Storytelling Engines: Ambush Bug
(or “They Thought Him Up!”)
The sub-title, for those of you not familiar with Keith Giffen’s nigh-legendary humor creation, refers to Giffen’s “secret origin” for the character. It’s at once completely accurate and utterly defiant to the fans who worry deeply about the continuity of DC’s fictional universe…but it’s incomplete. So here, with apologies to Giffen, is the expanded and revised Secret Origin of Ambush Bug!
Ambush Bug began his career when a meteoric rush of inspiration landed him as a potential antagonist for Superman–not so much a character designed to carry his own series as a potential story-generator for an established hero. He was intended to be a madman in the “Joker” mold of things, a crazed killer with a teleporter that let him always stay one step ahead of the Man of Steel.
But after just one story, it became clear that a Joker-type killer didn’t fit into the Superman “daylight hero” mythos. Ambush Bug’s homicidal tendencies receded, and he reappeared as a wacky prankster whose antics frustrated and annoyed Superman. In addition to teleportation, he gained the power of superhuman satirism, a sort of denser pocket reality he carried within himself that overrode the reality of others. His new powers allowed him to escape from Arkham by being so crazy that they declared him sane just to get him out of their hair, allowed him multiple origins, and even got his own arch-nemesis in the form of an evil sock. This new version of the character suited Giffen’s anarchic sense of humor much better–so well, in fact, that over his next few appearances, he became a hero instead of a villain (all the better to carry his own title with.)
But his new role created a potential instability in the very fabric of the DC universe–the heroes depended on verisimilitude and the suspension of disbelief to maintain their existence in the reader’s imagination, but the sheer mass of Ambush Bug’s dense satire was too heavy to suspend any disbelief. Already he’d deduced Superman’s secret identity by noticing that his “disguise” was just a pair of glasses, and reduced reliable villain Kobra to a laughing stock. Things were getting dangerous. Ambush Bug had broken the Fourth Wall.
Eventually, by the time of his mini-series, Ambush Bug’s humor had become so dense that he’d plummeted out of the DC universe completely. Finding himself outside the universe allowed him a perspective few other fictional characters possessed; he was able to spot inconsistencies, continuity errors, retcons, and make fun of them all. Giffen even created an antagonist for him in the form of “Jonni DC”, a self-proclaimed hero whose job was to keep all the continuity clean and tidy (and get rid of anomalies/inconsistencies/wiseasses like Ambush Bug.) But with his power to exist outside of continuity, Ambush Bug had become effectively unkillable–how do you kill someone who just ignores his death and pops up five pages later?
But even though he couldn’t be killed, Ambush Bug’s powers had nonetheless gone completely out of control. By the end of his second mini-series and his later specials, Ambush Bug was so far outside the DC Universe that he was no longer capable of relating to it. His satirical weight was now so dense that plot logic simply collapsed into a singularity in his stories–the head of Julius Schwartz killing off Spike of “Sugar and Spike” was now just one more plot element, no more or less logical than anything else that happened in an Ambush Bug story. By the end of his Showcase Presents volume, Ambush Bug had become too bizarre to even be written, a catastrophic collapse of his storytelling engine into chaos that led to a long period of obscurity. It’s only now that enough inspiration has accumulated to fuel a new mini-series. Can it sustain a character who is almost too anarchic to have a storytelling engine? In a series where you actually can do anything, does that help or hinder a writer? Only time will tell. Time, and DC Comics.