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Genre Bender: Satires that Sparkle

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When I was fifteen years old, I got my first taste of satire. My time-addled memory tells me that it was in an issue of the British comics anthology 2000AD, in a one-page story featuring that ever-so-hardened law-enforcer Judge Dredd. The scene was the opening of a new supermarket or convenience store. There’s a lot of hype and hoop-lah for the grand opening, when from underneath the door of the shop crawls a tiny little cockroach. Within seconds, Dredd descends upon the store owner, locking him away for health code violations. End of story.

It wasn’t exactly the most biting satire in the world. It wasn’t even funny, not even exciting, nor did it inspire any of those feelings I’d become accustomed to in my comics reading. I read that page again and again, wondering: what was the point of that strip? Why did some anonymous writer-bot decide to make one of my current heroes into a mean cop who harshly overreacted to a fixable offense? I don’t think I ever figured out the answer to those questions, but the fact that I was asking questions at all meant that I was finally beginning to understand satire.

Of course, satire is often confused with parody (or spoof), and there is quite a fine line between the two. A simple, though incomplete distinction between the two could be this: parody merely mocks its subjects; Satire is a form of humor that leaves its readers asking questions. The people who write the satires, the satirists, have a point of view that transcends the urge to point-and-laugh. Satire calls out public figures, practices, industries and anything else it can target.

For example, one of the greatest modern satires is Catch-22, by Joseph Heller. It was a humorous novel about a bunch of soldiers who want to get out of a war, and for some reason, known as Catch-22, they are kept in the war indefinitely. It’s one of the angriest pieces of humor ever written.

What are the greatest satirical works in comics? The following is a reading list of some of the better comics satires to date.

Marshal Law, by Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill, seemed itself to be a parody of books like Judge Dredd. It featured an ultraviolent costumed man called Marshal Law, whose mission it was to kill all costumed heroes. At the same time, Law was also struck by the inherent contradiction of his actions. He’s a killer of costumes, yet he wears one himself.

The Brat Pack, by Rick Veitch, was part of Veitch’s King Hell Heroica. The Heroica was a series of darkly told mini-series exploring the underbelly of superhero psychology. Told in the wake of the audience-voted death of Jason Todd, the second Robin, Brat Pack took all of the sexual subtext of the relationships between heroes and sidekicks and put it all right out on the surface.

Years before Jim Valentino became famous for Shadowhawk and being one of the founding fathers of Image Comics, Aardvark Vanaheim published a spoofy little comic book of his called normalman. The book featured the alienated alien norm, a man rocketed from his planet as a baby to be the only non-superpowered being on an entire planet. It spoofed all comics conventions at the time, making sure to touch base on all the prevalent books of the period. One memorable sequence featured a character in the background singing “Panties and capes! Panties and capes!” in a manner that points out the silliness of the basic superhero clothing staples.

The early EC Comics’ Mad has been considered one of the most groundbreaking pieces of humor ever published. Harvey Kurtzman was the genius behind this book and really, humor has never been the same since. It’s hard to picture exactly how much of an impact this book had on its generation, yet at its base, Mad changed the way Americans viewed humor, and was a large inspiration for the underground comix artists who would soon follow.

Later Little Annie Fannie, by Kurtzman and Will Elder was featured in Playboy. Fannie was the zaftig girl next door whose large buoyant breasts would almost always explosively escape their bindings. The inherent sexiness of the strip was a perfect landscape in which to lampoon folks like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, the Beatles, and institutions like the commercialization of Christmas.

Hard Time is a recent satire by Howard the Duck creator Steve Gerber with Brian Hurtt. It’s about a convicted school shooter named Ethan Harrow (similar to the kids who shot up Columbine High School, but unlike them, Ethan thought he was carrying blanks) who is tried like an adult and imprisoned. The catch is that Ethan also has some mysterious super-power that acts out with a will of its own. Hard Time is a brutal piece of humor about one of the most brutal environments in existence.

Certainly the list of satires in comics is longer than this. Are there any satires that have been left off? Feel free to mention them in the Broken Frontier forum.

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