Comedy in Comics: How Chip Zdarsky, Skottie Young, Mike Norton, and Kyle Starks Elicit Snickers through Sequential Art
February 28, 2019 | Robert Tutton
In the comics Sex Criminals, Bully Wars, Battle Pug, and Assassin Nation, creators Chip Zdarsky, Skottie Young, Mike Norton, and Kyle Starks master comedy in sequential art.
As the idiom goes, senses of humor are like @holes: everyone’s got one, and some are kind of dirty. They’re also very different. Some folks howl at the profane wordplay of George Carlin, while others just want to watch Weird Al riff on Top Ten songs with an accordion. And while movies, TV, podcasts, and YouTube make it easier than ever to get a comedy fix, funny pages still live up to their namesake. Some of comics’ most hilarious creators had their first exposure to humor via comics, whether through the pages of vintage MAD Magazine or the three-panel hijinks of newspaper strips. Comedy comic staples Sex Criminals, Bully Wars, Assassin Nation, and Battlepug prove that laughs are alive and well in the sequential arts.
But unlike other media, comics face one seismic handicap……….. timing. Any joke slinger will echo that a well-written joke can fizzle if it suffers from poor delivery, and timing is notoriously hard to control in comics. “There are obviously tricks you can use to slow a reader down or draw their attention, but the only true control you have is the page turn,” Sex Criminals co-creator Chip Zdarsky explains. “Somebody looking at a spread in a comic can easily spot what’s coming within those two pages. It’s tricky! But the plus side is that you can really add layers to the work so people can dwell on panels and find multiple jokes.”
Zdarsky, who got his start drawing comic strips and infographics for newspapers including The National Post in Canada, counts Berkeley Breathed’s Bloom County and Bill Watterson’s Calvin & Hobbes among his influences, as well as Grant Morrison’s wry punk hallmark, Kill Your Boyfriend. Sex Criminals, which Zdarsky co-created with writer Matt Fraction, revolves around people who freeze time with their orgasms. Clearly, absurdity is another major element of the book’s humor—from an imaginary facsimile of Morrissey crooning “Everything is awful” over a flashback, to a sterile sex shop that lampoons the Apple Store. But filling out the book’s sense of humor takes more than just sight gags and punny signs in the background. Zdarsky says he ends up focusing a lot on the people delivering the lines.
“I think with humor books you really have to nail expressions. That’s where I’ll spend most of my time, trying to prop up the written joke with the faces delivering and receiving it on the page.”
Skottie Young, who says he was heavily influenced by MAD Magazine and the strips he read in the papers he delivered as a kid, also harbors a track record of leveraging the absurd for comedic effect. I Hate Fairyland, which Young both writes and draws, is a bonkers fantasy parody that reveals a world of candy and rainbows ravaged by cartoon ultraviolence. Drawn by Aaron Conley, Bully Wars takes place in a town where bullies compete in a Running Man-style event to name a high school alpha. In both cases, hilarity is inevitable.
“A lot of times, I have no idea if it’s funny,” Young says. “Some of my work that has been mentioned as my funniest has been some of the things that I thought I’ve really missed on. So who knows? It’s all faking it while making it, you know?”
For Mike Norton’s book Battlepug, which both satirizes and pays homage to the tropes of Conan-style barbarian fantasy, it’s all about juxtaposition: a beefy warrior rides a giant snorting pug into battle, the powerful mage happens to be a foul-mouthed child, and a doe-eyed baby seal lays waste to an entire village.
“When one of your main characters is one of the most harmless animals in the universe, it’s sorta weird to use actual threatening animals like tigers or snakes, right?” Norton says of his titular pug. It’s hilariously dissonant, watching people run for their lives from an epic kaiju-esque attack when the “beast” is so damn cuddly. Another example arrives when the reader encounters the fearsome Northern elves and their ruthless king—the elves turn out to be of the Christmas variety and their king? A tyrannical Santa. “I hate Santa Claus. My stepfather was a Santa impersonator, and he’s an asshole,” Norton says. “My personal anguish is the readers’ gain.”
