34. Three Men and a Comic Book

(originally aired May 9, 1991)
This is one of the first shows that really embraced geek culture. It wasn’t really until the digital age, where crater-faced nerds could find each other and communicate with greater ease, did comic books and the like become more mainstream. This is a show written by a bunch of geeks, so as such, the show reflects it. We start off with Bart and Lisa attending the local comic convention, where we get a flurry of jokes and set-pieces, from the eery similarities between Richie Rich and Casper to watching old 50s superhero shows sponsored by cigarette companies. It is there that Bart sets his eyes upon Radioactive Man issue 1, in the hands of the uber-dork that we would come to know and love as Comic Book Guy. CBG is probably my favorite character of the entire series, a delightfully accurate portrayal of surly, unimpressed nerds who view themselves on higher pillars than other nerds. He would later mirror Internet geeks, and detractors of the series itself with the immortal catchphrase, “Worst episode ever!” Now, he seems a bit more open, offering Bart the comic for $100 “because you remind me of me.”

After unsuccessfully bugging his father for money and desperately scavenging for mere pennies, Bart is running low on money-making options. He is set up to do chores for the neighborhood old biddy Mrs. Glick, voiced by Cloris Leachman, but his tiresome toils and iodine scarrings only reward him fifty cents. In the end, Bart discovers that if he pools his money together with fellow chums Milhouse and Martin, they’ll have enough to get the comic. But joint ownership is a devilish mistress. The third act turns into a bizarre psychodrama, with the three holed up in Bart’s treehouse debating over who gets primary ownership. It’s incredibly interesting to watch: all the action takes place in a small area, with these three characters repeatedly butting heads, with Bart taking the particularly paranoid angle, and ultimately his greed and lack of trust in his friends becomes his downfall. He manages to save his friendships, but their prized possession is lost in its place.

This is a fascinating episode: all three acts feel so different, from the comic convention parodies in the first, Bart’s quest for cash and servitude to the elderly in the second, and the over-the-top thriller drama action in the third. Yet it all flows with ease, and of course, is thoroughly entertaining throughout. The jokes at the expense of hardcore nerds is biting, but not without acknowledging its appreciation for the material itself. We’ve all known a Mrs. Glick-type in our time, old ladies with even older candy dishes and unaware of how little two quarters can go nowadays. And we’ve all squabbled with our friends over trivial collector’s items, preferably in a dank treehouse during a thunderstorm. This is an episode that comes out of life experience and pure honesty, and it’s truly one of the greats.

Tidbits and Quotes
– The Richie Rich/Casper comparison really is striking. I think Lisa’s theory on Rich’s death holds a lot of weight: “Perhaps he realized how hollow the pursuit of money really is and took his own life.”
– Bart’s becoming of Bartman feels like a real kid thing, but I always connect it to the Bartman comics they put out, along with the rest of the Bongo Comics line-up. I also remember the Radioactive Man comics, which are a lot more brilliant looking back on. They printed them as if they were in period, like #4 would reflect the 50s, and #476 would be the 70s, and the comic style would change based upon the era. There were a lot of parodies that I never got then, like of Watchmen, Batman Year One, and just general comic book stuff.
– The old Radioactive Man clip is absolutely brilliant. Reminds me a lot of the old Flintstones commercial. That and the very effeminate Buddy “Fallout Boy” Hodges, attempting to use his childhood success to springboard his current stage career. We also get a subtle reference to George Reeves’ death (Superman from the original TV series) in Dirk Richter, the actor who played Radioactive Man, having met a similar fate (Bart asks about it in an inquizzitive, child-like manner, to which Hodges breaks down, “Dirk Richter was a beautiful man… Can’t you little vultures leave him alone?!”)
– First, I’m surprised they let Homer say “T.S.” I never heard anyone say that before, but I can figure out what it means. Next, I love the reversal of “Please, Dad?” “No.” thrown back at Bart by Homer, and him actually winning and rubbing it in (complete with a jovial punch to the arm to his son, which visablly hurts). And of course a great Wonder Years homage in Bart’s internal dialogue, voiced by Daniel Stern of course.
– The first “Haw haw!” was in the last show, but this is the first time it really works as a joke, as Nelson rides by on his bike, mocking Bart’s pitiful lemonade stand.
– I do love the flashback to Mrs. Glick’s brother from the war, who had a bit too many people to dedicate after pulling the pin on his grenade.
– Another look at the steamy soap opera. Mrs. Glick’s critique is great: “Filthy. But genuinely arousing.” [shudder]
– I like the ever logical Martin’s scheduling and tie-breaking decision-making involving ownership of the comic, and Bart parroting every complaint Milhouse makes. To this day, anytime someone asks, “What about [blank]?” I always pile on, “Yeah, what about [blank]?”
– There’s some great acting on Bart as his motions get more quick and wirey the madder he gets. I also love the wrap-around pan of the three of them glaring at each other while eating, as the music swells and the thunder roars outside. The climax is really dramatic and tense, as it should be.
– I also love how the very ending teases a lesson being learned, then drops it completely.
[Bart] We worked so hard, and now it’s all gone. We ended up with nothing because the three of us can’t share.
[Milhouse] What’s your point?
[Bart] Nothing. Just kind of ticks me off.
Lastly, I love Harry Shearer’s performance as the narrated Radioactive Man. Don’t know why, just felt like saying it. He delivers a wonderful outro as the last panel: “The world is safe again… but for how long?”

8 thoughts on “34. Three Men and a Comic Book

  1. This episode is a take on the classic movie The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. I love that film, which is one of the reasons this is my favorite episode of the series.

  2. This is one of my favorite episodes of all time. I probably barely doesn’t make my top 10, but it does make an honorable mention. I love it and have loved it ever since I first saw it back in in 93.

    As for it being a riff on Treasure of Sierra Madre, I love that movie, but it is one I rarely get to watch. I blind bought it on BD a few year’s back and loved it. However, since I am so busy buying Film Noirs, especially during B&N’s Criterion Sale, I am too busy watching other movies I haven’t seen before that I haven’t had time to rewatch much else. Hell, I used to do a Lord of the Rings week every July and haven’t done that since 2013.

  3. “Homer, it’s really coming down. Can you check on the boys?”
    (the trio are seen fighting in-between the lightning flashes)
    “They’re fine.”

  4. I enjoy this episode quite a bit. There’s plenty of great comedic moments here (Homer halfheartedly checking on the boys in the treehouse, the fake-out of the lesson on sharing at the end, and “what about (blank)?”). The story is well-told, as like you said, they combine different stories into one episode while managing to make it fit.

  5. This is another episode I really love. Bart, Milhouse and Martin fighting over a comic leads to a lot of hilarious moments. What helps the episode is the episode introduces Comic Book Guy who is a pretty good character.

  6. “What do you mean ‘the last one alive'”?
    Bart’s paranoia is wonderful in this episode.

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