Slaphappy Heroicism
Funnyman: A Good Last Act

In retrospect (which is our habitual mode here), it seems a perfect scheme. Invent a comic book hero, publish the comic book, and then sell the feature in comic strip form to a newspaper syndicate and wait for the money to roll in. It worked with Superman. Why not, they may have reasoned, with his diametric opposite, Funnyman? First a comic book; then a newspaper strip.

            It should come as no surprise, then, that Superman’s creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster went looking for Vincent Sullivan at Magazine Enterprises when, in 1947, they started to peddle their latest concoction: Sullivan, remember, had been the editor of Action Comics, the first issue of which had featured the debut of Superman in 1938. Why shouldn’t lightning strike twice? Particularly if all the ingredients of the original formula for success were incanted.

            “They came to me,” Sullivan said, “and they had this idea. They were constantly coming up with new ideas. And I guess they didn’t show it to Donenfeld. I’m sure they didn’t.”

            Certainly not. Harry Donenfeld was the honcho at National Comics Publications, as DC Comics was called then, and Siegel and Shuster had just emerged from a court battle over rights to Superman. They lost that battle: Donenfeld owned Superman because, in the publishing custom of the day, Siegel and Shuster had signed away their rights to the character on the eve of his inaugural publication. But the court had awarded the duo $100,000 for Superboy, who had, in a reversal of the usual order of things, come along later. Under the circumstances, Siegel and Shuster were not likely to show Funnyman to Donenfeld. Quite apart from whatever inhibitions the ownership dispute may have fomented, they were about to be fired at DC. To assuage the pair’s earlier unhappiness about being exploited as Superman was turning into a nearly overnight comic book success, Donenfeld had agreed to give them a share (reportedly 50 percent) of the net income from the newspaper syndication of Superman plus 5 percent of the licensing revenues, provided they agreed to work exclusively on Donenfeld’s comics for the next ten years at $35 a page. The contracted-for decade was about to expire, and we must assume that Siegel and Shuster knew they would soon be unemployed.

            Having made their living (a good living, even, at times, a fabulous one) in comics for the past ten years, it was natural that they would plan to continue that career, albeit with another publisher. But to do so, they needed another character. Funnyman was the outcome, and Funnyman seems to me as inspired an invention as Superman was. By this time, the comic book industry, a notoriously copycat business, was awash in costumed superheroes, all descendants, in one way or another, of Superman. Another entry into the longjohn legions would scarcely cause a ripple on the surface of the superpond. Siegel and Shuster surely knew if they were going to regain a place in the funnybook field, they needed something out-of-the-ordinary. And Funnyman was that. click to enlarge

            Like Superman and all his ilk, Funnyman has a secret identity. But there, the similarities end. Larry Davis, a professional comedian, had no particular ambition to be a crime-fighter until his manager, the comely June Farrell (whom Davis, in a flash of waggish inspiration, christens “Brain”), proposes a publicity stunt. Saying that she’s arranged for a phoney jewelry store heist at her uncle’s store, she gives Davis a clown costume—baggy polka-dotted pants, floppy shoes, and bulbous putty nose—and tells him to wear it and call himself “Funnyman” while apprehending the faux robber. Davis, hoping the publicity will restore his sagging comedy career, goes along with the gag. But then, as the caption intones, “Fate tossed a monkey wrench into June’s carefully laid plans.” June comes into the store just as Davis, in his “Funnyman” outfit, tackles the robber with a squirt gun, and she realizes at once that the robber is not the fellow she hired for the gig.

            “There’s been an awful mistake,” she yells to Davis. “You’re battling a real crook!”

            “Yeah?” says Davis, giggling, “that makes the situation all the funnier.”

            Later, once the real robber has been taken into custody, Davis tells June that he likes the idea of fighting crime by throwing custard pies and wise-cracks at the “wrong guys.” Resolving forthwith to continue the career of Funnyman, Davis devises a suit of everyday raiment that can be converted quickly into Funnyman’s clown getup by turning it inside out. To complete his transformation into the “Battling Buffoon,” he sticks the putty nose on his schnoze and—presto!—he’s Funnyman.

