Comic Book Classics –10
Bill Burden’s Flaming Carrot
I have drafted a number of versions of this article only to ping them straight into the cyber-dustbin. The reason for this wastage is not a loss of confidence in my own abilities as a wordsmith (perish the thought!), but the very subject tackled by Bill Burden’s Flaming Carrot. It is, quite simply, the best and most savage parody of the superhero genre ever concocted. It is very hard when discussing FC not to go off on an anti-Marvel/DC rant (I failed often, hence the waste-bin use).
Like all true lovers of sequential art, I loathe superheroes. On countless occasions I have dismissed the Marvel/DC universes as childish, emotionally stunted claptrap (on one or two occasions I have even won the argument). You’ll be glad to know that my hatred is not due just to my wounded sense of aesthetics. My fear, based on sales trends over many decades, is that Superheroes threaten to kill off the entire medium; their audience is aging, young people (rightly) reject them, women are repelled by the blatant sexism, the curious and imaginative by their banality and characters denied any possible development by the straightjacket of back-story. If it wasn’t for the film tie-ins, they would have long ago ceased to exist. Sadly they will stumble on, perhaps taking down the entire comic book industry as they perish. Nobody should try and save the Superhero: even Alan Moore has turned his back on them. Good for him.
But back to the topic at hand. Flaming Carrot is also more than a mere cultural critique. It is an absurdist, ebullient comedy of great depth. It starts (like the founding novel of the Western cannon; Don Quijote) with a mad protagonist, delivering a flawed and unreliable narrative and tilting at windmills as he goes.
The eponymous ‘hero’ differs from the normal genre types as he wears ordinary clothes (an unremarkable shirt and trousers). His superhero costume consists of a couple of absurdist additions that foreground the irreality of costumed heroes as a trope/meme/whatever post modern term du jour you wish to insert here. They are (from the bottom up) a pair of huge flippers on his feet and his signature mask: six foot long, carrot-shaped with a real flame blazing from the top of his head.
This bizarre (and impractical) attire mirrors the erratic psychology of the character. He behaves in a way that most superheros would not (apart from wanky Wolverine; the Edward Cullen bad boy of the Marvel stable). He drinks and carouses in late night bars, gets into fights (and will beat up on those weaker than himself – if he can find them), follows mysterious ‘signs’ for no apparent reason and is aided by a bunch of kids on bicycles who do all kinds of errands for him. He also fights against preposterous villains.
Carrot’s villains are, of course, parodies. In book 2 he fights against a communist plot to turn the cellulite removed from fat women during liposuction operations into atomic bombs to destroy America. He is hindered in this task by complacent authority. The mayor who, after some sort of ray-gun attack, has been left with a baby’s head, opposes him. Faced with an uncaring establishment, only Carrot can save the day. Which he – sort of – does.
Burden’s art is also quite arresting. Heavily silhouetted (almost an over-eager version of the ligne claire tradition). It carries the odd, surreal narratives with verve and gusto. Most of the time when I read it, I am carried off by it into its strange, parodic 1950s-themed alternate reality. It’s like Mad-Men filtered through Salvador Dali. A wonderful, wonderful thing.