Dwarfing DwarfstarA column article, Killing Jokes by: Steve Morris
Steve Morris wants to know "What's so funny about funny books?" So each week in Killing Jokes he'll be examining humor in comics, from titles that are meant to be funny to jokes inserted in otherwise completely serious books.
You can read Gail Simone’s 2008 DC series Secret Six in two different ways: knowing exactly who Gail Simone is… or having no idea who Gail Simone is. Either way is going to give you a madcap rush through the DC Universe, as six villains attempt to get regularly paid despite competing with the absolute scum of the Earth each time they accept a new gig. But knowing Simone-- and her online persona-- adds a strange layer on top of this already suspiciously frosty comic-book metaphor cake. Nowhere is this better seen than in a sequence which takes place in issue #28 of the series, in which one character does something rather nasty to another.
The characters in question are Dwarfstar and Giganta, two sometime-villains who in this storyline have been drafted onto an ad-hoc Secret Six team and are sent to conquer a nation called Skartaris on behalf of the American Government. Dwarfstar is a bloke with severe penis-envy and a tendency to stab things with his phallic knife, while Giganta is a women who-- you’d never believe-- can increase in size to crush her enemies. Neither plays a prominent role in the story, instead offering little snippets of bickering, occasionally saying something dishonorable whenever the narrative starts to drag. This Secret Six team fights another Secret Six team, everybody joins forces to fight a bigger monster and there you go. THE END.
Except there’s a curious epilogue to the story, in which Giganta pretends to seduce Dwarfstar before subjecting him to a vicious beating, followed by the promise of extended torture. Over the course of three pages she absolutely demolishes the guy, physically and mentally, claiming that Dwarfstar murdered somebody called "Ryan" and that this Ryan was apparently her boyfriend. As the issue draws to a close, it appears that she is going to murder Dwarfstar, and the series doesn’t ever resolve or return to the story afterwards! It comes out of almost nowhere for many readers and will leave a lot of people wondering just what’s going on. Is Gail Simone simply showing us, once again, that there’s no honour amongst thieves? Why did this fight happen?
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Well actually, let’s bolt on some context. The Ryan mentioned in the sequence is actually Ryan Choi, the then-current Atom, and one of DC’s most prominent Asian superheroes. Choi had recently been killed off by writer Eric Wallace in a BRUTAL issue of Titans, murdered by the assassin Deathstroke. Fans were outraged and upset that Choi had been killed off in a book he wasn’t even a regular character in, and complained in their hundreds. Among those fans? Ryan Choi’s CREATOR, Gail Simone. In the series, it was then revealed that Dwarfstar had paid Deathstroke to kill Choi, making him the man responsible for killing off one of the fledgling stars of the DC Universe.
It now seems a little more clear why Simone decided to exact vengeance on Dwarfstar, doesn’t it? But not only does this context help explain why the scene exists in the first place, it also makes this epilogue darker and…funnier?
For readers who were already aware of Gail Simone’s connection to Ryan Choi, the introduction of Dwarfstar and Giganta to the cast of Secret Six must’ve set off immediate signals. Within an issue, the two of them have already traded a bit of light banter which idly skips over the topic of Atoms. Giganta at this point is apparently unaware that she’s talking to the man who killed her boyfriend, which makes this conversation painfully ironic and nasty. Not only do we, the know-it-all readers, have information ahead of Giganta, but we also have information ahead of half the readership. Simone’s forewarned us now, leaving us no choice but to fore-arm. Is that a phrase I can reappropriate? Anyway. At some point, clearly, Ryan Choi’s death will be brought up, and Dwarfstar is going to be in massive trouble. We’ve got the setup to a punchline now, and there’s a grim humour to be enjoyed in catching the irony of the story ahead of everyone else.
