Monday, November 20, 2006

Ellis and Ennis's dumb sense of humor

Does anyone find Warren Ellis and Garth Ennis's sense of humor dumb? These guys have occasionally given us works of tremendous power -- Ellis has the first fourteen issues of Planetary to claim as his own, and Ennis wrote Punisher: The End, which is the definitive Frank Castle story, the only Punisher story anyone will ever need; that perfect comic book is written from a deep understanding of that character and takes the internal logic of the book as far as it will go (which is what you want to do when imagining what the last Punisher comic book would look like).

But on the whole these guys get sunk, most often in my opinion, by a sense of humor that's half gallows humor and half Monty Python. Ellis's Desolation Jones is a fairly unremarkable drug infused update of the Big Sleep (I only bought it for the J.H. Williams art, which is great as always); what seems to keep Ellis's attention -- though not mine -- is that the story begins as a search for "Hitler's lost porn," porn Hitler himself starred in. Ellis clearly thinks that is really funny and finds as many times as possible to bring it up in the story. Ennis, in a similar vein, will go nuts for adding something such as chicken-fucking to a story.

These guys think those details are hilarious and every time I am moved to object I stop myself because they, and their fans, make me feel like a prude. It's not, let me be clear, that I find any joke about Hitler to be in poor taste because of the Holocaust, and it's not that I am so deeply repulsed by the mention of chicken fucking that can't laugh at a joke on the subject. It just that the jokes themselves don't seem that funny to me. My concern is that Preacher is a great comic book, but that, because I just think the humor is juvenile I was bored stiff by the third trade and never went farther. What do you think?


Dan said...

Geoff, as a guy who spends half his working hours writing comedy and the other half doing a lot of logical analysis, I've wasted far too much brain time thinking about The Grand Unified Theory of Comedy. But here's this week's take on the matter: there are simply too many ways to make people laugh. You can surprise them with slapstick. You can dazzle them with wit or wordplay. You can invoke a sense of relief. Or recognition. You can go on about chicken-fucking. And so forth.

Different people respond to different types of laughter-inducement (this may or may not depend on whether or not you're a prude). Different comedy writers have different strengths in each type.

The very good comedy writers can take one of these levels to a point where, even if it's not your preferred comedic type, you'll still laugh. The great comedy writers can do this with more than one of the different types of comedy. The comedic geniuses can do it with more than one type in the same freakin' joke.

My point? Ellis and Ennis are okay (maybe even pretty good) at types of jokes that simply don't appeal to you. But they're just not good enough comedy writers to make you cross over and laugh at the chicken-fucking Hitler jokes despite yourself.

And, alas, it's a clinically proven fact that jokes that don't work tend to pretty much ruin everything that surrounds them (so insert your own punchline to this comment in your own preferred style here).

Thivai Abhor said...

Ellis/Ennis started off The Preacher with such potential, due to the major themes that were thrown out in the first story arc, but it seemed like they were more fascinated with the stereotypes of American redneck/Southern-Gothic culture and just let the rest fall by the wayside.

Doom Is Above Such Things said...

With PLANETARY, I ran out of money as Warren ran out of...well, whatever it was that he ran out of.
With PREACHER, I stuck it out because I really liked the characters. I could actually overlook most of the sophomoric japes, as a consequence. I liked where he took the story. The same was true with HITMAN, although it was obviously a grittier, far less cosmic book.

Scott said...

Preacher is always a book that's puzzled me. I think Ennis's characterization of the three main characters is brilliant but for some reason, he can't just accept that his characters are strong and work with that. He needs to push the potty humor over and over again and he ends up losing me. Preacher is the only thing of his I've read from beginning to end and part of me loves the book and part of me just grew tired of it as well.

Ellis? He does some stuff very well and some stuff is just horrible. Again, his character work and his hidden optimism are things that keep me coming back to his work but he has this very personal darkside that seems stunted since the mid-nineties.

Patrick said...

I've never found Ennis funny; Ellis somewhat more so. Nobody does snarky English bastard like him.

My favorite funnyman is comics is Dan Slott: Spider-Man/Human Torch and Great Lakes Avenger are probably the most pure fun I've ever had with superhero comics.

Darius Kazemi said...

I agree with your sentiments on PREACHER, except I read the whole thing anyway (and I thought it picked up in the last two trades). This is why Ennis' run on HELLBLAZER is my favorite of his work. It lacks the scat comedy and highlights all the good things about him as a writer. I'll have to check out PUNISHER: THE END.

