Sunday, October 07, 2018

I should really just relax: Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Comic #1

In an episode from the first season of Mystery Science Theater 3000, Joel and his robot friends take a break from viewing The Slime People and Joel tries to explain how amazing it is that the film actually got made at all, as it means someone was able to convince others to allow it to be made. That is the true wonder of terrible films. As the 'bots begin to realize that there's no idea so stupid as to be completely unworthy of production as long as you can persuade someone to produce it, Tom Servo (then still voiced by J. Elvis Weinstein), says:
Oh, well I have a good idea for a show then; I'm sure it'll work! Okay, this guy gets stranded on a desert isle, he makes little mechanical friends from parts of his boat, and all day long they have to sit and watch reruns of bad TV shows, like Supertrain and The Greatest American Hero!
Joel, unimpressed, immediately begins to poke holes in the idea, asking what they would eat, and why they would be watching bad TV shows.

"How about two evil commodores send the shows to them?" Crow chimes in.

Those were, of course, early days in the show's 11-season, 30-year run (with a very, very long break between seasons 10 and 11, of course), and the first time the idea of transferring the MST3K formula to another media came up on the show itself.

Much later, the idea resurfaced in the season 9 premiere, just as Pearl Forrester and her henchmen relocated to her ancestral home, Castle Forrester.
There she discovers the "ancient diary of the Forrester Clan," and learns that her ancestors have long been involved in "odd experiments." One trapped a man in a cave and pushed in bad paintings of the hunt. Another trapped a man on an island and forced him to read poorly done parchments. Another trapped a man in a tree and read him really bad sagas.

Those moments in the series were on my mind as soon as Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Comic from Dark Horse Comics was first announced.

The heart of the show--my very favorite television show ever, for what it's worth--is a very specific formula: Protagonists watching bad movies, and riffing on them as they, and the viewer, watch the movies. While that part could be replicated--most successfully by the creators and alumni of the show itself in Cinematic Titanic, The Film Crew, RiffTrax and so on--there was a lot more to MST3K, which made it superior to all of those spiritual spin-offs. The characters, the back-story, the host segments, the home-made, local TV channel aesthetic, the gradually emergent "mythology" of the show...those things were all important, and added together, they made the show into something more or less impossible to replicate outside of the umbrella of the show, which was actually closer to a half-dozen or so different shows, evolving one from the next to accommodate different actors and different demands.

So, how do you take a TV show that is all about the watching of movies, and turn it into a comic book? Comics and film (and thus film's cousin TV) are two forms of media that certainly have things in common between them, but that very heart of MST3K's premise, which includes the visual of silhouettes in theater seats, taken from Golden Age cartoon shorts...? What of that?

While that pretty perfectly captures the feeling of watching a movie behind others, there isn't really any equivalent of reading a comic book over someone else's shoulder, and, presumably, any such attempt to transpose the idea of the captives of the Satellite of Love riffing over bad movies into a comic book would need to find a way to remove the movie and replace it with a comic, right?



There were a couple different directions to go with this whole MST3K: The Comic idea.

First, the creators could have replaced the idea of MST3K as a TV show with the idea of MST3K as a comic book, and the subject matter--the thing being riffed upon--could remain bad films. This would likely entail publishing repeating two- or four-panel grid pages, with each panel featuring a still from a single film, "playing" in its entirety throughout those panels, while the silhouettes riffed from bottom of each page. It would probably be a weird and not entirely pleasurable reading experience--think of an old school fumetti comic, but with repeating borders of strangely-shaped silhouettes with dialogue balloons emanating from one or more of them each panel--but it would probably work, in terms of transferring the experience of watching the show into a comic book reading experience.

Secondly, they could have forgone the bad movie element entirely, and instead done something using just the characters-- a comic book that is nothing but host segments, essentially. There were certainly storylines that played out through all the segments of particular episodes of the TV show, for example, especially during season eight, which was basically one big adventure in which Mike and the 'bots were pursued through time and space by Pearl Forrester and her henchmen...I suppose it would be possible to string all of those particular host segments together and it would be a very cheap-looking sci-fi comedy more-or-less independent of the watching of bad movies.

I don't know if that is necessarily what the audience for a potential MST3K comic would want, of course. I've heard that there are people who don't care for the host segments, and just watch the show for the riffing. And certainly the show itself grew around the concept of playing bad films on television, so it could be difficult to try and disentangle the concept from that element.

Besides, that eighth season is generally not as beloved as the others, and while it was fun in how different it was, and I've thoroughly enjoyed it during return visits, I thought and continue to think MST3K got back on much better, more solid footing footing after the SOL returned to its Earth orbit and Pearl, Professor Bobo and Observer set up shop in Castle Forrester.