            “Our aim was to get away from the hackneyed blood-and-thunder type of athlete,” Shuster told an interviewer from The New Yorker, a year later when the newspaper strip was just being launched (December 25, 1948). “Funnyman combines high adventure and slapstick—in a word, action, thrills and comedy.”

            Larry Davis, he continued, is a composite of “all the great comedians, past and present—Milton Berle, Red Skelton, Bob Hope, Harold Lloyd, and Morey Amsterdam—and we’ve got some funny nicknames for him—the Daffy Daredevil, the Comic Crimebuster, the Slapstick Slugger, and even better ones.”

            Siegel and Shuster took their new creation to Sullivan, who had an office on Park Place near City Hall in New York. Sullivan may not have seen either of Superman’s creators since about 1940, when he’d departed DC to help launch another publishing company, Columbia Comic Corporation, which he subsequently left in 1943 to start his own company, Magazine Enterprises. When they walked into Sullivan’s office, they were no longer geeky teenagers as they had been when inventing Superman while attending high school in Cleveland.

            They weren’t geeky teenagers when they signed away their rights to Superman either: they were both 24 years old and had, for several years, been producing comic book features for the publishing empire of Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, who was eventually bought out by the printer to whom he owed money, Donenfeld. Siegel and Shuster were reasonably experienced geeks then. By the time they walked into Sullivan’s office in 1947, Shuster had built up his body by weight-lifting and T-bone-steak eating and quart-of-milk drinking. He’d increased his bulk from 112 to 128 pounds and his height by a couple inches by wearing built-up shoes, but he still, according to a magazine reporter in 1940, looked “like an undernourished, bewildered schoolboy of sixteen.” Siegel, four inches taller than Shuster, weighed 42 pounds more and was worried enough about his girth to have purchased, as soon as the duo became sufficiently wealthy to indulge in extravagances, a hip-reducing machine into which he’d strap himself for a good shaking up every time he felt guilty enough about his weight.

            Whether Vince Sullivan thought Funnyman was the next four-color phenomenon or not, we don’t know. He probably did not exclaim, as he reportedly did when first seeing Superman, “This is what the kids want!” In later years, Sullivan admitted that he hadn’t anticipated at all the success of Superman. He bought it, he said, because “it looked good. It was different and there was a lot of action.” He may not have said that about Funnyman, but it was as true of the Slapstick Sleuth as it was of the Man of Steel.

            The first issue of Funnyman, cover-dated January 1948, probably hit the stands in early December 1947. The Courageous Clown’s origin is deftly told in a one-page introduction, and then he tackles “The Teenage Terrors” in a 19-page epic.

            The teenagers are a Fagan-style gang of youths who pick the pockets of celebrities and turn the loot over to their adult manager, “Ants” Plants. They steal Davis’ wrist-watch, but he realizes immediately that it’s missing and trails the kids to a warehouse on the waterfront where he sees them confabulating with Ants. Changing to his Funnyman garb, Davis enters the crooks’ lair but is apprehended, then escapes and pursues Ants until he captures him and turns him in to the nearest police station.

            Back home, June tells him that after she’d read about the rash of teenage pickpocketing, she substituted a cheap imitation for his heirloom watch.

            “You mean I courted violent death for nothing?” Davis says. “Ho! Ho! Ha! Ha! That’s the funniest thing that ever happened to me!”

            I dunno. Maybe you had to be there, but I don’t find that as hilarious as Larry Davis does. Still, it gives the proceedings a suitably light-hearted ending, an entirely appropriate grace note for Funnyman’s first outing.

            Two other stories fill up the issue. In one, an 8-pager, Funnyman pursues a mechanical toy kangaroo in which June has hidden her diamond ring to prevent a thief from taking it; in the other, a three-page interlude, we meet Comicman and Laffman, “cheap imitations,” as Funnyman says, taking a swipe at the propensity of the comic book industry to ape every new idea slavishly. Considering Siegel and Shuster’s history—their Superman, by this time, having set the fashion for the entire superheroic genre—Funnyman’s satirical smack-down is pretty mild, but it does take place in the first issue, so to those who were aware, then, of the circumstances (probably almost none of the comic book’s readers), the three-pager was a cautionary tale, tinged, just a little, with bitterness.

