Friday, January 2, 2009

Comics Review: HERBIE ARCHIVES, Vols. 1, 2 (Dark Horse Publishing, 2008)

Along with a memorable explosion of imagination and creativity, the "Silver Age of Comics" gave rise to many, many strange creations -- campy superheroes shouting battle cries of "Scoobie-Doo!" and the like. HERBIE, the cracked creation of American Comics Group editor and writer Richard E. Hughes and artist Ogden Whitney, just may be the weirdest of them all. Yes, even weirder than the "Scoobie-Doo!" guys. As someone who has a certain fascination for offbeat comics, I decided to buy the first two volumes of Dark Horse's hardcover HERBIE ARCHIVES collection, which will reprint all the adventures from Herbie's brief career. I found that I thoroughly enjoyed reading these comics -- though I discovered that other critics' evaluations of the comics' strangeness level actually understated said level.

In a warped sort of way, Herbie Popnecker, a.k.a. "The Fat Fury," reminds me a little bit of Disney's Kim Possible. Like Kim, Herbie is a kid who leads a "double life" -- in this case, as a supposed "little fat nothing" who, in fact, possesses powers that appear to be limitless. UNlike Kim, whose status as a crimefighter was known to her parents and a number of other people, Herbie does his deeds without his clueless parents suspecting a thing. Indeed, his fat-headed pop Pincus (who at least had the sense to give his son a name far more prosaic than his own) constantly criticizes his obese, bespectacled offspring as an embarrassment to the Popnecker name and a hopeless ne'er-do-well. How, then, can Herbie possibly walk through the air (that's right -- walk, not fly), time-travel, talk with animals, reduce women to puddles of goo, and be well known to 1960s celebrities and such past paladins as George Washington -- with all of his abilities apparently being "powered" by lollipops? No, Hughes and Whitney did not provide an origin story for all of this. How could they have?

It is instructive to compare Hughes' creation to those masterminded by two other "Silver Age" greats, Julius Schwartz and Stan Lee. All three men had very definitive responses to the challenge of making "heroic" comic books more appealing. Schwartz emphasized slick graphics and elaborate scientific and quasi-scientific bases for his heroes' powers and stories. Lee created the whole genre of "superheroes with problems." And Hughes... well, Hughes took the whole notion of a "comic-book hero" to its logical, absurd extreme. Herbie, who (after an early interval of lucidity) tends to speak in clipped sentence fragments, is so inscrutable as to automatically qualify for Chinese citizenship, and Whitney's extremely realistic artwork further promotes the image of a big, elaborate joke being played on the baffled reader. Oddly enough, the least effective HERBIE stories are those in which he dons a more-or-less conventional superhero costume and assumes the guise of "The Fat Fury." As such, he does little that he couldn't otherwise have done in his standard garb of white shirt, black tie, and belly-strained blue pants. (In his introduction to Volume 2, Jim Valentino [SHADOWHAWK, NORMALMAN] makes the opposite argument, claiming that the "normal" Herbie wasn't funny but "The Fat Fury" was.) I assume that Hughes, whose comics line specialized in sci-fi and horror material, felt some pressure to link Herbie to what passed for ACG's line of costumed heroes and finally relented. If so, it marks the only time that Hughes followed the crowd. Otherwise, he seemed perfectly content to let Herbie handle story situations himself, and, by that, I literally mean that Hughes essentially let "what would Herbie do?" drive his plots.

This is funny, funny stuff and well worth collecting if you're interested in comics off the beaten track.

1 comment:

Mark Lungo said...

I'va always enjoyed the excerpts from Herbie that I've seen through the years; I'll have to check the book out when I can afford it.