Herbie Archive, vol. 1
by Shane O'Shea and Ogden Whitney
Dark Horse 2008
Garrett Martin: There is a serious dearth of abject ridiculousness in today's comics. Yeah, there's plenty of winking Silver Age homages and (increasingly sterile) blog-friendly shenanigans of the "nazi gorilla zombie" type (or, y'know, comics made specifically for Chris Sims), but little of the genuinely inspired lunacy that litters the medium's past. Herbie Archives Volume 1, the first of three planned hardcovers collecting a particularly surreal midcentury classic, is a perfect example of the spirit that's far too lacking today. Unlike inexplicably weird comics from guys like Fletcher Hanks or Robert Kanigher, where the oddness stems primarily from alcohol (in Hanks' case), a backbreaking schedule (for Kanigher), and a fundamental lack of respect for the intelligence of the audience (um, both of them?), Herbie mostly realizes its own ridiculousness. It's not really a straight-up satire of anything, but in its Mad-style irreverence Herbie does take some clear shots at both comic book conventions (uh, not the hotel ballrooms full of dudes in Beast Master costumes, but, y'know, customs or rules, or whatever) and contemporary society in general. The obvious stabs at humor sometimes fall flat, being too broad or corny, but the storytelling is truly surprising and hallucinatory in a highly satisfying way. In that way it particularly reminded me of Fletcher Hanks, and last year's excellent I Shall Destroy All The Civilized Planets collection, but with far less obvious rage and violence. Did you like this book? Was it too goofy for you?
Hillary Brown: Oh heck no. I don't really know if there is much that's too goofy for me. I'd never heard of Herbie before, and I enjoyed the heck out of it, especially the cameos by famous figures in history and pop culture, which kind of seem to meld, from Fidel Castro to Kennedy (and Jackie), LBJ (and Ladybird), and the Beatles. It's interestingly international in outlook, and the art is pretty great (all colorful and amusing), but mostly it's a wonderful kind of empowerment tale for fat loser kids. I mean, Herbie's dad is really damn mean to him, isn't he? Almost to the point of emotional abuse? And yet, the little fat nothing lets it all bounce off him. Sure, he has magical powers, powers that don't seem to be limited in any way other than through the imagination of the creator, but isn't the real joy of the comic in this hero who's really more of an a-hero than an antihero?
GM: Yeah, Mr. Popnecker is so shockingly, over-the-top mean to Herbie that it just becomes another part of the book's amazing ridiculousness, along with all the historical personages and, um, Frankensteins (yeah, multiple Frankensteins, here, or at least one Frankenstein making many appearances). And that international outlook (U Thant plays a big role in one issue) feels decidedly '60's, reflecting an era when politics and foreign policy were, if not sexy (or endlessly pants-shittingly frightening), then at least more of an active concern for average citizens than we've seen the last decade or so. Maybe now that socioeconomic events have directly impacted Americans' eagerness to buy HD-TVs and $5-a-box breakfast cereals, leading to the results of this historic election, we'll start seeing Evo Morales randomly pop up in Incredible Hercules. But, yes, fraternizing with these celebrities and world leaders is another aspect of Herbie's empowerment, elevating the hopelessly marginal and impressionless to a state of ultimate, if quiet, authority. And that's also, y'know, pretty damn ridiculous.
This doesn't really feel like a comic for kids, does it? But who else would've read this in 1961? Did typical comics-reading kids know who U Thant was back then?
HB: I doubt it, but it's kind of like the two-or-more-level jokes on The Simpsons, which I know kids watch. Some people just think the bopping with a lollipop is hilarious, and others are all like oh ha ha U Thant. It's also potentially educational that way. I mean, if I didn't get a reference on Gilmore Girls, I'd go look it up. And not that these kids would have had the internet, but it's possible they'd ask their parents who some of these people were. Plus, you know, it's fairly clearly marketed to nerds, who might actually know some of this information. I'm sure you, like me, had your store of political knowledge while yet a young lad. So I guess I'm saying that it doesn't seem all that crazy to me when I think about it in more depth.
Frankenstein having magical powers, though? That's nuts.
GM: True. Even if I didn't understand Mad's political jokes when I was a kid, I certainly acted like I did.
As great as Herbie is, the concept is a bit limited, right? Will you be looking for the next two archives, or has this thoroughly scratched whatever itch might exist?
HB: Well, you're right that there's not a lot of development. I suppose I'd at least thumb through another archive volume or two, but I don't know if I'd go hugely out of my way. On the other hand, I react that way to a lot of stuff that doesn't have a compelling continuous narrative. It's a problem with anything before, like, the 1980s, though, and Herbie is certainly more interesting than most other things I'd let fall by the wayside. Noncommital? Yeah, but that's a step up from negative.
GM: I agree a lack of a serialized narrative generally inhibits my interest in something. Many of the big DC Showcase books are a total slog due to the intense repetition and lack of an overarcing storyline. But, like Metamorpho and Silver Age Superman, Herbie is so brilliantly ridiculous that I can't wait to read more.