            The most unusual aspect of these stories is the number of panels given over to depicting activity in careful sequence. When Funnyman enters Ants’ warehouse headquarters, for instance, he (1) leaps from a neighboring building onto a convenient springboard, (2) bounds up into the air (saying, “Technically, I guess this makes me a bounder!”), (3) dives through a window, (4) lands on his hands, and (5) rolls, head over heels, under the table around which the hoodlums are gathered, inspecting his watch. This action—which takes place under the very noses of the conclave of crooks but is wholly undetected by them, an occurrence unlikely in the extreme—takes five panels as I’ve numbered them.

            Then, as he overhears the crooks’ talking about his watch (1), Funnyman decides, while crouching under the table still (2), to reach up and grab his watch, which he does (3) but mistakenly puts his hand on a lighted cigar in an ashtray, burning himself and yelling “Yeeeow!” (4). To mask this outburst, he (5) administers a swift kick to the shin of one of the kids standing at the table, who, naturally, bellows in pain (6). The aggrieved kid thinks his cohort kicked him, and a vociferous quarrel ensues for the next four panels. Funnyman then tries for the watch again and, this time, gets it.

            Ants Plants notices that the watch is missing and shouts, “There’s a crook in this room!”

            It’s the book’s funniest line. But no one laughs.

            The kids are now fighting, and they upset the table, revealing the squatting Funnyman. For the next 5 panels, Funnyman successfully dodges his foes, but he’s finally captured and tied up.

            The action I’ve described takes 5 pages, many more than are necessary for merely advancing the story, more than most other comic books of the time would have devoted to such a sequence. Every maneuver is depicted, step-by-step, almost in the fashion of the key drawings of an animation storyboard. The kinship to animated cartoons is scarcely accidental. Throughout the Funnyman oeuvre, a manic sense of movement is on display, most of it intended to provoke laughter in the same manner as animated cartoons do with their visual antics. Funnyman captures Ants with a ploy that is pure physical comedy. They battle at the side of a railway where workmen have left their tools, and as Ants attacks the Screwball Scrapper with sticks and stones, Funnyman picks up a shovel and drops it in front of Ants. When Ants inadvertently steps on it, it flips up, smacking him on the jaw and knocking him out.

            The Slaphappy Slugger dashes around a lot and accompanies every action with a wise crack or a snappy remark, pictures and words yoked for yuks. As a result, the Funnyman books resonate with a frenzied, madcap action, which the Fighting Fool punctuates regularly by yodelling another chorus of his battle song:

            “I’m the world’s toughest hero,

            But my IQ is zero—

            That’s why I’m called Funnyman!”

            Unhappily, very little of any of it is as funny as Funnyman thinks it is. The step-by-step setups too often lead to gags that are too tepid to justify the space expended to get to the punchlines. The sight gags are broad rather than clever. The chatty captions are perhaps the best comedy in the books, but the plots they embroider are thoroughly pedestrian. Siegel was, I suspect, straining for laughs, and the strain shows.

            Still, the comedy was at least as amusing as most of the funny animal and teenage comics then flooding the newsstands. And the eponymous hero of the books was perfectly conceived, it seems to me. His appearance had the traditional putty-nose appeal of the circus clown, an irresistible attraction for youthful readers, among whom, at the time, I was numbered. And as a neophyte cartoonist, I thought the idea of a crime-fighter having a bulbous nose was sheerly brilliant; it would be fun to draw such a character, I thought. (And, as we’ll see, I was not alone in this bemused conviction.)

            The Funnyman artists were told to think of Danny Kaye when rendering the character, and Funnyman’s carrot-colored hair and easy-going, flip manner deftly evoked the popular song-and-dance comedian. But the key to Funnyman’s appeal, Shuster believed, was gadgetry. He is vulnerable, like any ordinary mortal, but he makes up for this shortcoming with ingenious devices.

