Compare & Contrast: Comic Book Guy As Villain

Treehouse of Horror X3

“Tonight’s episode: Enter . . . The Collector.” – TV Announcer

There are basically no characters on the show who haven’t undergone a serious dumbing down in the Zombie Simpsons era (Gil, maybe?).  Some of them gradually devolved, others had sudden changes in a single episode; either way, there’s often a moment when you knew that the original version was never coming back.  For Comic Book Guy, I’ve always thought that moment came in Season 11 when he materialized out of nowhere to complain about the Simpsons getting a horse again.  Homer asks if anyone cares what “this guy” thinks, and the assembled crowd shouts “No!”.

He’d been used as a stand-in for the audience before, of course, but that was them dropping all the subtlety and treating this strawman approximation of their audience seriously.  They knew people were going to bitch because they were nakedly repeating something, and instead of thinking “maybe we shouldn’t repeat things”, they thought “haters gonna hate”.  Comic Book Guy has been a way for the show to paper over its own shoddiness ever since.

The difference between the two is on full display when you consider the ways they used him in very similar positions in “Brick Like Me” and as “The Collector” in “Treehouse of Horror X”.  (Which aired, incidentally, just a few months before the second horsey episode.)  In both cases he’s playing a science fiction bad guy who knows how cliched his actions are, but in one that’s the basis of a wide ranging satire, in the other it’s a contradictory and expository excuse.

This is Lego Comic Book Guy’s first line in “Brick Like Me”, right after Homer asks him for the Lego princess set:

Lego Comic Book Guy: Ah, always good to meet a fellow AMFoP.
Homer: Huh?
Lego Comic Book Guy: Adult Male Fan of Princesses.

As a punchline, “Adult Male Fan of Princesses” isn’t bad, but to have Lego Comic Book Guy just explain it to the audience doesn’t do it any favors.  At least it’s got a punchline, though.

In Lego Comic Book Guy’s next scene, after some extended Homer freaking out scenes, he doesn’t even get a line.  He just stands there while Homer grabs the toy box to go back to regular Springfield.  After that, Homer returns and we get what may be the clunkiest lines in an episode that had an awful lot of them:

Lego Comic Book Guy:  Okay, apparently our whole world is a fantasy in the mind of an emotionally devastated Homer Simpson.
Marge:  One of the main questions I have about that is, why?
Lego Comic Book Guy:  The real Homer fears losing his daughter’s love so he invented this toy world where nothing will ever change.
Marge:  How can you be sure?
Lego Comic Book Guy:  I have devoted my life to second rate science fiction.  Trust me, that is what we are dealing with here.
Homer:  So if I don’t find my way out of here, I could be trapped in a fantasy forever?
Lego Comic Book Guy:  I’m afraid so.

That would be bad enough if we hadn’t already had that explained to us several times, including by Homer immediately preceding it (“I wish I lived in little Springfield, everything fits together and no one ever gets hurt.”).  But it gets worse when you remember that he’s supposed to be the damned villain.

Not only is he unnecessarily telling us things we already know, but if he really is supposed to be the part of Homer that wants him to stay in Lego land forever, then it’s 100% against Lego Comic Book Guy’s interests to explain everything.  The writers actually know this, because they tell us directly in yet another masterpiece of unnecessary exposition later in the episode:

Homer: Now tell me how to get out of here!
Lego Comic Book Guy: All you need to do is open the box back to your so-called reality.  But I can’t let that happen.
Homer:  You’re the bad guy?  I thought you were the rule explainer guy!
Lego Comic Book Guy:  As an adult who surrounds himself with child’s toys, I represent the part of your psyche that prefers this artificial world.

Sometimes villains don’t get revealed until right before the final confrontation, and that’s fine provided that the villain’s previous actions make sense in light of that reveal.  But literally telling the audience that Lego Comic Book Guy is the bad guy while offering no reason whatsoever for his behavior up to that point is hacktacular almost beyond comprehension.

As if that wasn’t enough, right before the final confrontation, Comic Book Guy quickly builds a castle to keep Homer from reaching the princess set:

Homer: How did you do that?
Lego Comic Book Guy: Because, as the ultimate collector, I have every playset ever made!

Here you can see the damage that their utter contempt for storytelling does to the rest of the episode.  As a villain in a Lego universe, Comic Book Guy makes perfect sense.  If there’s anyone in Springfield who’d have every Lego set, it’s him.  But instead of using his time in the episode to show us some of his sets, or maybe (heaven forbid) foreshadow it a little bit in his previous scenes, they just have him say why he did what he just did and then hold up the things he’s talking about.  The script is full of so much explanatory clutter that there’s no room for any kind of humor beyond “ooh, look at that”.

Video Exposition

Good thing this video program has live narration, or we’d never know what was happening.

