I wouldn’t even know where to start if I had to describe Ambush Bug to a non-comics fan. “He’s like Bugs Bunny,” I suppose I would say. “A trickster type, but in the DC Universe, and he’s not really a villain but he started out that way. He’s more like a guy who’s used to make fun of superhero comics. The stories are pretty random, as if they were made up based on whatever gags popped into the writers heads. But it’s funny. Not superhero comics funny like a joke about wearing underwear on the outside, but real-life funny, like a Coen brothers movie mixed with Monty Python. It’s funnier if you like superhero comics.”
Would that convince anyone to buy a Showcase edition of the collected Ambush Bug comics? Maybe not, but at less than $17 for 480 pages of Ambush Bug tales — practically every appearance of the character prior to 2008 — it’s a volume that deserves a look.
I won’t get into the history of the Ambush Bug character here, but if you read this Showcase volume you’ll see his history unfold. From a wise-cracking supervillain who faced Superman and the Doom Patrol to a guide through the mainstream comics of the 1990s (complete with Image comics riffs and, to complete the circle of life, gags about the Vertigo-style Doom Patrol), you can see the development of the Ambush Bug character. You can see Keith Giffen using the character less and less as a boorish Mr. Mxyzptlk and more and more as a vehicle for parody. Not just to make fun of superheroes themselves, but to make fun of the entire industry, and the fickle nature of the superhero genre.
Though, like all Showcase reprints, this is only a black and white collection, the missing color isn’t as big of a problem as I would have suspected. Just to be clear, color would have been nice, but the stories still work without it. Even though Giffen’s later style — basically everything from the original “Ambush Bug” miniseries (which begins on page 129, to give you an idea about the amount of proto-Ambush Bug tales included here) through “Son of Ambush Bug” uses no gutters between panels. Giffen smashes the panels together (unless mimicking another artist’s style, as he does randomly throughout), and I would have expected the lack of color would make those pages too busy. But they aren’t. They are crisp and easy to navigate, even if they are packed with information.
That’s what the Ambush Bug stories are all about, though. Packing in the information, from gags about DC continuity to laments about the Inferior Five. From takedowns of Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” to metafictional reveries on the use of page layout for fight scenes.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that this Showcase volume of Ambush Bug comics gives a kind of history of the superhero comic book genre, from style to substance, but it does so in the most irreverent way possible. But in parodying Jack Kirby or Gil Kane, Richie Rich, or Judge Dredd, in commenting on all of it and showing how ridiculous it all is, Keith Giffen and his team reveal the beating heart of the comic book industry.
Sure, they kick it around before throwing it into the trash compactor, but that’s part of the fun. Nah, it’s all the fun.