Comics in Comics: The Bizarre History of Comedians in Comic Books
When the average person thinks about comic books, they don’t necessarily think about standup comedians. Sure, both are called comics, but one allows readers to see another world that is filled with beautiful people battling evil villains, and the other allows audience members to see a man or woman on stage trying to not humiliate themselves. To the contrary, comedians have a long history within comic books. In fact, comedians had a place in the comic book industry as early as 1948 when Abbott & Costello became the first comedians to get their own comic book.
As hard as it is to imagine, there was a time when superheroes did not dominate the comic book medium. Today, DC Comics releases mostly superhero comics (Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, etc.), but in the 1950s, DC also published a lot of comic books that starred standup comedians. In fact, comics that starred Bob Hope and Jerry Lewis were big hits that ran for 100-plus issues. Occasionally they would have crossovers with popular superheroes (Jerry Lewis famously had a crossover with the Flash), but they mostly had weird adventures by themselves.
With these comic books, readers were able to experience their favorite comedians every month, but the stories in these comic books were just bizarre. Take for instance, Bob Hope #20. In this story Bob Hope goes underwater and meets a bunch of beautiful mermaids. This is something I am sure Bob Hope never did because no one has ever done this because it is impossible and mermaids are not real.
The story begins with Bob Hope learning that some old coins are rare and can be worth a lot of money, specifically nickels from 1911. Bob remembers that he once dropped a coin into the ocean and decides to go find it. Despite the fact that this might be the dopiest scheme of all time, he gets his landlady on board to help him out with this quest. On his journey, he meets a bunch of sexy mermaids that he gawks at and hits on relentlessly. Eventually, Bob finds a whole box full of nickels from 1911 and tries to exchange them for big bucks. However, the appearance of all of these rare nickels renders them useless and Bob only earns himself $37.50 and the ire of his grumpy landlady.
As the comic book medium matured and superheroes once again took center stage, the comedians were no longer featured as main characters and were relegated to making cameos. If readers wanted to see their favorite comedians on the page, they had to wait until they crossed over with superheroes.
Many of these crossovers end up being really strange, as the creative process is so far removed from the celebrity who is lending their likeness to the book. When a comedian has a cameo in a movie, they have to show up on set and read their lines. By doing this, the comedian is essentially approving everything his character says and does inside the movie. The comedian has less control over their cameo in a comic book because the comedian doesn’t really have to be involved after they agrees to lend out their likeness. If the comedian leaves the writer alone, then that writer can then go and do whatever it is that the writer wants to do. And that is how you things like Don Rickles appearance in Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen #139 and #141.
The original pitch behind Don Rickles’ appearance in Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen was a good one. In the forward to the graphic novel Jimmy Olsen: Adventures by Jack Kirby Volume One Mark Evanier, an apprentice to Jack Kirby, explains how this crossover came to be:
“Comedian Don Rickles was then enormously popular, and Steve Sherman and I were big fans of his. Rickles plied his insult humor on many a talk show, forever claiming that he never picked on the little guy… only on the biggies. Steve and I thought, ‘Who’s bigger than Superman?’ So we wrote up some Rickles-style insults of Superman and suggested to Jack (Kirby) that Don Rickles make a brief cameo appearance in JIMMY OLSEN. The idea was for him to insult The Man of Steel the way he went after Sinatra.”
Don Rickles’ people liked the pitch, but after it was approved by his team, things started to go awry. DC decided that the comic book needed to be two issues long and Rickles needed to be on the cover both times. All of a sudden, a potentially two-page appearance (designed to make Don look good) had ballooned into 42 pages. The writer and artist of this book, the legendary Jack Kirby, had a wild imagination and the story turned into a convoluted mess that features Jimmy Olsen, Superman, the Newsboy Legion, The Guardian, crooked business men, and a Don Rickles look-a-like named Goody Rickles.
It’s a bizarre story, but I’ll do my best to describe it. Evil businessman Morgan Edge wants to become Don Rickles’ agent. However, in the research department of Edge’s firm, there is a Don Rickles look-a-like named Goody Rickles. Concerned that Don will be put off by his goofy look-a-like, Edge decides the best way to handle the situation is to kill Goody Rickles. Edge sends Goody to investigate a fake alien landing and, after a long sequence of increasingly convoluted events, Goody, Jimmy Olsen, and a bland superhero named The Guardian are poisoned. They all ate something that will make them combust in 24 hours if they don’t get an antidote.
Meanwhile, Don Rickles goes to his meeting with Edge and is immediately put off by Edge’s clearly evil nature. Goody Rickles and Jimmy Olsen burst in on the meeting and start yelling about how they are going to die if the network doesn’t get them an antidote. The Guardian shows up and gives them an antidote, and Don Rickles decides not to sign with Morgan Edge.
