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Details from comic books starting clockwise from the top right: interior Slapstick no. 1 (Nov 1992), cover Funnyman no. 5 (July 1948), interior Smash Comics no. 24 (July 1941), interior Kurt Busiek's Astro City v. 2 no. 12 (Dec 1997).

Let’s Talk Comics: Superhero Clowns

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The world of comic books presents a slew of villains who are clowns, jesters, and jokesters. But what about heroes? Superheroes can be funny and witty, but do any of them don a disguise of an actual clown? Do any heroes or heroines play with the fine line of clowns being scary and clowns being funny? After a trip into the Library’s comic book collection, I am pleased to present four clowns and jesters who save the day! Share more in the comments.

The Jester (featured in Smash Comics #22-85, 1941-1949)

Interior image from Smash Comics depicting the Jester punching a bad guy over-imposed on a blue diamond shape in the background. At the top of the page is the phrase The Jester in bold title font.
Title page for The Jester in Smash Comics no. 26 (Sept. 1941).

In 1941, The Jester was created by Paul Gustavson for Smash Comics, an anthology comic with multiple recurring characters and stories. First appearing in the May issue no. 22, Chuck Lane is a rookie cop in New York City who exchanges his police uniform for a jester costume in order to catch criminals outside the confines of his job.

Two comic panels showing Chuck Lane as a policeman running into a dead ended alley while chasing criminals.
Interior from Smash Comics no. 82 (Apr. 1949).

The Jester wears a crazy black and yellow polka-dot and striped costume with a green tunic, complete with a bell-trimmed hood and cowl to conceal his identity. His tinkling bells and laughter strike fear into hearts of bad guys everywhere.

Comic panel showing Chuck Lane as the Jester, running. Narrative text says 'like a streak, the jester is around the corner to the back alley.'
Interior from Smash Comics no. 24 (July 1941)

The vigilantism is light hearted with the Jester cracking jokes and puns while delivering criminals to the police. His key fighting skills are his gymnastic abilities, his fists, and a well-aimed rubber ball named Quinopolis that also serves as his calling card.

Two comic panels from different Jester stories. One depicts the small, bouncy clown-faced ball hitting a villain in the back of the head and knocking him down. The other panel shows Sargent Mulligan's face with mouth open in shock as the ball bounces off his nose.
The Jester’s weapon and calling card – Quinopolis. Interiors from Smash Comics no. 81 (Feb. 1949), left, and no. 23 (June 1941), right.

Chuck’s commanding officers, Detectives Mulligan and McGinty, get annoyed by the Jester and try to arrest him as a public nuisance multiple times, despite all the help he gives the police. Chuck, when a policeman, has to sometimes play dumb in order to cover for his success as the Jester, and the officers never do figure out why Chuck and the Jester are never in the same room at the same time!

The Jester lasted eight years in Smash Comics, and the Library of Congress has most of the issues with the Jester in its comic book collection.

Funnyman (1948)

The cover depicts a scene in a circus tent. Funnyman is riding a unicycle across a tight rope line preparing to throw a juggling pin at a bad guy who is violently stealing a trapeze artist's jewel necklace. At the top of the cover in big red letters is the title Funnyman.
Cover of Funnyman no. 5 (July 1948).

Ten years after the creation of Superman, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created another super man – this one with a heroic sense of humor. Meet Funnyman, inspired by actor and comedian Danny Kaye. Larry Davis is a TV comedian in regular clothes, but becomes the crime-fighting Funnyman in his clown costume of polka-dotted trousers and huge shoes, complete with a fake red nose that successfully hides his identity.

One comic panel shows a small orphan boy getting slapped and robbed by a big bully. The following panel shows Larry Davis witness this scene from an apartment window and he is preparing to change into his Funnyman costume and come to the boy's rescue. His two friends are protesting his impending absence from working on his up coming comedy script.
Larry Davis prepares to become Funnyman. Interior from Funnyman no. 5 (July 1948).