With all of that said, I would like an MST3K "Extended Universe" comic, one devoted to 22-page long host segment-like skits. Think of those that emerged on the show: The crew tries is attacked by alien demon dogs that threaten the integrity of the Satellite (Season 1, episode 2; The Robot Vs. The Aztec Mummy), or try to defuse an Isaac Asimov Doomsday Device (Season 1, episode 4; Women of The Prehistoric Planet) or meet a signing, dancing, powerful crazy lady Woman of The Future from an old musical short selling cars or something (Season 5, episode 24; 12 To the Moon), Dr. Forrester hosts a Thanksgiving dinner attended by actors and characters from the movie (The Turkey Day marathons) and on and on.

Such an "Extended Universe" or movie-free, host segment-only approach to the comic could also be used to delve into the sorts of stories that can't be told in the show's format, perhaps addressing the many, many questions I have from Season 11 (Who is Kinga's mother? Is Max really Frank's son? Who is his mother? What are Joel and Mike up to these days? What became of Magic Voice? How did Kinga and Max get the SOL into lunar orbit, and what were Crow and Tom and Gypsy and Cambot doing aboard it after they escaped during season 10?*)

Again, the audience for that approach might prove small, but since we're talking about a direct comics market comic book series directed at fans of a particular TV show, it's not like the audience can ever be gigantic; this would be a comic book for fans who read comics, not something aimed at a mass audience or meant to make fans of non-fans (The show itself could do that).

Thirdly, and finally, they could have the comic book version of MST3K tinker with the show's formula so that rather it being a TV show built around making fun of an old movie, it would be a comic book making fun of an old comic book.

And that's the path they chose to take with Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Comic Book, but that too has a bunch of challenges, and problems that need solved.

The creative team is about as strong as one could hope. The show's creator Joel Hodgson gets a "Created For Comics By" credit and shares a "Developed For Comics By" credit with Harold Buchholz, who gets top-billing of the six credited writers. In addition to Buchholz and Hodgson, Matt McGinnis, Seth Robinson, Sharyl Volpe and Mary Robinson are the credited writers, and all of them with IMDb entries are apparently producers and/or writers for the TV show.

The cover artist is Steve Vance, the artist responsible for the cover art on all of the MST3K DVDs, almost always featuring the 'bots as two of the more prominent characters in each of the films (I think Satellite Dishes, which is just host segments, is the only instance of Vance drawing Joel, Mike or any of the Mads).

The interior art comes from several sources. Todd Nauck is credited with "Host Segment Art," and here draws the first nine pages of the book. Mike Manley is credited with "'In-Comics' Art," which I believe means he is responsible for drawing the parts of the comics art that fills the remaining 14 pages that aren't taken directly from the original comic being riffed upon, 1962 Dell Comic Johnny Jason, Teen Reporter.
So here is how it works. The Comic is set in the Season 11/"The Return" continuity, with Jonah Heston as the man trapped in space and forced to watch bad movies, and Kinga Forrester and Max tormenting him and his robot friends from their underground lunar base, Moon 13.

During the opening scene of this comic, the Nauck-drawn portion, Kinga unveils her latest creation (and it's not even during an invention exchange!). Called "The Bubbulat-R," it uses her Kingachrome technology to insert a subject into a comic book, by means of first inserting a comic book into a feed on the device, and then covering the subject with a bubbly liquid; to demonstrate the process, she puts Max inside a copy of Funny Animals, creating a copy of Max and The Funny Animals, in which a rabbit-version of Max appears in the pages, speaking the dialogue he spoke while experiencing it from the inside.
I've read this section repeatedly, and I'm not going to lie, it's a pretty complex set-up, and it took me a couple reads to "get it," including returning to it after reading the rest of the book (Although, to be fair, it took me a while to figure out the TV show, too; I can remember stumbling upon it as a pre-teen on cable and not understanding what was going on for a while before I actually caught one from the beginning and started to make sense of it).

