Saturday, July 21, 2007

The Heckler (comics)


Written by Keith Giffen and Tom & Mary Bierbaum
Art by Keith Giffen and Malcolm Jones III
Wikipedia Entry

In the late 80s, writer/artist Keith Giffen had a radical idea for superhero comics.  He wanted to make them . . . comic.

Giffen's big successes were the various Justice League titles, where his combination of superhero action and slapstick humor was a breath of fresh air.  Sure, superheroes had the obligatory gibes while fighting a villain, but Giffen's went for the belly laugh, and wasn't afraid to show the heroes as cranky and definitely nonheroic in between battles.

Giffen also created the delightfully bizarre Ambush Bug, a comic book character who didn't have a serious moment, even if he did interact with some DC superheroes (as well as with the reader, his editor, and fanboys everywhere).  And Giffen was involved in the creation of Lobo, the most nihilistic character in the DC universe.

The Heckler contemplates Bushwack'r's trap -- issue 4And he cocreated the Heckler (Giffen at this time wrote the plots and did pencils, and had others handle dialog).  It was, perhaps, his weirdest creation. Probably because of this, it only lasted six issues.

The Heckler had a very stylized format:  every page of the comic (except the last pages of the issues 5 and 6) was laid out in a nine-panel grid. Since each panel was filled with jokes and bizarreness, this led to a rather claustrophobic feel.

The Heckler was your average superhero, patrolling Delta City, and dishing out justice and wisecracks.  In some ways, he wasn't much different from Spider-Man, Daredevil, or Bugs Bunny (and there were parallels to all three. Especially Bugs.).  In his regular life, he was Stu Mosely, who ran a diner called "Eats" (or it would be if the sign painter didn't keep screwing up:  "Fats" "Feets," "Yeast," etc.).  Stu was rather put upon: his artiste of a French chef tried to serve all the food in the form of works of art, his quest for a waitress brought in a series of completely unsuitable candidates, and his partner never showed up.

And that was the strength of Heckler: the utterly bizarre and surreal characters that inhabited Delta City.  They included the Minx, a bounty hunter dedicated to bring to justice all the bad dates she had had in her life; X-Ms, the superhero of tinseltown; and Nina, clerk at Dozens O'Donuts (they only sell glazed donuts, but they have dozens of them).  My favorite was Mr. Dude, a greaser who vaguely resembled Elvis and who evidently knew everything (the Pope would ask him for advice).   

The criminals were also a bizarre lot (remember, there were only six issues):

  • Boss Glitter, who ran the town and wore a mask.  Well, he didn't actually wear it:  he held it up on a stick like in a Renaissance costume ball.
  • El Gusano, which means "The Worm" in Spanish, and who has certain Annelid features -- notable, no face.
  • John Doe, the Generic Man, whose touch turned people into generic versions
  • Buckshot, whose freckles were buckshot and could shoot it.
  • Ratchet Jaw, with a machine gun for a mouth (literally).
  • The Cosmic Clown, an intergalactic hit man.
  • C'est Hey, a living scarecrow.
  • The Four Mopeds of the Apocalypse
  • The Flying Buttress (remember -ress is a feminine suffix).

But the greatest villain in the book was Bushwack'r.  He appeared in issue 4 and halfway through, I realized who he really was:  the Coyote from Roadrunner cartoons -- though he makes the cartoon coyote look like someone who knew what he was doing. His elaborate deathtraps for the Heckler -- who is completely unaware of them -- are worthy of Chuck Jones's best (the issue even shows a copy of Jones's autobiography).

The dialog by the Bierbaums was consistently funny.  The Hecker's jokes are funnier and more vicious than any other superhero, and the characters would always be going off on their own personal manias and tangents.  There's also a marvelously understated humor throughout, lines that wouldn't seem funny if I quoted them here, but which are hilarious in context.

It was evidently too weird for comic book buyers, and DC probably took one look at the first issue and said, "What the hell have we commissioned?"  The plug was pulled very rapidly, though it's hard to say it didn't have a chance to find its audience, since its audience probably didn't read comic books.  Since there was no connection or crossover with other strips, it was as though it never existed.  It's not even listed in the DC Comics Encyclopedia.

But if you search eBay and comb the cheapo bins, you may be able to pick some issues up (some people call it a limited series, which it was in a strict definition, but not by design).  It will be well worth the search.

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