Or – “Faster Than A Seltzer Bottle, More Powerful Than A Rubber Chicken…”
I have often pointed out that creativity is a capricious and inconsistent beastie. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby together created the Silver Surfer (poetic stranger in a strange land), while Jack alone created The Black Racer (just plain strange). When Siegel & Shuster abandoned DC in the mid-1940s, after selling the rights to Superman, for the princely sum of $130 bucks, they took their talents to a rival publisher to try to catch lightning in a bottle again with the adventures of Funnyman! Your Major Spoilers (retro) review awaits!
Remarkable detail in the art.
The premise is solid.
It has aged better than many contemporary strips.
Funny can be subjective.
Writer: Jerry Siegel
Penciler: Joe Shuster/John Sikela/Marvin Stein
Inker: Shuster Studio
Editor: Vin Sullivan
Publisher: Magazine Enterprises
Cover Price: 10 Cents
Current Near-Mint Pricing: $800.00
Previously in Funnyman: The comics industry was a different place in the thirties and forties, an industry where talented artists could ply their trade in between writing short stories or creating advertising campaigns. The characters they created were expected to sell comics, and if they didn’t, they (and by extension their creators and publishers) would fall by the wayside for the next big thing. Originally collections of newspaper strips, the comics industry slowly gained original characters, but things changed forever when Superman hit the scene. Comics fans know the story: Two young men trying to make their way in the big city, creating a global phenomenon, but selling the rights for nearly nothing. By 1947, the editor who had first purchased the tales of the Man Of Steel from them at DC had founded his OWN comic-publishing company, Magazine Enterprises, and when Siegel & Shuster left National Periodical Publications (later to become DC Comics) in 1946, suing over the rights to their creation, they ended up at Magazine Enterprises. Interestingly, the first page of Funnyman #1 features the character in a pose heavily reminiscent of Superman‘s heroic stance, before quickly launching into the story of his origins…
It’s a simple premise: Comedian agrees to publicity stunt, accidentally foils real robbery, decides to become a
dark avenger of the night polka-dotted, baggy-pantsed crusher of crime. As premises go, especially in the Golden Age, it’s both unusual and relatively subtle. No robot clowns or hidden Tibetan societies of Wakka-Wakka for this guy. Shuster and his studio-mates (several inkers are credited with different portions of the issue, but there aren’t complete records to substantiate) have a pretty detailed style for the period, as well, as we see when our first story kicks off…
The story, by the way, is introduced as “The Malicious Mayhem Of The Teenage Terrors,” which is awesome until itself, and the caricature of Sinatra is pretty-much dead on. I’m not certain that Darlene is meant to be Joan Crawford, but she cuts a striking presence just the same. The autograph-seeking felons hit several other big names (one looks like Lionel Barrymore to me, but it may be too late for that reference) until they finally victimize famous comedian Larry Davis and steal his watch! Of course, the fact that he’s apparently famous makes the whole “rubber nose” disguise even less effective, but Larry quickly slips into his working clothes and tracks the criminals to their lair…
Lacking super-powers, Funnyman gets by on both wit and wits, the Slapstick Sleuth turns the criminals against each other by stealing his own watch back, and delights in watching them fight. Unfortunately, he fails to escape in time, and the criminals nab him and make ready to knock his proverbial block off…
Though none of his one-liners is screamingly funny, Larry’s bon mots are at least clever, and his character strong enough to carry the adventure, even as he gets waylaid a second time in less than eight pages… Is this the end of
Taking out the villains with laughing gas (I think, the tale isn’t really clear in that regard) Funnyman chases down the ringleader, a fence named Finnegan, seeming pretty manly in his high-speed automobile pursuit and daring acrobatic leaps. The biggest joke of all is that I’m not sure whether or not Larry’s serious when he says all he wants is his own watch back…
Shuster’s work has really matured in the not-quite-ten-years since Action Comics #1, and the combat sequences show it. They maintain a little of the stiff blocking that I expect from a Joe Shuster joint, but are much more panoramic and expressive than those earlier stories. Funnyman takes down the bad guy, and even takes a moment to retrieve his beloved watch from the path of an oncoming train!
The real punchline comes when F.M.’s manager June Farrell (any resemblance to Lois Lane may or may not be coincidental) informs him that his actual heirloom watch is in her safe, and that he’s spent the day chasing after a worthless duplicate. Funnyman laughs himself sick as the tale ends, giving us a strangely meta moment that still manages to be funny in a dark way. “I courted violent DEATH for nothin’?” After a two-page story (and a pretty succinctly done, well-written two-pager at that) wherein we meet Funnyman knockoffs Laffman and Comicman, the flat-footed hero finds June in danger as a thug comes a knockin’, thinking to fleece the famous comedian’s dressing room…
They say dying is easy, and comedy is hard, and while these things are in the eye of the beholder, I do get a few chuckles out of Funnyman’s hijinks, though I’m not sure how much of it is just giggling at ’40s slang. “All REET!” Also interesting, Larry’s Funnyman costume is apparently stored inside his reversible suit, a gimmick later used by the late, great Doctor Detroit a few decades later…
This issue doesn’t really posit any romantic entanglements between Larry and June, which I appreciate, and there isn’t a whole lot of what modern comics readers would call “depth” to the stories, but this issue is a very solid package of comics. I expected more of an anthology feel, but it’s all Funnyman throughout the issue, save for a couple of text pieces, and those are passably written. I’ve only really seen Funnyman referenced as a sad little trombone character that shows how far the mighty Siegel and Shuster had fallen, but this issue didn’t strike me that way at all. Funnyman #1 is not unique in its clown-as-hero premise, nor is it the phenomenon that Superman became, but it’s a solid piece of comics storytelling, clever and well-drawn (especially by comparison to some of its contemporaries) and earns a solid 3.5 out of 5 stars overall. I also wonder if Larry is supposed to be an analogue of a real comedian. Perhaps Red Skelton?