34. Three Men and a Comic Book

"Filth"

“Filthy – but genuinely arousing.”

  • First broadcast: Thursday 9 May 1991, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Monday 28 April 1997, BBC2
  • Showrunners: James L Brooks, Matt Groening, Sam Simon
  • First draft: Jeff Martin
  • Writing staff: Al Jean, Mike Reiss, Jay Kogen, Wallace Wolodarsky, George Meyer, Jon Vitti, John Swartzwelder, Jeff Martin, David Stern
  • Storyboard: Peter Avanzino, Jeff Lynch
  • Animation director: Wes Archer

Season two of The Simpsons bowed out in exactly the same fashion as season one: with an episode that wasn’t meant to be the finale. The reason, once again, was production problems. In this case, the story pencilled in for transmission – Blood Feud – simply wasn’t ready in time. In its place, Three Men and a Comic Book became the de facto finale. Blood Feud wouldn’t surface for another two months, bundled out in mid-July as part of a Fox Television gimmick called “premiere week”. It was a flop. By contrast, this episode turned out to be the first time The Simpsons overtook The Cosby Show in the ratings. It had taken the best part of a year, but Bart had finally beaten Bill.

Plot
Bart, Milhouse and Martin chip in to buy a rare edition of the first ever Radioactive Man comic. None of them can agree over who should take the publication home, however, leading to a late-night showdown in Bart’s treehouse. It’s a slender twig of a story, but energetically told where Bart’s Dog Gets an ‘F’ was lazy, and teeming with imaginative dialogue and visuals where Bart vs Thanksgiving was barren. The whole plot takes the form of a kind of slow camera zoom: act one is at a sprawling comics convention; act two narrows the focus to Bart’s neighbourhood; act three narrows it further to the area in and around the treehouse. With each tightening of the location, the cast of characters becomes smaller and the tension becomes greater. It’s extremely precise storytelling – but clinically effective. 9

Characters
This was probably the first time fan culture had been depicted on mainstream television, and the writers capture all its delights and perversities with unabashed swagger. The reassurance at being in the company of like-minded souls, the shared exhilaration at an unexpected discovery, the thin veneer of politeness covering rampaging envy: it’s all there in the behaviour of Bart, Milhouse and Martin as they cycle through ever-repeating stages of comradeship, rivalry and uneasy armistice.

Number one

Number one

Most of act two is taken up with a series of vignettes showing Bart trying to find money to buy the comic. His character really shines in these scenes, which barely advance the plot but deepen his personality, be it searching down the back of the sofa, hawking Homer’s cans of Duff from a stall on the front lawn (“Cheap beer and a sympathetic ear!”) and finally doing chores at the home of elderly neighbour Mrs Glick. She is a truly fantastic creation, a shuffling bundle of exaggeratedly-outdated jargon (“When you’re done you can have a nice barley pop!”) and prejudice (“I’ll be inside watching my stories… Filthy, but genuinely arousing!”)

"Have some ribbon candy."

“Have some ribbon candy.”

Another regular makes his debut in this episode: Comic Book Guy. He’s just as overbearing as Mrs Glick, but nowhere near as interesting. Like Otto and Marvin Monroe, he will forever be more of an idea than a character, one with no depth or potential other than the purveyor of occasional bits of sporadically amusing dialogue. 7

Locations and design
Mrs Glick’s home looks like every old person’s house you imagined as a child: unsettlingly large, dingy even in the middle of the day, full of a century’s worth of clutter, and with a garden the size of a forest that manages to be simultaneously both menacing and intriguing.

Auld aquaintance

Where old people live

"A little light yard-work"

“A little light yard-work”

It’s a inspired piece of design that serves the plot perfectly.

"Dried apricots... sauerkraut candy..."

“Dried apricots… sauerkraut candy…”

The comic store is no way near as memorable. It actually looks rather humdrum: a venue that fails to live up to the bewitching (if seedy) promise of its name and its sought-after wares. 6

Mary Worth phone not pictured

Mary Worth phone not pictured

Pardon My Zinger
The pick of the best lines are all delivered by Martin. His query, “Has anyone turned in a left Vulcan ear?” not only nails the harmless dogmatism at the core of his character but also the harmless lunacy at the core of fan conventions the world over. He trumps Bart in get-rich-quick schemes when he declares: “I sold seeds! I visited my aunt in the nursing home! I fished a dime out of the sewer!” When Milhouse tries to pick up their comic, Martin wails: “The acids in your hand could damage the newsprint!” Topping the lot is his extended patter in the treehouse when trying to come up with a workable system for rotating ownership of the comic, including “a random number generator” and “best of three out of five” in a rock/scissor/paper competition.

"...random number generator..."

