Marvel's loyal followers (or "true believers") have been put through the wringer this year. "Fear Itself," the publisher's big event of 2011, let a whole new pantheon of Asgardian nasties loose on the Marvel Universe. Of course, good prevailed over evil, but that downplays the fact that there were major casualties (Bucky -- temporarily, at least -- and Thor) and property damage (Avengers Tower, Washington DC). With all the fear from "Fear Itself" finally quelled, Marvel's unleashing a new adversary on its heroes: shame. But not, like, life-crippling shame. More like laughter-inducing embarrassment-shame.
"I love anthology books," admitted "Shame Itself" editor Tom Brennan, citing Marvel's recent "Strange Tales" and "Girl Comics" miniseries as the publisher's other recent forays into the format. "I wanted to do something like that." Brennan and previous collaborators Wyatt Cenac and Elliott Kalan, both writers for "The Dailiy Show," discussed doing a comedic one-shot lampooning some of the more oddball elements of the Marvel Universe. Those ideas were pitched to the rest of Marvel's editorial staff, where it was decided to tie the one-shot into "Fear Itself." Thus, "Shame Itself" sprang forth! Brennan added that once the tie-in to the mega-event was cemented, "we decided to cram in as many fart jokes and bad puns as we could, till we hit the end." If you're the type of comic nerd who loves statistics, get ready to count the fart jokes per page. "Shame Itself" may hold the record.
With the go-ahead granted, the writing team of professional comedians assembled like a more irreverent, though still mighty, Avengers team. The aforementioned "Daily Show" writers Cenac and Kalan together contribute a running bit called "Wy-Ifs," a play on Marvel's long-running "What If…?" series that investigates obscure and irrelevant sides of the Marvel Universe. Collen Coover, who Brennan said was a perfect fit, illustrates the five "Wy-If" shorts. "We wanted someone who could nail the look of a Sunday comic strip, but still have both a hip and energetic sensibility," Brennan told CBR. "Colleen Coover's pretty much got that market cornered."
Kalan took a few more laps in the Marvel pool, penning two other "shameful" segments. "Elliott wrote a short story where Mr. Fantastic and the Thing attend their college reunion, which was a story we hadn't quite cracked until we sat down with artist Dean Haspiel to hammer it out," said Brennan. "Elliott and [artist] Jacob Chabot also collaborated on a two-page spread explaining how Marvel crossovers work. It's incredible." Statistics nerds take note: the spread may also hold the record for Most References to Forgotten Marvel Characters, unless there's a "Marvel Team-Up" coming out this winter starring D-Man and Maggott.
As for the rest of the writers involved, Brennan was familiar with them from seeing them perform comedy.
"Victor Varnado and [Marvel editor] Steve Wacker performed improv comedy together in their heyday," Brennan revealed. "Steve has often commented on what a strong writer [Victor] is, so he was a natural fit. For his story, we wanted an artist who would play it straight. Clayton Henry and I worked on 'Spider-Girl' together. He has such a clean, exciting, pure superhero style. The contrast against the silliness was key."
"I knew Kurt Braunohler from the web series 'Penelope: Princess of Pets' that he produced with Kristen Schaal and I thought the writing was a little in line with what we do. I was lucky enough to take an improv class taught by Kurt and saw firsthand what a professional he is to work with," Brennan told CBR. "For his story, we again wanted to play the visuals straight -- it's superhero dating advice -- so we went to John Tyler Christopher for an amazing cover image, and Horacio Domingues and Dalibor Talijic, both of whom have a very Marvel Style, for the advice bits themselves."
"Michael Kupperman is someone you all know from 'Strange Tales,' but no less than Conan O'Brien has referred to him as a man with 'one of the best comedy brains on the planet.' That's pretty much all you need to know," Brennan told CBR. "I first read his work in 'McSweeney's' at my volunteer gig over at 826NYC, a writing tutoring center here in New York, and have since seen him just kill on short stories for any number of projects here at Marvel."
"Anyone who's read Sara Benincasa's commentaries for CNN, Comedy Central and a few other notable sites knows that her personality leaps off the page, so I was interested to see what she would do given a chance to take on a Marvel character," Brennan said. "I won't divulge much about hers, but it's titled 'I HATE PETER PARKER' and the high school angst and drama is hilarious, as is the punch line. The painting by Stephanie Buscema is a perfect match for Sara's unique brand of peppy, happy political incorrectness."
Some of the comedians telling tales in the one-shot are relatively new to the medium. Writer Sara Benincasa noted that "writing for 'Shame Itself' was more technically difficult than writing my memoir, 'Agorafabulous!: Dispatches From My Bedroom' -- although it was also more fun and less emotionally taxing." Victor Varnado writes in screenplay format and tends to think about comedy visually, so adapting to comics didn't prove too challenging. "The difference between writing comedy for prose," he said, "is that I think of it as controlling the cadence of the voice that reads along inside your head. Does that make sense or am I crazy? Better question: Why am I crazy?" Answers to these questions and more await you in "Shame Itself!"
And if you're asking yourself, "Waitaminnit, what do comedians know about my superheroes?" then calm down. Also, lighten up. Also, get some sun. These funnymen and women know their Marvel mythos. "My particular nods to Marvel fans were the inclusion of Flash Thompson and a reference to Mr. Warren, the science teacher," said Benincasa, referencing her Spider-Man short. "I was afraid of angering the mighty majority of geeks while at the same time, [I was] desperate to please them. It was so reminiscent of my daddy issues that I'm now convinced I was fathered by the whole of Marvel fandom." If you're wondering whether or not your favorite character was safe from ridicule, odds are -- not a chance. Brennan admits that every Marvel character was potential comedy fodder. "Galactus gets hammered, like, three times. He's a world eater that chose to dress like someone in the Mummers Parade. He has it coming."
As for the editor himself, Brennan is no stranger to the world of comedy. When he's not editing comics, Brennan shoots short comedy films and has tried his hand at stand-up, though he's quick to say, "I'm really just getting into the world." Brennan even took an improv class at the People's Improv Theater in New York City as a way to become more comfortable giving presentations at work. "I was only planning to take one class, but I really got into the program and have since tried my hand at performing it here in the city." Despite this, his comedic chops don't come into play all that often while at work. "Except I charge a two drink minimum for every meeting I have to run."
While "Shame Itself" does give hardcore Marvelites the chance to revel in the glorious ridiculousness of Dormammu, Brennan assured CBR that special care was given to make the comedy understandable by a wider audience. "I want this to be something anyone can enjoy, and that decision went into the artistic talent as much as the writing talent. So while there are jokes in there for die-hard Marvel fans, I was impressed that all of these writers took the time to make very accessible, simple jokes." Brennan even ran two of Varnado's pitches by a panel of his least comic book-inclined friends to see which one they liked more, as his love for both ideas left him stumped. The idea that won out saw print, but Brennan vowed to resurrect the lost gag, given the chance. "I had pitched an idea to Tom that he liked a lot," explained Varnado, "but it would have been a whole new Marvel Universe."
Overall, Brennan summed up "Shame Itself," calling the one-shot "a veritable love letter to the Marvel Universe from some brilliant comedians. These folks set out to make you laugh and smile, and they delivered it. Big time."