Every detail in the Don Rickles/Jimmy Olsen crossover is weird, and Mark Evanier states in that same forward that Don Rickles hated the story. It’s a cult classic to some out there that like wildly absurd comic book tales, but this comic is hard to like. It isn’t easy to drop a comedian into a superhero story and still hold onto the essential piece that makes that comedian great. It’s the same problem that plagued Avengers #239: a crossover between the Avengers and David Letterman.
Wonder Man (superhero, actor, and wearer of douchey sunglasses) wants to get onto Late Night with David Letterman. But, the booker at Late Night is unimpressed with Wonder Man (possibly because he wears Bret Hart sunglasses and a blue turtleneck with a red leather vest) and won’t have him on unless he can bring a few more superheroes along with him. Wonder Man rises to the occasion and delivers a solid B-Team of Avengers (Hawkeye, Mockingbird, Black Panther, Beast, and Black Widow). The interview goes to hell when supervillain, Fabian Stankowitz (yes, that is the character’s name and not the name of a character in an Outkast song), attacks the Avengers mid-show. Letterman himself ends up saving the day by hitting Stankowitz with a giant doorknob.
While the comic book is decent as a light-hearted superhero adventure story, it never quite captures the magic of David Letterman. The original host of Late Night was a curmudgeon. He had a temper and fans of Dave liked that they could tell when he was annoyed. But the David Letterman in this comic never stops smiling. He smiles when he hits the villain with a giant doorknob, he smiles when he takes the portable forcefield generator out of the villains pocket, and he smiles as he admonishes the man for messing with him. David Letterman is a man who would famously punch walls backstage when interviews didn’t go well. If a man had emerged from the audience and attacked one his guests, Dave would not have smiled through the whole thing. He would hit him with the giant doorknob again and again. He would have never stop hitting him with the doorknob.
The comic also fails as a piece of comedy. The cover is stamped with a warning that says, “Beware: It’s Assistant Editors’ Month! Don’t say we didn’t warn you.” Now, maybe within the industry being an Assistant Editor is really embarrassing and maybe they have a reputation for screwing things up, but readers wouldn’t know that. That is as inside a joke as a joke can possibly be.
In 2008, another future host of the Late Show became immortalized in comic book form when Stephen Colbert appeared in Amazing Spider-Man #573. Although, Colbert was no stranger to comic book fans at this point (his Tek Jansen character had been adapted into comic book form by Oni Press only one year earlier), this is the first issue he appears in as himself. His appearance was a fun little story that involves him dropping a statue on the head of notoriously lame super villain with a notoriously lame name, Grizzly.
In 2015, appearances of comedians in comic books are very rare. Comic books like Avengers meet Letterman and Don Rickles meets Jimmy Olsen are not remembered fondly and most writers at Marvel and DC aren’t looking to do something the might seem hokey like having Captain America hang out with Kevin Hart or having Jonah Hill fight the Joker. However, there was one stand up comedian that did manage to make her way onto the page in this decade. Sarah Silverman was in this year’s Deadpool #40.
Co-written by standup comedian Brian Posehn, Deadpool #40 is about wacky anti-hero Deadpool and his journey to understand gracking (fracking with gamma radiation). It’s a wonderfully bizarre comic that is done in the style of a coloring book. In this story, Deadpool essentially lives out the 2010 documentary, Gasland. Dario Agger, president of Roxxon Chemical, guides Deadpool through the coloring book and tries to convince him that gracking is actually good for the environment. Deadpool is skeptical and eventually sees the light after he is convinced by Sarah Silverman that gracking is bad and they need to stop Dario Agger.
Sarah Silverman’s appearance in Deadpool #40 is really fun. She’s actually funny in it (which makes sense because her and Posehn are real-life friends), and she even gets to deliver a “kame-hame-ha” to a minotaur.
If comedians are going to have a future in comic books, Deadpool #40 should be the model. Gone are the days when Bob Hope could journey to the bottom of the sea and lust after mermaids. Modern appearances of comedians have to be self-aware and ironic. Writers today need to know that the modern reader is cynical and won’t be enticed to buy a book just because a celebrity is in it.
Mark Henely is a standup comedian, podcaster, and comic book fan. He went to Rutgers University where he officially studied English Literature and unofficially studied Marvel and DC Comics. Now he has a podcast where he reviews the first appearances of Comic Book characters. It is called Introducing… The First Appearance Podcast and you can check it out on iTunes and Stitcher.