Did you know that Aug. 1-7 was International Clown Week? On Aug. 2, 1971, President Richard Nixon issued a proclamation to honor those who “go into orphanages and children’s hospitals, homes for the elderly and for the retarded, and give a part of themselves.” It also states that clowns are “as vital to the maintenance of our humanity as the builders and the growers and the governors.” And thus International Clown Week was established.
Perhaps you knew nothing of this strange little proclamation, nor of this week’s significance. Or perhaps you did know, and you’ve been hiding under your sheets all week to stave off imaginary Pennywises and Captain Spauldings.
Clowns have a vital role in the world of comics, as well. All right, specifically one clown who murders innocent civilians and is the mortal enemy of Batman. It seems clowns in comics are best served when linked to darker impulses. That skeletal face. That painted-on grin that hides true wicked intentions. Those surprise gags — like squirting flowers and hand-buzzers — that had already caused untold psychological trauma during your childhood … There’s a reason why the Joker remains at the top of any Greatest Comic Book Villains list, and Aqua-Melvin is a one-off character. It’s easier to quote Bart Simpsons’ trembling refrain of “Can’t sleep, clowns will eat me” than to remember his hero is Krusty the Clown.
Besides, can a comic based on corny, somewhat out of date jokes exist? It may surprise you junior Joeys to discover it’s been tried. Roger Langridge may now be known as the guy behind wonderful all-ages works like The Muppet Show, Snarked and Thor: The Mighty Avenger. However, some of his earliest acclaim was for a neat little webcomic called Fred the Clown. Fred is something of a silent movie star who’s put down by society, gets in trouble with the ladies (and sometimes with the dudes … and pigs … and a gorilla?), and he says nary a word. He simply observes things with a permanently gormless expression. The comic netted Langridge several award nominations: two Eisners, a Harvey, a Reuben and an Ignatz.
Despite this being the 21st century, vaudeville gags remain indelibly linked with those who wear pancake make-up and red noses. Robert Harrington, Ger Curti and Lara Maruca take these old standbys and stick them in and old-fashioned brawl. In the digital comic Clown Fight!, two combatants turn objects of mirth into weapons for battle. Rubber chickens, spring-loaded boxing gloves, and a small clown car (the invention of the legendary Lou Jacobs) are all depicted in bold, superheroic action sequences. The description says that it takes its influences from a Tex Avery cartoon. In my eyes, though, it’s very much Dragonball Z.
Lienne ten Kate performs as a clown in real life, but she’s also a cartoonist. Her all-ages Little Planets follows an adorable little clown on a plushie planet who loves the taste of wool and has a pet glowing fly. She’s happy and positive and likes to explore. English-speaking readers be warned: the comic is written completely in Dutch.
Finally, there’s Wook Jin Clark’s Clown Comics, where clowns are treated as some sort of minority class. It is the tale of a boy whose parents die in a cheeseburger explosion at the fun factory. He finally finds his place, though, among a secluded group of red-nosed performers deep in the woods. There’s also a lot of farting. To quote Clark himself, “Clowns don’t always have to be scary, they can just be silly.”