The Webcomic Overlook #51: Dumm Comics

It’s harder to think of a more controversial figure in animation than John Kricfalusi. Oh, sure, you can make a case that Ralph Bakshi guy. Yet the guy is more or less universally respected in animation circles for forwarding the cause of adult-themed cartoons. Those who don’t care for such things hardly even know he exists. There isn’t a huge anti-Bakshi backlash, unless you, for some godforsaken reason, decide to argue that his Lord of the Rings movie was pretty good.

Kricfalusi (who I shall now refer to as “John K.” simply because “Kricfalusi” is too much of a pain to type over and over again) will forever be known as the man behind the “Ren & Stimpy” cartoons. Thus, the man has already secured his place in animation history. However, the man is also one of the most, how shall we say, strongly opinionated men out there. His personality alone is what drives people into pro-John K. and the anti-John K. crowds, the North and South Korea of animation theory, scorching the land in between for anyone unfortunate enough to straddle the middle ground. I mean, the man even managed to drive away Billy West, the former voice of Stimpy, the current voice of Philip J. Fry, and a man who strikes me as fairly amicable from his interviews.

While I admire his openness, I admit that I am one of those prudes who’s often taken aback when the man opens his big old yap. Take his interview with the Onion AV Club, for instance:

I know in kids programming you’re not really allowed to draw sexy girls. I managed to get a couple into Ren & Stimpy. In the Powdered Toast Man episode, Lovely Assistant is really hot. She’s only in a few scenes, but, boy, I got lots of letters saying, “Give us more of that!” We’d try to, and then the executives would tell us, “Well, that objectifies women,” and “it’s offensive,” and all this stuff. [Moans.] You don’t even see it in prime-time cartoons. There are no sexy girls in The Simpsons. Would you ever take your pants down and watch The Simpsons? Those cartoons are designed to be so primitively drawn that you wouldn’t be able to do a sexy girl because you have to draw well. Drawing a funny animal, you don’t need a lot of detail to make it work. But to draw a sexy girl, there’s certain things you can’t leave out.

You kiss your mother with that mouth, John K.? He does have a point, though. I’ve got, like, Seasons 3-6 of The Simpsons on DVD, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t take my pants off once.

Even more controversial, though, is John K.’s self-elevation as the standard-bearer for classic animation. His disdain for the primitive nature of the The Simpsons, Family Guy, and South Park are somewhat understandable … though not totally correct, since the main crux of those shows is the writing. What’s more baffling is John K.’s acrimony towards pretty much every Disney and Pixar feature film created.

However, I can, to a certain extent, appreciate what John K. is trying to do. He’s really very much a historical preservationist, trying to create new productions following the design philosophy of an art form that most people had abandoned or forgotten. He wants to pick up from the days when Mickey Mouse was a bouncing rubber ball and when wolves had jaws that would literally drop to the floor at the sight of a red-head lady in tight evening wear. Is there much difference between John K. and, say, George Lucas and his love for 1940’s serial cinema or Grant Morrison and his love for Silver Age Superman stories? We’re all just a part of the Village Green Presevation Society.

But, seriously, what does all this have to do with webcomics? Usually, nothing… until you get to Dumm Comics, which went online earlier this year. If you browse through the archives, you’d swear that these were all drawn by the madman behind Ripping Friends. And, believe it or not, you’d be partially correct. The creators behind Dumm Comics are professional animators. Many had jobs in John K.’s animation studio, Spümcø International, while others are veterans of Disney and Nickelodeon. These artists all seem committed to translating John K.’s design aesthetic to the static screen.

1930 Nightmare Theatre

1930 Nightmare Theatre


Dumm Comics (way to aim high with the title of the collective there, dudes and dudette) features a different series for each day of the week. There’s a guest strip on the weekends. Since these only began making appearances this month, though, I’ll refrain from commenting on them. What unites Dumm Comics is, despite the variety of creators, there’s a similar artistic style and humor. And if you were to ask me the one word that best describes the character of Dumm Comics?

Pre-adolescent.

Not that it’s necessarily a bad thing. That word, frankly, probably describes 80% of stand-up comedians out there. To tie it to my extremely long John K. tirade up above, pre-adolescence is when most of us discovered Ren & Stimpy (or, for modern viewers, Adult Swim). It may actually represent, the simplest, most instinctual, and cruelest path to humor. Who needs the literary acrobatics of George Bernard Shaw when all you need to see dudes kicking each other in the pants? Friggin’ eggheads.