            “He’s got no super-powers,” Shuster said. “The gimmick is he’s an inventor and outwits his foes with goofy gadgets. He’s got springs in his shoes. He’s got a jalopy with a putty nose, and he can make it go forward or backward or stand up on its hind wheels by whistling to it in different keys.”

            It’s all done with photoelectric cells, Shuster explained. “We keep it strictly scientific,” he said, gesturing at stacks of Popular Science Monthly and Popular Mechanics that filled the team’s two-room studio on West 56th Street in New York. Judging from the comic books, most of the science of that day involved photoelectric cells. Photoelectric cells, which had recently started opening doors automatically in department stores, were the universal modern-day magic, and in Funnyman, they drove all of the numerous devices used by both the Tittering Trickster and his opponents, among whom Doc Gimmick, another of Seigel’s canny inventors, is the most frequently recurring.

            “We want a strip that will be read by the entire family,” Shuster continued, talking, now, about the newspaper enterprise, not the comic book, although the remark doubtless applies to both. “The jet jalopy is very popular with kids, and with adults who like to relive their childhood. That was always one of my fantasies as a child—to take off into the stratosphere in a beat-up car. Then there’s the Comic Crook Catcher and the Trix-cycle—jet, of course, like the jalopy. Our main interest, though, is in keeping Funnyman clean-cut but vulnerable.”click to enlarge

            The Comic Crook Catcher is a sort of scooter with a grappling arm, and the Trix-cycle is a motorcycle with Funnyman’s face on the front. One of his best weapons, however, is the Funnygun that sprays laughing gas or squirts water or any of an assortment of hilarious missiles. The gun doesn’t appear until Funnyman No. 4 although it seems, upon reflection, so natural an accouterment to the Crusading Clown’s armament that it should have surfaced much earlier.

            The Jet Jalopy is introduced in the second issue of the comic book. The whistling dodge had not yet been conceived, so the auto responds to its owner’s verbal commands, a notion simply too outlandish even for Funnyman. “Stand up, Jet,” he says, and the car rears up on its rear wheels. He tells it to go and stop and roll over. It responds like a trained dog. We might be tempted to see the Jet Jalopy as a satiric comment on, say, the Batmobile or any of the other contraptions by which the spandex-clad augmented their crime-fighting skills. But satire requires a pay-off that ridicules its target in unmistakable terms. The three-page encounter Funnyman has with Comicman and Laffman, for example, ends with our Dapper Dingbat booting both his rivals in the rear, the most pedestrian (if you’ll pardon me) of satiric endings (ooops, sorry, again) but an unmistakable denigration of the satiric target. For satiric effect in the Jalopy’s case, perhaps the car would turn out to be smarter than its driver, or maybe it would fail to function as an ordinary car—its steering mechanism inoperative perhaps, refusing to send the car in the direction turned, or maybe the wheels wouldn’t go around. Moreover, the satire would best achieve its impact by means of a single appearance. The Jalopy, however, becomes a regular member of the Funnyman cast, and the Goofy Gumshoe employs it as it is designed, no more, no less. No satire.

            Some observers at the time supposed Funnyman to be a parody of Superman, an artifice of ridicule by which Siegel and Shuster attempted to strike back at the publisher who had stolen their earlier creation. Shuster admitted this interpretation might, on occasion, be possible, but he insisted that parody wasn’t intended. And the syndicate promotional material that accompanied the introduction of the Funnyman newspaper strip offered quite another explanation of the character’s origins:

            “While Siegel was in the Army [in 1945], he thought of creating a new comic strip not solely along adventure lines, a vogue which he considered waning, but adventure combined with the good old ingredient, comedy. Convinced that the public’s taste operates in cycles, he decided to reach back and try to recapture the slapstick of the Keystone Komedies, the thrills of the Harold Lloyd films, and the hairbreadth athletics of swashbuckling Douglas Fairbanks and merge them all into one comic strip. The hero, Siegel decided, must be new and different, must use his humor as a weapon for fighting crime.”

