Journey back to the recent past—when alt-weekly newspapers a) thrived and b) had comics. In the 1980s, ‘90s and early 2000s, alt-weekly comics were an embarrassment of riches. The honor roll includes Doug Allen, Lynda Barry, Mark Newgarden, Kaz, Tony Millionaire, Smell of Steve Inc. and Ruben Bolling, whose weekly panel Tom the Dancing Bug gave its readers, once a month, a dense, meta-parodic-random assemblage called “Super Fun-Pak Comix.” These strips were always an “oh boy!” moment when found in the pages of your friendly neighborhood weekly.
They were, like classic roots music and ‘50s TV shows, never intended to be read en masse. “Super Fun-Pak Comix” held its impact by occasional appearance. This chronological reprint of the feature, which spans 30 years, is best absorbed three or four pages at a time. At its finest, the four to six separate strips on each page ricochet off each other, themselves and anything else that happens to be in the way. Certain recurring elements wear thin their welcome over time; other characters and concepts are distinguished by their rarity.
Bolling seems, with this feature, to be a magpie of what was going on in alt-weekly comics pages and alternative comic books. Many moments show the perhaps unconscious influence of Mark Newgarden (gag panel cartoons with prolix captions), Smell of Steve, Inc. (the use of Phil Collins and other celebrities to absurd ends), Daniel Clowes and Ivan Brunetti (shared tendencies towards bitter satire and morbid outcomes). There’s never a moment where the reader cries out “hey, wait a minute,” but it seems evident that Bolling took notice of others’ work—or, in a paradox akin to the off-kilter humor seen in these strips, came to the same creative conclusions on his own.
The first Super Fun-Pak page, published October 21, 1997, ends with a strip that sets the feature’s tone—that there is no tone except absurdity and our willingness to deal with it. In the “Mr. Wisdom Face” strip, a young traveler asks the titular sage, “What is humor?” The sage replies: “Humor is identical cousins.” The strip further expounds on this thesis, but that’s an apt summing-up of Bolling’s wit. His jokes and concepts are mirror-images, near-misses and Gordian knots.
Bolling’s best ideas are funny because they twist banality against itself. Among a plethora of super-hero spoofs is “Garry Winton-Man” (9/6/2010). This most subtractive of satires boils the banality of 1950s and ‘60s Superman stories into three inspired panels. It’s an admirable model of satire that sums up its subject with brutal brevity and laugh-out-loud humor.
The strip “Robot” (1/1/2007) delivers a similar three-frame blitz as it lays to waste serious SF stories about the laws of robotics. Its punchline, a marvel of reductive reasoning, is unexpectedly poignant.
Bolling juggles myriad concepts in the strip’s run, and some of them are bound to lose their luster or fall flat. He carried on the “Marital Mirth” feature a bit too long. This brutal reimagining of “The Lockhorns” has brilliant moments early in its life but becomes as mechanical as the strip it mocks. Ditto for “Dinkle, the Unlovable Loser,” which was done better by Smell of Steve, Inc. as “Ziggy With a Hat” years before. I am no fan of “The Ghost of James Caan,” a finite concept that Bolling chose to run with for far too long. Among Bolling’s skills is an ability to mine an idea for any variation. That seems to be his prime self-challenge: “How many times can I make ________ work?”
“Percival Dunwoody, Idiot Time Traveler from 1909” is a high-functioning bit that feels like an ongoing Saturday Night Live sketch. SNL would have run it into the ground, and Bolling almost does with lesser entries. When his humor-vision is keenest, the temporal twists and genre shattering of the “Dunwoody” series are rewarding. Bolling thought enough of Dunwoody to make him the book’s mascot. On the cover he’s seen reading the book he’s in. Behind him, a window reveals a doomsday landscape: the world as charred ruin.
Ruben Bolling shines when he isn’t using celebrities or overt parodies to make comedy. He can sum up the median dumbness of a genre without a specific target. His connection with the gleeful idiocy of pop culture, and how easy it is to turn it on itself, creates many great moments throughout this collection. As a post-script, Bolling isolates the pages that appeared after 9/11 and the election of POTUS 45—traumatic milestones of the 21st century to date. It reminds the reader of the dark edges of Bolling’s humor, which is wielded towards politics and current events in the non-“Super Fun-Pak” episodes.
Bolling’s cartooning has appeal but is always in service of his ideas. He has the gag cartoonist’s skill of suggesting a setting or mood without painting a detailed picture. His humor depends on this quick-sketch approach to drawing, and our eyes glide across his simple contour drawings as we take in his skewered comedic notions.
This website-exclusive book is a great treasury of wild, often-brilliant humor and a record of life in America as the optimistic 1990s turned into the iffy 2000s and iffier 2010s. It’s well worth acquiring; but remember—a little dab’ll do ya.