As for Ellis... I gotta give the guy credit for being so damn prolific. I hate the humor in NEXTWAVE, for example, so I just don't buy it. I'd highly recommend you check out FELL. It takes the "Hitler porn" weirdness but approaches it with that hidden optimism you and I both love about Ellis.

Anonymous said...

Dumb humor is actually what bugs me (and I apologize, this will come off as heretical to say so in this forum) about Joss Whedon.

I've only read one issue of Astonishing X-Men (a friend gave it to me as gift, knowing I'm a comics fan). It was all right in parts, but somewhere in the middle there was a sequence in which Emma goes off somewhere to do something secretive, and when she returns she's asked why she snuck off in the middle of a fight. She replies, "I had to pee."

Like you said in the post regarding certain topics such as Hitler, I don't want to act as if any joke related to bodily functions (literal 'potty humor') is by definition offensive. But at the same time, I won't deny the line struck me as juvenile, cheap and out of place. (A bit like Wolverine calling Cyclops a "dick" in the X-Men movie -- who wrote that line again?)

-- Jason Powell

Geoff Klock said...

Dan: that's quite true -- I don't like the jokes, and it does ruin quite a bit of the books for me.

Thivai: I thought so too.

Doom: if you don't mind, could you tell me more about the payoff of preacher for folks who look past the jokes.

Patrick: I have actually not yet read anything by Slott, but I am going to soon -- what is the one book I cannot do without?

scott and darius: I actually don't like Ellis's optimism, because I find it unpersuasive (Orbital is the big failure for me in this area -- I just can't get that excited about NASA). I like Ellis being dark -- it's what made the Four so great in the beginning. What makes me nuts is when he tries to see the humor in the dark stuff -- it's only there that I can't follow.

Jason Powell: Even when Whedon is most silly I still like him because it all works in his larger context -- which is that Whedon wants to do big sentimental stuff, but everyone (myself included) has trouble talking these goofy overused archetypes seriously -- so Whedon tries to have his cake and eat it too by doing the big melodrama ("Love is what keeps this ship afloat") and then deflating it ("What the hell was that?"). With Ellis I think the jokes are supposed to stand on their own -- Hitler porn is funny no matter what the context is, right? -- whereas with Whedon the jokes are only there to support his larger context ("I had to pee" is not supposed to be funny on its own, and you are right, it's not). So moral of the story -- spend more time with Whedon to see the larger aim. If you have not seen Serenity start there; if you are more committed see both Firefly and Serenity. If you don't like those, give up, cause Whedon ain't for you, but they might turn you around on him.

Björninn said...

It seems pretty clear to me that Ennis had absolutely no idea what he was doing with Preacher. A good chunk of the book (the whole of "Salvation", for instance) is just him treading water because he doesn't know how to resolve the whole God-issue and / or just wants to get his count up to #66. The main characters are pretty solid, and the Saint of Killers I thought was good idea, but all you really need is the first trade.

After that, it's just Steve Dillon drawing the same three people, with different identities, over and over and over again.

Everyone looks the same! In the end, the only difference between Cassidy and Custer is that one wears sunglasses, the other an eyepatch. I am continually amazed that the guy still gets work.

The jokes I thought were on par with the overall writing, which is to say not that good, but I don't really have anything more on that. I just can't let a discussion on Preacher pass on by without mentioning Dillon's terrible, terrible artwork.

Patrick said...

Spider-Man/Human Torch: I'm With Stupid, probably my personal favorite comic book of the last decade. He has a lot of fun with the chaotic flux of time in superhero comics...the first issue begins "ten years ago" and is clearly set in the sixities, a few issues down it's the seventies, the eighties and today all in the span of a single decade in the comics.

Anonymous said...


I'll give Serenity a try, thanks for the recommendation. Many friends have told me it's a grand ol' time at the movies, but my limited experience with Whedon so far had me resisting. Eventually I suppose I'll have to break down and check it out.

Regarding this -- "so Whedon tries to have his cake and eat it too by doing the big melodrama ("Love is what keeps this ship afloat") and then deflating it ("What the hell was that?")." -- that may end up being a deal-breaker if I ever try again to get into Whedon. Trying to have one's cake and eat it too is a pretty tricky proposition, and there are few writers I've read who pull it off. Usually it just reads as writers not having faith in their own material, so they make fun of themselves (in the guise of one character making fun of the dialogue of another), or else comes off as a glib attempt at self-conscious cleverness.

