Friday, July 6, 2012

Recommended Reading for 7/6: The Muppet Show Comic Book

Like many of you reading, I grew up watching The Muppet Show. It was the craziest half hour on television, mixing old school vaudeville with variety TV show with puppeteering with sheer absurdism, and it all balanced perfectly. Kermit and the gang at the Muppet Theater put on a heck of a show, and then graduated to Hollywood and the movies, but quietly faded into something like obscurity for a good decade or so, doing some made for TV movies but really not in the public eye. Last year, the great comeback began with the release of The Muppets, the wonderful feature film that drew the public ete back to the Muppets. But for those of us in the world of comics, the Muppet comeback began two years before that.

When Boom! Studios acquired the rights to do comics based on Disney properties, one of the first books they released was The Muppet Show Comic Book by cartoonist Roger Langridge, who I talked about in my weekly review of his current excellent Lewis Carroll homage, Snarked; Langridge probably got the gig on the strength of his Fred the Clown and The Show Must Go On work, which also dealt with goings on in a theater, and the hijinks backstage, although in a less all ages format. This line had a lot of quality comics, and I'll probably come back and revisit some of the others in later weeks, but Langridge's Muppet comic was hands down the best of them.

Reading these comics, it seems like Langridge found a lost cache of Muppet Show scripts and adapted them for comics. This is a high, high compliment. All the various characters ring completely true to their "real world" counterparts. Kermit is friendly, reliable, and harried. Fozzie is goofy and good natured. Miss Piggy is haughty and lovestruck by Kermit. Scooter is a blur of motion, following the orders of Kermit, his "chief." And Gonzo is... well, Gonzo.

Langridge's art is always detailed, and his depiction of Muppet Theater's backstage is that and more. Langridge must have thoroughly researched the old sets, because his backgrounds look like they were lifted right from them. And all of the minor Muppets appear in the background and in their own scenes! Sweetums (the ogre), Uncle Deadly (the blue monster), and my favorite, Crazy Harry (the explosion happy Muppet) all pop up, along with the usual comedy stylings of Statler and Waldorf, the theater's resident hecklers.

I went into the first issue of the series with some trepidation. After all, could this live up to the long shadow cast by the original Muppet Show? Any doubt I had was put to rest quickly. The first issue of the series sees Kermit feeling a bit down. Antics ensue as the other Muppets attempt to cheer him up to no avail. When his nephew Robin discovers the reason for Kermit's melancholy is that Kermit misses the swamp. Robin convinces Kermit to sing a song at the end of the show, "The Pond Where I Was Born." Even without the music, you can hear the strum of Kermit's banjo, the tune, and the sound of Jim Henson's voice coming from Kermit. The song is sweet and heartwarming, in the tradition of "The Rainbow Connection." After that song, I was sold.

You might be wondering if some of the Muppet shtick would work on the printed page, as opposed to in a TV/movie medium, and I can assure you it does. All the classic Muppet sketches are represented: Pigs in Space, Veterinarian's Hospital, Wayne & Wanda, Kermit reporting from the planet Koozebane, they're all here and as funny as ever. There are even "guest hosts" in many of the stories, who are often thinly veiled parodies of celebrities. Langridge understands that there is a formula to The Muppet Show, even outside the sketches; the Muppets try to put on a show, things go wrong, catastrophe occurs, but in the end everything comes out for the best, and usually with a positive message. It's a tried and true formula.

The original mini-series was four issues, followed by a second four issue mini-series, and finally an ongoing that ran twelve issues. Even into the ongoing, the series was divided into four issue blocks, although each issue does a good job of standing on its own since in most cases the ties are thematic rather than story driven, so here's a quick rundown of each of the arcs.

Meet The Muppets

Meet The Muppets serves as an introduction to the Muppet characters if you're not familair with them, or giving a reminder to people familiar with the Muppets of how great they are. Each issue focuses on a different member of the principal cast: issue one is the Kermit story I talked about above, issue two has Fozzie Bear looking to freshen up his comedy act, issue three deals with the eternal question of what species exactly is Gonzo the Great, and issue four is a story where Miss Piggy has her fortune read and interprets it as meaning she will lose Kermit, so jealousy rears its ugly head and chaos ensues.

The Treasure of Peg Leg Wilson

When Scooter discovers that the Muppet Theater may be the final resting place of the treasure of pirate Peg Leg Wilson, various interested parties begin tearing the theater apart to try to find it. This is a more elaborate story than the first arc, working as an actual continuing four part narrative. Other than the treasure plot, there is a sub plot involving Animal wanting to act more civilized, which ends in the usual wreck.

On The Road

The end of the previous mini-series ended with The Muppet Theater in disarray, so for this arc, the Muppet crew go on the road while repairs are made. Fozzie goes out on the road on his own, and readers follow his misadventures separate from the Muppet tour. Statler and Waldorf also get a nice focus throughout. Langridge does a great job writing for the old cranks, and its never more apparent than here. The first issue collected in this trade was the 0 issue, a one shot that showed Fozzie and Rizzo pitching a "Pigs in Space" movie, which is littered with sci-fi references, and is one of the few issues not drawn by Langridge; art is handled admirably by Shelli Parlone.

Family Reunion

Family Reunion is interesting for Langridge's use of the full Muppet library of characters, including those introduced in later Muppet projects. While Langridge generally stuck to the classic Muppets, this arc features appearances by Piggy's nephews, Andy and Randy, from the attempted 90s TV revival, Muppets Tonight, and Skeeter, Scooter's twin sister from Muppet Babies. Skeeter is actually heavily featured, and her penchant for pranks and causing trouble leads to all sorts of problems. This arc is also only written by Langridge, with pencils provided by Amy Mebberson. Her style is different from Langridge's, a little more cartoony, but it works well with the Muppets.

Muppet Mash

As the cover and the title imply, each issue of this arc features the Muppets and a classic moster trope. Vampires, werewolves, mummies, and robot/Frankenstein monster hybrids. Specific nods to the classic Universal monster movies (like the possible werewolf guest host being Howlin' Jack Talbot, the last name shared with Larry Talbot, the lead character in the classic The Wolfman), are littered throughout, making for nice easter eggs for film buffs. This is my favorite arc, simply because it plays with my love of Muppets and monster movies.

Aside from The Muppet Show Comic Book, Boom! also released a series of minis that took classic stories and recast them with Muppets, in line with films like Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island. These did not involve Langridge, and varied from series to series in how good they were, but I would definitely recommend Muppet Sherlock Holmes, especially if you are at all familiar with the classic Holmes stories.

The Muppet Show Comic Book is a fun ride, and one that appeals to my nostalgic inner child, my affection for all ages comics, and my love of great comics in general. Whether you're an old school Muppet fan, or someone who only recently found them, I can't think of a better place to get more Muppets. After all, even if it's only on paper, it's time to raise the curtain, it's time to light the lights, it's time to meet the Muppets on the Muppet Show tonight!

All the arcs of The Muppet Show Comic Book were collected in trade by Boom! Studios. These are sadly out of print, although many comic shops will still have them. When Disney comic rights recently went to Marvel, Marvel began reprints of these earlier arcs in magazine form. Meet the Muppets is available in this format, with the others hopefully to follow. This week, Marvel began printing, in normal comic format, The Four Seasons, Langridge's final unpublished Muppet arc. I'm looking forward to reading it and talking about it.

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