…Then Simone goes two issues without referencing it once. We were led to believe that there’d be some kind of conclusion to the Dwarfstar/Giganta saga, and now Simone is leading us to believe that this is all a big tease. The stall tactic only serves to increase the sense of dread, and makes this all the funnier. By now we’ve stopped waiting for the revenge and started wondering why exactly we’re so hung up on this whole thing. Atom never even appeared in Secret Six before this, after all! And still, many readers have no idea that this is going on in the subground (this is a hypothetical place I have just now invented, where subtext lives. It looks a lot like a glamorous Italian suburbia, but okay let’s not get lost in the thrall of a tangent), so now nobody knows who knows the most. Y’know? Some readers don’t know that they don’t know about Choi and that other readers do know that Simone (rather knowingly) created him. Some readers believe they know that Giganta is going to attack Dwarfstar but they don’t know when and it’s been so long now that they don’t know if it’ll even happen anymore. Dwarfstar knows that Giganta doesn’t know, while Giganta appears not to know but who knows? She might know. Meanwhile, Gail Simone is the only person who truly knows all.
The decision to kick off the Atom/Giganta/Dwarfstar issue is immediately counteracted by Simone’s brilliant ability to sit on the subplot until the very last moment. With the story completed and everybody heading their separate ways, it looks as though Simone was simply making a brief reference to let fans know that Choi’s death wouldn’t be forgotten anytime soon. Her joke is actually at his expense, and not at the expense of Giganta or Dwarfstar. The butt of the joke shifts repeatedly, until the three candidates blur into one and then into nothing, as we forget it entirely. Secret Six isn’t going to address this again. The actual vengeance is still some way in the--WHOA WAIT HERE’S AN EPILOGUE!
The way Simone paces the epilogue -- drawn by, I believe, J. Calafiore -- makes it immediately clear what we’re about to see. Giganta barely needs to do anything to seduce Dwarfstar, who has throughout the arc been repeatedly flexing his knife in a rather sexual fashion. She lies there on her bed in lingerie, not even trying to conceal her disdain for Dwarfstar. We know what’s going on, and can instantly start to enjoy the humour in seeing Dwarfstar misinterpret the situation. It only takes three panels before she’s dropped this façade in order to savagely beat him, however. There’s blood, bones broken, mirrors smashed and eyes cut open. It’s paying off on something readers have been waiting three months for, but this is a fantastically morbid punchline. We don’t get reaction shots or dialogue from him, which serves to cut the obvious joke short. There’s no interest in making this punchline actually funny, despite everything we first expected. This feels like revenge for Giganta, and for Simone, but eventually goes on for so long that it seems nasty, cruel, vicious. The joke aspects have been replaced by an actual anger at the character for what he did to Ryan Choi.
Here’s the question, though: after toying with the readers for this whole arc, is this epilogue a chance for us to enjoy a revenge fantasy, a chance for Gail Simone to actually WRITE a revenge fantasy, or Simone making fun of our bloodthirsty nature? Dwarfstar is metaphorically castrated in the scene – tortured, beaten, and then left to die off-panel. How many of those things are necessary before we readers have enjoyed the joke and are ready to go on? He has it all coming, but not everybody knows that. Yet the epilogue doesn’t draw any humour from the dialogue, there is no exaggeration or overblown dialogue. Giganta doesn’t shout glorious one-liners while she beats him. Instead we just get panel after panel of a vicious beating, which drops any pretence at humour within two panels. A previous issue of Secret Six offered a fantasy sequence where Ryan Choi’s actual killer, Deathstroke, was killed. And now Dwarfstar-- who bankrolled the hit-- is being tortured and possibly killed within the same year.
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We’re left with so many questions. Where does the punchline kick in, here? Which side are we laughing at, and should we be laughing at all? And who, ultimately, gets the last laugh?
Steve Morris is the head and indeed only writer for Comics Vanguard, the internet’s 139th most-favourite comic-book website. You can find him on Twitter at @stevewmorris, which is mostly nonsensical gibberish you may enjoy or despise. His favourite Marvel character is Darkstar, while his favourite DC character is, also, Darkstar. Never forget! He writes The Book of Monsters, a webcomic which updates every Sunday with a new story, monster, and artist. Join in!