Humor comes from the unexpected. We, the audience, anticipate one thing happening, and when a different thing happens, all that tension from anticipation and the disconnect between the expected outcome and the actual outcome turn into laughter. This phenomenon explains why both shock value and absurdism can be effective tools in humor. That which we have been trained not to expect, or that which we cannot expect, prompts exactly the sort of disconnect out of which humor arises.
Today I’ll be talking about a comic that presents usually simple ideas in a usually simple style. The comic is effective partly because the ideas are communicated so clearly, and partly because the ideas are so very unexpected. One of the things I value most in the comics I read is encountering ideas that would never have occurred to me on my own, and one of comics that introduces me to such ideas with extraordinary frequency is The Perry Bible Fellowship.
There is shock value, occasionally. There is absurdism, rarely. Mostly, though, the stuff one sees in Perry Bible Fellowship seems logical, once one takes a moment to consider the viewpoint that would allow these ideas to arise. It doesn’t require much adjustment to one’s way of thinking; the adjustment just happens to be so unusual that most people would never make it on their own.
Often, as in the above example, something apparently neutral or even benign turns out to be absolutely horrific. The author develops a dark and twisted worldview, stretching unsettling ideas and awful presumptions to their most extreme conclusions. Disturbing premises are applied to an absurd degree, producing a result that is as terrifying as it is hilarious. The horror feeds into the humor feeds into the horror. Perry Bible Fellowship is one of those comics that often makes me feel bad for finding it funny.
I believe I’ve mentioned before on this blog that I’m not a fan of shock value for its own sake. Perry Bible Fellowship is one of those few comics that can use shock value in a way that works for me. A large part of why I can enjoy the shock value in something like Perry Bible Fellowship is that there’s always something more going on. None of the payoffs rely entirely on gratuitous violence/sex/profanity, though any one of those may be a part of what makes the joke work.
One thing that separates Perry Bible Fellowship from lazy or unimaginative purveyors of shock humor is tact. Though typically irreverent, and often potentially offensive, Perry Bible Fellowship manages to treat difficult issues in a way that feels respectful to me. I think it helps that the humor typically “punches up,” targeting those who behave inappropriately rather than those who are harmed by the behavior.
Perry Bible Fellowship can even tackle issues that are typically big red flags to me without making me angry. There are certain subjects to which I tend to have intense reactions, because they carry emotional weight to me that they might not for most readers. When I encounter those subjects, I typically either decry the work presenting them (if it’s something I don’t like) or I ignore them as best I can and move on (if it’s something I like). The problem isn’t necessarily that I can’t handle those issues as artistic subjects, but that I typically find they’re not being portrayed accurately, or respectfully, or with the nuance that they require.
Suicide is one of those subjects that I have a hard time reading about. My own history makes me touchy about it, and almost all references to suicide in “humorous” works strike me as glib and inappropriate. Perry Bible Fellowship, though, can tackle even that most treacherous of subjects without bothering me in the slightest.
Not every Perry Bible Fellowship installment is horrific. The tendency to present new and unexpected ideas does often veer into unsettling territory… after all, many ideas are new and unexpected precisely because they are unsettling, and people usually don’t spend their time pondering exciting new ways to unsettle themselves. However, Perry Bible Fellowship includes all sorts of new and unexpected ideas that are fun or happy, or merely strange and exciting without any upsetting elements whatsoever.
Be prepared to encounter gore and violence and other troublesome imagery, but don’t think you’ll have to slog through unpleasantness the whole way through. There’s plenty more to Perry Bible Fellowship than just the twisting of an innocent concept into something darker.
On the other hand, though, there are times when Perry Bible Fellowship can really disturb me. I don’t think that’s to its detriment… art that has a powerful effect on a person is remarkable, regardless of whether that effect is enjoyable or not. But I will admit that certain installments of Perry Bible Fellowship bother me enough that I don’t like dwelling on them. So if you find a few that really get to you, know that you’re not alone. (I have a feeling that the ones I can’t handle and the ones any other person can’t handle might be totally disparate sets, though, because typically no two people have the exact same soft spots in their psyches.)
Even when Perry Bible Fellowship goes too far for me, its merit is still clear. I know that some of the ones I don’t like remembering are often cited as other peoples’ favorites, and I can understand why. They’re still well-executed, they still present new and interesting ideas… they just happen to take me to places in my mind that I don’t like to visit.
No I will not include one of the ones that I try not to think about here. Instead, have a couple of rhinos.
Can Perry Bible Fellowship be distressing? Certainly. But for the most part, its lack of regard for the typical standards of society, for the assumptions and values that we all take for granted, is refreshing. Everything in this comic is carefully crafted to feed the joke that it needs to tell. Not a line or a word is wasted.
The new, the unusual, the strange, are what make Perry Bible Fellowship remarkable. Even so, each installment follows a clear sense of logic. The humor lies in the disconnect one experiences when forced to make that mental leap to see the logic in any particular scenario. And that mental leap is precisely the kind of exercise I think everybody’s mind needs every once in a while. Read Perry Bible Fellowship to remind yourself that there is more to life than the ordinary, comfortable reality that you assume you live in. So, so much more.
The Perry Bible Fellowship is written and drawn by Nicholas Gurewitch. New installments go up rarely, and in fact I can’t guarantee that there will ever be another one. (A recent spurt of updates has now concluded and looks like it will have to content us all for a long while.) Typically I only write about comics when I’m reasonably confident there will be more to them someday, but Perry Bible Fellowship is something special, even if all there is of it now is all there will ever be.
And hey, the first time I actually read Perry Bible Fellowship, all signs indicated that it was over and there would never be any more comics there, but since then roughly a score of new installments have gone up, so I won’t be convinced that this comic is finished any time soon. Go read everything that’s there now, and if there’s any more in the future, read that too. Your life will be better for it.
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