            While Funnyman jokes and giggles as he grapples with the bad guys, the comedy itself seldom works as a weapon. In Funnyman No. 3, however, the Dynamic Dope’s antics directly affect the outcome. The earth is threatened with invasion by superior beings from outer space. One of them takes Funnyman back to his home planet as a specimen, and the Mirthful Menace assaults his inquisitors with a joy buzzer, an exploding cigar, and a squirting lapel flower. The aliens, thinking him utterly mad, decide not to invade earth after all because they don’t want to become as insane as he is.

            The comic book, coming out every other month, lasted only six issues, the last cover-dated August 1948. By then, Siegel and Shuster were already at work on the newspaper strip incarnation of their Battling Buffoon.

            In May 1948, Shuster was writing John Sikela, one of his Cleveland studio crew who was still in his Ohio hometown. The letter reveals a good deal about the working methods Shuster had evolved through the Superman years as demand for material increased. After asking if Sikela had “received the pencil roughs of the dailies,” Shuster goes on: “I thought they might help with the initial layouts....  You can use your own judgment as to following my sketches—if you can visualize any scene differently, that’s okay too.... We’ve been getting wonderful reactions on the strip thus far and expect it to receive a deluge of publicity.”

            According to fellow Funnyman fan Harry Miller, Sikela drew most of the comic book and much of the comic strip. And Miller should know. Several years ago, he assembled virtually all of the comic strip run, hoping to interest a publisher in a reprint volume (an excellent idea, forsooth), and in preparing an introduction for the book, Miller interviewed the artists and several other comic book savants. Without Harry’s selfless collaboration, this installment of Harv’s Hindsight would be considerably poorer: with the passionate generosity only such Funnyman fans as we can muster, he supplied me with copies of some of the newspaper strip run and the foregoing quotation from Shuster’s letter to Sikela.

            Miller agrees that at least two and perhaps three other hands are evident in the comic book artwork although who, exactly, did which stories still seems to me a little uncertain, the verdict sometimes depending upon rusty memories. Marvin Stein, another regular Shuster cohort, is one of other artists. Influenced, Miller told me, by Albert Dorne, an illustrator with a comedic bent, Stein seems a particularly appropriate illuminator of Funnyman’s escapades. “The Medieval Mirthquake” story in No. 4 is stylistically much more elaborate than most of the other Funnyman material—more feathering and shading and detailing—as well as being more humorously nuanced visually; and it, Miller says, is certainly Stein’s work, as are most of the book covers. Stein, in turn, had pencil assists from Dick Ayers, doing his first comic book work, and Ernie Bache.

            Ayers and Bache met in the fall of 1947 while taking a class at the newly-formed Cartoonists and Illustrators School started by Tarzan’s Burne Hogarth. Stein was one of the instructors.

            “I was friendly with Marvin and Ernie,” Ayers told me, “and visited the office in the afternoon on the way to class so I saw what they were working on and knew about Funnyman—and knew I’d like to draw him.”

            Shuster occasionally visited the C&I class, and after Ayers met him, he “bombarded” him with Funnyman drawings on penny postcards, he said—“and he put me at a drawing table in his office.” Continued Ayers: “Marvin did most of the penciling and inking, and had Ernie and me helping him. I never saw Joe do any penciling.”

            Ayers said his first paycheck for assisting was October 31, 1947; his last for the comic book penciling was December 8, 1947. “I remember penciling only one complete story,” he said. (Probably “The House That Funnyman Built” in No. 3, Miller says, if not, in the same issue, “For the Honor of Sgt. Harrigan” as well.) 

            “I never inked any Funnyman pages or panels,” Ayers said. “Ernie and I thought Marvin’s inking was the utmost best and would stand oohing and ahhing when he did a cover. I can remember doing that.”

            Around the first of the year in 1948, Ayers started working directly for Sullivan on a comic book about Jimmy Durante. Ayers drew three issues of Jimmy Durante, penciling, inking and lettering. The third issue was never published. “I’m eating my heart out to see it,” Ayers once said, “because that was just about when I was really into the character. Oh, God, I loved it. I wish it had lasted.”

