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Double Acts and Children’s Graphic Novels

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Or, The Comic Effect

Besides double-acts and children’s graphic novels, what makes you laugh? Not the occasional chuckle, but those proper guffaws where you lose it and wonder when you’ll gain authority over your facial muscles again. Because I’m still very much a child in many ways, unexpected comments at inappropriate times are always a winner. However, more innocently, it’s my parents making me laugh the most.

Not because they are telling jokes as such but situations, off-hand comments, and misunderstandings. All classic components of comedy. I also think both are retired; there’s a weight off their shoulders where they can enjoy their time and each other. But, a double-act they are, whether they like it or not. Not that anyone apart from myself and my sister would find them as funny. You may even be similar to them. Especially if you choose to get a blood test at a hospital further away to “make a day of it.” And yes, they did ask me if I wanted to go with them. And yes, I am! By the way, I’m writing this on Valentine’s Day while wiping the tears on my corduroys.

Everyone else will know a double act of their own, though. And if you don’t have a double act in your family or friendship group, there are plenty to pick from the stage or television. The idea of the modern double act, or comedy duo, goes back to the late 1800s. The music halls of the UK and vaudeville acts in the US were the places that gave rise to these types of performers. There are examples of double acts in Shakespeare. Although not the same, I think it would be remiss not to mention them as a precursor.

Double acts in children’s literature might not be immediately obvious.  But, double-acts in children’s graphic novels are numerous. if you’ve noticed this explosion or been caught up in it, you will know plenty. And there’s a lot of them for a reason. The appeal, longevity and variety of comedy duo means there is a lot to draw on. They all build on the traditions before them, but I wanted to see how. And whether any subvert any of the conventions we are so familiar with.

When unpicking double-acts, it’s usual to think of them as “straight man/funny man”. However, this is “unhelpful”, as both can be equally funny. In an article by Charlie Higson for the TLS, he explains you can think of them as the right-hand and left-hand of a pianist. The right plays a more noticeable melody, while the left is in the background and “gives structure”. Perhaps a better analogy is order and chaos. Higson goes on by saying, “one of the pair is always trying to make sense of the world, and the other is forever pulling it apart” (TLS, February 2019).

Order and chaos (probably more chaos, in a great way) is a good way to describe Bumble and Snug by Mark Bradley. Snug is quiet, prone to anxiety, and enjoys the library. Bumble, however, is “50% enthusiasm. 50% energy. 100% excitement!” But both are kind and the best of friends. In The Angry Pirates there’s only one disagreement, and they manage to make up on the same page. In one way, they follow comedy duo rules: opposing personalities and behaviours. But, they get on wonderfully rather than constantly bickering and arguing, such as Abbott and Costello, for example.

It’s the building on these traditions which makes double-acts in children’s graphic novels work for a different audience. Notably a younger one, which is arguably more accepting of difference and has a more modern outlook. Bumble and Snug also does this with gender too. Bumble (she) and Snug (he). More often than not, comedy duos are the same gender. In recent years there has been James Corden/Ruth Jones, and even more recently Daisy May Cooper/Charlie Cooper. But here we have creators/writers/actors of sitcoms. Not quite the same as performers like Morecambe and Wise, French and Saunders, or Mitchell and Webb… Adult audiences might “expect” the rules, but children have no concept of them, and maybe we have a responsibility to make sure they never do…

Most comedy uses word-play – physical comedy made famous by the silent film and drawn on later by Rowan Atkinson with Mr Bean is the exception. The part of the sitcom Friends I find the funniest is David Schwimmer’s physical comedy. Anyway, although puns didn’t originate from the modern double-act (the Ancient Egyptians used them. Insert your own ‘mummy’ pun here. Oh, that’s beneath you is it? Pharaoh ‘nuff), clever dialogue between two people for the purpose of comedy is a staple. I knew I mentioned Shakespeare earlier for a reason! The Two Ronnies “four candles” sketch must be the most famous play on words in British TV.