With nothing but his caring soul and super sense of humor, Funnyman combats criminals using tricks and pranks – his Funnygun can shoot laughing gas, pepper spray, or water, self-propelled punching gloves, juggling pins, spring-loaded shoes, and his gadget car the Jet-Jallopy. Every part of the story contributes to the high theatrics of the light-hearted comedy. Every story title and bad guy name has either a rhyme or alliteration. The narrative text that brings the reader through each episode includes many puns and funny references that are just as hilarious as the Funnyman’s heroic deeds. At the start of each episode, Larry Davis is introduced as an “ace comedian” and Funnyman is referred to as “the prince of pranksters,” “the dashing daredevil,” and “the comic crime-buster.”

The two scenes are each of four comic panels. The panels depict Funnyman using his Funnygun weapon to detain and capture multiple criminals by shooting pepper spray, water, laughing gas, and a wire lasso.
The Funnygun as used in Funnyman no. 5 (left) and no. 6 (right).

Funnyman had his own comic book series and each issue had four multi-page stories. The series had a short run as a comic book hero with only six issues, but the character continued as a syndicated newspaper comic in Sunday editions with some repeated stories from the comics. You can read them on Chronicling America* in the Evening Star (Washington, D.C.).

The first comic strip of Funnyman to appear in the Sunday newspaper depicts the first time Larry Davis puts on the clown costume as a joke for his comedy routine.
Read the origin of Funnyman in Chronicling America starting in the October 11, 1948 issue of the Evening Star (Washington, D.C.).



Slapstick (1992-1993, 2017)

The inside title page depicts the large heading 'the totally awesome origin of slapstick.' The character is posed leaning on his giant mallet with a hand on his hip and large grin. Cartoon question marks surround him, each bearing a question about him, including the question 'what is his favorite color?'
Title page of Slapstick no. 1 (Nov. 1992).

In 1992, Marvel gave a limited series to an unconventional and accidental hero who takes the name Slapstick. The origin story of Slapstick is told in the first issue of the four part series which describes the character on the cover as “the hero who laughs at danger!” Steve Harmon is a high school student, the class clown, and local prankster. While dressed up as a clown for a prank, an accidental trip through a magic portal through Dimension X transforms him into living, unstable matter called “electroplasm,” turning him into an indestructible living cartoon. His original costume of a red and blue jumpsuit, large shoes, white face paint, and a large pink tri-pointed wig becomes his physical representation as Slapstick. A button in his glove allows him to change back into his human form.

One comic panel shows Steve Harmon in a clown costume with white face paint and large pink wig. The second trio of comic panels shows Slapstick pressing the button in his glove and whirling in a tornado to turn back into Steve Harmon in a Hawaiian shirt and jeans..
Steve Harmon’s costume (left; Slapstick no. 1, Nov. 1992) becomes his Slapstick form (right; Slapstick no. 2, Dec. 1992).

The rebooted series in 2017 changes the origin story a little: Steve is permanently in a cartoon state and seeks a way to transform back into his human form. The overall tone of the 2017 adventures is also darker and slightly bloodier.

The trio of comic panels shows Slapstick's head being blown off by a shot gun blast under the word 'blam!' followed by his body, standing with his head missing with smoke in the air, and lastly his head reappearing covered in black ash with the word 'poink' above.
Interior from Slapstick no. 2 (Dec. 1992).

Along with indestructability, Slapstick’s weapon of choice is a giant mallet fondly named Gertrude. Because he is indestructible, his body and especially his face can be squished or stretched into array of shapes and sizes that heighten the comedy of a scene. One of his repeated tricks is to put bullets in his mouth and spit them out like a machine gun.

Comic panel of Slapstick, head and shoulders, with a mouth full of bullets, spitting them out as if from a gun. The words 'spu spu spu spu' line the bottom of the panel.
Interior from Slapstick no. 1 (Feb. 2017).

