Friday, July 25, 2008

Ambush Bug: Year None # 1 Review

After a sixteen year absence, Ambush Bug is back in his own title! For many comics fans, the Bug is a favourite character. However, despite all the fond memories, he's never quite hit the big time. Perhaps the sales weren't there for his previous starring vehicles, or perhaps the powers that be at DC decided he works better in small, occasional doses (they may be right). Since 1992's Nothing Special, he's been relegated to cameos, some of which can't even really be considered appearances by the character (like showing up as a stuffed doll in Young Justice).

Ambush Bug was unique in comics. He talked to the audience (and the book's creative team), gleefully ignored continuity and consistency, openly mocked the more embarrassing characters from DC's history, and was prone to solving problems by such methods as going back to an earlier page of the book. Why? Because it was funny, that's why.

Now, after a few toe-in-the-water guest appearances over the last couple of years, the Bug is back in a book of his own. I was particularly pleased to see that his sidekick, Cheeks The Toy Wonder, is still present as well. Cheeks is a stuffed doll that Ambush Bug adopted a while back. A.B. treats the toy as a son and crimefighting partner. Perhaps it's worth mentioning here that one of his only consistent character traits is utter insanity.

On to the issue at hand.

The cover is well done. It's bold, and sets the tone nicely. Even to those who've never heard of Ambush Bug (probably the majority of the current potential audience), it clearly says that this is a book about DC comics, but is not to be taken seriously. (Non-comics readers will find that sentence deeply ironic. Trust me, some of us geeks take our comics way too seriously.)

After a throwaway gag about Jack Kirby's Fourth World (which has never interested me), we dive into what passes for the plot. The plot of this book is really just a line on which to hang the jokes. There's at least one gag per page, and usually one per panel.

Jonni DC, Continuity Cop, is murdered, attempting to leave a clue in the form of a word balloon lettered in her blood. (Are we laughing yet?) (Sadly, yes, most of us are.) We then meet Ambush Bug trying to buy a new refrigerator, but finding that in the DC universe it's tough to find a major appliance without the corpse of a supporting character already inside.

At this point, I realized that while I find this funny, and I think most of my fellow comics nerds will too, it's probably way too inside for any uninitiated audience members. I laughed out loud at a weapon deployed later in the issue - a corpse catapult - but I suspect that better socially adjusted readers will find it offensive or simply puzzling.

This book is crammed with inside comics jokes, including plenty of callbacks to the Bug's two previous miniseries. The Green Team, Egg Fu, Glop, fake covers of nonexistent but frighteningly plausible vintage comics, and Argh! Yle, the Bug's archenemy (and sock) all make appearances. We find out how Ambush Bug was behind the scenes of Identity Crisis (my understanding is that future issues will place him at other recent major DC events).

We even get an appearance by a member of the Zoo Crew. That's especially fitting, since the Crew is another 80s icon, beloved by the same audience that remembers the Bug fondly. Like Ambush Bug, the Zoo Crew was recently brought back in a miniseries after a couple of guest appearances, but I sure hope that this revival turns out better than that one.

DC seems thoroughly trapped in a diminishing-returns spiral of pandering to the nostalgia audience. Continuity porn like Final Crisis and 52 and revivals of 80s and 90s concepts seem to be all they can really count on to succeed of late. Since I'm a child of that era, I'm happy to see Ambush Bug, the Zoo Crew, Hitman, and Suicide Squad back, even if some of their returns haven't, frankly, been very good.

However, I'm not the audience DC Comics needs to pull in (and keep) to survive in the long term. I don't even generally buy any comics these days (and we'll say no more about that), so counting on people like me for a revenue stream is not a sound financial plan. I don't know what DC can or should do for long-term growth, but I'm glad I don't have to figure it out.

Back to the book: it's good. I had worried that after all these years of idealizing and polishing my memories of Ambush Bug, the new material could only be a letdown (a phenomenon known as "Free As A Bird Syndrome").

There's at least a smile on every page, at least for those of us old enough (or well-versed enough in comics minutiae) to get all the references. I don't think it would work as well for newer (or less obsessed) readers. I hope they at least give it a chance, though, because I'd like this book to succeed. I don't know if the Bug can (or should) hold down an ongoing series, but a miniseries or special once a year or so would probably be just right.

One disappointment: no text page. The letters pages were always a highlight of the old A.B. comics. Hopefully Giff, Flem and the gang will rectify this in future issues. If they add a text page, keep the jokes coming, and maybe throw in a nine-panel grid or three, this series will easily stand alongside Ambush Bug's first two classic miniseries. Maybe we can even get that Showcase edition! (Now that I probably would actually buy.)

Enough rambling. Here's a picture of an overturned school bus.

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