REVIEWS: Famous Fighters

This unusual comic is a compendium of nearly 10 years worth of goofy comics initially drawn by two friends just to amuse themselves, but now published to hopefully amuse others as well. Their single most successful creation is the Conan the Barbarian parody called “Barbarian Lord” . One-page “Barbarian Lord” episodes recur periodically throughout this issue, giving the reader sufficient time to adjust to its comedic weirdness. Each episode finds Barbarian Lord typically confronted by some blustery foe whose bravado is unmercifully dispatched by Barbarian Lord’s fist, sword, or battleaxe. Each slaying is then followed by a single-panel feature entitled “Poetry of Barbarian Lord”, wherein BL offers a tersely worded, haiku-like account of some past atrocity. Though all of the comics are highly stylized and perfectly rendered (the two creators work in illustration and graphic design), most of the other stories tend to overstay their welcome. One longer feature that mostly works, however, is an epic poem involving a protagonist’s Pong battle with Satan, which features inventive rhyming accompanied by wonderfully detailed illustrations of the cloven-hoofed Beelzebub. – Ari Charney, punk planet Jan/Feb 2007

My copy of Matt Smith and Tom Pappalardo’s Famous Fighters arrived alongside perhaps the most unassuming press release I have ever read, addressed to “Dear Comic Book Reviewer/Blogger/Columnist/Ham Radio Operator/Innocent Bystander” and ending with the following plea: “Please review Famous Fighters for your publication/pseudo-publication/karaoke night.” Between this friendly introduction and the premiere issue’s title (“Situation: Armageddalypse!”), I was about halfway in love with Famous Fighters before I had even opened it.

Having since read Famous Fighters cover to cover, I would like to make two important notes before proceeding with my review. First, despite some uneven moments, Famous Fighters is a wickedly absurd and delightfully entertaining romp which more than proved worthy of my initial affection. Second, I have no idea why Smith and Pappalardo bothered to print it.

I have noted before that American culture, and particularly American youth culture, has in recent years taken a turn toward the surreal and the nonsensical. The young prefer their humor, especially, to be random and bizarre. But young America’s increasing taste for the odd seems to be directly proportionate to its decreasing attention span, which is no doubt why the Random movement came to prominence during the ever-growing influence of the internet. Indeed, at times it seems that the internet is composed entirely of barely comprehensible, blink-and-you-miss-it disposable memes and videos. One wonders what a future civilization might make of the early twenty-first century based only on briefly ubiquitous phrases like “All your base are belong to us” and “teh w1n.”

Meanwhile, despite my having not seen it for myself, I was frankly taken aback at the largely lukewarm and occasionally hostile reviews Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters received during its theatrical run. However, those harsh reviews probably stem from the fact that Aqua Teen Hunger Force is a product of and for the internet age; it is almost violently odd, and for viewers with a strong appreciation for the strange, it is quite charming, but only, perhaps, in small doses. Indeed, Aqua Teen Hunger Force would have arguably made more sense as an internet broadcast than a cable program, which brings us back to Famous Fighters, a quirky and often fall-down funny comic that should have never seen print, because the internet represents its best hope of finding a loyal audience. I love Famous Fighters, but it should be a webcomic.

Famous Fighters runs 54 pages, and few of its tales run more than one page. Most of them (also the best of them) concern a barbarian lord called, well, Barbarian Lord, who does away with villains like Skull-Master and then writes poems to honor his victory (“Greedy monk / Hoarding sheep / Fat and sleeping / Your time has come.”) The charm of these goofy gags is difficult to justify in a review. Suffice to say, I laughed aloud several times while reading Famous Fighters, and any pressure I feel to justify my love is lessened somewhat by its obscure Iron Maiden gags and its competing samurai battle cries (“Walrus scratched flabby bum!” “I am fat wet bum of receding hairline school!”)

We each have our own tastes and opinions, and generally speaking, I am willing to concede that each person’s opinion is as valid as the next. But when it comes to such verses as “The fallen man leaves sword and gold / It is good my arms are two”, you either love it, or you are wrong. – Monte Williams, PopMatters, June 2007

Zombies, barbarians, ninjas, cowboys, Star Wars references, and the Devil-what more could you want?

Matt Smith and Tom Pappalardo have combined a manic mix of pop culture mayhem with spastic art and melodramatic satire to create one of the most original books available. The stories, ranging from the adventures of a ninja-egg-guy to a murderous barbarian, mock everything we love about comic book culture while simultaneously putting it on a pedestal. Zombie freaks, kung fu fanatics, Star Wars geeks, and anyone who remembers Thundarr the Barbarian will get a laugh out of this comic.