Endowed with super powers, Steve rarely takes being a hero seriously and is reluctant to actively fight crime. His obnoxious sense of humor and unchecked violence also prevents him from fitting in with the other Marvel heroes who make appearances in the series, such as the Fantastic Four, the Avengers, and Spider-Man – with often hilarious results!

Four comic panels that show one combine image of Thor extending his hammer to direct a large group of various other Marvel superheroes. Slapstick appears in each panel at the back of the crowd, trying to talk over the din and share his idea.
Slapstick tries to fit in with the other Marvel heroes in Slapstick no. 4 (Feb. 1993).


Jack-in-the-Box (featured in Kurt Busiek’s Astro City 1995 and 1996 series, Astro City 2013 series, Astro City: Dark Age Book One, Two and Three from the 2000s.)

Photo of two hands holding the comic book Kurt Busiek's Astro City number 3 depicting a scary grinning clown face that is in partial shadow, lit from below. One autograph is near the top of the cover underneath the white lettering for Astro City. Two more autographs are near the bottom of the cover on the clown's painted mouth.
Autographed cover of Kurt Busiek’s Astro City no. 3 (Oct. 1995), the first appearance of Jack-in-the-Box.

A recurring character in Image Comics’ world of Astro City, Jack-in-the-Box is one of the many superheroes and vigilantes that protect Astro City. In a harlequin jumpsuit with huge pom pom buttons, the Jack-in the-Box conceals his identity under a white face mask with garish clown makeup. The collar of the jumpsuit is a fluffy red ruff that sometimes gives the appearance of a large wig.

A comic panel of Jack in the Box climbing through the window of his apartment while removing his clown face mask. He is entering the living room where his wife is asking him where he has been.
Zachary Johnson comes home. Interior from Kurt Busiek’s Astro City v. 2 no. 11 (Nov. 1997).

The identity of Jack-in-the-Box is passed down as a legacy to three different generations over the course of the series: Jack Johnson, Zachary Johnson, and Roscoe James. The origin of this clown vigilante starts with Jack Johnson, a genius Black toy designer who creates his own gadgets to fight the city’s gangs and save his kidnapped father. Jack’s son, Zachary, becomes the next Jack when his father is killed in an explosion. When Zachary becomes a father, he retires from vigilantism and mentors Roscoe, a young street gymnast, who assumes the role.

Left panel depicts the Jack in the box punching through three bad buys in suits and hats with his spring loaded legs. One of them has a handgun that has gone off in a blast of red in the bottom right corner as he is falling down. The bullet crosses in front of Jack in the box's face. The text 'Father's Day' is at the top of the page. Right panel depicts Jack in the box leaping in midair as he travels across rooftops. One arm is extended with his spring loaded mechanism to reach off sight.
Left: Title page of Kurt Busiek’s Astro City v. 2 no. 12 (Dec. 1997). Right: Interior from Astro City no. 35 (July 2016).

Due to the inventive toy-making day jobs of both Jack and Zachary, the Jack-in-the-Box uses a variety of joke-themed gadgets to fight crime. He uses red rubber noses to shock and stun adversaries, streamer confetti that binds and inhibit movement, and leg and arm coils that extend the reach of his kicks and punches. The crime that Jack-in-the-Box faces in Astro City is darker and more serious despite laughing at a confetti punch.

Comic panel shows Jack in the box leaping over a group of three bad guys while hitting them with his colorful party streamers to tie them up.
Streamer confetti weapons from Kurt Busiek’s Astro City no. 3 (Oct. 1995).


Additional Resources:

Grand Comics Database

Funnyman: The First Jewish Superhero by Thomas Andrae and Mel Gordon (2010)

*The Chronicling America historic newspapers online collection is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program and jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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Comments (2)

  1. A great blog from my favorite Library of Congress librarian. You have the coolest job!!!

  2. I Love Clowns! This is Awesome! Thank you for Posting this!

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