MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000: THE COMIC #1-#3 / Writer: Harold Buchholz, Joel Hodgson, Matt McGinnis, Seth Robinson, Sharyl Volpe, Mary Robinson / Artist: Todd Nauck, Mike Manley / Letterer : Micheal Heisler/ Inker: Todd Nauck, Mike Manley / Colorist: Wes Dzioba, Mike Manley / Publisher: Dark Horse Comics / September 12, 2018
The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Comic Book series shouldn’t exist. How could someone possibly turn a TV show about a man forced to watch bad movies into a comic book? The main crux of the show itself hinges on rapid fire jokes overlapping a movie as it plays. That works well in video and audio; in no way should work on static pieces of paper. But it does. It really, really does. MST3K The Comic Book is a hilarious throwback to the golden age of comics through a series of incredibly clever solutions placing Jonah and the Bots firmly into the printed medium.
Back in 2017, when Dark Horse announced MST3K: The Comic, I was skeptical at first. The show had taken well to slight format shifts over the years. It introduced more plot elements, changed cast members in the show proper, and introduced live riffing with off-shoot ventures like Cinematic Titanic or audio only riffing from Rifftrax.
Audio Over Visual
One thing remained constant—audio over a visual media. The joke audio playing over the movies usually mixes together by being louder than the movie’s audio, as necessary. Translating that into the printed word posed a unique challenge; audio riffs have no visual component, so they fade away as a movie’s scenes move forward. In print, everything takes up vital real estate on the page. How could Dark Horse and the MST3K team make this work?
Making It Work
Matt McGinnis, Associate Producer/Writer for Netflix’s MST3K and MST3K: The Comic says:
The process at the beginning was a bit of a head-scratcher because everyone at Alternaversal knew that MST3K couldn’t be easily translated to a printed medium. We knew how people thought we would approach it, but since this was such a new venture for the series, Joel was more interested in doing something different.
Once Joel developed the Bubbulat-R invention, a great deal of time was spent figuring out the logistics of the overall story, as well as the mechanics of distinguishing riffs from previously-written dialog. We worked really closely with Randy Stradley, our editor at Dark Horse Comics, to be sure there were ways we could fulfill the unusual ideas Joel had brewing in his frighteningly creative head. And thanks to our amazing artists and letterer, we’ve been able to see that happen beautifully.
The framing device around how Jonah and the Bots would riff comics is introduced in the first few pages of the first issue of MST3K: The Comic Book. Kinga Forrester devises the ‘Bubbulat-R’ (with Synthia doing all of the heavy lifting of course), a machine that takes the denizens of the Satellite of Love and projects them into the pages of any comic book. How will this make Kinga rich or take over the world? Why, with a hearty slice of brand tie-in sponsorship with Totinos Pizza rolls every few pages, that’s how! A girl has to eat, doesn’t she?
Part of the Story
Jonah and the crew are thrown into the middle of those stories, not on the outside as their familiar silhouettes, but as actual characters taking part in the various plots. That’s the first major break from tradition and is a smart decision.
We noticed that by utilizing the standard of silhouettes seated at the bottom of the image, it created a barrier between the comic and the reader, not to mention how redundant the visual would have become. Also, since each panel is read left-to-right, Crow would always get the last line, and that could get old pretty fast.
By inserting our characters into the comics, we eliminate that barrier, and Jonah and the Bots remain our companions during their respective stories. And since we’re working in a new medium, it gives us the chance to finally see these characters in new settings (or in Tom Servo’s case, a new body). Not only that, but it gives Gypsy, Growler, and M. Waverly a chance to join in on more of the fun like they do in The Gauntlet, and any time we get to see more of those characters, the better, I say.
The transition from the modern style artwork done by Todd Nauck to the Golden Age style shepherded by Mike Manley is seamless. Nauck’s expressive line work captures MST3K perfectly down to the smallest details. The hallway sequence aboard the SOL is easily recognizable as Jonah and the bots are sucked into the Bubbleat-R’s cloud of bubbles, and the expanded rooms and machinery in Moon 13 are so great I’d love to see them rendered in reality one day if Netflix decided to throw barrels of money at the show. The vibrant colors of the ‘host segment’ sections show off the best of the modern approach to coloring comics, and are an excellent contrast to the muted, slightly off colors of the ‘In-Comic’ pages.
Once Tom Servo completes his “trust fall” into the minty bubbles, he’s immediately transported and transfigured into the pages of Johnny Jason: Teen Reporter, now renamed as Tom Servo: Teen Reporter. Servo physically changes into the body of your standard ‘All-American teenager man-boy’… with the head of a red gum-ball machine shaped robot. The visual gag never loses its charm as no one in the comic sees anything amiss with Servo as he sets out to solve why a rich lady kidnapped herself… maybe!
The comic book page itself transforms as well, taking on a yellowed, aged border. The crisp lines disappear, replaced by slightly faded ink on paper with offset tones. The textures of the page become rough and earthy, flecks of the unsmoothed paper creating imperfect smudges along the panels. Anyone who’s ever ventured into ‘ye olde comic book shoppe’ of the past knows that feeling, that smell, of old comics, and it’s palpable here. You can almost smell the old inks and feel the crinkle of starched paper through the glossy copies.
Which to Riff?
How did the MST3K team choose which comics would be best riffed? McGinnis says:
We looked at a lot of old comics, but we paid close attention to the art. If the comic was fun to look at, it would be more fun to work on. Horrific has some really wild art in it, and that was my favorite to read through when picking out which stories to riff. It’s also really amazing that the “in-comics” artists Dark Horse put together are so darn talented at seamlessly blending our characters into the panels. It’s really like reading something totally brand-new.
Getting to the meat of what makes MST3K unique, the placement of the provided jokes at the expense of the hokey story is done in a uniquely brilliant way. The joke word bubbles are shaped like the regular word bubbles except they have a small circle on the edge of their frame to denote dialogue being added to the scene by the riffers. That small yet crucial circle on top of the joke bubbles makes all the difference. The joke balloons integrate naturally within the panel and the circle is enough to denote something is different about the bubble without diverting the eye away from the words within too much. The joke bubbles are paced far enough apart from the actual dialogue in the comic, and mimics the pacing of the show’s jokes between dialogue from the movies. That way the reader’s eye can continue to naturally flow from panel to panel and stop on the occasional joke without losing their place in the plot. It’s a delicate balance, but MST3K pulls it off.
Still Great Jokes
The jokes themselves are as great as they are in the show; if you’re already tuned into the humor of the current run of MST3K it’s more of that in spades. Creator Joel Hodgson and his team pull off the joke timing nicely, despite fellow writer, Matt McGinnis, writing comics for the first time.
Prior to this series, I didn’t have any experience in making comics professionally. I’ve always wanted to, so getting to work on this has been a nice little bit of wish fulfillment. I read them often when I was growing up and I’ve always loved this medium. The biggest difference in riffing a comic as opposed to a movie is that, since we’re inserting our characters into these old comic drawings, we can affect the visual of a specific panel any way we want. It gives us a bit more freedom we don’t have in the TV show. Aside from that, the processes are really very similar.
MST3K: The Comic Book shouldn’t exist, but it does. Credit for that goes to the creative minds behind the show and Dark Horse. They work in exquisite harmony to make this book work as well as it does. Fans of the show will love the content within its pages. Though the format has changed, the riffing is just as hilarious as it’s ever been.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Issues #1-#3 are available now through Dark Horse and at your local comic book retailer. Issue #4 drops on February 6th, 2019.