Wednesday, September 04, 2013

The Mighty Marvel Mutts

Many comic strip artists riff on a joke. It's an easy way to come up with new material. And with the need to produce a gag every single day, that can be a godsend. But in the hands of a masterful artist, such as Patrick McDonnell, the riffs can build to an even bigger payoff.

Among the supporting cast of his comic strip Mutts are a pair of mischievous squirrels who bounce nuts off the heads of innocent bystanders. In mid-July 2013, the victims were superheroes. Each daily strip was essentially the same.
Panel one: superhero walks under tree.
Panel two: superhero gets bonked.
Panel three: squirrel makes a comment appropriate to the superhero.

Most comic strip riffs run from Monday to Saturday. Sunday strips are usually stand-alone, mostly because they're in a larger format, and they're printed in color.

Here's the entire sequence-- can you see why it merits special attention? (click on images to enlarge)

Did you notice how McDonnell carefully set up the finale? First, he limited the victims to just Marvel superheroes. So the appearance of the Hulk seemed like just another in a series. But it wasn't. Because of all the superheroes presented, the Hulk is the only one whose recognition mostly depends on color. We know Captain America by his shield; Iron Man by his armor, Spiderman by his webbed costume. The Hulk we know by his green skin.

Thus, the gag involving the Hulk only works in color -- and  many newspapers only print their comics in color on Sunday.

The final sequence also breaks the three-panel pattern. The additional panel (the largest) gives us a different outcome that the rest of the series. And also notice the squirrel's reaction. It's not a snappy observations. It hints that maybe they've carried this prank a little to far.

Well, actually not. McDonnell carried the riff exactly as far as it needed to go to deliver the unexpected conclusion. Surprise is at the heart of humor. As a seasoned comics reader, I didn't see this one coming. And I heartily enjoyed it.

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