The writing, by Matt Smith and Tom Pappalardo, is heavy with references to zombie movies, kung fu films, and any other piece of comic book culture you can think of. Naturally, this appeals to readers who have been living in this culture for the better part of their lives. Though some of the stories are a bit esoteric and apparently meaningless, see “Eclipso,” they appeal to the thing in all of us that thinks everyone else is dumb. Then, the one-page “Barbarian Lord” stories running throughout the book are viciously violent with poetic endings you can’t help but enjoy while you read. But perhaps the crown jewel in storytelling is “Midnight at the Crossroads, Alec Dear vs. Satan: Best Two out of Three.” This story is a poetic meeting between our hero, a masked avenger with a smart mouth who looks like DC’s Golden Age Sandman playing Pong with Satan. The winner takes all.

The art in this book has it all. Matt Smith is a virtuoso. In some stories the work looks like it was taken from a mainstream Marvel book-no small feat for an independent artist in the comic book world. Other times, his work looks like it belongs in a museum somewhere, the heavy shading and clear distinct line marks giving the appearance of some recently discovered art issued with the original printing of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. In that, the art goes with the writing. It is spastic-sharp in one story, loose in another. Nothing makes sense. Nothing looks the same. But everything is fun.

Essentially, that is what this comic book is supposed to be. There is no message in the story about aging headbangers who hook up with zombies to form a rock band. “Barbarian Lord” doesn’t give us any insight into the world or ourselves. Not everything is supposed to, some things are just fun. Famous Fighters, with its bubbling cauldron of stories, is just that. – Aaron Stueve, broken frontier, Sept 2006

You have to have a sense of humor if you like comic books. The name of the media itself suggests that if you take them too seriously, you’ll spend entirely too much time arguing about whether Superman could beat up the Hulk and not enough remembering to close your mouth when you breath. Sadly, a good sense of humor is not always par for the course, since I think I was supposed to laugh at the new Alpha Flight series, but every once in a while a book hits the right note and strikes a chord in the comics community. Such was the case with Dork Tower, and I hope the same will be true for Famous Fighters.

Famous Fighters consists of a series of short stories, loosely connected by themes of intense nerdiness. Exploring kung fu, Dungeons and Dragons, and all the orc-infested lands in-between, the black and white book comes across like a Demons & Wizards album that’s intentionally funny, instead of sounding like it’s been creeping around Pro-Tools with a battle axe. The stories are not interconnected, but many of the 1-pages stories revolve around Barbarian Lord, a character not unlike Conan the Barbarian if Schwarzenegger spoke better English. With clean, crisp, simple line art, and a sense of humor so dry you can barely tell that writer/artist Matt Smith is kidding and not stupid, the Barbarian Lord stories are the highlight of the book. That’s not to say that the rest suffers. It’s just that the Barbarian Lord tales move at a pace similar to those animated 30 Second Bunny shorts and contain poetry about broadswords. The first Barbarian Lord story is followed by a forgettable but diverting story about a boy with a solar eclipse for a head, drawn in a messy style that looks like Calvin and Hobbes having a nightmare. Also, it has robots, or at least a guy in a robot suit. Then comes the artistic highlight of the book, a 14-page story drawn by Matt Smith and written by Tom Pappalardo, which appears to involve the Golden Age Sandman playing Pong with the devil from that Tenacious D video at a midnight crossroads, accompanied by verse. The poetry may be a little juvenile, using the word ‘bum’ entirely too often (once) for my sophisticated taste, but the art evokes medieval etchings and is quite striking. Then there’s some more Barbarian Lord, a Sergio Leone-inspired short that features the undeniable stink of Fubar around it, a few more appearances by Barbarian Lord that start too feel a little bit too much like a Strongbad internet short, then a lengthy, semi-coherent Kung Fu parody that manages to make about as much sense as most Shaw Brothers movies. The book ends with an all-too-brief Shawn of the Dead meets Heavy Metal Parking Lot zombie story before coming to an end after an all too quick 52 pages. The book is hilarious, but in a very strange way, relying on an odd mix of subtlety and insanity to get its laughs.