Hodgson, Buccholz and the writing staff seem readily aware of how difficult this set-up could be, as when Kinga gets to the end of her demonstration, there's a little editorial box reading "Technical Note: If you understand the next four panels, these six issues should be a breeze. And if not, enjoy the whimsy."
And once this has all been explained, Kinga and company insert Johnny Jason, Teen Reporter into the Bubbulat-R, flood the SOL with bubbles and gets weird. Tom appears as the star of the comic, now re-titled Tom Servo, Teen Reporter. Tom's head has replaced that of Johnny Jason, although he still looks just like a straight-laced early 1960s movie teen from the neck down. As he's checking his wallet, he looks to the sky, and sees three of the 'bots streaking out of the clouds into the background. He offers dialogue that is thinly disguised exposition, in such a direct fashion that were he encountering such dialogue in a movie on MST3K he would almost certainly say, "Thanks for the exposition":
Wow the Bubbulat-R's placing M. Waverly, Gypsy, and Growler into different parts of the comic! But what about Jonah and Crow? Maybe they'll be riffing in the word balloons like Max did.
Oh, M. Waverly and Growler. Those are two additional robots that Jonah built in Season 11. Tom and Crow, naturally, hated them, and I was surprised to see them here at all, as I thought they were both meant to be just one-segment jokes. Waverly appeared in episode 8/"The Loves of Hercules" and was immediately shut down and semi-destroyed, while Growler--who, Jonah confesses is basically just Rowlf The Dog from The Muppets--was introduced in the season finale, and was reluctantly embraced by Tom and Crow when they thought Jonah was dead, and they decided to let Growler replace Jonah.

It is pretty strange to see them included here, because they--and Gypsy--are involved in the riffing (Gypsy did start riffing in season 11, but generally just once or twice per episode, when the arrives in the theater on some mysterious errand I never quite understood--I think she drops off props for the guys and then retrieves them...?).

So the comic "plays" as per normal...but with Tom Servo in the lead role. The characters' dialogue is sometimes extended with riffed dialogue, denoted by the little white bubble in the corner of said fake dialogue. Waverly, Growler and Gypsy occasionally appear within the panels, surrounded in bubbles, but not in the comic in the same manner that Tom is, while Tom's earlier exposition is apparently meant to to let us know that it is Jonah and Crow providing the extra riffed dialogue...and, occasionally, thought riffed thought balloons.
It's a little...confused, in that there are three different levels of riffing on the comic, and it's unclear how each is assigned (I know, I know: I should really just relax). I'm probably going to need to finish the story arc/"experiment" before I can properly analyze and offer a genuine review of the book, but for now all I can say is that it was extremely weird, and I enjoyed it despite it making me uncomfortable. The issue ends in what appears to be the middle of the Teen Reporter story, so I think it will continue...but then, solicitations for the issues have mentioned the characters appearing in three different comics from three different eras and genres, so while this issue sort of demonstrates the premise and method of the comic, it is still very much being revealed.

So far, I will say that I would have preferred it be a little more straightforward, with one method of riffing and/or being inside the comic rather than three, and some other visual cue to lets us know who is riffing (That is, there's no way of telling if it is Jonah or Crow speaking the extra dialogue; ultimately, it's not important information in terms of getting the jokes being told, but knowing who is who is part of the feeling of belonging that comes from watching the show).

I'm obviously going to buy and read the next five issues, and hope this does well enough that it can become something of an ongoing concern--Dark Horse owns the rights to a ton of comics, don't they? Could we see the guys in the pages of old Tarzan comics, or Magnus Robot Fighter and Turok comics? Maybe Little Lulu or Barb Wire...? It would definitely be fun to see them tackle different genres of comics, and perhaps ones that are more specific to the comics media, as the teen reporter melodrama felt a lot like the sort of film that might have appeared on the show, for good and/or ill.

So if anyone from Dark Horse marketing wants a pull-quote from an online review of the first issue to put on the trade paperback collection, here's mine: "Um, I'm not quite sure how I feel about this comic."


Wait, wait, wait, I got a pithier one: Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Comic is two great tastes that go...weird together.

*Caleb Personal Life Trivia: I often watch episodes of MST3K to relax when I go to bed at night, which has the sometimes fortunate, sometimes unfortunate side-effect of inspiring dreams about the show. I recall one shortly after the return was announced...I basically dreamt I was watching the new show, or what my subconscious apparently thought the show would be. It involved Mike and the bots hearing about the reboot and deciding they had to do something to help the new victim. So they set out to find Gypsy, and with her help they track down Joel,whose scientific prowess and engineering skills they will need to break into the SOL. That's right! Joel and Mike, together! Like Kirk and Picard in the same movie! Ultimately they learned the new guy couldn't leave until the show was canceled, and they have to leave him there. Mike and Joel suggest that Tom and Crow stay behind to help him keep his sanity, but they refuse. Ultimately Joel rummages around to find some of Tom and Crow's extra bodies, and he builds "clones" of them to leave with the new guy.

1 comment:

Nacho said...

It reminded me of the Beavis and Butthead comics that Marvel published, where the characters did pretty much the same thing.