LNH/META: A Silly, Lighthearted Place
milos_parker at yahoo.com
Mon Aug 14 07:49:23 PDT 2006
A SILLY, LIGHTHEARTED PLACE
I've been with the LNH for a good ten years now,
and because of that it becomes easy for me to forget
how sublimely weird it is. To explain, just follow
these three easy steps:
(1) Read the recently collected "A Devil Came Down
to Georgia" storyline by Saxon Brenton.
(2) Try to provide a plot summary to someone who
_isn't_ involved with the LNH.
(3) Try to explain to them that it isn't exactly a
comedy. That it's about demonic socks, but that the
sock isn't particularly funny: he's nasty and
Sure, the idea is funny when you stop and think
about it, but I think both the writer and the reader
are done tittering by the time Damian the Wondersock
arranges for one of his "meat puppets" to get AIDS.
(Certainly by the time he forces another to consume
What we're talking about then, is tonal shifts, and
they're something that's part-and-parcel of both the
superhero genre and the LNH.
The first superheroes were mish-mashes. Superman's
creators, for example, borrowed liberally from such
adventure tales as Phillip Wylie's GLADIATOR and Edgar
Rice Burroughs's JOHN CARTER, as well as the
burgeoning field of "scientifiction". Superman is
also a man of his time, an invulnerable man created
during the Great Depression, when no one felt safe.
He was also a personal character, an avatar with which
Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster could act out their
righteous liberal anger.
There's a lot of different elements here, and
really, I think they were just throwing stuff at a
wall to see what stuck. As time went on, the rough
edges were smoothed out and synthesized. Superman
became a champion of justice as opposed to the
obnoxious and severe crusader of the Golden Age. His
incredible powers increased, and his sometimes
surprisingly nasty relationship with Lois Lane was
smoothed out into the beautiful and quaint romcom we
know and love.
Come the Silver Age, there were many kinds of
Superman (and superhero) stories. The Lois Lane
situation comedy stories were markedly different from
the Bizarro stories, though both were often funny and
peerlessly inventive; Lex Luthor stories were seldom
amusing, and most Imaginary Stories were bleak, blunt
instruments delivering terrible, stinging blows. The
"what next" variety of story-- in which Superman finds
himself in a contrived situation and has to come up
with an even more contrived solution-- had their own,
more cerebral pleasures (within the confines of its
sometimes screwy logic).
Sometimes, you would find three very different
kinds of stories within the pages of SUPERMAN, and
perhaps this month's leading story in ACTION COMICS
would be a different animal still. And, you know
what? It worked. No one complained that Bizarro's
appearance in ACTION COMICS upset the tone of the Lex
Luthor story in the previous issue, or that the next
month's battle of wits between Clark Kent and a myna
bird undermined the mythos of Superman.
The glue that held these stories together, that
made them work, and that reconciled their divergent
tones was the universe: the world of Superman was big
enough to contain all these people and their stories.
And they were separate stories. Binder, Siegel,
Coleman, et al knew this.
They weren't pretending that they were telling one
big continuing story. (For one thing, a story has to
have a beginning, middle, and an end.) They were
creating thirteen and eight-page interlocking
masterpieces, a cycle of stories that each, in some
way, contributed to Superman's world. And since they
were different, self-contained stories, each with
their own unique slant on Superman, they could be
quite tonally diverse.
This is why shared universes work best if
continuity is a bit loose. Keep it tight enough where
you get the benefits of it-- the guest appearances,
the movement of one plotline into another-- but keep
it loose enough so that one book doesn't impinge on
One of my all-time favourite characters in the
Marvel Universe is Slapstick: he's an absolutely
terrific character. But a lot of fans really hate
him, they feel that he has no place in the same
universe as Thor and Spider-Man, that he lacks the
proper gravitas, that he detracts from its realism.
I argue that Slapstick is essential to the
verisimilitude of the Marvel Universe. After all, our
own earth is big enough to contain both George W. Bush
and Uwe Boll, Mike the Headless Chicken and the
Shakers, David Blaine and Hans Christian Anderson.
And these people expect me to believe that in a
universe full of superheroes and gods, monsters and
magic, that every person in that universe would be
iconic and awesome?