The star of the bunch is 1930 Nightmare Theatre by Rick Garduno. The comic is done as a stylized (re: Spumco-reimagined) rendition of old cartoons. Unlike other far more santitized exercises like Animaniacs, Nightmare Theatre disposes of any sense of decency. Characters are mutilated in gruesome ways, and then are fine and whole by the next week. It’s like reading Itchy & Scratchy if those two characters weren’t such Puritans.

Now, in past reviews I’ve been critical of gory cartoons. Lucid TV, for example, puts me off with all the needless cruelty. And hey, I can’t even read Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, a comic that tickles my funny bone determinedly and often, in long stretches without feeling like my soul was being eaten away in small, bite-sized portions. Yet I can’t get too worked up over Nightmare Theatre. The stupid, stupid characters of Nightmare Theatre almost seem like they deserve the cruelty. And it doesn’t hurt that when the gore starts flowing, when rendered in the retro art they look more like overripe honeydews and marmalade jelly than true-to-life depictions of blood and viscera. I’m fairly certain, though, that if the comic came with an archive more than a few months long, the rampant bloody anarchy would eventually be wearing.

Skadi

Skadi

Next up, we’ve got Skadi. Created by Katie Rice and Luke Cormican, Skadi is to Red Sonja what Sergio Aragones’ Groo is to Conan. Or, to be more precise, Skadi wishes it was Groo, but comes out more Dave the Barbarian. The babe in the iron bikini travels a world of sword and sorcery and dragons, her faithful slave Diseasoid the Bushbeast in tow, slaying monsters and generally screwing people over for a bag of gold. Something with this theme usually translates to an epic story. Not Skadi. It’s basically gag after gag of how selfish Skadi is. Wacky!

Skadi doesn’t talk much. When she does, it’s often monosyllabic dialogue so simple a caveman can do it. (And I’ll be honest with you — I do find it sorta adorable. One of the best things about Skadi is that I can distinctly hear the heroine’s grunting in my mind. I imagine she sounds like one of those Amazons from Futurama.) I assume this means that Rice and Cormican hope that the comic can be carried through visual gags conveyed by the art alone. Does Skadi succeed? One of the strengths of the Spümcø house style is no matter how exaggerated something looks, the flesh seems to be restricted by the skeleton it’s hanging on. Skadi always looks like some sort of hyperkinetic doodle. At no point does she seen three-dimensional, let alone solid. Heck, most of the art in Skadi is a rather confusing amalgam of images rendered in an unflattering color palette. And though we’re supposed to believe that she’s somehow physically attractive, at no point while reading Skadi did I ever want to take my pants off. (Take that, John K.!)

And speaking of pants, Big Pants Mouse, by Gabe Swarr, answers the question: how many jokes can you milk out of the premise of a mouse wearing pants? The unsurprising answer: none, since a mouse wearing pants wasn’t funny to begin with. Most gags here boil down to either “My pants are incredible!” or “I love my pants!” And he gets into kuh-razy antics with a dog whose major identifying characteristic is that he wears two hats. Fascinating. Somewhere in heaven, George Herrimen is shaking his head sadly and wondering how we went from Krazy Kat to this. I wish there were more to write about this, just for my sake, but, really, everything I said above pretty much covers the entire comic. Oh, and the mouse doesn’t look much like one, which is the peak of hilarity for someone out there, I guess.

Through the Port-Hole

Through the Port-Hole

Earthward-Ho!, by Fred Osmond, is a similarly lightweight tale about a precocious little boy and his obsession with finding alien life forms. So it’s kinda like Dexter’s Lab without the cleverness. The main difference between this comic and Big Pants Mouse is that there’s potentially more jokes to be mined about goofball alien life forms. Such as the “alien comes to visit but I completely missed it” gag. Although it’s not really all that funny for a humor comic, Earthward-Ho! is at least visually pleasing. It’s got a nifty retro look, the kind that reminds you of the ads that used to sell vaccuum cleaners in the early 60’s. And, boy, does that kid make goofy faces!

Finally, we have Through the Port-Hole, by Sean Szeles. Unlike its cronies, Through the Port-Hole looks less like a Spümcø production and more like something from Spongebob Squarepants. (Yeah, BIG DIFFERENCE THERE.) This comic follows sea captain who … well, he doesn’t really go on adventures or anything. Frankly, he’s a week-end warrior type who, for the most part, finds himself alone on his big ship. Is this strip a metaphor for unrealistic expectations, the crushing disappointment of reality, and the soul-crushing loneliness of old age? Are we all adrift, like the sea captain, fooling ourselves that we’re living the good life yet in the grand scheme of things we’re insignificant and our accomplishments mean absolutely nothing. Good God, Sean, you just may have created a comic more depressing than 1930 Nightmare Theatre.

