Humor is one of the trickiest of human endeavors. A person can spend a lifetime attempting to perfect a particular comedic style and fail miserably. Perhaps there’s nothing wrong with the jokes they’ve written; it could be the delivery, or the way a butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazon Rainforest. Comedy is a mystery. To add insult to injury, some people complicate matters even further by choosing the comics medium, with its fickle audience and unique artistic demands, for their humorous creative outlet. Such a brave soul is Brandon Lehmann and he has lived to tell about it - and create some of the best work out there in contemporary comics.
Part of solving the mystery of what is funny, or not, is through persistent effort. Stand-up comedians go out on stage night after night. Cartoonists present their comics as zines at one comics art festival after another, or on post after post on social media. I asked Lehman what his secret is and he said: “My standard joke is that every time I sit down to draw a comic, I'm like a stand-up comedian preparing for an open mic night. The only difference is that my untested joke takes 20+ hours of work to know whether or not it's a bomb. After 12 years, I think I've gotten better at predicting what will succeed without spending all that time.”
Lehmann has earned himself a loyal following. He has cultivated his own signature style in work that has been collected in such titles as Womp Womp (two issues, 2018-19) and The Wizard (collected 2022). His latest book, G-G-G Ghost Stories, collecting seven previously-published comics, brings together his interests in otherworldly themes with a focus on horror, specifically what is known as dark fantasy. There’s also an absurd surreal quality at play here. In this arena, the reader roots for the werewolf and the vampire.
What makes for a successful work in comics involves timing and pacing, along with characters and composition. If anything is out of place, or not executed in just the right way, it will suffer. Sometimes this can be forgiven, depending upon the subject. But all bets are off when it comes to humor. Lehmann succeeds through self-awareness and dedication to craft. For example, consider one of the stories included here, “The Werewolf Expert”. At 20 pages, this is one of the longer works in the collection, but it reads so smoothly that I could have read another 100 pages about a guy who thinks he might be a werewolf.
The story is presented in a four-panel page format, which Lehmann usually employs, as it most favors displays of comedic timing. Right away, on the first page, in the first panel, you have an absurd image of a clueless guy wearing some strange belt looking out at a vast warehouse, airplane hangar-sized, stocked to the brim with books. Very next panel: he pivots to his left and taps the shoulder of a salesperson in an apron and asks him what he knows about werewolves. In the third panel, the bookstore clerk is laying out the fact he’s no expert, and it’s his first day on the job, but he’d be glad to help. And, in panel four, the premise is locked in place when the clerk begins his search by asking the customer if there was a particular author he was looking for. This exchange is part of a whole brick-and-mortar retail suburban mall culture we are not yet ready to completely say goodbye to, as it offers some form of human connection, no matter how limited.
But it's not enough that we've got a customer who thinks he's a werewolf. The clerk, who just started working at the bookstore, happens to know an extraordinary amount of werewolf lore. It turns out that special knowledge was part of his bookstore training. As Lehmann pointed out to me, this gag is playing off a trope in horror movies where there's always a most unlikely person who just happens to know everything on how to deal with the supernatural. Lehmann knows which strings to pull, right down to bringing in Carol, the assistant manager. When in doubt, staff always turn to their supervisors, right? Carol is an older day worker who is hip to youthful slang and who miraculously can answer questions that the newbies simply haven’t had the opportunity to master. She’s a seasoned professional who not only provides valuable information, but knows when and how to insert the sales pitch that was painstakingly approved at the last meeting back at corporate headquarters, such as pushing in-store exorcisms - free with the purchase of any book. Lehmann’s satire on megastores works so well because we, as readers, instantly recognize the tropes: the tables overflowing with mountains of books; the clerks running around in aprons; the overly polite banter; the high ceilings and fluorescent lights. Who wouldn’t want to buy a latte at the in-store café and spend the whole day in this environment? The monotonous hum of activity is not for everyone, but on a rainy day and if you’re cramming for midterms, it could very well be paradise.
Lehmann’s humor, as I’ve suggested, not only relies upon well-crafted writing, but on finely-honed placement of images. Lehmann’s artwork perfectly aligns with his vision: a strange and uncanny world limping along and hopelessly disconnected. This is at the crux of contemporary horror, perfected by such notable novelists as Stephen King and Peter Straub. I put the question to Lehman regarding his approach and he shared three comic artists that influence him: “I love both horror and comedy and they actually have a very similar premise: setup, punchline/scare. The marriage of the two hasn't really been done very often. Without trying to say I'm anywhere near their level of mastery, I was really inspired by taking the absurdist comedy of Michael Kupperman and mashing it up with the great horror pacing of Junji Itō. I'm also a huge fan of Nick Maandag, who is amazing at taking a comedy premise and escalating to an extremely hilarious payoff.”
With that in mind, I feel confident in saying that Lehmann’s visual approach is really a genius move. He reduces everything to broad characters that still manage to have a distinctive style. They could originate on a cereal box - what he’s going for is a generic look, while also evoking a weird and unsettling vibe. The results are hilarious. The characters retain a certain specificity while clearly meant to be enjoyed as devices in a highly artificial process. When it’s done right, it’s truly a thing to marvel - and to make you laugh.