You see, their problem is that they see the Marvel
Universe (or the DC Universe for that matter) as one
big story, and yes, in general, a character like
Slapstick shouldn't be in a story about Thanos, for
example. I think that's why they love crossovers so
much: it reinforces this idea in the worst possible
way. I certainly can't think of any other reason to
pluck down dozens of dollars to read rushed,
over-populated and tentatively-linked comic books
whose own identities have been hi-jacked by the
necessary vulgarities of The Company Wide Crossover.
But the Universe itself isn't one big story: the
Universe is the link between the stories, it's the
anthology, it's the setting. And I think a Universe
is big enough to contain a number of different tones
(hell, I think a life is big enough to contain a
number of different tones, and I personally would like
to see Superman fight another myna bird sometime
Now, of course, some fictional universes are
more-or-less defined by an overriding tone, and this
creates some problematic and interesting results. The
LNH is one of these universes: it is, first and
foremost and after all is said and done, a profoundly
The LNH started as a joke, as role-playing, as
parodies and bad puns. As time progressed, stories
took shape. Some were funny, some were lame, but for
the most part, they were humourously intended or were
parodies of existing storylines.
But as the LNH evolved, you had more and more
serious writers penning serious stories-- serious
stories about people named Cheesecake-Eater Lad and
Super Apathy Lad. Look at PARTICLE MAN ANNUAL # 1,
which Arthur Spitzer brought to my attention. It is,
essentially, a shaggy dog story, the whole story
builds until the cabbie gets the girl, starts a rental
car agency, and sends Boy Lad a letter signed "Love
Hertz". The whole story's really there to support
And yet, there's something sad about that pun, it's
almost a cruel joke on Boy Lad and it magnifies his
pain a hundred fold, pain that's been built into the
preceding text. If it is a shaggy dog story, than
it's a sad one, it's one with heart.
To me, that's the best kind of serious LNH story:
one that takes a very silly place very seriously, one
that treats the very silly people who populate it as
real human beings that merit our attention and
"Thanks, I think," Mike replied. "Y'know,"
he added as he turned to go, "I thought this
was supposed to be a silly, lighthearted place,
"It is," Kat replied after Mike had closed
the door and left. "Which makes the tragedies
all the more painful by contrast..."
--from DVANDOM FORCE # 61, Dave Van Domelen
Saxon Brenton's "A Devil Came Down to Georgia"
takes place in our sister reality, LNHY, but it still
stands as a perfect example of this contrast. Not
only does it take inherently silly concepts seriously
and extrapolate from them, but it also takes them at
face value, as inherently silly concepts.
The main focus of the story is on Martin (a
seminary student) and T. J. (an atheist). Martin, it
turns out, is both a Nephilim (or Teenage Giant
Halfbreed Angels) and a Benandanti (or Astrally
Traveling Werewolf Crusader), something which makes
him obscenely powerful and the target of a number of
demonic beings (including the aforementioned
Wondersock). Basically, the story is a work of high
fantasy filtered through religious and apocryphal
influences. Saint Christopher, the Devil, and Jesus
even turn up (at least, their LNHY counterparts, which
are slightly skewed).
On the one hand, this is pretty heavy stuff:
Martin's life if not his soul is at stake. On the
other hand, he _is_ being stalked by a hunk of demonic
wool. And Saxon never lets us forget that, yes,
Damian is a sock. Not an evil suit, not an evil hat,
not even an evil shoe. But a sock.
[He] was forced to wear some human or other's
foot in order to properly mind control the weak-
willed sacks of meat into carrying him. Some
stinky, unwashed, tinea-infected human foot.
Yurghh. It was enough to make you want to retch,
even if, like Damian, you didn't have a stomach
to retch with.
Looking at the above quotation from the first
chapter of A DEVIL, I'm struck both by how funny it
is-- something about that last sentence makes me start
tittering-- and by how much of Damian's rather nasty
temperament comes through. "Weak-willed sacks of
meat" is a pretty nasty turn of phrase, while "stinky,
unwashed, tinea-infected human foot" is kind of goofy.
(I think that's the inherently funny word "stinky",
which doesn't have the same oomph as, say, noxious.)
And the detail about Damian's lack of stomach/desire
to retch is at once funny, a keen extrapolation, and
As the story progresses, Damian is less and less
funny, and more and more, well, evil. This is when
the fantasy aspects of the story shift into high gear:
Damian allies himself with some other demons and
Martin discovers the truth of his heritage from a
dog-headed Saint Christopher. And as we prepare for
the coming battle, enter: Banjo Dueling Kangaroos!
