Rando! Weekly World News' Graphic Novel
As a pop culture writer, my life is largely devoted to research. Thankfully, because it is my strange lot in life to write about ridiculous shit, my research tends to be a lot of fun. For example, I recently wrote about the Weekly World News’ entire 1990s run for my Simpsons Decade column over at Rotten Tomatoes. If you haven’t checked out that series yet, please do. It’s really fucking good, and I’m not just saying so because part of my livelihood depends upon it.
It was a nostalgic, campy delight traveling back in time to the satirical tabloid’s Clinton-era heyday. For me, at least, it was also a return to The Onion that I had fallen in love at first sight as a fifteen year old boy in 1991 and was fortunate enough to be around when the whole world radiated promise and potential. It was a special time, and The Onion was a special place that, in its black and white, pre-national days, turned out a product that looked and read more like Weekly World News than the blindingly slick multi-media beast it is today.
Researching Weekly World News, I discovered that the cult publication spawned a fair amount of ancillary projects, most notably the well-liked Bat Boy off-Broadway musical but also a comic strip drawn and written by Peter Bagge and a 2010 comic book written by Chris Ryall and drawn by Alan Robinson that was collected as a graphic novel by IDW.
The graphic novel’s protagonist, hero, anti-hero and villain is the appropriately named Ed Anger, a perpetually apoplectic right-wing Korean War veteran with a steel plate in his head and a feverish brain forever overflowing with rage towards what he sees as all of our nation’s enemies, internal and external.
In the Clinton and Obama years, Anger was an adorable anachronism, a beer-drinking, foreigner-hating, proudly intolerant throwback who isn't just "pro-American", he's also proudly "anti-everything-else". In 2017, Ed Anger is basically a more chill, tolerant version of Donald Trump and his baskets full of deplorables. Like Trump, Anger thinks that Obama is an illegal alien.
Unlike Trump, Anger is equally peeved at actual aliens (as in the coming-to-Earth-in-a-spaceship variety) he’s sure are here illegally, and counts an icily cerebral non-Earthling known only as “UFO Alien” (a cult figure from the newspaper, of course) whom he squares off against on televised debates among his social circle. The comic book is prescient and sly in the way that it renders arch-Conservative’s metaphorical fear of the unknown and the unfamiliar surreally literal.
In the Weekly World News comic book, illegal aliens are as likely to come from outer space as Mexico. To the Tea Party set, anything other than white, heterosexual, straight and American qualifies as unforgivably freakish and foreign. In the upside-down world of this comic book, meanwhile, Ed considers anything other than himself unbearably freakish. That includes a series of out and out freaks, including PhD Ape (a simian psychiatrist with an undeniable Frasier Crane vibe), the aforementioned UFO Alien, the notorious Bat Boy (associated here with Obama’s joyous outsider invasion of the highest echelons of American power) and finally Manigator, a half-man, half-alligator abomination who wins over Ed with his beer-drinking, shit-talking, redneck American ways.
As the comic book begins, Ed is a man out of time. He is, like I was, at one point, a newspaperman, and even in 2010 newspapers weren’t really a thing anymore and cantankerous columnists who gave people in power the business were even less of a thing. Perhaps that’s why I found myself identifying with Ed even though I could not be more antithetical to him politically. We are both weary survivors of the newspaper world, columnists who have watched the world grow strange and threatening, unfamiliar and cruel.
Then both humanity and the alien and freaks who live among us are threatened by the “Chaos Cloud”, a toxic cloud with a man’s face on it that eviscerates everything in its path and specifically targets the xenophobic, reactionary rage of white men, or rather, in Ed Anger, one particularly mercurial white man in particular.
A toxic, gaseous cloud with a bloated male face that destroys all it encounters is not a bad description of Donald Trump. But the male face here is French even if, otherwise, this graphic novel more or less aligns perfectly with the weird cultural schisms of life in Donald Trump’s America.
Though Ed never utters the exact phrase “Make America great again” he is continually hearkening back to the same mythological, non-existent American suburban paradise of the 1950s, when no one had to lock their doors because everyone was white and immigration and minorities did not yet exist and the dearth of Mexicans, blacks (in our neighborhoods at least!), homosexuals and everyone else even remotely different from us led to a veritable utopia.
Even before the Chaos Cloud approaches, the comic book has a bit of an apocalyptic air. Because when you work for newspapers in 2010, the end of the world is forever just around the corner, if it hasn’t already arrived yet, professionally speaking. Anger is a proud relic of an earlier era but in yet another prescient touch, he leads a populist media campaign against what he dubs “freaks” (Bat Boys, aliens and super-intelligent apes specifically, but also anyone he doesn’t like) that succeeds in pushing back social progress and cultural evolution. A motivated Anger gets the American public to once again hate and fear people and things that are different from them.
On the Weekly World News page, Anger was, like so much of the tabloid’s sledgehammer satire, one-note but often very funny. He’s still funny here, but he’s picked up a few more notes on his path to unlikely comic book protagonist. Politics remain central to his core, and to his rage, but there’s also a touch of Network’s Howard Beale in the way Anger is forever raging against a modern world he fears and hates and does not understand, sometimes in a TV studio with cameras on.
At its best, Weekly World News reminds me of A Book Of Jean’s Own!, my former colleague Maria Schneider’s absolutely brilliant exploration of the mind, sweatpants and infinite banal sadness of The Onion columnist Jean Teasdale. A Book Of Jean’s Own! isn’t just explosively funny. It’s also a heartbreakingly authentic look at a particularly Midwestern variety of banal despair.
I always thought there was substance and depth to some of The Onion’s roster of columnists, none more so than Jean Teasdale. A Book Of Jean’s Own proved me right but I was also pleasantly surprised at how much depth and substance there is to some of Weekly World News’ characters as well, particularly Ed Anger, whose rage in never less than incandescent and all-encompassing, and Bat Boy, a seemingly limited character who pops up throughout the graphic novel in a series of crowd-pleasing contexts.
Will I read the further adventures of Ed Anger? Probably not, but I enjoyed my time in Weekly World News land quite a bit. I was particularly impressed by the comic book expansion of the tabloid’s crazy world, in no small part because it’s cartoonishly crazy vision American life now feels disconcertingly like a realistic take on the tragedy of American life in 2017. That makes it Ed’s giddy, nostalgic dream and our waking nightmare.
Support Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place at https://www.patreon.com/nathanrabinshappyplace