The Simpsons, Season Two, Episode Twenty-One, “Three Men And A Comic Book”

Despite the name, this episode isn’t actually fairly split between Bart, Milhouse, and Martin – it’s a Bart episode, start to finish. We begin with an early example of the show parodying nerd culture when the family visits a comic book convention, and it’s really not aged well – a common criticism of reference humour is when it simply references something without actually making a joke, and this episode makes that very mistake (though, presumably it was a lot fresher in 1991, a year before Reservoir Dogs and three years before Clerks).

It’s at the convention that Bart discovers the first issue of his comic book hero, Radioactive Man, selling for the low, low price of $100. Bart was only given thirty, and the guy who sells comic books, who I will forever dub Funnies Dude, is completely unsympathetic to his desires. Homer refuses to pay for the comic for Bart (hilariously, turning his nagging back on him), and Marge suggests Bart get a part time job.

It’s here that the episode kinda slows down in terms of plot, as Bart tries several schemes, my favourite being the lemonade stand. Bart is infuriated with himself with resorting to such a cliche, Lisa pokes fun at him by making him more pathetic and thus more marketable, and Bart gets the brilliant idea to steal Homer’s beer and sell that cheaply instead – it takes a familiar sight from childhood and throws in a particularly Barty sense of escalation. By comparison, the sequence where Bart is enlisted into helping his elderly neighbour isn’t quite funny enough to make up for how long it feels.

Eventually, Bart returns to the store, finding Martin equally as desperate to read the comic as he; when Milhouse shows up to buy a completely different item, Bart gets the idea to pool their limited resources together and buy the comic. They are awed by the origin of Radioactive Man, which turns out to be an amusingly trite take-off of the Incredible Hulk’s origin; from there, they realise that they don’t trust each other with the comics. Martin, being Martin, creates a needlessly complex system where they trade the comic around every two days; Sundays, they use a random number generator. Of course, tomorrow is Sunday, and none of them wants to be the first to go without the comic, so they end up sleeping in the treehouse together to keep an eye on each other.

The plot is predictable but spectacular from there, as Bart shifts into a paranoid wreck; he and Milhouse end up tying Martin down, presumably awakening a fetish in at least one of them, and in his paranoia Bart ends up turning on Milhouse too. A storm builds up until lightning starts striking (in case you’re wondering why Homer and Marge aren’t getting the kids in, they have a scene where Homer sees Bart and Milhouse fighting, and simply mutters “They’re fine.”). The wind builds up, and Milhouse is nearly thrown from the treehouse, but the comic book gets caught in the wind; Bart is forced to choose between the comic and Milhouse, and obviously he chooses to let Milhouse fall to his death to save Milhouse.

The next morning, any potential sentimentality is thrown out when Bart reflects that their inability to share cost them the comic, and the others ask him what of it.

Chalkboard Gag: I will not show off [written in Blackletter]
Couch Gag: The couch tips backwards and Maggie pokes her head up.

This episode was written by Jeff Martin and directed by Wes Archer. I thought Bart getting paid two quarters for hours of backbreaking labour was an amusing exaggeration of the work-to-payoff ratio kids see, but apparently it actually happened to Martin when he was a kid.

Lisa buys Richie Rich and Caspar comics, and Homer references Wonder Woman. The original Radioactive Man actor apparently suffered a mysterious death, in reference to Superman actor George Reeves (with a touch of Bob Crane thrown in). Homer mispronounces Michelangelo’s name. Milhouse initially goes to buy a card of baseball player Carl Yastrzemeski. Bart refers to the comic as “the stuff dreams are made of”, in reference to the line from The Maltese Falcon. Bart and Lisa see a RM ad for cigarettes, in reference to the infamous Flintstones cigarette ads. Mrs Glick applying iodine to Bart is a reference to a shot from Gone With The Wind. The final act and Bart’s descent into paranoia is a reference to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Bart references Lord Of The Flies. Bart saving Milhouse is a reference to Saboteur.

Hank Azaria’s performance as Comic Book Guy is based on a dude he knew in college, and I’ve heard rumours that Oliver Platt was the source of inspiration; I can hear that in his first appearance here.

Radioactive Man would see his full comedic potential found in the Simpsons comics, where they perfectly parody superhero comics right down to the letters pages. His origin gains the idea that the nuclear explosion embedded shrapnel into his head, which he must hide under hats when in his playboy persona, an idea that tickles me to bits.

First Appearances: Comic Book Guy, Radiation Man Radioactive Man, Fallout Boy, Mrs Glick.
Biggest laugh:
“I think Caspar is the ghost of Richie Rich.”
“Hey, they do look alike.”
“I wonder how Richie died?”
“Perhaps he realised how hollow the pursuit of money is, and took his own life.”
“Kids, could you lighten up a bit?”

I don’t often pull apart single jokes here – though I probably should, considering I’m analysing a comedy – but I love this for the same reason Clerks was so beloved a few years later, in that this is exactly the kind of morbid pop-culture conversation I’d have with my sister at that age.

The Avocado: “Filthy, but genuinely arousing.”

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