Hank McCoy (Before the Fur)

Life is kind of hitting me again lately. So today I’m going to talk about something different. I’m going to talk about quipping.

I think we have the privelege of living in a time in which entertainment and popular culture has been given a high value in our society (and in a manner that does not involve two real, live human beings smashing each others heads in, in gladiatorial combat- we do this with fictional characters on occasion, sure. But hey, we aren’t barbarians. Or a brutal conquering empire that used those barbarians as slaves. You get the point).

We also live in a time of very heightened self-awareness- or at least, we value awareness and insight as much as action, these days.

I remember perusing a bookstore a few years ago and coming across a book called Planet Simpson. The author had taken it upon himself to demonstrate how the insanely popular show’s humor had really infused itself into our culture- sometimes this is as overt as a show emulating the show’s amazing, absurd satire; other times it’s as subtle as a kind of speak that teenagers and college kids emulate to try to fit in and impress each other.

I’m no sociologist- but however you cut it, I think this author hit the nail on the head. The Simpsons really DID change our culture. The show sort of seeped out, into the world. And I lived through that. I hate to get all old-and-stodgy, but the Simpsons came out when I was in middle school, and by my college years, it was a national sensation that even my professors liked to play around with.

Now, the comic book industry has it’s own culture like this, I believe. And I DON’T think it has ever been as widely infused into the mainstream as the previous example I’ve given- but I do think, consciously or not, it’s something that those who dig comic books are drawn back to and appreciate. And this culture is quipping.

I like to define a proper ‘quip’ as follows: when confronted with horrible, life-threatening danger, a person will acknowledge that attempting to overcome that danger is as much an act of bravery as it is stupidity. That is, a character will point out that what they are doing is VERY dangerous, is a little bit crazy, and probably isn’t going to work. BUT, the archetypal hero does what needs to be done anyway. Even if it’s insane and life-threatening. It’s like the old saying goes- courage isn’t not being afraid. It’s being afraid and doing what you need to do anyway.

So quipping is not complaining. It’s acknowledging that what you’re doing is hard, that you don’t expect the situation to get much better, and that you’re going to keep trying to do what you need to. In a very funny way. I suppose I’d have to really hand it to Marvel, for being the progenitors of this speak in their books. Even as early as the 1950’s, Spider-man was cracking jokes left and right while he took guys on who could turn him into paste. Still, Spider-man started off with more of an overt make-fun-of-the-bad-guy kind of style.

As time went on, pop-culture picked up on this idea and ran with it, culminating in insanely popular sci-fi action movies like Star Wars (Han: “How we doing?”, Luke: “Same as usual.”, Han: “That bad, huh?”) and Ghostbusters (Peter: “Why worry? Each of us is carrying an unlicensed nuclear accelerator on his back”). This even got picked up by children's television cartoons. I insist that to this day, the ongoing adult-obsession with G.I. Joe and Transformers (both Marvel produced, by the way) probably has to do with the subtle ways in which these shows probably weren’t appropriate for children. I know they were a little ridiculous, but there’s something just a little bit adult in the characterizations that fans are drawn into, even today.

And you know- they quipped about danger (and although vehicles and people tended to explode in the Hasbro-verse with little effect, there are some surprisingly dark and adult messages about war slipped in here).

In the very first episode of Transformers:

Bumblebee (getting shot at): “Prime told me there’d be days like this…”

Wheeljack: “And what!? You didn’t believe him!?”

There’s something about this that I think every true, comic book fan loves. We love the idea of roughing it. Of doing something stupid, but brave, just because we believe in it (and of somehow, actually pulling it off!). It’s sort of this New Age, romantic notion of chivalry kind of thing. Make fun of yourself while you fight the good fight. BUT- fight the good fight.

Of course, quipping HAS broken out into mainstream culture more and more lately. And I think a lot of that has to do with one Joss Whedon. Buffy the Vampire Slayer really just took this speak (or philosophy, whatever you want to call it) and skyrocketed. I think that’s kind of the running joke in Buffy, Angel and Firefly: being self-aware, and articulate, is really, really funny. Doubly so if you’re doing something brave and stupid.

Of course, there are a LOT of other reasons why Whedon is the man and his shows are like science-fiction crack- you probably don’t need me to list them all for you. But I think if he made a contribution to the evolution, it might be this: quipping became cool, not dorky. You quip when you flirt. You quip when you joke. You quip when you’re down and out. Quipping is kind of a way of life, in the Buffy-verse. Which of course, goes into this whole thing at the root of the show, which is kind of that Buffy’s identity, as an individual and a woman, isn’t something she should ever have to apologize for or get rid of, even if she does have to step up and be a vampire slayer- stuff like that, you get the point.

So it isn’t surprising that Buffy does so well as a comic, or that Whedon writes Marvel characters as well as he does. Partly I think he was influenced by them, and partly I think he has taken the speak and made it his own voice for each of his characters. But my point here is I think this is kind of science fiction culture we’re talking about here. The part of the process that people start to assimilate into their lives and make real, even if it is IS science fiction. I’m just saying where it comes from.

And no. I don’t have a funny quip to end this with.

Unless the self-awareness of not having a quip counts as a quip. But that’s a whole debate I’ll leave you to wrestle with.