And that’s how Zombie Simpsons portrays Comic Book Guy as the villain in their big budget, heavily advertised, and no doubt delicately negotiated Lego episode: as a manic narrator who can’t even be called one dimensional after they basically negated his already thin character with an unrelated and contradictory one at the end.

Now compare that to the regular budget, just another Halloween episode portrayal in “Treehouse of Horror X”.  Like the Lego episode, a Halloween episode lets them put their regular characters into way out and wacky personas.  Unlike the Lego episode, they gave Comic Book Guy’s “The Collector” everything that a good and funny character needs: motivation, foibles and weaknesses, jokes and a coherent story.

Consider this, from right after he kidnaps Lucy Lawless:

The Collector: Care for a Rollo, sweet Xena?
Lucy Lawless: Alright, Collector, stick this in your tweezers, I’m not Xena!  I’m an actress, you lunatic!
The Collector: Oh, please, I’m not insane.  I simply wish to take you back to my layer and make you my bride.

Eating candy while he drives a rusted out hatchback, he claims to not be insane while doing something clearly insane.  He’s not directly explaining anything because his actions and words convey the basics so the jokes can float on top.  He doesn’t need to say, “I’m caricature of a collector geek as an Adam-West-Batman cheesy villainy” because it’s written into the fabric of the episode.  Similarly, Lawless’s contempt for tweezers using collectors doesn’t need to be explained because we know her and can see it.

Treehouse of Horror X4

Characters doing stuff without concurrently narrating it.  Even Season 11 knew how to do this.

Even when the characters do talk about what they’re doing, it’s descriptive, not explanatory:

The Collector: I have here the only working phaser ever built.  It was fired only once, to keep William Shatner from making another album.

He’s describing the concrete thing in his hand right now, not explaining the overarching background of what’s happening.  And when he fires, he doesn’t explain what a phaser is or how it works.  The show trusts its audience to be know that already.  Moreover, calling it a phaser also acts as setup for the Shatner punchline, and who doesn’t love a good Shatner joke?

The rest of the segment is just like that.  When they describe something, they don’t explain what it is or how it works, they expect you to know it.  So when Lawless points out that he’s removed the light saber from it’s original packaging, she doesn’t have to explain why he’s suddenly distraught.  Ditto for when the Collector ends his death in “classic Lorne Greene pose” and when Lisa points out that Xena can’t fly.

The Collector is Comic Book Guy as a character within the show who’s been turned, for this one episode, into an exaggerated bad guy version of himself.  He’s still a person under there, though, so when he cackles about being “unbelievably amused” or whines that he fell for a “ruse so hackneyed it would make Stan Lee blush” it fits with who he is regularly as well as the character he’s inhabiting.  Lego Comic Book Guy, on the other hand, is a kind of stand-in proxy narrator for the writing staff who spends most of his time on screen explaining a very simple concept that had already been explained several times before.  Having used him as a crutch instead of a character right until the end, it makes a certain kind of lazy sense to just keep leaning on him and have him be the bad guy as well, coherent narrative be damned.

None of that is unusual for Zombie Simpsons, of course; nonsensical exposition, plot swerves, and bizarre character behavior are are in every episode.  But it neatly illustrates the fact that, for all the hoopla, “Brick Like Me” was just another episode.

19 Responses to “Compare & Contrast: Comic Book Guy As Villain”

  1. 1 Sarah J
    8 May 2014 at 5:11 pm

    The ZS version of Comic Book Guy just existing to acknowledge faults… There’s kind of this mindset in a lot of bad writing that if you point out that something is bad, that makes it acceptable. The ZS writers are probably aware of how much more criticism they get, so they try this lame technique.

  2. 8 May 2014 at 7:47 pm

    I just saw that episode a few minutes ago. zero laughs. that’s what I got.

    I remember laughing to tears with the simpsons. now they are just too boring.


  3. 4 Stan
    8 May 2014 at 8:04 pm

    Does anyone remember how they animated talking characters in the first two-three seasons or so? When the face was split facing different directions in a frame?

    Take a look: http://i.imgur.com/43J7UYS.jpg

    • 5 Anonymous
      8 May 2014 at 8:52 pm

      That was called the “Bart Twitch.”

      • 6 Stan
        8 May 2014 at 11:22 pm

        Now a Season 26 episode will feature Bart getting hit in the face and becoming looking like that for the whole episode. Also, Robert Downey Jr. will guess star for some reason.

    • 7 Jeff
      11 May 2014 at 2:54 pm

      Yeah. They actually address it in one (or possibly more) of the DVD commentaries. IIRC, the animators were instructed to stop doing that, but Wes Archer would occasionally sneak them in for a while.

