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Monday, March 24, 2008

The Secret Origin of Slapstick!

Every great hero has an origin story, and, fortunately for us scholarly types, so does every lousy one. Slapstick, the zany character who is essentially a cartoon who lives in the "real world" of the Marvel Universe, doesn't have an overly complicated one, or even an interesting one, but it is where all superhero stories begin, and so that is where we venture to now.

Slapstick arrived on the scene in a 4-issue miniseries that began in November of 1992. Writer Len Kaminski and penciller James Fry III created the cartoony "super-hero," but I couldn't find any information on exactly what inspired them to do so. Was there merely an editorial fiat for comic (as in "comedic") characters? The nineties would see the rise of similar heroes, from Earthworm Jim to Freakazoid, but Slapstick was there first. A clue to his origins is given on the splash page:
a dedication to Steve Ditko? You all know my affinity for the man's work, but to what extent did he inspire the creation of Slapstick? Maybe I should have tracked down Kaminski and Fry and asked them... well, you live and learn.

Let's get this show on the road, huh?

Meet Steve Harmon. He's...

not quite right in the head.

Steve's modus operandi is to take absolutely nothing seriously, playing practical jokes that would be construed as signs of a severely disturbed mind today.

(Okay, admit it - you laughed at the nun joke. C'mon, I won't tell your grandmother.)

Somehow, in what is surely an insult to the rigorous standards of the public school system, he's managed to make it to High School, where he spends his days - well, in detention, mostly. At other times, he can be seen hanging out with his best friend and studious nerd, Mike.

Steve's days as a "super hero" (and we must remember that that term is used only for expediency, and with the most generous of definitions in mind) begin when he seeks out revenge against another student, Winston, who's gotten him into detention by informing school authorities that he was the one to - well, for dramatic effect, I'll let him tell you:

Honestly, now - a corpse? Even if your willing suspension of disbelief will allow you to imagine that a guy was able to steal a dead body without being arrested, you still can't get around the fact that this kid wasn't summarily expelled with great relish, and got off with only a week of detention. They have got some loose standards in the schools of the Marvel universe.

Steve's plans are inspired as most great ones are: by a creepy-looking clown handing out fliers advertising a carnival. His vengeance isn't exactly Machiavellian in its complexity: he's going to dress up as a clown, blend in with the carnies, and hit Winston in the face with a pie when he heads on down to ride the ferris wheel with his lady friend. Bravo, Steve. Bra-vo.

Naturally, his plan hits a snag when the carnival turns out to be run by evil clowns from Dimension X (as hypothesized by our hero) who abduct Winston and his girlfriend, Heather, before Steve can see his devious machinations come to fruition. Calling upon his inner hero, Steve grabs a conveniently-located giant mallet and follows the circus folk into their dimensional portal within the House of Mirrors.

Steve manages to get through the portal just a little too late, and as a result, is transformed into a stylised version of himself: he has purple hair that resembles the wig he was wearing, a completely white face resulting from the make-up he had put on, exaggerated eyebrows, and two comically over-sized, four-fingered gloves.

Steve has also been reduced to a puddle, the result of being stretched across a number of different dimensions. In this state, Steve is welcomed to Dimension X by the “Scientist Supreme,” a character that I’ll be calling “Dr. Groucho” from here on out for better word flow, since he has that little “cartoon doctor” thing on his head and resembles Groucho Marx – he’s also done-up in clown make-up, but so is everyone else, so it’s not really notable enough to make a big deal out of. Dr. Groucho has determined that Steve’s body was transformed during the trip through the portal. Steve is now composed of a substance Dr. Groucho calls “electroplasm,” which makes Steve invincible, but which also requires the good doctor to cram “Pseudo-molecular Stabilitrods” into his gloves, which will stabilize the particles and allow Steve to become a solid - err, person/thing. Groucho has also modified the gloves so that Steve can change to and from his clownish appearance and his human form, and store items in a pocket of sub-space, so that he can retrieve them seemingly from thin air.

Yes, Slapstick’s powers all come courtesy of a doctor in clown make-up who looks like Groucho Marx. Keep that one in mind for Marvel trivia night.

Anyway, it turns out that Winston and Heather were abducted to help the Overlord, ruler of Dimension X, take over the dimension in which the regular Marvel Universe resides. The Overlord has taken a device created by Dr. Groucho called the “Mediocritizer,” which brainwashes people into believing whatever he wants them to believe. The thing about Dimension X is that it’s postmodernism fully realized: when everyone is made to believe the same thing by the Overlord, that belief becomes reality. In fact, the Overlord maintains a castle that is perched impossibly atop a small cliff merely by his minions’ collective suspension of disbelief.

Long story short, Steve manages to defeat the Overlord using a combination of cartoonish violence and terrible comedy. It's not pretty, and it's not very funny, either.

To tell you the truth, I wouldn’t have been surprised if sales dropped off significantly after this issue. It feels a bit as if writer Len Kaminski was forced to tell an origin story, and had to slap one together at the last minute - it's certainly not on par with Slapstick #4. I think the series would have been better served if we were introduced to Slapstick, and then we got his origin story told to us afterward, in a condensed, flash-back format. Hell, did we even need an origin? He's a living cartoon, and he likes to hit people with a big mallet. What else do we need to know? Slapstick is funny (in later issues), but his alter-ego, Steve Harmon? He's just kind of a prick. The less seen of him, the better.

Ah, but we can only dream of what could have been...

FUN BIT OF TRIVIA: According to "The Appendix to the Handbook of the Marvel Universe," Slapstick was "voted best new character of 1992 over Carnage." I totally buy that.

EDIT: I just realized how similar the origin of Slapstick is to the origin of Ditko's The Creeper: both characters put on a costume that becomes their alter ego thanks to a pseudo-sciency situation, and both heroes use tiny devices to transform into these "stored forms." Both characters are also batshit insane in their disguises.

NEXT: I attempt to put my limited university education to good use by proving why Slapstick is funny. Tune in then, and watch as I suck all of the fun out of comics!

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At 25/3/08 7:14 AM , Blogger CaptainAverage said...

Is it my imagination, or are you coming in to this week with just a tinge of pessimism? And yet, you love Speedball-the world is a twisted place.

At 25/3/08 8:26 AM , Blogger BlackmarketPies said...

I'm always suspicious of anything that's trying to be funny, instead of just going out there and being funny. That's probably because whenever I try to be funny, I usually end up producing pure, unfiltered crap.

At 25/3/08 4:41 PM , Blogger Stephen said...

i always thought it was pretty cool that slapstick transformed by putting on his gloves. it is unique and calls out the gloves all the other cartoon icons and makes you wonder why they wear them.

i had no idea slapstick was psuedo-science based hero i always figured he was magic


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