Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Form of Comedy

Plastic Man: On the Lam

(Yet again I can't seem to get images to upload)

I was shockingly satisfied by this collection. I thought it would be an annoyingly cartoony book with a boatload of bad puns and off-colour commentary passing as humour. I was dead wrong.

I had more fun reading this book than I’ve had reading superhero comics in a while. Yes it was goofy and the art is cartoony. The brightness and cartoon based nature of the art work in perfect conjunction with the whole basic idea of a man made out of plastic. It’s not necessarily about Plastic Man being able to shape himself into anything he likes that works with the art style, but the fact that the character is based on exaggerated movement, expression and emotion because of his physical properties being exaggerated. Plastic Man is the ultimate squash and stretch character so he works better when presented in a form that allows for stretching and squashing.

Now, I know his original books were more serious in tone, but I think running with the outrageousness works in this presentation. I mean, there is generally a reason that these books win awards. It’s because they are actually as good as people think they are (well occasionally something will sneak by or differ from your personal tastes). Kyle Baker understands comedy and shows it here. I don’t mean he just knows what is funny but the whole form of comedy. Strap on the edu-caps.

Comedy is only obtainable when there is an intimate distance between the characters and the readers. We need to connect with the characters and see ourselves in them but we must also be distant enough so we don’t see their pain of existence. It is a fine line between comedy and tragedy. Both involve physical peril but our distance form the situation allows us to interpret these forms differently. To help force our perception, comedies will present full body shots a lot more than tragedies will. On the flip side, Tragedies will have a lot of intimate and close up shots. Watch a black and white comedy sometime (anything with Chaplin) and you’ll be able to see all of him for most of the movie. He’s far enough away so we can see him trip and land on his arse. If we were closer we’d be able to see him wince in pain and the comedy of the situation gets reduced or removed.

This book follows that rule as well. We pretty much see all the characters all the time. But just like movies, when we want to amp up the emotion we get a close up. Watching someone cry at a distance can be funny with their exaggerated motions but zooming into the person’s face and it becomes a lot less funny. Same with this book. There’s a lot of physical humour, then you’re struck with some genuine emotion in the middle that you didn’t see coming and it makes everything that much better. The tragedy is that much more tragic because you were so distant from these characters for so long and you get to know them that way. But the humour remains as soon as the camera is pulled back, so to speak. I do realize there isn’t a camera in comic book creation (well at least not with this artist).

The humour isn’t all physical, thankfully, as that can get tired rather fast. There is a lot of playing with the form of comic books and the history of comics as well. There’s some mystical monks who seem a bit familiar (there’s four of them). And there’s a great deus ex machina at the end which is wonderfully executed because it is so bloody obvious about being a deus ex machina. Again, one of the characteristics of comedy is that the end must put the world back into harmony. Ever read a Shakespearean comedy? They all end in the wedding of the two people who need to be together because they reflect the harmony of the world. Same here. Superhero comics are only harmonious with the illusion of change. The good guys need to win but without becoming something completely different. The sidekicks need to be there and so does the love interest. Now, this isn’t Shakespeare, don’t get me wrong, there isn’t enough puns to be Shakespeare, but it is almost a text-book example of what a Comedy should be and needs to contain.

Hey, if you want a plot synopsis you’ll have to go somewhere else.

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