The ‘punniest’ graphic novel I know of is the InvestiGATORS series by John Patrick Green. The title and the two protagonists’ names for a start. Mango and Brash also have the typical double act dialogue. Brash can sometimes snap at Mango, or Mango will misunderstand something due to wordplay. In Heist and Seek, Brash concludes a theft is no work of a “mere cat burglar”. Mango hears it as “meerkat burglar”. Subtle pauses influencing semantics are something that comes to us from experience. Word-play in any book is a wonderful way to learn this. The double-acts in children’s graphic novels, especially those for younger readers, lend themselves as the perfect vehicle.

Mango and Brash also take on one of the types of double-acts. Sitcoms, especially, use the “intelligent/stupid” setup a lot. Fawlty Towers, Black Adder, Father Ted to name a few. Agent Moose and his voice-of-reason sidekick, Owlfred, take a similar approach. You might also recognise the acts with “superiority” themes, like Dad’s Army and Red Dwarf where one character looks down upon others with arrogance, albeit hiding their own insecurities. However, I’ve struggled to find this as a child’s graphic novel pairing.

That’s not to say there aren’t any; I haven’t read every one. But perhaps this trope’s power imbalance doesn’t belong in children’s books. Two protagonists need to be equal and likeable. They’re “supportive and positive”, and “each [of the personalities] makes up for the flaws of the other.” (Thanks to fellow Tweeter @mrsd_bookshelf for this). The double-acts in children’s graphic novels also choose to be friends, although there could be examples where this isn’t the case. Comic duos in sitcoms don’t have the luxury of that choice, and to an extent, the characters are portrayed by double-act performers, although not obviously. It makes me think of the way Peter Cook and Dudley Moore were the first pair to be equals in their performances – though perhaps not off-stage.

One of the first and most famous pairings was Laurel and Hardy. “Their slapstick and stupidity has influenced every double-act since” (The Story of Light Entertainment, BBC, 2006). Slapstick takes physical comedy one step further into the realms of violence, intentional or through mishap. Think The Chuckle Brothers, or classic pie-in-the-face gag. These examples are very “light”, but for obvious reasons, cartoons allow for much more unrealistic… incidents. And graphic novels too. We need to make sure what we give children to read is appropriate but not too “appropriate”. 

Slapstick entered new territory in the 80s alternative comedy scene. It was when comedy went punk, rejecting what came before but influenced by the likes of Cook and Moore. I think graphic novels can be “punk”. You hear people describing them as “not proper books”, “too easy”, or “a bad influence”. Jamie Smart’s Bunny vs Monkey uses epic levels of slapstick. It’s hilarious, appropriate for a modern audience and the type of book I imagine the people mentioned above would look down upon. It wouldn’t matter that slapstick originated in Ancient Greece – it actually did!

According to @MillenialClassicist (YouTube), Bottom is one of the closest modern examples of Ancient Greek comedy. Rik Mayall thought of it more like Waiting for Godot, two people trapped for eternity without any escape. All characters, performed or written, of double-acts are. But don’t feel too bad, all of the double-acts in children’s graphic novels are having a whale of a time!

Let’s not forget the principal reason for these books: laughter and enjoyment. Aristotle believed laughter was a “bodily exercise, precious to health”, and even the “gloomiest person ever to live”, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote about it. Seeing children enjoy these books, as well as reading them, is amazing. Writers and artists are keeping the comic duo alive, subverting the rules for new times yet keeping the parts which work for them and us. It’s this which ensures their appeal and longevity while guaranteeing their variety. And for those that will think they’re reductive and immature… (Roy sticks out his tongue and blows a MASSIVE raspberry!)

Interested in children’s graphic novels? Take a look at these resources

Nikki Gamble talks to graphic novelists Sylvie Kantorovitz, Jerry Craft and Thomas Flintham on The Book Channel

Nikki Gamble talks graphic novels with the experts

Just Imagine reviewers Ben Harris, Roy Moss and Richard Charlesworth share some of their favourite graphic novels for the classroom. They found it very hard to pick from the wealth of exciting new books currently published.

Lots of great recommendations from the Just Imagine review panel to help you stock your library or reading corner

Mark Bradley, creator and author of Bumble and Snug, discussed the inspirations for his graphic novel series with Nikki Gamble, In The Reading Corner

Recommended book lists curated by the Just Imagine review panel.