To dust off an old chestnut, comedy, like all art, is subjective. One person’s Peter Sellers is another’s Adam Sandler. Unfortunately, Curse Words is far more Little Nicky than it is Dr. Strangelove. The elevator pitch of a wizard sent to destroy the world only to fall in love with it and use his powers to start his own business instead is certainly rife with potential on its own, but the comic is so in love with its own premise that it neglects to craft anything akin to an actual connection; it’s content to remind you just how boisterously fun and funny it is.
Rarely have I read a 36-page comic and thought that it needed to be far shorter, but here we are. Curse Words #1 is a harried cauldron of jokes and intentionally ambiguous backstory that feels scattered and bloated. It opens en media res, which is effective enough in establishing the humor of the fish out of water circumstances and rounds out the first act with a new conflict in the form of a wizard showdown. From here, we have an 11-page flashback outlining our protagonist’s arrival and change of heart that is far too much real estate dedicated to saying so little. Then there’s still another 16 pages to go wherein there’s an overwrought magical showdown, an introduction into an ethereal evil plane and its inhabitants, a catastrophic conundrum for our lead character and….it’s exhausting and hollow all at the same time.
The real crime here is how unoriginal the actual humor is, with Soule and Browne both tripping over themselves to convince you that Harry Potter meets dad jokes is a great concept, right? Right?!?! While the trick with humor, that subjective little minx, is that even while something may not hit you as particularly funny, one should still be able to identify why it should be. In Curse Words, everything is derivative of the fish-out-of-water context, a well-worn trope we’ve seen in everything from Big to the first Thor film. An English wizard named Cornwall wears puffy pants as part of his overall Tudor ensemble, the sassy Rizzo the Rat styled animal sidekick kicks off a social media fandom, the old timey wizard has a hip haircut and spouts modern, hackneyed colloquialisms, etc. Ironically, perhaps the funniest moment in the entire issue is hearing aloud the thoughts of actual fish out of water as they’re tossed into a boiling cauldron. In the end, you know what the joke all boils down to? They Poochied Gandalf.
It’s meant to feel self-aware in its absurdity, of course, but Soule is far too direct in spelling out his characters and themes as opposed to naturally allowing a reader to intuit any of them. Flitting from cringe-worthy “only in New York” exaltations to Twitter-styled caption boxes to “hey look how funny a talking koala is” reminder at every turn, it’s the overt blend of cultural understanding meets anti-hero that’s most egregious. Soule has Wizord literally casts a translation spell on himself that allows him to understand this foreign world and thus have interactions where he learns we have no need for slavery hence our abundance of leisure time (yes, really). It’s a subverted A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court with none of the pointed satire and a more laborious ‘his heart grew three sizes that day’ recital.
Soule’s script is trying far too hard to do far too much, attempting to create a cornucopia of silliness except that it lacks the emotional anchor to tether the comedy. More than anything, it fails to answer the question, “Why should I care?” If Wizord’s change of heart, his enamored epiphany, is the pivot point, on which the plot thrusts forward, why are the only potentially humanizing elements about him are that he would like to feel the peace of an afternoon picnic with his ex-girlfriend? His eyes literally turn clear upon casting the translation spell and then he goes on a twenty something day tour of New York City magically arriving at his decision to use his powers for good. As a native Manhattanite, let me tell you, twenty days is enough time to complete the cycle from completely enraptured to completely repulsed by the city. Soule is constantly telling without showing here, hoping the story beats can rest on their jokey laurels and barrage of visual madness.
To his credit, Ryan Browne is a talented artist whose enthusiasm for the work is readily apparent. Characters are expressive, action is dynamic, and the colors are electrically charged. If only it could have been reigned in enough to let you appreciate it all. A vast majority of pages are so packed to the brim they should be labeled as potential seizure inducing hazards. One can appreciate the need to want to work in as much background business, filled with additional gags the likes of which you see sprinkled throughout Sex Criminals or even Browne’s God Hates Astronauts, but that’s rarely the case. Instead, these pages are just loaded with unnecessary and overdesigned overlapping panels. The jagged panel borders lend nothing to actually directing your eye across a page and the forced symmetry serve little purpose. Combined with the audacious palette, the constant scene shifts, and the rapid-fire magical effects, it’s a chaotic mess. It’s all so excessive, so over-the-top for the sake of reminding you how over-the-top this book is supposed to be.
Curse Words #1 is an unrelenting punchline to a joke no one set up. While the zany antics unfolding in droves on each page may well be the result of the creators having bombastic fun, the overlooked need for a heart at the center of the storm means it all falls flat. Is this a redemption tale? Is this an inverted Harry Potter morality tale? A men behaving badly with wands commentary? It’s unabashedly vociferous and often quite pretty to look at with the potential to engross an audience if it could find some restraint and balance in pacing, but I’m afraid I’ll have to stop you here. I’ve heard this joke before. And it wasn’t funny then, either.
Curse Words is now available from Image Comics.
Alex Mansfield was raised on a steady diet of cereal, cartoons and comics. Despite this, he did manage to raise himself up off the couch just enough to become a functioning member of society. Not a day goes by that a scene from The Simpsons won’t run through his mind, oftentimes when walking his dog named Pants. His love of comics has only grown through the years as the medium continues to find innovative ways to tell stories, whether they’re about cape-wearing modern day myths serving justice or slice of life tales steeped in familiar experiences. You can find his chirpings regarding the awesomeness of comics, craft beer, and why The Big Lebowski should have won every award ever on Twitter @Focusedtotality