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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.).
Slapstick (1992-1993, 2017)
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
*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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