Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Comics Page #23: DC Showcase Presents Ambush Bug

Ambush Bug cover and Amazon link
Comedy superhero books have an unfortunate habit of not lasting very long, so those of us who appreciate the genre tend to treasure the ones that come down the pike. To call Ambush Bug a superhero would maybe be inaccurate, and he’s only briefly a supervillain, but he’s the DC Universe’s silliest resident and primary deconstructionist, and while his current miniseries languishes in publishing limbo just shy of its final issue, it’s as good a time as any to enjoy DC’s comprehensive showcase collection of his earlier misadventures. Created by Keith Giffen, and given dialogue by Robert Loren Fleming, Ambush Bug can be seen here quickly evolving from a mildly interesting supervillain concept to a character whose very existence seems to threaten the tenuous nature of comic book continuity itself.

Ambush Bug first popped up in DC COMICS PRESENTS in the early 80s, during a bit of a doldrums for the company. The Bronze Age was slowly moving towards a close and a bunch of characters and concepts were on the verge of being retconned by CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS, and in this bleh period the green suited bug first pops up to menace Superman and the then-new Doom Patrol, murdering a Metropolis D.A. just to establish his villainy and popping around town thanks to a miniature robot bug teleportation network (and that idea makes a lot more sense in context.) He gets away and causes trouble later for the Legion of Substitute Heroes and Supergirl (who he thinks is Superman, just looking a bit different) before starting to work as an independent hero type and slowly drifting out of normal continuity as we know it, into a succession of miniseries and specials.

Ambush Bug’s actual origin story involves a suit sent from a doomed planet in a rocket that was later bitten by a radioactive spider, before ending up in the hands of Irvin Schwab, who was raised by a solid-state television set. Or maybe not- later he insists that his secret origin is just that, secret, and you aren’t ever gonna hear it. Whatever he is, wherever he comes from, the Bug can go anywhere he pleases, and with his loyal sidekick Cheeks, the Toy Wonder (don’t ask) he confronts discontinuity, giant Koalas, editor Julius Schwartz, an evil sock, and... *gasp*... DARKSEID!

Silliness doesn’t begin to describe it. To say that Giffen did the plotting for Ambush Bug (at least after he came into his own as a character- Paul Kupperberg wrote the Doom Patrol and Supergirl stories) implies that there’s plot, which is a half truth at best. Oh, there’s usually a pretense of a story, but Giffen and Fleming frequently get bored and digress into side gags like puppetry, art lessons, recipes for teriyaki burgers, data sheets (of the DC and Playboy variety), Cheeks as a combat medic, the adventures of Ambush Bug’s magna counterpart Mitsu-Bishi, the list goes on.

Most of the humor comes from satirizing comic trends, specifically DC’s attempts to present a coherent and serious universe in light of decades of pure silliness. Its efforts are personified by Jonni DC, the continuity cop who is turned from a personified DC logo into a disturbingly curvy woman due to the efforts of the Interferer, who revises and reboots comic characters at a whim. As inside-baseball as it sometimes seems, Giffen and Fleming’s satire is sharp and engaging, and Giffen’s uniquely scratchy art style matches the material pretty well.

In some ways the collection is a mixed bag, with a few almost normal superhero stories preceding a slide into absolute insanity. I actually enjoyed the early appearances just as a look at what DC was like in the early 80s, and it’s fascinating to see how Ambush Bug developed from a mildly humorous villain concept to a pure comedy figure. There’s some really brilliant stuff here, and some stuff I don’t understand at all, and the occasional moment that’s almost moving (Cheeks is nothing if not sympathetic.) Definitely worth having around and dipping into now and then, if only as a reminder that good comic books don’t necessarily have to make sense.

Grade: A-


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