Humour in comic books is like walking a tightrope.
Too little and it becomes overly grim, too much and it gets a bit forced. Keith Giffen has been walking that tighhtrope for years, with characters like Ambush Bug, Vext, The Heckler, The Trencher and Lobo, along with being behind of the most successful runs of the Justice League in history. With What Were They Thinking?!, he and creators like John Rogers, Andrew Cosby, Chris Ward and others took some old “classic” comic books and remixed them, deleting the words from the dialogue balloons and filling them with their own.
If you’ve seen films like Hercules Returns or Woody Allen’s What’s Up, Tiger Lily? you’ll get the concept. By adding new dialogue and new plots to fit the existing work, it can become a comedy farce that brings new (and better) life to them. This collected volume features the issues Journal My War (WW2 war comics), Go West Young Man (Westerns), Monster Mash-Up (Monsters) and Some People Never Learn (Sci-Fi).
The comedy on display here varies from lowbrow sex gags to highbrow wit, and a lot of pop-culture references that are anachronistic to the time. In the Wild West, we see the bandit called Black Napkin after his R&B master tapes, while in ancient Egypt (or the future of 3096, as they call it) we find a corporate war between fast food outlets White Castle and McDonald’s. At times it’s amusing, at times hilarious, and sometimes the jokes just fall flat or make you cringe. It pushes some boundaries a bit too far at times, but, on the whole, it’s one of the funniest comic books out there.
Just as the quality of the jokes varies, so does the quality of the stories. Thankfully, because each one is only a handful of pages at most, there’s always a good one lying in wait if you don’t like the one you’re reading. Almost all of it works, but it probably makes sense to take a break between issues or stories because otherwise you get overwhelmed and desensitised to the comedy on display. It’s best in small doses.
On the downside, there are some problems here: there’s the odd typo that detracts from some gags; the size and format of this collected volume (smaller than a standard comic book) means that the wording has been shrunk down along with everything else, and can be a little hard to read at times; It’s glued like a normal trade paperback, and if you open it up properly the pages become loose and fall out, and the original Charlton war comic the first issue was based on may be interesting to some, but the accidental reprinting of the same page from it twice is a real distraction.
That may sound like a lot of hassles, but they can be overlooked if the work is good enough. These aren’t the first comics to have typos, it’s still bigger and easier to read than the eye-straining digests publishers used to put out, the same glue-cracking and pages-sometimes-falling-out routine happens with some other TPBs (Miller’s Dark Knight Returns is the worst, I’ve found) and since the printing error doesn’t affect the stories you actually bought this for it isn’t that big a deal.
So what this has to be judged on is the quality of the work itself. And since the art isn’t original, that really means the comedy and writing itself.
It’s funny. That’s really what it boils down to. It’ll make you laugh, and that’s what counts. Whether it’s a character picking up women by boasting about his peppermint bowtie or two hunters arguing over who gets to wear a hat and who gets to own a pipe, it’s absurdly silly but hilarious. When Sergeant Hawkins turns out to be so clueless he rescues a Nazi spy, or a Viking warrior babbles on about Bjørg and Ikea, you’ll giggle. Not every joke works, but most of them do.
If you’re looking for something serious, this isn’t it. But if you’re looking for the comic book equivalent of a comedy club sketch show, this is what you’re after.