            By January 1949, Ayers was back penciling Funnyman, this time, the newspaper comic strip. Sikela did the dailies from the strip’s debut on October 11, 1948, until the end of the year; and he continued doing the Sunday strip for another five or six months, with other hands occasionally substituting for to enlarge

            “January 15, 1949, I got my first check from Joe for penciling the Funnyman daily strip,” Ayers told me. “My last check for Funnyman penciled dailies was May 3, 1949.”

            Ayers’ drawings were inked by a Manhattan artist Shuster knew, Jerry Goldman, whose name is otherwise lost in the annals of American artistry.

            The newspaper version of Funnyman continued the same sort of headlong slapstick physical comedy laced with cackling patter and wise-acre flippancy that distinguished the comic book incarnation. But none of the strip stories, except, in the dailies, the introductory sequence that establishes Larry Davis as Funnyman, repeat comic book capers. After rehearsing Funnyman’s origins, the daily strips confront the Jocose Jester with a klutzy, nearly blind petty crook named Harold Square, who steals the Jet Jalopy. But Funnyman, astride the Trix-cycle with June, manages to overpower the thief.

            “The next adventure,” Miller writes, “involves a villain who is a cross between Superman nemeses Mr. Mxyztplk and Braniac. ‘Bighead’ commits multiple robberies using his Mental Miracle Machine and its magic-like powers. However, Funnyman turns the voice-controlled machine against its creator and cons Bighead into wishing himself out of existence! This is an obvious parallel to the way Superman has to use trickery to get Mr. Mxyztplk to return to his own dimension by saying his name backwards.”

            The last story with Sikela art is “The Crook Who Wanted to be Caught.” Here, as Miller says, “Funnyman takes a page from Al Capp’s Li’l Abner and alludes to a popular public figure: he dons a rubber face mask and pretends to be ‘Bumphrey Hogart’ as part of a plot to prove to Joe Dope that crime doesn’t pay.”

            In the next story, published in January 1949, Larry Davis resolves the conflict without donning Funnyman duds. Calling the tale “Miss Midas,” Miller says it concerns a movie star named Lola Leeds, “a reference to the demure B-movie star of the twenties, Lila Lee, who was involved in scandalous trysts with Charlie Chaplin and Franchot Tone.”

            The Sunday strips told different stories than the dailies. In the first adventure, Funnyman unmasks a British criminal posing as a detective from Scotland Yard. In the next, he exposes a songwriting swindle and, after that, foils a robbery at a charity event. He then retrieves a stolen atomic bomb and battles The Mauler, a brutal gang leader. The Sunday storylines last four-six weeks, with an occasional outing “done in one” purely for the sake of telling a joke. The dailies carry continuities of a month or so duration. Both are highly invested with the kind of physical comedy that animated the comic books.

            The Funnyman strip ran into the fall of 1949 then stopped. It was in about 50 papers in December 1948, according to The New Yorker, but by the next summer, it was evidently fading fast. The Sunday strips in August and September aren’t even about Funnyman or Larry Davis: the title character has been supplanted by a bespectacled nincompoop in the Bertie Wooster mold named Reggie van Twerp, who is assisted by a Jeeves-like butler named Higgins. click to enlarge Reggie van Twerp was the reincarnation of a humorous strip that Siegel and Shuster had conceived in the years before Superman. The team’s propensity for comedy is often overlooked in the fevered adulation of their achievement in the science fiction mode of Superman. Oddly, considering the Superman phenomenon, Shuster did not think of himself as an illustrator of serious adventures.

            “I was really a cartoonist,” he said in an interview in Nemo No. 2. “I loved illustration, but I was essentially—I had a flair for comedy. It just so happened that the adventure strip was what we managed to market.”