Comic creators don’t receive the real-time feedback that a stand-up comedian might use to hone their jokes, nor do they even witness people consume their work. As noted by Young, they can only do what they think is funny and hope for the best. And they can’t all be winners. Norton mentions his Battlepug character Sasha, an unmatched badass with a heart of gold.
“She’s obviously my Red Sonja, so at the beginning of the story, I refer to her as Black Sasha. That was the joke,” Norton explains. “But it’s a one-note joke, and even though I thought it was important at the time to drill into readers heads the analog I was going for, it’s pretty hacky. I got a message early on from a black reader saying she wished every black character she read in comics didn’t always have to talk about how they’re black. She was right. So I never used the title again after that. And Sasha found a more robust characterization and became a very important part of the story.”
And just because these books are funny doesn’t mean they can’t also navigate serious topics, painting a deeper contrast that illuminates the laughs while adding depth. Sex Criminals explores major themes around mental health, including a therapist who mentors co-protagonist Jon. “I just try and make sure I’m not ruining poignant scenes with background gags,” Zdarksy says.
But the artistic flourishes can also offer more depth. Like Jon, who suddenly appears in black and white when he goes back on his antidepressants. The flourish offers a visceral and immediately understandable point, made entirely non-verbally. Similarly, Young builds a Saturday-morning comedy around the serious issue of bullying. Throwing a curveball at readers can be hilarious, but as Young says, it can be used for more. “Subverting expectations can give us the levity we need to examine certain things. Bullying is a real problem, especially with kids. I wanted to talk about that in a way that lets you have a some fun, while also telling you that bullying is not cool and it’s OK for us to want to help bullies not be bullies anymore.”
Action-comedy master Kyle Starks (Sexcastle, Rock Candy Mountain) will drop the new series Assassin Nation on March 13th, featuring art from Unbeatable Squirrel Girl’s Erica Henderson. Starks says that timing is also a matter of knowing when to give a funny scene the space to be funny. “You have to make space for it,” he says. “I feel the same way about action sequences—you have to have space for them if you feel they’re important. And I do. I think what makes my work my work is that I will show a sequence by sequence fight and will allow panels to get a joke to land.”
The series follows a former contract killer—at one time the best there was, as he tells it—who hires a motley crew of the world’s top hitmen to watch his back (including a guy in bib overalls named F$).
Allowing extra space for one joke can be tricky. There are practical constraints like page limits and deadlines, but it can also be a huge gamble—what if a creative team commits so much space to a joke that falls flat? The risk rarely outweighs the allure of the reward, though. Young recalls that one of his funniest gags from Fairyland was an eight-page sequence he added at the last minute.
“I had Gert [a young, violent girl who rampages across an Oz-like realm in I Hate Fairyland] get knocked out, and then turn the page and I said ‘the next day’ or something like that. When I read over it, it just didn’t sell that time had passed. So I added eight pages worth of her sidekick Larry living a full life while she laid there. He built a house, met a lady fly and got married, added onto his house, had kids, wife takes the kids and leaves, he becomes an alcoholic and burns his house down and then is back at the start when Gert wakes up a few hours later. I was proud of that gag.”
The jokes don’t have to stop at the end of the page either. Knowing their book title would make it tough to read on the bus, Zdarsky and Fraction figured they’d lend fans a hand. “My favorite bit isn’t even a bit in the book, really,” Zdarsky says. “For our hardcover version [Big Hard Sex Criminals], we made up a fake book under the dust jacket so people could read it in public. But the fake book is DOWN BOY, a guide to euthanizing your pets. Because we don’t get to see people read our books, that’s my favorite gag because we get to reveal it to them when they’re at our table during a convention, having never taken the jacket off before.”