1987 And All That: 3-D Three Stooges #3

A column in which Matt Derman (Comics Matter) reads & reviews comics from 1987, because that’s the year he was born. Click here for an archive of all the previous posts in the series.

3-D Three Stooges #3 (Eclipse) by Norman Maurer (and possibly others, see below)

I was pretty excited going into 3-D Stooges #3 to see what kind of fun Three Stooges gags might be pulled in a 3-D comicbook. It feels like an opportunity to really go nuts with the medium, because the Stooges' comedy is so physical, and the 3-D gimmick potentially allows for enhanced physicality within the comic. The illusion of depth and motion should be able to add a lot, and I was hoping for things like pies that seem like they're flying right at my face, or fingers threatening to poke me in the eyes, or even just the joy of seeing one Stooge hurt another from a weird, funny angle or perspective. Instead, this is a comic that's 3-D for no reason, that takes basically no advantage of the one thing that could set it apart. Every panel has 3-D elements, but none of them do anything with that except to have some characters seem like they're standing behind others, and to just generally mess with the reader's eyes and make it hard to focus or follow the story. There's some solid humor in here, but none of it comes from the 3-D or is even heightened because of it. Between that disappointment and a certain amount of editorial sloppiness, reading this comic is a more difficult, slow-going task than it ought to be based on the story content. It's a collection of extra-lightweight comedic narratives held down by the weight of many creative missteps.

There are two Stooges stories in here, which is a poor choice in and of itself, seeing as this is the third issue of a 3-D comic about a famous trio, so it seems obvious that there should be three stories about them in it, but that's a minor complaint at best. Both stories are adaptations of classic Stooges shorts: Uncivil Warriors, where the Stooges work for the Union Army in the Civil War and are sent to the Confederate side as spies to rescue another spy, and Hoi Polloi, wherein a rich man tries to turn the Stooges into refined gentlemen in order to win a bet/argument with his friend about nature vs. nurture. I was hoping to watch those movies before writing this, like I did with Little Shop of Horrors, but life being what it is right now (my wife is pregnant, my house is being redone, I'm working on a new D&D campaign, etc.), I didn't end up having the time, despite each of them being less than 30 minutes long. I'm not sure how much it matters, though, since neither my problems with nor my praise of the stories in the comic are really connected to them being adapted from something else, at least not in an obvious way. I'm familiar enough with the Three Stooges to recognize this comic as doing a good job of capturing the spirit of their comedy, even if it's the case that specific jokes or plot points from the films aren't included in this comicbook remake. What the comic stories do have going for them is that they're indulgently silly, which is of course a nod to that same attitude from the original Stooges films, so in respect that they succeed, at least partially. Norman Maurer's art is goofy and wild, and is perfect for depicting the slapstick, hurried, always-confused approach to life that is the Stooges' signature. In the dialogue, Maurer does what he can to give us the Stooges' voices, spelling words phonetically and with a lot of well-considered emphasis and punctuation. So regardless of how true to the two individual movies this comic is, it's certainly true to the Stooges as a whole, an homage to their collective style and personality.

If it weren't for the 3-D element, then, I might have ended up with a more positive opinion overall, because viewed only as an attempt at delivering Stooges-esque laughs in a comicbook format, this is just fine. Not great, not gut-bustingly hilarious, but satisfactorily amusing and serviceable. Unfortunately, a lot of that gets undone by the poorly executed 3-D. It's not that the 3-D doesn't work; on the contrary, once you put on the flimsy cardboard glasses with their even flimsier plastic lenses, every image on every page has some amount of depth added to it. It's actually a bit overwhelming; the eyes have no safe place to rest, and while each separate panel is clear, the full pages look jumbled and messy and far too chaotic. It's not just irritating, it's nervous-making, and also somewhat discouraging, making me feel as though the effort I had to put into following along wasn't worth the reward. Above all else, the 3-D was often wholly unnecessary. If three people are standing next to each other and talking calmly without moving, what does pushing one of them to the background and the other two forward add to that scene? That's just one example of many possible choices I could use to illustrate my point, which is that the 3-D is ever-present but rarely if ever needed. Had it been sprinkled throughout the comic, used only when the action or story really called for some visual tricks or jokes, it could've strengthened the work Maurer was doing is his interpretations of these familiar characters. As it is, the 3-D gets in the way of that work, distracting and detracting from it more often than not.

In addition to the Stooges stories, which bookend the comic, there are two other tales in the middle that are their own, original, self-contained humorous shorts. The first is titled "Dead as a Doornail" and stars Keyhole Kasey, an unapologetic Dick Tracy parody. This is followed by "The 3-D-T's" which is a meta-fictional piece looking at the motivation and process behind the creation of 3-D comics just like this one. Norman Maurer is even a character in that story, as is Joe Kubert, though it's not clear whether or not they actually worked on it. There are no creators credited for "The 3-D-T's," and the only credits for "Dead as a Doornail" say that it's by Chestnut Moulds and edited by Jeckill, both of which I'm safely assuming are pseudonyms. Both stories may be written and drawn by Maurer like the Stooges sections are, or they could be by someone else entirely, I just don't know (nor does the Internet seem to, at least as far as my Google skills can uncover). Each of these stories have their moments; there's a funny bit where Keyhole Kasey buys some flowers and then continuously refuses to give them to his girlfriend Bubu, and even scolds her when she tries to touch them, only to reveal at the end that the flowers are key pieces of evidence in the murder Kasey is working to solve. And "The 3-D-T's" is charming in the way it depicts both Maurer and Kubert as borderline madmen, plus there's a genuinely funny part where well-to-do couple the Ooperdoopers go see a 3-D movie for the first time, and Mrs. Ooperdooper is unable to distinguish between the film and reality. As with the Stooges narratives, nothing is going to have you rolling on the floor, but the comedy is on point more than it isn't.

That said, in addition to having the exact same complaints about the 3-D in these middle sections as I do about the Stooges stories at the beginning and end of the issue, the pages for "Dead as a Doornail" and "The 3-D-T's" are out of order. They each begin correctly, but in both cases there are pages from the middle of the narratives that are placed instead at the end, not as a joke but clearly due to an error on the part of the printer, editor, or both. That's not the worst mistake a person can make, and because the stories are only four or five pages apiece, it doesn't take long to see what's happened and course correct as a reader. But the badly done 3-D is baffling enough without the story being scrambled, so in this particular comic, that screw-up hurts more than it otherwise might.

The main question I was left with after reading 3-D Stooges #3 was, Why is this a thing? Why make it 3-D? Why is it an anthology? What's the point of its existence at all? Is it just a gimmick for its own sake, a 3-D comicbook published simply because that was possible at the time? Based on what we see in "The 3-D-T's," that may very well be the case, since the only inspiration the fictionalized Maurer and Kubert have for making 3-D comics is the that 3-D movies are becoming popular, so why not comics, too? And I don't necessarily mind that on a conceptual level. The comicbook medium, just like any other artform, should be experimented with, stretched, and expanded upon. But if you're going to use something like 3-D, then use it. Commit to it, play with it, make it count. Don't just stick it on top of any random funny idea as if it justifies itself without reason. That's what bugs me most about this issue, not that it's 3-D, but that it's purposelessly 3-D.

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