The origins of out-of-context comic book humor?

Most bloggers are content to mine the Golden and Silver Ages of comic illustrations for their out-of-context funny bits. The recent decades have been a little sparse with the type of sight gags we rely on, primarily due to the fact that “anything goes” in comics now days. Before the 90s, comic book publishers had to behave much more than they do presently and had to be a bit more stealthy in their creative subversions. The Comics Code Authority and prior to that, public opinion, caused many comic book authors to rebel against the restraints upon their creativity by inserting imagery and dialog that could easily be mis-construed as something other than perfectly innocent.

But it isn’t just from the 1940s – 1960s that offers material for bloggers to post non-ironic or uninsightful gags about sexuality and misogyny long after the subject stopped being funny. I for one don’t just confine myself to comic books. I delve much further back and into other media.

As Pulps are the precursors to comic books and Fanzines are the cost-effective ancestor of the blog, so do out-of-context images come from a much older and little recognized source, that of the hardbound novel.

Once upon a time long before television and computers books existed by the millions and people read them. People not only read novels but they treasured them and passed them on to friends, family and strangers so they could also enjoy them. Old books usually had lavish, beautiful illustrated full color panels. Some were even hand-colored for each copy of the book and not mass-reproduced by machine. And what’s more, the illustrations were listed in the contents and had their own individually numbered pages. This is rare today and not normally available unless the book is an expensive special edition of some kind.

So it was while book-hunting in a Hillcrest thrift shop that I discovered Mazli – A Story of the Swiss Valleys by Johanna Spyri (J.P. Lippincott, 1921). I purchased it for the nice colored panels but later realized that the art by Maria L. Kirk were early examples of the classic out-of-context gag that so many of us bloggers utilize in our desperate bid to be noticed by our peers and linked to by WFA and the big professional websites. Really, the captions just make my case for me.

Oh, this is hilarious! I don’t know what’s going on here, but except for that stomped flat dead skunk in the bottom of the panel, it sure is a sexy scene!

I can guess! Shenanigans!

Note how intently the boy is staring at the chest of the young girl. Did all that furious and unnecessary hand-shaking make her breasts jiggle? I think it did.

I’ll sum up this picture for you: FREE-LOVE COMMUNE.

So is the Mazli novel and the questionable illustrations within the origin of out-of-context comic book humor? Probably not, as I am sure their are even earlier examples. For as long as there have been creative types there have also been those who are too dimwitted or repressed to allow free expression. Under those circumstances true artists of whatever medium will find ways to circumvent the rules and expectations of the authoritarians peering over their shoulders to shock, educate and make us think. Or they are all perverts.

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In and out of context

Out-of-context comic book art is a blogger’s best friend. Like most comic book bloggers my site would be bereft of all content if it wasn’t for the many decades of comics granting me thousands of pages of images to choose from with content that hints of everything from sexuality, status quo propaganda, misogyny and much, much more!

I’d quit this blog in a minute without the use of out-of-context comic panels like the one featuring Electric Superman halting the fall of a Freudian fighter jet by the projection of a magnetic vagina field. The stress of having to provide actual original content on a regular basis would be far too daunting a task and turn a hobby into a chore.

For example, this excerpt from a one-page strip from the Golden Age certainly qualifies as prime material for an out-of-context post, if not fodder for a week long treatise, in any lazy writer’s blog.

A strange older man with a blissful grin on his face, his hand in is pocket seemingly fondling himself and propositioning a young boy while he blocks the only means of escape is blogging gold, I say!

Often the chosen panels (usually from the Golden or Silver Age of comics that labored under the oppressive Comics Code Authority) are funny, alarming or of some interest culturally as a historical pop-media comic book artifact only after being carefully edited and put through a tortuous and careful set up as a gag by the blogger. It is the usual case that afterwards when someone happens to read the original story the panels were gleaned from that the scenes in question are found to be perfectly innocent when read in their proper context.

Then again, sometimes not.

Harvey Hector, Jr. by Al Hartley from Exciting Comics #58 (November 1947).

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The Illuminated Vonnegut

Found this duct tape-covered copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s Welcome to the Monkey House while browsing for old books at a Hillcrest thrift store. No telling where this personalized copy originated or who vandalized/arted it up, but the Hillcrest area of San Diego is known for being a community of (among other things) artists.

The references to rape and beer leads me to believe the artist was probably a college student.

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