Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The origins of out-of-context comic book humor?

Most bloggers are content to mine the Golden and Silver Ages of comic illustrations for their out-of-context funny bits. The recent decades have been a little sparse with the type of sight gags we rely on, primarily due to the fact that "anything goes" in comics now days. Before the 90s, comic book publishers had to behave much more than they do presently and had to be a bit more stealthy in their creative subversions. The Comics Code Authority and prior to that, public opinion, caused many comic book authors to rebel against the restraints upon their creativity by inserting imagery and dialog that could easily be mis-construed as something other than perfectly innocent.

But it isn't just from the 1940s - 1960s that offers material for bloggers to post non-ironic or uninsightful gags about sexuality and misogyny long after the subject stopped being funny. I for one don't just confine myself to comic books. I delve much further back and into other media.

As Pulps are the precursors to comic books and Fanzines are the cost-effective ancestor of the blog, so do out-of-context images come from a much older and little recognized source, that of the hardbound novel.

Once upon a time long before television and computers books existed by the millions and people read them. People not only read novels but they treasured them and passed them on to friends, family and strangers so they could also enjoy them. Old books usually had lavish, beautiful illustrated full color panels. Some were even hand-colored for each copy of the book and not mass-reproduced by machine. And what's more, the illustrations were listed in the contents and had their own individually numbered pages. This is rare today and not normally available unless the book is an expensive special edition of some kind.

So it was while book-hunting in a Hillcrest thrift shop that I discovered Mazli - A Story of the Swiss Valleys by Johanna Spyri (J.P. Lippincott, 1921). I purchased it for the nice colored panels but later realized that the art by Maria L. Kirk were early examples of the classic out-of-context gag that so many of us bloggers utilize in our desperate bid to be noticed by our peers and linked to by WFA and the big professional websites. Really, the captions just make my case for me.

Oh, this is hilarious! I don't know what's going on here, but except for that stomped flat dead skunk in the bottom of the panel, it sure is a sexy scene!

I can guess! Shenanigans!

Note how intently the boy is staring at the chest of the young girl. Did all that furious and unnecessary hand-shaking make her breasts jiggle? I think it did.

I'll sum up this picture for you: FREE-LOVE COMMUNE.

So is the Mazli novel and the questionable illustrations within the origin of out-of-context comic book humor? Probably not, as I am sure their are even earlier examples. For as long as there have been creative types there have also been those who are too dimwitted or repressed to allow free expression. Under those circumstances true artists of whatever medium will find ways to circumvent the rules and expectations of the authoritarians peering over their shoulders to shock, educate and make us think. Or they are all perverts.


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