Humor in comic books is tough to do well. Because the medium is so interactive, both in production and consumption, a lot of keys to comedy are in someone else’s hands. The most successful humor comics tend to be either absurd and predicated on the comedy inherent in the art (like in Ryan North and Erica Henderson’s Unbeatable Squirrel Girl) or through density, packing as many sight gags and visual cues into one panel as possible (which you’ll see in Ryan Browne or Chip Zdarsky’s work). There is one thing you almost never hear used as a description for comic book humor, though, and you’re not going to believe me when I tell you who did it.
Mark Russell and Steve Pugh’s Flinstones is fast as hell.
A big reason why humor comics are so difficult is pacing. It’s really easy to do a three panel setup-beat-punchline bit, which is why there are so many funny comic strips in papers and online. It’s much harder to sustain that over the course of an entire 20 page, often 80 panel comic. Never mind the fact that all the other things required of humor in every other medium – voice, color, style- all need to be there. To be a genuinely funny comic book, one needs not just material, but a clarity of storytelling that takes the reader, who is solely responsible for the pace at which they read, and carries them through every joke beat.
Take, for example, this page from last year’s Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #8…
The joke is Loki as a cat version of Odinson. That joke is hilarious, and would be hilarious as a one-panel gag, but look at how Henderson and North stretch it out: 3 panels of Loki being a genial dick (setup); Nancy losing her mind and suggesting Cat Thor for one panel; and then Loki’s transformation into the ridiculous Cat Thor. It’s a funny joke on its own, made even funnier by how drawn out Loki’s dickishness is at every step. From his elaborate introduction to Nancy to the one extra beat the joke is held, splitting the transformation into two panels at the bottom, the whole thing is designed to build laughter in the reader.
Meanwhile, Zdarsky (Sex Criminals), Kagan McLeod (Kaptara), or Browne (God Hates Astronauts, the upcoming Curse Wordswith Charles Soule) approach comedy differently: they pack so many gags into each panel that it’s sometimes slows down the pace of the actual storytelling. Look at this panel from Sex Criminals #2 and tell me you read all of the gags in it in less than two minutes.
I counted five without zooming in, and cried a little after I did zoom.
Both of these books, however, trade comedy for long stretches of narrative propulsion – they tell their stories, and they don’t have to cram setup or punchlines into every panel quite the same way that Pugh and Russell do in Flintstones. The third issue is a perfect illustration of this: I counted 42 jokes on 20 pages, but every page had at least one gag, and rarely did any of them have more than two. And the pacing of the jokes wasn’t methodical as much as it was barreling – check out this three page sequence with Fred and Barney playing pool at the repurposed Water Buffalo Hall.
It builds slowly – “Veterans of Paleolithic Wars” is a good chuckle, as is the panel on the second page about armadillos, culminating in a brutal, brutal joke about suicide hotlines. Underpinning it all is some utterly savage satire that keeps the jokes moving, and it’s laden in that dry, Marx Brothers/Honeymooners-esque wit that was probably a large part of the original show’s appeal (I wouldn’t really know, as I am not 300 years old).
Every issue is like this. I was joking about the pacing being affected by having to actually tell a story in the other books, but each handles it well. As do any number of other comics that are successfully telling stories that are designed to make you laugh – Rafer Roberts and Mike Norton’s A&A from Valiant and The Fix from Nick Spencer and Steve Lieber (the team behind the excellent Superior Foes of Spider-Man) are both really funny comics.
But it seems like, in reading every issue of Flintstones, the point isn’t to provide a new take on the characters, or to peer into a dark corner of a shared universe. The point is to cut up current society with razor-sharp satire, all cloaked in the familiar shapes of a 50 year old cartoon, and I think it’s that freedom that makes Flintstones the funniest comic published today.