            In high school, Siegel had written a humorous story for the school paper and, later, he and Shuster turned it into a strip, Goober the Mighty, a Popeye-inspired take-off on Tarzan. They also produced a Laurel and Hardy simulacrum strip called Snoopy and Smiley as well as the Wodehousian Reggie van Twerp. And in Slam Bradley, which they called the precursor of Superman, the two creators had an action hero with a pronounced sense of humor, who accompanied his pugilistic feats with a chorus of wise cracks. Siegel had even written a mail order course on “How to be Funny” and had formed a sales agency for gag cartoonists, the American Artists League.

            In Superman, two of the feature’s enduring characters are comical creations—the Prankster, who debuted in Action No. 51 (August 1942) and Mr. Mxyztplk, who shows up first in the Superman newspaper strip then in Superman No. 30 (September-October 1944). Strangely, as Miller points out, both these comedic characters are villains—just as Superman himself was when Siegel conjured him up in “The Reign of the Superman” in the third issue of Science Fiction, a magazine they published in 1933 (January).

            Why did Funnyman fail in both books and newspapers? Lack of interest, I’d say. But I suspect it was as much the creators’ interest as the reading public’s. The comic book, like all of the breed, was doubtless canceled for purely financial reasons. And if it wasn’t selling, it was probably because the concept of a bigfoot putty-nosed crime fighter wasn’t as appealing to the juvenile buyer as it was to aspiring cartoonists like me and Ayers. Moreover, as Miller points out, sales of costumed hero comics were slumping severely during this period: Funnyman had come on the scene a little too late.

            Or too early. By another measure, Funnyman was doubtless ahead of its time: four years later, Harvey Kurtzman would invent Mad Comics, and the newsstands would soon be deluged with manic humor. Among 1948's superheroes, only Jack Cole’s Plastic Man was overtly humorous, but the hero himself was not a comedian and wasn’t required, as Larry Davis was, to be funny.

            The Funnyman newspaper strip, which was formulated well before the comic book was discontinued, expired, I believe, because Siegel and Shuster were not sufficiently engaged in it. Despite their interest in comedy, Siegel, at least, and probably Shuster, too, eventually tired of the antics of the Screwball Scrapper. That they were losing interest is evident in their reviving Reggie van Twerp in the months of the strip’s final throes. On the other hand, Reggie may have been recruited to rescue a strip that was already dropping in circulation. Certainly possible. Probable, in fact. These are reciprocating engines: interest on one side of the drawing board generates interest on the other side, which, in turn, stimulates even more creative energy. Probably, if Funnyman had generated the following that Superman enjoyed, the strip would have retained its creators’ interest as it flourished. But comparing the two creations is pointless: Superman burst in upon an embryonic medium at precisely the right time to attract the attention that assured his continued existence; by the time Funnyman arrived, the marketplace was saturated with comic book titles. Funnyman was doubtless lost in the profusion of four-color pulp.

            And the newspaper strip, which began after the comic book had expired, hadn’t the benefit of the boost a popular comic book might have given it. It had to survive on its own. And perhaps, as Miller suggests, the concept wasn’t enough to attract and hold attention on its own in a market that was essentially an adult one.

            Whatever the cause of Funnyman’s failure, it was the last collaboration of the team that, by inventing superheroes, had infused the comic book industry with its defining and sustaining energy. Two disappointments in a row—first in the courts, then in the marketplace—were more than the creativity of the team could survive. The system, designed, as are all capitalism’s systems, to reward entrepreneurs not artists, had sucked the partnership dry of the creative juices that nurtured it jointly. Jerry Siegel would write more comic book stories, solo—first at Ziff-Davis and then, years later, at DC again. But Joe Shuster would draw no more. His influence, however, would continue to shape the medium and, as Dick Ayers testifies, individual careers: “I credit Joe with launching me in my 56 years of illustrating comic books,” Ayers said.

            Ayers and how many others?

            For the sweet sake of poetic justice, it’s a comfort to realize that the man who thought of himself as a humorous cartoonist did his last comics work, drawing and supervising, on a funny man.

click to enlarge click to enlarge click to enlarge click to enlarge click to enlarge


Footnit: The foregoing is a somewhat longer version of an entry in my Funnies Farrago series in Comic Book Marketplace, No. 100 (March 2003).


Return to Harv's Hindsights