The entrance of these ludicrous marsupials is at
such a right turn to the steady progression of a
serious plot that people unaccustomed to the LNH and
its splinter realities might be thrown off by it.
And, yes, it is a bit jarring: that's the point, like
the ending of a shaggy dog story.
Edward de Bono theorizes that the brain likes
patterns, and when something disrupts that pattern--
when A moves to Q instead of B-- laughter occurs. In
a way, then, one could look at a huge chunk of A DEVIL
as the set-up, with the Banjo-Dueling Kangaroos
providing a punchline.
This observation isn't meant to denigrate the good
and interesting storytelling of A DEVIL, but rather to
throw into focus a point I made earlier regarding
PARTICLE MAN ANNUAL # 1: the truly great serious LNH
stories function both as serious stories and as jokes.
In fact, while there are a number of tonal shifts
in A DEVIL, there are two big and unexpected shifts
from drama to comedy and back again that each come at
the end of the two halves of a story. The appearance
of the Kangaroos marks the mid-point, while the
appearance of Jesus gives us the story's climax. In
the LNHY reality, Christ is known by the elongated
handle of Jesus the, Like, Totally Mellow Son.
Which, if I might digress for a moment, brings up
another thing that separates the LNH from just about
any other universe, amateur and professional: the
really, really, really long names. Like
Anything-You-Can-Do-I-Can-Do-Better Lad, or Adamant
Authority on Everything. I'm not really sure where it
started, but it's another thing that makes us unique.
Our heroes are in hell, duking it out with the
baddies, when Jesus the, Like, Totally Mellow Son
appears. This, then, is Jesus-as-Hippie, which is
more to my liking than Religious Right
Vengeance-Apocalypse Jesus, and certainly a nicer guy
than the Jesus in the regular LNH timeline. (Hi
When the LNHY Jesus comes into the picture, things
do get a little bit loopy: after all, He celebrates
their victory by sharing a marijuana joint with T. J.
the atheist. At the same time, the grand battle
between good and evil *does* function as a grand
battle between good and evil, making the climax both
amusing _and_ a satisfying climax to the story.
Another thing that's interesting about A DEVIL CAME
DOWN TO GEORGIA, the LNH, and Saxon's writing in
particular is, of course, the fourth wall.
One of the standard uses of fourth wall breaking
is, of course, to make the audience laugh. And some
writers, like Martin Phipps, use it in a more personal
vein, extrapolating moral consequences and insights
from the relationship between authors and their
fictional creations. Saxon, on the other hand,
primarily uses it to educate, to give us vital plot
information, to world-build.
More than once in his body of work, he'll stop the
story cold in its tracks to expound upon the history
of this particular reality, and how it differs from
both our reality and other RACC universes. Nine times
out of ten, this would be bad writing. In any
semi-serious fantasy novel, it would cause the reader
But in the LNH continuities, and particularly in
Saxon's hands, it works. There's something almost
colloquial about the way he stops the story to give us
some plot dump. (It certainly helps that these bits
of world-building are always interesting.)
And I think, written as it may be, the LNH has a
lot to owe to oral storytelling traditions. While
some of the great LNH writing (for example, MISFITS)
have always twinkled with precise prose, the stories
one is more likely to reread fairly often are less
formally consistent. The author will intrude with an
aside, the way a friend will when telling a story.
Things will start or stop when new information needs
to be imparted. And the truly great true stories
often have wildly divergent shifts in tone, and one of
the pleasures of listening to another person spin you
a tale is that spin, the plot twists and unbelievable
this-really-happened quality, the "it's funny now, but
I was scared shitless", and the sheer enthusiasm of
And these are the stories, both serious and goofy,
that are more LNH-like than the Deadly Serious Ones.
Because they understand that an LNH story is vastly
different from any other kind of story, and they
embrace that, joyfully, openly. They flaunt the
fourth wall, they give their characters silly names,
and they still take them seriously.
What they know that the others don't is that, as
Kat said after she found herself quite alone, it's the
silly parts that make the tragedies all the more
painful by contrast.
*** Big thanks, by the way, to Saxon for finding the
DVANDOM FORCE quote. :-)
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