Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Comic #1
Joel Hodgson, Harold Buchholz, Matt McGinnis, Mary Robinson, Seth Robinson, Sharyl Volpe (Writers), Todd Nauck, Mike Manly (Artists), Wes Dzioba, Mike Manly (Colorists), Michael Heisler (Letterer)
Dark Horse Comics
September 12, 2018
What started as a public access puppet show making fun of movies like The Green Slime and The Robot vs. The Aztec Mummy has proven to be as unkillable as Godzilla, as the cult classic Mystery Science Theater 3000 has been transmogrified into a feature film, animated shorts, and now a comic book series from Dark Horse. As someone who’s written about comics for five years, I’m probably not blowing your mind when I say that there are some bad, bad comics out there, and the idea of MST3K’s wisecracking bots riffing the worst books pulled from the murky depths of the public domain is irresistible. Reading Mystery Science Theater 3000 #1, it’s obvious that a lot of careful work was put into adapting the beloved show into a different medium, so it’s a shame that humor didn’t survive the switch from screen to page.
“Riffed” comic books are not a completely untrodden path. In fact, at a time when image editing software and comic scan websites in various shades of legality are so readily available, I’m surprised there aren’t more of them. Deadpool #11, in which Joe Kelly and Pete Woods inserted the merc with a mouth into a classic Lee/Romita Spider-Man comic, was a slice of late-’90s Gen X irony and a critical turning point for a character now known for shattering the fourth wall. 2006’s Marvel Romance Redux rewrote the scripts for romance comics drawn by masters like Jack Kirby and John Romita Sr. (again!) for what amounted to one hackneyed “Women are crazy!” joke. Still, one story re-written by Peter David tipped its hat to its spiritual predecessor, with its flip-haired ’60s heroine in a movie theater noting the chatty fellow and his two robots sitting in front of her…
And so, we circle back to Mystery Science Theater 3000 #1 in which new host Jonah Heston and the bots are absorbed into a 1962 issue of the Dell comic Johnny Jason, Teen Reporter. We begin with a prologue drawn by Todd Nauck in a charming style that captures the likenesses of the human characters (note the maniacal glee of Felicia Day’s Kinga Forrester) and skillfully conveys the Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo puppets in two dimensions. Crow has legs! Tom can move his floppy little arms! Their physicality is important, because it lets a mostly expositional scene feel active and playful.
The thrust of the comic is this: mad scientist Kinga Forrester has invented the Bubbulat-R, which can assimilate anyone into a comic book, turning them into a main character and/or having their dialogue come out of another character’s mouth. Faster than you can throw a copy of Understanding Comics, Jonah and the bots are absorbed into Johnny Jason. Tom Servo replaces our teen hero, his iconic gumball machine head Frankenhooker’d onto Johnny’s body. Waverly and Growler (you may remember them from the new Netflix series; I didn’t) pop up in several panels to offer color commentary, while Jonah and Crow are unseen but heard through Johnny Jason’s supporting cast with tiny bubbles within speech bubbles to denote the new dialogue.
If this seems like a lot of set-up to get to “ha-ha, this comic sucks,” well, it is. The striking thing about MST3K #1 is that it ditches the theater silhouettes that are probably the most recognizable image of the franchise, a smart move because it shows the creative team’s awareness of the new medium they’re working in, and that hitting CTRL + C on what worked on the show won’t necessarily make a good comic. (And for more info on the book’s process, check out our own Wendy Browne’s interview with Felicia Day and some of the creative team.) Artist Mike Manly does a truly laudable job blending a bunch of colorful robots into a teen reporter comic from the 1960s (the original writer and artist have apparently been lost to time), and his coloring is a dead-on match for that yellowed, “25 cent bin at a flea market” vintage look. You can almost smell the cigar smoke and desperation!
But Mystery Science Theater 3000 #1 is a book that will live or die by its jokes, and it’s on life support. There are six credited writers on this book, including show creator Joel Hodgson, and yet, few gags rise above the level of Growler singing “99 Bottles of Beer” over a panel of a car driving. The riffs are uninspired and flaccid, the literary equivalent of flat seltzer water. Sometimes the most obvious jokes are the funniest—of course the cigar-chomping newspaperman wants pictures of Spider-Man—but the book lacks any satirical edge. (“I’m fine, but the artist decided to draw me as a Lutheran minister” is as biting as it gets.) Some of the blame has to be laid at the feet of Johnny Jason, Teen Reporter, a dull comic that is competently (though blandly) drawn and almost devoid of action. Why was this comic chosen for the inaugural issue? Imagine what the bots could have done with the transgressive surrealism of a Fletcher Hanks story. But be ready to wait, since the next issue will be the conclusion to the Johnny Jason saga.
In-show, the bad movies used to torment Jonah and the bots are called “experiments,” and in Mystery Science Theater 3000 #1 that term feels especially apt. This issue feels like an experiment, lovingly assembled, but still malfunctioning. The pages by Nauck and Manly are illustrated with the kind of lively attention to detail that true passion projects inspire, so hopefully future issues will evolve with fresher jokes and establish a keener comic identity. Then maybe we can say, “keep circulating the comics.”