The basics are a familiar story to anybody who studies the history of comics. Young creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster sell the rights to their creation Superman to what would become DC/National Comics. As their ten-year contract to produce the strip was reaching its end and fearing that National wouldn’t re-up it, the pair sued to attempt to regain the rights to the Man of Steel. But while they got some money in settlement for Superboy, they were defeated, their byline stripped from the series thereafter. They would struggle thereafter for the rest of their lives, going from being among the best-paid comic book creators of the era to scrambling for whatever makeshift work they could find.
While this legal battle was going on, Siegel and Shuster needed another avenue through which to make a living, as clearly National wasn’t going to be giving them any work. They threw in their lot with Vince Sullivan and his Magazine Enterprises publishing house. Vin had been an editor in the early days of DC until his own falling-out with its owners, so he was sympathetic to Siegel and Shuster’s situation. In an attempt to show that they were really the driving force behind Superman’s success, Jerry and Joe put their heads together to come up with a new character who they hoped would eventually eclipse their Kryptonian brainchild. This new character was called Funnyman.
Funnyman was comedian Larry Davis. In an attempt to score some cheap publicity at the advice of his manager June Farrell, Davis dresses up as Funnyman and is sent to foil a pretend robbery. But it turns out that an actual robbery is taking place at the same time, and Davis winds up clobbering the actual criminals. Inspired by his success, he decides to continue on in the role of Funnyman, despite really having no motivation to do so other than the adrenaline rush and perhaps a bit of a death wish. The performer-who-becomes-the-thing-he-performs-as gag was a tired trope even when the character debuted, but the origin was simply backstory, something to quickly explain who Davis was before the actual adventures could begin.
Funnyman was written by Jerry Siegel and drawn by Joe Shuster and what remained of the Shuster Art Studio that had been producing Superman stories. The stories in the series’ first issue were mostly penciled by John Sikela over Shuster’s rough layouts, and inked by a just-starting-out Dick Ayers. For all that the Siegel and Shuster team’s byline is prominent on the cover, as is a blurb connecting them to Superman, the actual cover art was done by Marvin stein apparently.
FUNNYMAN wasn’t a bad strip, but it wasn’t a hit. The stories were very much of a piece with what the duo had been churning out for Superman in recent years, but without the larger-than-life persona of the Man of Steel, they fell a bit flat. FUNNYMAN was also simultaneously launched as a newspaper strip feature at the same time, but it met with limited success in that venue as well, eventually phasing out the lead character entirely in favor of following teh Wash Tubbs-style adventures of rich kid Reggie Van Twerp.
Larry Davis himself was very clearly based on popular film comedian Danny Kaye, but he didn’t innately possess Kaye’s sense of charisma and appeal. Somehow, donning a rubber nose was enough to safeguard his true identity. And the Funnyman concept wasn’t all that original either. It played as though Batman and the Joker had offspring, but one without either of their natural appeal. The whole thing was a wooden affair.
One thought on “Forgotten Masterpiece: FUNNYMAN #1”
“Larry Davis himself was very clearly based on popular film comedian Danny Kaye, but he didn’t innately possess Kaye’s sense of charisma and appeal” Real human charisma is very hard to evoke on the printed page. John LeCarre is one of the few writers who’s good at it (his father was a charismatic con man so he has up-close experience).
An early issue of Super-Friends had a telethon with Larry Davis and Linda Turner (Black Cat) among the performers.