Repeat to yourself, “It’s just a comic; I should really just relax,” because there are spoilers ahead for…
Mystery Science Theater 3000 #1
Writer: Joel Hodgson, Harold Buchholz, Matt McGinnis, Mary Robinson, Seth Robinson, Sharyl Volpe
Artist: Todd Nauck, Mike Manley
Cover: Todd Nauck
TURN DOWN YOUR LIGHTS (Where applicable)
If you’ve ever read one of my Spotlight Sunday posts, you know that there’s bound to be some rambling anecdote about my youth that is connected – often loosely – to the subject of the post before I ever get around to writing about the subject, and you won’t be surprised to learn that this post is no exception, particularly given that it’s an instance of something that’s been a part of my life for nearly thirty years mingling with something that’s been part of my life for more than forty.
Today’s ramblings take us back to the 1989…but not until after we go back a bit further than that to one evening earlier in the 1980s and a broadcast of the CBS Evening News. I would guess that it was at least 1981, as I believe Dan Rather had taken over as anchor by that time. The news on that particular evening – I was most likely half-watching it while waiting to watch whatever was on after that – had an “in lighter news” kind of segment focusing on what was deemed to be one of the worst movies of all time, a real stinker of a science fiction Grade Z movie from 1953 entitled Robot Monster.
The image of the movies titular monster, a man wearing a gorilla costume and an old-fashioned diver’s helmet with rabbit ear antennas on top of it and a clay mask behind the helmet’s glass that was apparently intended to look like a skull (it didn’t), burned its way into my memory, and was still in place however many years later when 1989 rolled around.
Then, as now, I didn’t really watch a lot of TV. We had gotten a satellite dish a couple of years earlier – the big, old-fashioned kind – so there finally more options than just the one channel we could consistently pull in with our old antenna, but we had also just moved back into the house after completing the post-fire renovations, and I had moved into my moody teen years, and for the first time in a long time I had an actual room of my own, one that I didn’t have to share with one or both of my brothers, and that wasn’t a tiny claustrophobic space like my room in the trailer we’d been living in.
My room had my books, my comics, my drawing table, and my music; why did I need TV?
Still, one Saturday afternoon found me with the house to myself, and I decided to turn on the TV to see what was on. I tuned in to the Comedy Channel – this was in the days before comedy was centralized – thinking that maybe one of the Monty Python movies would be on or something, and there, on the screen, was the be-helmeted gorilla I recalled from years earlier.
“Hey,” I said to myself, “it’s that movie!”
But it wasn’t just the movie; there were people talking over it, making jokes and funny comments about what was happening on screen. I immediately twigged to the basic concept, but I was confused about the weird little silhouettes at the bottom of the screen.
I had, of course, stumbled upon Mystery Science Theater 3000, but given that I was catching the tail-end – literally: it was the bit in the movie with the stock footage of lizards fighting each other, or as Crow T. Robot (I later learned) put it, “Gecko-Roman wrestling” – so I hadn’t caught the helpfully-expository opening credits.
Still, I was instantly hooked, and became a regular viewer for years to come. (Although there was the dark period in my life – in college, mostly – during which I didn’t get to see it, because the Comedy Channel/Comedy Central wasn’t part of any cable package where I lived.)
While I may not be the most devoted fan, I’ve seen most of the “experiments,” and have followed it to its various homes on its path from the Comedy Channel to Netflix, and now to…comics?
It’s a strange proposition indeed, but, I would contend, no stranger than my initial, contextless exposure to the show all those years ago.
So how well does it make the transition from screen to page? That’s what we’re here to find out, isn’t it?
(Sirens and flashing lights) WE’VE GOT COMICS SIGN!
First, the set-up, which is helpfully explained, albeit without the catchy tune, as the comic opens. Kinga Forrester has developed a method to allow people – and bots – to experience being inside a comic book, thanks to her “Bubulat-r.”
After performing her test run with her assistant Max – AKA TV’s Son of TV’s Frank – Kinga sends the bubbles up to the Satellite of Love to trap Jonah and the bots in the comic Johnny Jason, Teen Reporter, a comic from the 1960s put out by the long-defunct publisher Dell, that is in the public domain.
While Jonah and the others attempt, in vain, to avoid capture, Tom Servo wants to be in the comic, and dives on in.
Once inside, he takes on the role of the protagonist – the original art is modified so that Tom’s head is on Johnny’s body – and it becomes Tom Servo, Teen Reporter.
Gypsy, M. Waverly, and Growler land in different parts of the comic, but we don’t see where Jonah and Crow end up.
The story of the comic within the comic opens with a failed attempt at kidnapping a young starlet, which many believe was merely a publicity stunt. Tom, as a teen reporter, is tasked with finding the truth, and heads to the young starlet’s ranch to get to the bottom of it.
While visiting the ranch, Tom runs afoul of the ranch foreman, who is obviously jealous of the gumball-machine-headed reporter, but later becomes the life of the swingin’ teen party that breaks out that evening – at least he does after Kinga and Max pop in as part of the “ad trap” to incorporate their Totino’s Pizza Roll sponsorship to replace Tom’s head with a bowl filled with delicious Pizza Rolls – but runs afoul of someone once again.
After coming out on top in that altercation, it’s clear that the starlet is quite fond of Tom, and Tom is pleased that things are finally going his way.
Throughout the comic, a quick shot of a bot gives you a clue as to who’s doing the riffing, though there are still times during which it’s unclear who’s saying what, given that Tom himself is injecting his own commentary.
Still, it’s a fun idea, and a clever conceit for riffing a comic story, which has an obvious appeal for someone like me who is a fan of both comics and smartass commentary, and there is a lot to comment on in any given comic, between the story, the dialogue, the art, and comic book storytelling-conventions.
It would be fun to see this continue beyond the initial mini-series and expand to include crossovers with some of the bigger publishers. Imagine the possibilities of adding some riffing commentary to classic comics.
There’s not too much to say about the art – and the comic itself says some of those things – but the original comic has the perfectly-competent, if bland, style of the comics of its era, Todd Nauck handles the host segment art characteristically well, and Mike Manley inserts the new elements into the existing comic art as seamlessly as possible. I also like that the printing creates the illusion of aging and yellowing, even though the comic is printed on relatively high-quality glossy paper.
The one weakness of the format is that if a joke doesn’t land it just sits there on the page, not as readily-forgotten as it might be with the dynamic flow of movie riffing. Fortunately, there aren’t too many instances of that.
Overall, it was a fun little comic, I look forward to seeing what comes next and finding out where Jonah and Crow ended up, and it’s something to tide fans over until the new season drops.
You can check out the ashcan preview of the comic for yourself by following the link in the issue details above.
What do you think, sirs?
That does it for the Spotlight for this week. Be sure to come back next week to see what it shines upon.
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