Before Lobo held lewd, rude and flatulent court, before Guy Gardner, Blue Beetle and Booster Gold remade the Justice League in their own image, and before the Heckler … heckled, Keith Giffen unleashed Ambush Bug on the DC Universe.
A nuisance, a vehicle for Giffen to say far too many uncomfortable (albeit funny) comments about the comics industry, a character some thought simply too silly to be a sometime supporting character for Superman, Ambush Bug eventually was kicked out of the DC Universe in the pages of his own miniseries, and told never to return.
Never ends this summer, when Irwin Schwab, the Ambush Bug, returns and teams up with Giffen’s other cult classic DC “superhero,” in “Lobo Unbound” #4.
Ambush Bug got his start in 1982, showing up first as a minor villain in the third-string Superman book from DC Comics before mutating into a manic pest who would torment Superman through the pages of “Action Comics” and “DC Comics Presents” before getting his own miniseries and one shots in which he was unleashed upon the DC Universe — and DC Comics — at large. DC editor and icon Julius Schwartz was a recurring member of the cast, and Ambush Bug delighted in tormenting Jonni DC, a living continuity cop for the DC Universe.
Now, having completed the bounty hunter correspondence school he’d seen advertised on a discarded matchbook, Schwab is determined to learn from Lobo, the best bounty hunter of them all, “Friar Tuck to his Robin Hood, Sigfried to his Roy.”
Ambush Bug appears in issues 4, 5 and 6 of the miniseries.
Ambush Bug’s long absence was due to both DC editorial and his own feelings.
“Whenever I would mention Ambush Bug, people would roll their eyes,” Giffen told CBR News on Sunday. “I dunno, at least on Ambush Bug, of all the characters I’ve ever done, you can’t trust me.
“Part of it was me as well, since it felt weird to do without [late scripter] Bob Fleming there.
But that was then, and this is now: “Bringing back Ambush Bug was [‘Lobo’ editor Dan] Didio’s idea. I think since he figured we were gonna go for broke on this, why not?”
Ambush Bug was perhaps the first DC Comic character to be actively aware of his status as a comic book character, and he regularly broke the fourth wall separating reader from the action, speaking directly to the audience.
“From day one, Ambush Bug was a thorn in [DC’s] side,” Giffen said. “It was an odd character. Maybe I’m stretching here, but I really think it was that sort of time that type of non-mainstream Monty Python humor was applied to mainstream comics.
“One of the things we discovered was that comic book people really don’t have a good sense of humor about themselves and their product. … Which is weird, because if you sit down with them and have a couple of beers, they’re funny, witty people and you’ll have some fun with them.”
But it turned out that Ambush Bug extolling (OK, mocking) such DC luminaries as Egg Fu, the Legion of Super-Pets, Quisp and Itty ruffled some feathers. Giffen said it was all in fun, though: “I love that stuff … Ace the Bat-Hound wore a mask so people wouldn’t recognize him as Bruce Wayne’s dog!” he roared. “If we didn’t have the affection for it, we couldn’t have gone after it the way we did.”
Giffen didn’t set out to create a gadfly character, it just sort of happened.
“He was introduced into an issue of ‘DC Comics Presents.’ I needed a villain and he could teleport. The ambush bug is a real bug that is indigenous to New Jersey, and I said ‘what a great name.’ … He didn’t get really wacky until his second appearance.”
The creative process was simple: Giffen would draw some fun stuff, hand the pages off to Robert Loren Fleming to script — without telling him what the plot was or the gags or anything of the sort, because Giffen didn’t always worry about those sorts of details.
“If I wanted to do it, I did it, I just slapped it in there. Yeah, it tore the story structure apart, but it was fun.”
Why do elephants chase Ambush Bug down the beach in one scene, Fleming asked Giffen? Simple enough: Giffen was in the mood to draw elephants.
“It was the most fun comic to do. If I ever got bored with sequence, I’d switch.”
Giffen recounted a few elements of the Ambush Bug madness from that era, such as the time assistant editor Andy Helfer had to go into Julie Schwartz’s office and explain to one of the grand old men of DC Comics why Giffen’s script set in the Vietnamese province of Poontang couldn’t be published as-was.