So what’s the final verdict on Dumm Comics? I suspect most of these concepts were ideas that the animators pitched to their studios, but were rejected. And, with the exception of 1930 Nightmare Theatre (which would probably kick the pants off of most Adult Swim offerings — up to and including Squidbillies), the studios mailed the rejection notices with good reason. Additionally, a lot of the gags, rooted and standardized in animation, don’t really translate well to the comics world. Big Pants Mouse is the biggest culprit. Its sense of comedic timing off a little possibly because the strip feels like a storyboard.

So Team Dumm Comics gets hit with a standard 8/10ths deduction. Grading the remainder on difficulty and execution, Dumm Comics gets 3 stars.

Team Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Individual All-Around:
1930 Nightmare Theatre: 4 stars
Skadi: 3 stars
Big Pants Mouse: 2 stars
Earthward-Ho!: 3 stars
Through the Port-Hole: 2 stars
Yang Yilin (China), Shawn Johnson (USA), and Nastia Liukin (USA): 5 stars

U-S-A! U-S-A!

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About El Santo

Somehow ended up reading and reviewing almost 300 different webcomics. Life is funny, huh? Despite owning two masks, is not actually a luchador.

Posted on August 15, 2008, in 3 Stars, barbarian webcomic, comedy webcomic, fantasy webcomic, funny animal webcomic, The Webcomic Overlook, Uncategorized, WCO Big Review, webcomics and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.

  1. The emphasis on hyper-dynamic action and distortion found in the John K School obscures nuance and detail unless deployed with care.

    Sexiness is a hyper-dynamic: it also gets the adrenalin running.

    Hyper-dynamic style trample understatement — one of my favorite qualities.

    The artist who does the best job of straddling is probably Peter Bagge in his Buddy Bradley era.

    John K’s style is loaded with fresh ideas for rendering various things. Toned down for print, they would make a welcome addition to the panel art melting pot. Overstatement is clutter. I admire John’s art enormously, though I don’t really get into watching much Ren and Stimpy, because it pulverizes my brain with motion. It’s like if writer Thomas Wolfe were a cartoonist.

    All in all, your comments are the best I’ve seen regarding the implications of the K-Cartel on comics.

  2. The main thing I remember about The Ripping Friends is the complete lack of any distinctive characters, in terms of both design and personality.

    Just thought I’d throw that out there.

  3. I noticed that there is a separate Big Pants Mouse website: http://www.bigpantsmouse.com/home.html – for some reason I cannot find a link to Dumm Comics from that site

    Also I really liked the 1930s Nightmare Theater comic posted in this thread. It highlights really obvious, but easily forgotten rules regarding human contact.

  4. Thanks for the link, Vixx! Those are rather interesting comics Gabe puts on his Big Pants Mouse site: some hybrid between a comic and a flash cartoon. While I still think it would work best if it was 100% a cartoon (and Big Pants Mouse really really really wants to be a cartoon), I think that the comic/cartoon stuff works much better than his regular strips, mainly because Gabe is allowed to communicated the character movement much better.

  5. I also found that the author released printed Big Pants Mouse comics in the Los Angeles area starting in 2002: http://www.bigpantsmouse.com/news/index.html

    And this shows a preview of Issue #2: http://www.bigpantsmouse.com/news/comictwo.html

    I am not sure exactly how many copies are available…

    I am also finding more material in the archives of the website: http://web.archive.org/web/*/http://www.bigpantsmouse.com/home.html

  6. Don’t be hatin’ on Big Pants Mouse!

  7. BTW, have you seen Mode 7? It’s Gabe Swarr’s other comic series: http://www.bigpantsmouse.com/mode7/index.html

  8. Like to watch Stargate Atlantis episodes and also Lost. I found your blog on google and read a few of your other posts. I just added you to my Google News Reader. Look forward to reading more from you in the future.

  9. BTW, 1930s Nightmare Theater is now on three times per week. It seems to be the most successful of the ones remaining. Because the lineup changed, I wonder if a followup review would be interesting.

    • I guess a follow-up is possible. It was my favorite out of the Dumm Comics line-up.

      • Just recently 1930s is back to two times a week. The lineup has changed so much that now it’s just Nightmare and Skadi out of the original ones.

        Also, based on reader input, the strip getting the most critical flak is “Rad Raz” (Saturdays)

  10. Ricky Garduno, author of 1930s Nightmare Theater, has passed away
    http://dummcomics.com/2011/12/07/ricky/

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