  4. 8 jordan
    8 May 2014 at 9:58 pm

    While I agree with many points made here, I think there are just as many stretches on your part; in order to justify how bad ZS is.

    Lego Comic Book Guy: I have devoted my life to second rate science fiction. Trust me, that is what we are dealing with here.

    As a writer myself (removing everything from narrative etc, and talking solely of pure creationism) this is a pretty clever line. No less clever than the insane line from the S11 episode. The only problem is, THAT’s where it ends. I appreciate that it doesn’t work during an explanation narrative, but I wouldn’t class that as the defining point on why it worked from the earlier season but didn’t work now.

    The problem isn’t so much the explanation, as it is the purely crummy writing in general. It’s so un-seamless, gappy and just garbage. You can’t slip one clever line into a jumble of crud. It lacks what I like to call ‘creative flow’.

    In the same way you write things like ‘hand made’, as ‘hand-made’ to make it easier for the reader to understand and follow, you need the writing to have consistent flow, especially with comedic writing. The Xena scene works because it flows beautifully, and the animation ices what is a very fine cake. It shouldn’t *HAVE* to depend on the animation showing the opposite of Comic BG’s actions to his words to make it funny. That’s the bonus. When the writing is beautifully done, it’s even funny on paper, or just to read. That’s a joke even without the animation, because the dialogue is consistent.

    In the same way that a scene with NO dialogue can be hilarious by pure animation (let’s talk Homer dialling Mr Sparkle in Japan), it’s funny because it is WRITTEN that way, on paper. Not just the scene, but what preceded and follows it.
    It flows into that scene (the convo with the clerk), flows through, and flows out. It has to be ‘ON’ all the time. Just like stand up comedy. You can’t afford one moment of being ‘OFF’. People are there to laugh. They tune in to laugh. It’s expected that the game is ON no matter what.

    Animation, voice acting, everything aside: It’s pure writing/flow that governs the cleverness, or lack-thereof. The blatant explanations CAN be hilarious (and they’ve done it. I could find examples), if the writing were any good.

    They’re not to blame. The damn awful writing period is.

    • 8 May 2014 at 11:35 pm

      Amen to that. Good points, sir.

    • 10 Joe H
      9 May 2014 at 4:26 pm

      I also like the “second-rate science fiction” if only because it acknowledged the quality of the writing overall in the episode. And yes, explanations can be funny. Just look at “Homer³” with Frink’s very funny explanation of the mysterious 3rd Dimension or the zookeeper’s explanation in Bart Gets an Elephant.

      Though Charlie is right that the “twist” is telegraphed so far in advance that all of the explaining came across as a poor device to get Homer to realize his situation without him actually learning it himself. Unlike Homer³, this was supposedly a personal journey of self-discovery yet ends up with Homer just being flat out told (and in turn the audience) what his emotions and motivations should be and how “his world” works…over, and over and over. Even the overrated “Eternal Sunshine of the Simpson Mind” had better narrative flow in handling the mystery element in terms of self-discovery.

      This was just as bad as “Married to the Blob” with that Studio Ghibli sequence devolving into the daughter flat out explaining her motivations to her dad while trying to pass off the experience as symbolic and metaphorical.

      Funny you should rail on the animation as that was the only thing that actually made this worth watching. The animators were far more creative than the writers in this case.

      • 11 jordan
        13 May 2014 at 8:07 pm

        You know, it’s actually funny you mention Homer3.

        I never even thought of that, but come to think of it now, this Lego episode was supposedly meant to be the modern-day equivalent. Homer3 was considered revolutionary for its time. Talked about for months afterwards.

        The lead-up to this was very epically flogged, but the only post-ep talk has been how average and wasted an opportunity it was.

        Interesting nuance.

    • 12 Sarah J
      10 May 2014 at 4:15 am

      Speaking as a fellow writer (albeit not a very good one) I agree. ZS episodes tend to be very disjointed and all over the place. There’s no flow or good sense of timing. Lots of filler, bad lines, things happening for no reason. Even the best of animation can’t save a show from bad writing. (I really hate it when a poorly-written work gets amazing animation, it’s like, a waste)

  5. 13 Stan
    8 May 2014 at 11:23 pm

    “Stretch Dude and Blubber Giiiiiiirl”
    Who remembers the tune?

  6. 17 Stan
    9 May 2014 at 1:41 am

    By the way! I think there is also LEGO for teenagers (like age 18 or even 20 being the farthest grade), umm there was surely a motorcycle, a racecar I think… and a bunch of cool looking realistic fighter jets.

    (Sorry for the abundant commenting, I’m just in a hotel right now, it’s like 1 AM and fuck am I bored.)

  7. 18 Ryan
    9 May 2014 at 10:25 pm

    I just watched this episode. The constant exposition was driving me insane. How can the writers think this is acceptable?

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