There’s already a lot on the market that taps into this particular nerd-comedy niche, what with Knights of the Dinner Table, PvP, and the aforementioned Dork Tower, and while the strangely-textured humor of Famous Fighters may not be broad enough to break through to the mainstream, it certainly has its own cohesive sense of style, and one that certainly appeals to my particular sense of humor. The differing artistic styles evident in the book help keep things varied, while the uniform comedic style help glue the book together. It may not be as funny as Alpha Flight, but that’s a really, really good thing. RATING: 8 out of 10 – Al Kratina, comic book bin, October 2006

FAMOUS FIGHTERS is a collection of parodies and satirical stories that unfortunately don’t really amount to much in the way of laughs. The creators stuff forty-eight pages [52 – ed] pretty tight, whether with a recurring gag about a barbarian who kills everyone in sight or a bizarre parody that mashes together a western, a Hong Kong action flick, and RETURN OF THE JEDI. But quantity is never a sure sign of quality, and that holds true here.

The key to creating a workable parody is always in having a solid direction for the story to work in. Consider a film like AIRPLANE; while it’s stuffed to the gills with jokes, there’s always an actual arc lying below the surface still being serviced. Ted has to land the plane and regain his confidence. But FAMOUS FIGHTERS’ stories don’t go anywhere; there’s one that involves an evil character named Eclipso who’s head blocks out the sun. So that means he kills any flowers or solar-powered heroes who cross his path. The payoff? There isn’t one. Instead, the story goes into a flashback to explain why Eclipso looks the way he does. It’s as if the creators sat around playing “Wouldn’t it be cool?”, rather than figuring out how to make the ideas work on paper.

There is one story in the book that works, and no coincidence, it’s the one that seems like it took the most effort to figure out. It involves a character named Alec playing Satan at “Pong” for the right to rule Hell. It’s not only illustrated well, but it’s written in rhyming couplets. Plus, it has an ending that delivers on the promise of the story. Sadly, however, with only that one satisfying effort, I cannot recommend this indy. – Marc Mason, comics waiting room

God bless Matt and Tom, and I mean that as nothing but completely sincere. So many people who do comics are happiest when it’s one big chaotic fight scene, so they decided to take most of the story out of it and we’re left with one big pile of fights. Which, if you’re feeling particularly cerebral today, might not be your thing, and more power to you. I rarely if ever sample the first page of a book, and that’s all I needed to know I was going to like this one. Barbarian Lord is a character who’s confined to single page stories, usually ending in decapitations, and always ending in a poem. Nothing but fun to be had there, and these are sprinkled throughout the book. There’s a Pong contest between a man and Satan, done entirely in verse. You also have Eclipso (a fat-headed kid who kills flowers), a zombie metal band and an extended kung-fu parody, also hilarious if you’ve seen more than one kung-fu movie in your life. Really, there’s not a single thing here to complain about. Tom (between this and the issue listed above) [referring to Failure, Incompetence] looks to me to be a giant among comics men, assuming he has more like these last two in him, and Matt was able to do plenty of this issue in verse (which I usually hate) and make it a wonderful thing to behold. Buy it and laugh, as there are few enough things around that’ll allow you to do that without trying to teach you some sort of a message. None of that nonsense here, just an awful lot of decapitations! – Whitey, optical sloth, Sept 2006

“here’s my review: buy FF NOW! it doth ruleth. fer real.” – Doug R.

Ten things I learned from Famous Fighters #1:

1. Apparently, everyone wants to be Jim Mahfood.

2. Remember the Open Head Wound Guy from Saturday Night Live? Me neither. Giving Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name a hurdy gurdy and a monkey and dropping him into the middle of a six-page Hong Kong martial-arts movie parody isn’t funny if you forget to write any good jokes to go along with it. The concept alone isn’t enough.

3. If your first six-page Hong Kong martial-arts movie parody isn’t funny, following it up with a second thirteen-page Hong Kong martial-arts movie parody probably isn’t a good idea.

4. If I see one more lame-ass Conan the Barbarian parody, I swear I’m going Postal.

5. You can draw really pretty pictures with lots of crosshatching and still not know what you’re doing.

6. Parodies of children’s-book cadences and cliches are actually harder to successfully create than Conan the Barbarian parodies. If you can’t do the former, don’t attempt the latter.

7. Star Wars parodies aren’t memorable just because they’re Star Wars parodies. No, really, the concept alone won’t carry it if you forget to add jokes.

8. Zombie parodies can be funny if you’re Simon Pegg.

9. Matt Smith and Tom Pappalardo are no Simon Pegg.

10. Matt Smith and Tom Pappalardo definitely aren’t Jim Mahfood. Hell, Jim Mahfood is no Jim Mahfood half the time.

Better luck next time, guys. – Dirk Deppey, the comics journal – September 2006

“[their] stupid new comic bookie thing is like… um. great.” – Dave M.

