtzman, one of the greatest cartoonists ever, and featured art by EC regulars such as Wally Wood, Jack Davis and Will Elder. These early issues were terrific, with some extraordinary strips – there’s an unlikely and jaw-dropping appearance by Bernie Krigstein (who’ll come up again in a couple of entries).

Kurtzman’s humour material is almost all well worth finding: Hey Look! and Help! are erratic but never less than magnificently executed, but his best comedy is in Goodman Beaver (beautifully inked by Elder) and especially The Jungle Book, one of the all-time great comics, it comprises four parody tales – a private eye story, a business satire, a cowboy tale and a Southern sheriff strip. It’s genuinely funny, and, for me, a genuine masterpiece of cartooning. (I would recommend skipping Kurtzman and Elder’s long-running Playboy strip, Little Annie Fanny, lovely as it looks.)

Mad has also featured two of my other all-time favourite funny cartoonists. Don Martin was a Mad regular for over 30 years, producing a vast number of hilarious strips starring ugly characters and a wildly energetic style, plus the best sound effects anyone has ever given us. There have been few comic artists with as instantly and widely recogniseable a style – I’m sure just about everyone knew who drew the Mona Lisa illustration here.

Sergio Aragones is one of the most charming people I have ever met, and a lightning-fast, consistently funny cartoonist. His ‘Mad Marginals’, tiny silent cartoons, have been in all but one issue of Mad since 1963 (that issue’s were lost in the post). He has also worked extensively for DC, and created the barbarian comic Groo the Wanderer for Marvel. This comic, co-written with Mark Evanier (Aragones is Spanish, and his English needed help), starred the dumbest and most accident-prone warrior available – but Groo is also an unbeatable fighter. Most issues end with him fleeing from a huge angry mob. Because Aragones is so incredibly fast (I’ve watched him work), he can’t resist putting in loads of detail, packing in background gags.

Obviously other funny comic strips have been covered here – newspaper strips, undergrounds, indies, children’s – but there’s one other odd one I want to mention here. Gregory is an institutionalized small child, who has a couple of words and lots of expressively meaningless sounds. He’s mostly in a straitjacket, his only friend is a rat and he is sometimes mistreated by the asylum staff. This may not sound a recipe for comedy, but it’s genuinely delightful and very funny, largely thanks to Marc Hempel‘s bold, strange and confident cartooning.

Early Mad issues have been collected in reprints, and there are collections of Don Martin’s work, in the small paperback reprints and in large, luxurious volumes. Aragones has had his own paperback Mad collections, and there are lots of Groo collections. Kurtzman’s Jungle Book and Goodman Beaver may be found, if you’re lucky. I found some Gregory on Amazon easily enough – his Tug & Buster is well worth reading, too. You may even find some of the above in libraries – Groo may be the best bet there.

Comments

  1. 1
    DV on 9 Sep 2008 #

    stupid question, maybe, but are you focusing so much on US humour comics because you don’t like the various UK kids humour titles (or the ones for grown-ups, like Viz) or because the US ones are more readily available?

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