“…random number generator…”

Elsewhere there’s a sparkling exchange at the comic convention between Milhouse and the “actor” Buddy Hodges, who played Fall Out Boy on the big screen. “When Radioactive Man got injected with shrinking serum in issue 234,” Milhouse asks breathlessly, “HOW COME HIS COSTUME SHRINKS TOO?” “I’m sure I don’t know,” drawls Buddy, ciggy in hand, “but I did just finish playing Rum Tum Tugger in the second national touring company of Cats!” 7

"Anybody see it?" *silence*

“Anybody see it?” *silence*

Special guests
Cloris Leachman is simply superb as Mrs Glick, deploying the same finely-gnarled gloriously-antiquarian rasp to whatever the script demands, be it absent-minded offensiveness, stubbornly-irrelevant chuntering or spiralling eccentricity (“It was my wedding dress but then I dyed it black and it became my mourning dress”). Every scene in which she appears is an absolute treat. More brief, but no less enchanting, is Daniel Stern’s cameo as the voice of the adult Bart: a spot-on parody of Stern’s then-concurrent role as the voice of the adult Kevin Arnold in The Wonder Years. “Get a job?” we hear Bart/Kevin/Stern say, “were they serious?” As The Byrds’ Turn, Turn, Turn plays on the soundtrack, he continues: “I didn’t realise it at the time, but a little piece of my childhood had slipped away forever… He didn’t say it and neither did I, but at that moment my Dad and I were closer than…” At which point Homer – in a nifty bit of autocritquing – yells: “BART! Stop it!” 10

Music
On top of the points already in the bag for the Wonder Years parody, there’s the debut of another of the show’s longest-running musical motifs: the “fight” cue, which appears when Bart and Milhouse grapple in the treehouse, and which mixes strains of West Side Story with any number of Bernard Herrman scores. Alf Clausen’s work throughout the third act is outstanding, shading each nuance of action with just the right musical colour. 8

Voices
The voice Leachman uses for Mrs Glick so strikingly peculiar, so wizened and frayed and other-worldly, you end up fascinated rather than repelled. Her laugh is especially wonderful; listen to how she chuckles with delight as she sends Bart on his way with fifty cents to spend “on penny whistles and moon pie”. Hank Azaria’s voice for Comic Book Guy, on the other hand, is just repellant. Unlike most other Springfield grotesques, the character is not the slightest bit intriguingly exotic whenever he opens his mouth and lets slip another whine. 7

Animation direction
As the perimeters of the plot grow narrower and more claustrophobic, so Wes Archer’s direction becomes lyrical and creative. There is real tension in the staging of the climatic scenes in the treehouse, with the light and shadows capturing the growing suspicion between the three boys:

Treehouse divided

Treehouse divided

– culminating in Milhouse dangling from the edge of the treehouse, rain tumbling all around him:

Cliffhanger

Cliffhanger

Homer’s idea of “checking on the boys” is brilliantly done:

"Homer, it's really coming down..."

“Homer, it’s really coming down…”

"...can you check on the boys?"

“…can you check on the boys?”

"They're fine."

“They’re fine.”

– as are the shots the morning after the storm, where Archer creates a quite beautiful sensation of that luminous, pre-dawn, post-rain atmosphere:

Apres le deluge

Apres le deluge

Other highlights are the 1950-hued drawings in issue one of Radioactive Man:

"HOT ENOUGH FOR YOU?"

“HOT ENOUGH FOR YOU?”

Up, and at 'em

Up, and at ’em

– and the framing of Mrs Glick’s recollection of her brother being blown up in the first world war, with the camera panning away as the grenade ticks down, only for several lumps of flesh to land unequivocally in the foreground. 8

Dulce et decorum est

Dulce et decorum est

Homages, spoofs, fantasies
The list of homages is the longest yet: the 1948 film The Treasure of the Sierre Madre (when the boys squabble over who should own the comic), William Golding’s 1954 novel Lord of the Flies (Bart tying up Martin and calling him “Piggy”), Hitchcock’s 1942 film Saboteur (Milhouse hanging from the treehouse), the 1941 film The Maltese Falcon (Martin describing the comic as “stuff dreams are made of”) and, yet again, Gone with the Wind (the shot of Mrs Glick applying iodine to Bart):

"No, but at least I'm in a lot of pain."

“No, but at least I’m in a lot of pain.”

There are namechecks for Casper the Friendly Ghost and Richey Rich, who Bart think look uncannily alike:

"I stand corrected!"

“I stand corrected!”

Bart’s mention of the bizarre demise of the actor who played Radioactive Man is a reference to the real-life mysterious death of Superman actor George Reeves. Finally, the whole notion of Radioactive Man is a spoof of Marvel Comics superheroes, right down to the stilted dialogue, ludicrous conceits (surviving an atomic bomb) and happy endings. A heady brew, all told – almost too much for just one story. 7

Emotion and tone
A bittersweet, world-weary tone permeates the entire episode. It’s there in the very first scene, when Lisa, pondering the fate of Richey Rich, concludes: “Perhaps he realised how hollow the pursuit of money is and took his own life.” It’s still there at the very end, when Bart, Milhouse and Martin stare in silence at the tattered remains of their treasure, smashed to pieces by a bolt of lightning. All the way through, everyone is hunting for something that is always just out of reach, be it a comic, more money, a job or friendship. But these weighty themes are always lightly spun. The compact plot and limited locations create room for plenty of exploration of character and motive, and these are always crisply and thoughtfully handled. It’s one of Jeff Martin’s most persuasive and expertly-constructed scripts. Nothing is overdone; if anything, the emotion is underplayed, especially in the boys’ stoical attitude to the destruction of their inky dreams. 10

Verdict: 79%
An impeccably-told tale with lots of important, grown-up ideas seen through children’s eyes. It actually works rather well as a season finale, hinting as it does of the wealth of riches to come in season three.

THE END

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