“It was something for Julie to pull out to let what I really wanted to get in get in,” Giffen laughed.
The Ambush Bug creative team was reading their fan mail one time at the DC offices at the same time as “Swamp Thing” creators Alan Moore and Steve Bissette were in the office. Feeling good about their fan mail, Moore and Bissette showed Giffen and company a letter that went through Moore’s writings, comparing them to the Biblical Book of Revelations, proving, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Moore was the Antichrist.
Unperturbed, Giffen pulled out a cardboard box they’d just received, part of the newest shipment of fan mail. Inside was a voodoo doll made out of toilet paper and featuring someone’s real human hair. Moore was unnerved, much to the delight of the Ambush Bug team: “Oh man, we made Alan Moore flinch!””
Contrary to the beliefs of some, who worried that Schwartz was the unwitting butt of the creators’ jokes, Schwartz was a willing collaborator who thought, for instance, that an evil Julie head tormenting Ambush Bug was hilarious. But there were times when they just exhausted him nonetheless:
“One time I handed in a plot for, I think it was the second issue of ‘Son of Ambush Bug.’ … I said ‘do you want to talk about the plot,’ and he just looked at me, and gave me a really Julie look … and said ‘what’s the POINT?’
“Man, it was a fun time. It was just a fun time to be doing comics,” Giffen said. “I don’t think I’ll ever see the like of that again. In a way, we still knew we were being screwed, but we were still just having too much fun with it.”
By the end, though, Giffen said DC was just too uncomfortable with the (admittedly nicely selling) bully pulpit they’d provided the loose cannons on the creative team. Once “Son of Ambush Bug” wrapped in December 1986, it was four years before A. Bug showed up again, in a brief “Secret Origins” piece, and then two more years before his seeming swan-song, in 1992’s “Nothing Special,” which pitted him against DC characters of the 1990s, including Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. But while fans may have clamored for more, Giffen felt the time for the character may have passed. (Giffen’s fellow creators who had grown up reading Ambush Bug’s adventures seemed to have disagreed, and cameos from the character began showing up in 1995, including appearances in “Kingdom Come,” “Elseworld’s Finest: Supergirl & Batgirl” and at least two appearances in DC’s “DC One Million” crossover event.)
“We were really having fun with the book. If the character caught on for any reason, I think it was because of the sense that we were having fun. Could we do it now? I really, really doubt it. I think back then, there was a willingness to go along with it.”
Giffen certainly doesn’t think the character could have been introduced today.
“Everything is so [politically correct] and controlled and ‘watch out, this guy will sue you,’ and it’s kind of sad.”
Not that things were always wine and roses in the old days: Readers who noted the increasingly bleak tone of the “Son of Ambush Bug” miniseries that essentially brought the original run of the character’s adventures to an end were seeing a reflection of what was going on behind the scenes.
“There’s more autobiographical stuff in Ambush Bug than in all the rest of my writing combined,” Giffen said. “We did to Ambush Bug what DC did to us. ‘Son of Ambush Bug’ was almost a documentary.”
But out of the sometimes bruising creative process that Ambush Bug went through towards the end came the freedom for Giffen to introduce another super-powered maniac (or, rather, reintroduce a minor and initially much different character) who would also go on to make the Man of Steel’s life hell, and irritate more conservative comics readers.
“Ambush Bug paved the way for stuff like Lobo, for that kind of humor. Given my choice in the matter, I’d just rather do a hero book, and do a Lobo or Ambush Bug humor book forever,” he said. But he’d be thrilled to be able to leave the superheroes (or super-antiheroes, if you prefer) out of it entirely: “I’ve been trying to sell a series to DC for years called ‘Pathetic Love Comics.'” He conjures up a vision of a classic saccharine romance comic book cover, but with a twist: “‘I’ve always wanted to tell Nancy how I feel, but she’d never love a man with a colostomy bag.'”
“Paramilitary Christmas Sequel” is sure to push some buttons — its conclusion will alternately enrage or crack up readers, assuming it gets past DC’s editorial staff intact — which is sort of the point.
“Love me, loathe me, but get a reaction,” Giffen said. “As long as you react to the work.”