The Grey Area: Major Bummer / by Patrick Smith

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If I've said it once I've said it a million times before: for me it's far more important for a superhero comic to be fun than be seeped in gritty realism. Now keep in mind that this isn't to say that the genre can't do serious stories or that other genres can't contain equally fun aspects that they use to great effect, lets dance around that land mine right now, but fun has never clicked right into a genre the way it does with superheroes. I mean this is a genre that prominently has talking dinosaurs, cyborg ninjas, and various cross time/dimensional shenanigans. Often in the same story. The problem is that most superhero titles have come to take themselves too seriously. They're so perpetually dour that many of them can't properly incorporate these absurdist elements, however where these books may have lost there way with sincerity they did open themselves up to the next best thing: parody. Major Bummer was a weird title from the onset. Originally published by DC, it had no grounding in its established universe and was a creator owned book to boot. DC eventually let the rights revert back to creators John Arcudi and Doug Mahnke, probably because they couldn't figure out a way to make a spinoff called "Before Major Bummer," and the whole shebang was collected in a nice paperback by Dark Horse. Major Bummer centers on a guy named Louis "Lou" Martin, just a regular run of the mill guy who happily revels in his own slacker status and spends his days and nights watching reruns on TV and playing video games. This changes when he receives a package and after blacking out for two days finds out that he suddenly has a physique that would make Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime jealous. The world of Major Bummer is clearly a riff on the super-gritty time of the nineties, but here everybody is too busy trying to remember what time The Munsters marathon comes on to properly brood. Even if you take Lou out of the equation, you still have a bunch of Z-listers trying to take a run at the superhero thing as part of a "higher purpose" (that higher purpose being to get a couple of grad school aliens a decent grade on their thesis on the effects of superheroes on the regular populace) and a bunch of supervillains who are afraid of the penalties of committing crimes. So....yeah, as far as superhero parodies go Major Bummer is definitely one of the better ones.

In the intro of the collected edition from Dark Horse, Arcudi talks about how this book was a direct result of his own reading habits and how he was always far more interested in horror, sci-fi, or fantasy comics than he was in superheroes. However, when he saw some Silver Age books, something clicked with him. If a superhero book could essentially mock its protagonists by turning them into monkeys or giving them giant balloon shaped heads, they might be worth a shot. He also effectively eschews the traditional power fantasy associated with most superhero comics because, although Lou is given amazing power, he’s still a guy who has spent a good portion of his life running away from responsibility. He's relatable because even though many of us arguably have more drive than Lou, he's also a guy that would react just like any of us would if we suddenly discovered we could bench press a mountain: We would think it's cool for like a second but then we realize that these powers also made us a weird magnet that gave us no choice in facing a wide range of deranged psychotics that want to kill us. People would actually to expect us to stop these things and, let's be honest, in that situation most of us would have the same reaction:

With that Arcudi is essentially combining absurdity and a sort of realism. Maybe not realism in the way the real world operates, but in how a real person would act in a fictional world. Look at any book from the Silver Age. Those plots would drive a normal person insane or at least make them ask, "Why me?". Arcudi's willingness to let his main character look like a fool is a big part of what makes the book work and it carries over to the supporting cast as well. There isn't a competent one in the bunch but Arcudi is never mean spirited about it. If superheroes did exist, they would most likely be the kind of losers Uwe Boll fans would make fun of. The neatest trick is that, true to most superhero comics, you inadvertently end up caring about these people despite all the neurosis and absurdity. Arcudi is writer who knows how to insert an emotional core when you're not looking and often in the most unexpected places.

Don't get me wrong, this is still a series that primarily concerns itself with telling some jokes. It's not going to make you question the nature of existence, but comedy works best when you have a degree of emotional investment in the person telling the jokes (or at least the guy thats the butt of them).

Anyway....what was I talking about? Sorry I got distracted by the pig....right I was going to explain why Doug Mahnke's art adds to the parody elements. Mahnke's style lends itself to this type of story. Whatever Arcudi throws in, Mahnke makes it bigger. He has a style that can pull off the super-stylized bodies that were the norms in the nineties, but his designs can also get so wonderfully grotesque he probably could have given most alt-cartoonists a run for their money. Sure he might be able to give the make characters rippling physiques and the women waif thin waists with usual perky set of, er, assets but it's all part of the joke. For every one of those designs there are three more that are rubbery and eccentric with the added benefit of warped facial expressions that both get the emotional point across and occasionally become contorted zonked out masks of near madness. So yeah I guess you could say I dig his style.

Still, its not a big surprise that the guy eventually found success doing straight superhero stories. He obviously has the chops for it, but while going over his work in Major Bummer I just marveled at his eclectic line work and how it added to the humor of the book. He uses the skin of a conventional superhero title to just go crazy and because of that Major Bummer is just bristling with reckless energy.

If there is a problem it's that I don't think the book is as consistent over its fifteen issues as I would like. They're all very funny in their own way, but like most things that have to do with humor, mileage may vary from joke to joke. But perhaps the most regrettable part of the whole thing is that Major Bummer suffers from a lack of resolution, as most superhero comics do. The difference here being that it was due to it ultimately getting cancelled, not because no one is allowed to die or grow old (except for Uncle Ben). But to be fair, because this book was primarily made to crack wise, that doesn't really ultimately matter for the  reading experience to work. And to give credit where credit is due, the creative team does give the book a better last page sendoff than most. In the end Major Bummer ultimately succeeded in what it meant to do: become a platform for two hungry talents to have a little fun and act as a tongue-in-cheek parody of a genre that needed some ribbing at the time (and probably still does).

And if nothing else we got a book that gave us Tyrannosaurus Reich.

 

There will never be a time that won't be hilarious. TL;DR: Major Bummer is a sharp superhero satire with great art and an oddly nuanced emotional core. Fans and haters of the capes genre alike will no doubt find something to like in this book.

Major Bummer was written by John Arcudi and illustrated by Doug Mahnke. It was collected into a massive paperback (The Complete Major Bummer Super Slacktacular!) by Dark Horse last year. You can ask for it at your local comic book store or, support Spandexless by purchasing through our Amazon web store.