There was, however, one notable exception, and that was Ambush Bug.
Ambush Bug was a character created by Keith Giffen as a one-off villain for Superman who ended up making several return visits, evolving slowly from a killer with a wacky turn of phrase to a less homicidal, more gently zany irritant, and finally getting a four-issue mini-series where he could fully run riot in adventures seemingly inspired more by the Pythons and Loony Tunes than by the fictional universe around him.
Part of the gag – arguably, the gag on which all the other gags rested - was that Ambush Bug knew he was in a comic. In the same way the characters from the kids comics of my youth all had a basic understanding of their fictional status and had regular conversations with their readers, Ambush Bug would have regular set-tos with his writer and artist. By the time I got on board with all this as a kid – the second mini, Son Of Ambush Bug – the Bug was entering his imperial phase, and by that point seemingly every joke was in some way about breaking the fourth wall.
There’s one frankly brilliant sequence that sticks in my mind to this day, involving scripter Robert Fleming and artist Giffen getting into a blazing row and then swapping jobs in a fit of pique, leading to a page of terribly poorly-drawn stick figures yelling ridiculous dialogue. Needless to say, this one page was by far the most hilarious thing in the issue and probably influenced my writing career more than any other comics page I can think of. To this day, Son Of Ambush Bug #3 remains one of my very favourite things of all time, and reading it brings back all kinds of powerful nostalgia.
he smashing of the fourth wall was relentless, and no part of the comics process was left uncastigated. No cow was sacred – not the characters, not the creators, not the readers, not the competition, and certainly not the publishing company paying good money to have this grotesque satire of all their highest-paying trademarks splashed across the newsstands for a braying audience of juvenile malcontents. (Like me.) Son Of Ambush Bug ended with the Bug – having transitioned over the years from the larger-than-life Bugs Bunny figure of the early days to something more akin to Elmer Fudd, a bitter, scrawny, put-upon shnook resigned to his fate as a punching bag – being unceremoniously booted from the DC universe and even more unceremoniously killed. His death sequence, in a final twist of the knife, was allegedly rendered by a small child – more stick figures, this time with the word DED written above them.
That’s how you go out.
The Bug returned many years later, for what felt like a victory lap – a giant-sized annual called the Nothing Special, which once again mercilessly mocked all the sacred cows of the day. The tone was celebratory, Giffen and Fleming represented by cutting away to a neon bar sign as their increasingly drunken voices echoed underneath it. I was older, and the magic wasn’t quite as strong as before, but it was still a welcome return. Things could happily have ended there, but Ambush Bug always pushed his luck.
He was brought back one final time in the comics, relatively recently – in the 2000s, if memory serves – but this time he didn't seem quite so untouchable. The final issue of the six-issue series – the one that would have excoriated the company’s most recent blunder – was never seen. Eventually, a sanitised version emerged. Old fans shook their heads. It felt like a mortal wound.
Well, it’s not quite so sad as all that. Ambush Bug got a proper last hurrah of sorts in the last episode of the Batman: Brave And The Bold cartoon, which tore as brutally into kids’ cartoons as the print version tore into comics. But these days, the Bug’s home is in the back of every DC comic, doing promotional ads, pushing the latest crossover. The anarchist is now the pitchman for what he once tore down.
That’s the trouble with being a fictional character. You can act as savvy about it as you like, but in the end you’re only as knowing as the company holding the IP.
That’s it for this entry. Further along my blog tour, I’ll be discussing more breakages of the Fourth Wall in my youth, and how they inspired me to write that book I keep failing to mention. What was it called? The Functional Man? It’ll come to me
The Fictional Man
By Al Ewing
How does it feel, not being real?
Al Ewing is a writer of extraordinary talent and with his first novel for Solaris, The Fictional Man, his incredible imagination has created a work of disturbing, fascinating insight and power.
In Hollywood, where last year’s stars are this year’s busboys, Fictionals are everywhere. Niles Golan’s therapist is a Fictional. So is his best friend. Fictionals – characters ‘translated’ into living beings for movies and TV using cloning technology – are a part of daily life in LA now. Sometimes the problem is knowing who’s real and who’s not.
Divorced, alcoholic and hanging on by a thread, Niles – author of The Saladin Imperative: A Kurt Power Novel and many others – has been hired to write a big-budget reboot of a classic movie. If he does this right, the studio might bring one of Niles’ own characters to life. But somewhere beneath the movie – beneath the TV show it was inspired by, the children’s book behind that and the story behind that – is the kernel of something important. If he can just hold it together long enough to figure it out...
Having already produced some of the most celebrated work in the shared-worlds fiction of Abaddon Books, this much-anticipated book is being tipped for cross-over success as Ewing lays claim to the legacy of Philip K. Dick while also stamping his own unique vision on the genre.
This is a major new author whose career should be watched and whose writing must be read.