I remember watching Mr. And Mrs. Smith, and the point at which that movie went from just awful to downright evil was (in my opinion) the moment when Jolie says (of her relationship with Pitt), "Let's call this what it is." Then Pitt a few lines later says (in a mocking tone, "'Let's call this what it is'? Jesus Christ!"

To which I thought, well, gee, Brad, if you thought the line was stupid enough to make fun of, why didn't you just have them cut it? It was this awkward attempt at a wink, at trying to be cleverer than his own movie, and it was just awful.

Jason Powell

Alexandre said...

Ennis humor related:
I don't mind the scatological bits as much as the streak of meanness that sometimes appears (his current series The Boys being the apothesis of this), when his humor starts to get in the way of what he wants to tell, manly soldier stories and all that, instead of being part of that story. When the humor turns cynical instead of just black or grim.

Ellis related:
I find his humor more incidental. I take to his comics as vehicles for the occassional informal lecture on things of topical interest (the porn industry issue of Desolation Jones, for example), though porn in general is a tic with him at this stage, which is probably I didn't read every mention of Hitler porn as the same joke. The bukkake references though...

Geoff: I didn't read Orbiter (the painted one, right?), but I generally like his wonder and fascination with all things. I do like his optimism, which I think is manifest not so much in his topics but in his protagonists. They're generally curmudgeons, and seldom discuss things in these terms, but they seldom have doubt about the "right thing" to do. Unabashed hero stances...
And he writes to showcase his array of collaboraters more than most, which leads some of his stories to punch above their weight of ideas, but makes for generally interesting reads.

Jason: I'd like to pipe in to say that an episode or two of Firefly freestanding might work better than just Serenity, which I think works off some knowledge. Though my suggestion is complicated by a somewhat awkward pilot, so I don't know where you'd begin.

And I think Whedon escapes the being glib (though he's definately guilty of it on numerous occasions) because he doesn't do that to every joke. It's definately self-conscious, but it seems natural the characters themselves comment when jokes around them fail in some way.

Stephen said...

Two questions:

On Ellis's humor: I haven't read Desolation Jones, despite the enticing possibility of Williams's art. But I did find Nextwave funny. Since you quoted it the other day I assumed you did too... but maybe you didn't. On the other hand, you didn't say either way in this post. So what did you think of Nextwave?

Ennis wrote Punisher: The End, which is the definitive Frank Castle story, the only Punisher story anyone will ever need

So I remember "The Punisher" from my extremely broad & deep reading of Marvel back in the early - mid-1980's, but haven't read any Punisher since I got back into comics six or seven years ago. I've heard that Ennis's Punisher is good, though. So my question is: is Punisher: The End accessible to people who have a vague sense of who The Punisher is, but haven't read any other Ennis Punisher stories, or do you have to have read some others to get the context (given that it is an "End" comic after all... Dark Knight Returns may be the definitive Batman comic, but I wouldn't give it to someone who'd never read/seen the movies of the character; you need background to get it.)


Geoff Klock said...

Bjorninn: Dillon is bad but who is even worse is the guy that does the much loved Preacher covers -- that guy cannot understand even the most simple proportions -- and it's NOT a style thing, it's just mistakes.

Patrick: thanks, I will find that.

Jason: you make good points, and I agree with you in your examples, but Whedon has an UNCANNY ability to rise above it and find a way to make it work. The man can sell anything and make it work (a silent episode, Buffy the musical, Angel as a puppet). Give him a good shot.

Alexandre: I like the IDEA of wonder, Ellis just doesn't convince me with his curmudgeons, though he tries pretty hard. Again, the first fourteen issues of Planetary were the best he did, and they are great; elsewhere, not so much.

Stephen: I LOVED the Nextwave quote I put up, and the book has some top notch jokes and silliness in it (the monster in underwear, all the hilarious solicits with lines like "If you like anything you will love nextwave"), but it also has a lot that I found very lame, like the transvestite stuff and the killer koala bears. That book runs hot and cold, I thought.

and YES: GO GET THE PUNISHER: THE END. You need no other Punisher comics. In fact the thing is so perfectly self-contained you may never need to read another issue of punisher again. It does not access history like DKR does (though I disagree with you: I would give DKR to new readers just because I don't think you have to know the history to love Batman in that book). It is a PERFECT comic book. It's kind of scary how perfect it is.