The 1980s. A great time for comics, wasn’t it? In addition to the oft-referred to Watchmen-Maus-Dark Knight Returns Trinity, we had, among others, books like The Elementals, Moore and company on Swamp Thing, the beginning of Sandman, the arrival of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, huge growth for Cerebus and Elfquest, Grendel, Nexus, Miller on Daredevil, Dreadstar, American Flagg!, Crisis on Infinite Earths, Love & Rockets, Miracleman, Mage, Usagi Yojimbo, Xenozoic Tales, Simonson on Thor, the last chapters of The Dark Phoenix Saga, Scout, and Jon Sable.
Then again, we also had Sonic Disruptors and US1, so it wasn’t all hearts and flowers.
But elsewhere is the pantheon of greatness . . . as we were hypnotized by MTV, as we embraced the joys of home computers, as we used the Walkman as our first of many attempts to block out basic human interaction . . . there came a Bug.
Ambush Bug sprang from the mind of Keith Giffen (which, quite frankly, should be the first sign that something is amiss). Giffen’s biggest work in the ‘80s came from two fronts: his stint as artist on Legion of Super-Heroes (particularly during the Great Darkness saga and the beginning of the Baxter series), and his co-writing of the JLI franchise. During this decade, he also created Lobo (another sure sign of problems).
When he first appeared (first in DC Comics Presents #52 during a Superman/Doom Patrol team-up, and then in other Superman titles), Ambush Bug was an outright antagonist of the Man of Steel. A few issues later (#59), Ambush Bug runs afoul of Superman and the Legion of Substitute Heroes in a truly hilarious story. By Supergirl #16 in 1984, The Bug starts to evolve; he becomes a wannabe super-hero. It’s in Action Comics #560, later that year, that the Bug-style really begins to kick in as he became a tool for satire and really addressed the audience (a process, for you storytelling wonks, known as “breaking the fourth wall”; other notable practicioners during the decade included Garry Shandling on It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and Ferris Bueller).
The irony of Ambush Bug’s history is that so much of it contradicts itself over time. This is, we suppose, part of the point. More than anything, the Bug exists to inject or recognize surrealism and absurdity into super-hero comics (a world that contains a lot of surrealism and absurdity in the first place). This much we know: Ambush Bug is apparently Irwin Schwab. His powers (primarily extremely powerful teleportation) are derived from his suit (an alien item that we are led to believe becomes permanently bonded to his body, though there are moments when he appears to remove it. Absurd? Correct.).
Whatever the case, Ambush Bug proved popular in his repeat appearances, and earned a pair of mini-series. The art was done by Giffen, and the scripts came from Robert Loren Fleming. Fleming created the criminally underappreciated Thriller for DC in the ‘80s, and whacked a bunch of second-string heroes as writer of Eclipso in the ‘90s.
The duo whack a character in the first issue of the first mini-series; Ambush Bug turns a doll into his sidekick, “Cheeks, the Toy Wonder”, but Cheeks meets a bitter end. The incredible irony here is that the Bug jokes about dead heroes being a sure seller as Crisis on Infinite Earths is just getting rolling. This is months before Flash and Supergirl die, and years before Jason Todd gets the wrong kind of phone-a-friend.
The rest of the first mini featured tremendously funny set pieces. Giant Koala bears. An outpouring of characters about to be nuked by Crisis. The inclusion of editor Julius Schwartz as an ongoing character (I feel so bad for Jann Jones right now). One notable gag tying Fleming’s creations together came when Ambush Bug fought Thriller antagonist Scabbard (a bad guy who sheathed his sword in the skin of his back); when Scabbard realized that he was in the wrong comic, he abruptly left.
The second mini features a much different tone. Though comedic, it’s a lot more violent as the Bug dies (repeatedly) and takes a detour through Hell. The Bug is less of a smartass and more depressed throughout, though the biting satire is still there. By the end of the mini, we’re offered a resolution of sorts, though that will soon be undone.
Secret Origins #48 purports to feature the origin of Ambush Bug, but it’s really just another manic go-round with the character. The obvious gag of “We Thought Him Up” is used to explain Bug’s origin, but there’s more entertaining business with the Bug visiting Heaven and transforming unexpectedly. The next time we see Bug in a consequential role (now there’s an oxymoron) is in Ambush Bug Nothing Special special in 1992.
Gag cameos and alternate versions aside, the real Ambush Bug disappears for many years. Out of this era, the best quick view of the Bug is probably in the JLA: Welcome to the Working Week one-shot. There, he and fellow Giffen creation The Heckler help Plastic Man bring in beer for a party. Awesome. Less awesome is Bug’s role in Lobo Unbound; though written by Giffen, Bug pretty much winds up a punching bag.
Our Bug finally gets his due when he joins the temporary Justice League in 52 #24. The art breakdowns were by Giffen, and we have the distinct feeling that he kicked in on characterization. Ambush Bug and the rest of the “JLA” (Firestorm II, Firehawk, Bulleteer, Super-Chief) tangle with forces too great for them to handle, and Super-Chief dies as a result. In the midst of the carnage, Bug seems his old self, addressing the reader and offering commentary on events in progress.
So why do people love Ambush Bug? Well, for one thing, he lets us laugh at ourselves. On some cellular level, we all know that we take comics way. Too. Seriously. Ambush Bug protects us from seeing some of the goofiness by pointing it out and puncturing it himself. Frankly, I think it’s kind of appropriate that he spent much of the ‘90s depressed; despite some shining moments of comics greatness, a lot of that decade was about angst, extreme extremity, the grim and the gritty. Comics can be fun; hell, comics should fun. That’s not to say that they can’t ever be serious. That’s to say that there should be latitude in the types of stories that are told.
At the same time, a character like Ambush Bug is a celebration of the medium. Anything that can be imagined and drawn can appear in a comic. The comic is the perfect vehicle for surrealism, as it already has the expectation of unreality inside from its viewer. Giffen and Fleming simply skew that ability to skewer the medium.
So what can we expect when Ambush Bug: Year None arrives? Hell if I know. And that’s precisely part of the fun.
Troy would like to give a special shout-out to his friend Terry McCammon. Terry unabashedly remains one of Ambush Bug’s biggest fans. Terry has always tries to infect his friends with that same enthusiasm, as well as a couple of things he caught overseas.
Ambush Bug: Year None #1 is due in stores next week from DC Comics