This may be the best comic I’ve ever seen that I never want to see another issue of. With pretty sharp artwork, Smith and Pappalardo rip through a several pop hero cliches – Conan, the Man With No Name, Chinese historical kung fu dramas – and a few original creations, like a kid whose head blocks out the sun, with the unfortunate name of Eclipso, and a ridiculously simple but effective bit about a death metal band hooking up with zombies. It’s very funny (if a bit conceptual) and often surrealistic, but it shares a potential problem with most satirical comics: once you get the joke, you get the joke. Not that it’s a problem with a single issue, though the initially amusing “Barbarian Lord” starts feeling a bit tired by its final appearance, but while this is worth picking up (if for no other reason that to see how good a self-published comic can and should look) a #2 isn’t really called for. – Steven Grant, comic book resources – Sept 2006

“…my hard earned $5 was more than redoubled in entertainment.” – Allison G.

I know that some, if not all, of you out there watch the Sunday night lineup on Adult Swim. You know who you are! Well, if you’re into such shows as 12oz Mouse, Aqua Teen Hunger Force (my favorite), or, in particular, the new series Korgoth of Barbaria, you’ll find a lot to like about Famous Fighters #1. The various comic vignettes that Matt Smith and Tom Pappalardo have included in this first issue have the same approach and mentality as the aforementioned Adult Swim programs: the dictum of “Keep It Stupid, Simple.” That being said, I liked most of what I read in issue #1, though the entire comedic effort was forced and lacked aesthetic appeal (with some particularly poor artwork for certain tales). Still, you can’t fault Smith and Pappalardo for the direction they took with this anthology. They knew the tone they wanted to capture in this issue, and they didn’t let anything like good taste or common storylines get in their way. Mostly, my lackluster rating is indicative of occasionally distracting illustrations and the narrow fan base this comic is trying to reach. For the masses? I think not!

As the title indicates, these “Famous Fighters” are pop culture stereotypes known for their fighting or maiming prowess, with a definite concentration on barbarian fiction. Throughout the first issue, we encounter The Barbarian Lord, a Conan-like character whose sole mission in life is to kill in as humorously gruesome a manner as possible. Most of the time, Barbarian Lord’s humor is of a supremely stupid nature, with little in the way of wittiness to make it endearing. It’s hack-and-slash comedy that truly goes for the jugular, but has too few laughs to recommend it. “Eclipso” is not a tale starring the old Green Lantern foe, but rather a kid with an extremely large head that blocks out the sun. It’s a cute tale that has some heart, but unfortunately features some very crude artwork. For the most part, Famous Fighters doesn’t have an amateur or mini-comic feel to it, which is a great accomplishment. But “Eclipso” is one story that does have an amateurish execution, which may have been aided somewhat by better printing. “Midnight at the Crossroads” can best be described as a fairy tale children’s story with two potty-mouthed characters: Satan and Alec Dear, who is clearly modeled after the Golden Age Shadow. Retaining the status-quo intellectual level, this is a stupid rhyming poem that features some funny images, but some groan-inducing rhymes as well. “Once Upon A Time in China in America” is one of my favorite shorts, as I’m a huge fan of both The Man With No Name and Star Wars (Trust me, the two are mixed here for possibly the first time!). Fanboys will find the homages funny, as well as the dialogue from the heavy metal dorks at the end. “Mysterious Dojo” is a cross between an old Saturday morning kung fu movie (complete with craptastic faux-dramatic dialogue) and Perfect Hair Forever (Adult Swim again! Zounds!). Once again, the crude art and the lackluster printing are a distraction for an otherwise decent short tale. “Zombie Uprising” is the gem of the issue. Not only are the heavy metal references priceless (can you use “metal” and “priceless” in the same sentence?), but the silliness factor is appropriately calibrated, and there are some genuine moments of laugh-out-loud hilarity. Garry and Jaysun, the two aging headbangers of the story, are so similar to people I know in my own life, it’s scary. As the two try to form a “zombie band,” they analyze a possible guitarist. Garry says to the undead gentleman, “Powerchords! Downpick! You gotta go wicked fast like James Hetfield!” Jaysun’s response to the zombie’s lack of musical talent is, “I’m not sure this dude has the metal militia vibe we’re goin’ for.” Great stuff!

Overall, this was an entertaining way to pass fifteen to twenty minutes of free time. There’s plenty of various material here (52 pages of sequential stories), but not a lot of derring-do. I think Famous Fighters would have been more appropriate as a web comic, which may sound like an insult, but is not meant to be malicious in the least. With its pricetag of $5, most fans either won’t take the chance on this or, if they do, they’ll probably feel that they paid too much. But, if you have some excess comic money burning a hole in your pocket, you could do a lot worse than Famous Fighters. – Robert Murray, silver bullet comics, Sept 2006

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