Illustrated by Roger Langridge
Long before he was the brains behind two great Boom! properties, The Muppet Show and Snarked!, Roger Langridge was an indie cartoonist with a whole host of ideas and concepts. Some of those find their way between the covers of this collection from Boom! Studios, which is a grouping of "orphans" (as described by Langridge) ranging from everything from a vaudeville act haunted by their past to a skewering of superhero comics to over-the-top samurai fighting. The action is a mile a minute, because regardless of the cartoon, The Show Must Go On!
It doesn't take long to see just how Langridge got the job writing the Muppet Show, as the highlight of this collection is the open set of stories featuring Mugwhump the Great and his partner, a talking ventriloquist's dummy named Billy Woodentop. They're part of a show that has all sorts of misfits and acts that go horribly, comically wrong. But the jokes are just the window dressing on a more sinister plot that involves a classic theatrical relationship gone horribly wrong, with poor Bill caught in the middle. Filled with tons of action, sarcastic remarks, and bad jokes (along with vehicular homicide in the name of humanity), this part of the book was the highlight of the collection for me. Langridge said in his introduction that there are more Mugwhump stories in his head, and I certainly hope that's true.
From start to finish, this was an excellent story that is both comic and tragic at the same time. For every time we laugh at the antics of Billy and Mugwhump, we can also feel an emotional pull, as the two friends struggle with their changed reality. The plot is actually remarkably complex for what appears to be a romp, showing that even in the silly, there can be significant craft (a concept that is strongly present in Snarked! as well.)
Next up and scattered throughout are the philosophical adventures of Frankenstein and Shirley Temple, an odd pairing if there ever was one. Walking through a series of different worlds, they talk about world views that range from the serene to the cynical. It's quite a change of pace for Langridge, and reminds me more of someone like James Kochalka.
Also mixed in are a scientist (Dr. Sputnik) and his companion (Spud), who is designed to look like an animated potato. They have neo-1950s science adventures, with as much trademark skewering as Langridge can manage. I think my favorite is when Dr. Sputnik is faced with the danger of Queen Zelda, in a great nod to the fear of women found in "boys adventure" stories. These are more lighthearted romps than Mugwhump, but were also a highlight of the book for me.
A third recurring character, Jack Shit, the devil, did not do a lot for me. I found his adventures less interesting than any of the others in the book, with the jokes falling flat, at least for me. It was by far worst sections of the book, save for the one-shot Rave of the Livid Dead, which I did not care for at all. I think these stories, which seem to be going after particular culture points, are a bit dated in time. They also seem to veer off randomly down tangents. Not all comedic comics are going to work for all people, however, so it's entirely possible what were weak spots for me might end up being favorites for you.
Gordon Rennie helps out with two features that take up most of the center of the book, The Kabuki Kid and Dr. Spin. The former is about a murderous samurai whose companion is a radical Maoist. They cleave a path through everything from corporate culture to consumerism to the entertainment industry, in a manner that reminds me quite a bit of Groo. The jokes are a bit less subtle, but Langridge can match Aragones step for step in visual gags and satire, as we see everything up to and including a Godzilla robot. The panels have an insane amount of detail that takes time to work your way through, and by the end, regardless of the amount of destruction, it's a fun time to be had by all--except those killed, of course. Also, did I mention the whole thing is tied in to Spaghetti Westerns, linking them back to their story roots? This was another enjoyable part of the collection, and I think most people will find it to be their highlight, because of easy access into the material being ridiculed.
Dr. Spin was my second favorite storyline, but I am a special case since the topic on the skewer are superhero comic books, a part of my life for over thirty years now. It was easy for me to pick up every single reference Rennie and Langridge come up with here, which might not be true for most readers. If you are a fan of comics, everything from Silver Age covers to the insanity of alternate realities to the Batcave to extreme character makeovers (a popular topic when making fun of capes comics) are featured here. Once again, Langridge's art bobs and weaves its way across the frantic pages, with countless details that you can spend hours scanning for little details. (See if you can spot Tin Tin in a cameo role.) Rennie's script shows his understanding of comics complexities and is filled with nods, winks, and barbs at just about anyone who's ever put together a superhero script. I absolutely love the plot of this one, as Dr. Spin must find out why all of comic reality is going wrong (with a visual aid from Langridge that is a credit to his genius as a storyteller) and solve the problem in the most convoluted way possible. From continuity limbo to an ending that is elegant in its simplicity, Dr. Spin should be a joy to read for anyone who ever wanted to travel the multiverse.
The Show Must Go On inevitably comes to an end, but as Langridge notes in the introduction, these characters are his (and Rennie's) and therefore, may have future lives. The beauty of self-creation lies in the freedom to do whatever you want, and it shows here, again and again. Not everything is a winner, but so much of it is so excellent that this is a must-read for any humor comic fan. You want there to be a curtain call as soon as possible.