Friday, May 24, 2019

this is the joke

Mark Evanier administers a juried award called the Bill Finger Award for Excellence in Comic Book Writing. The Finger Award is intended to compensate for the Fickle Finger of Fate by honoring unjustly neglected figures in that field, of whom Bill Finger - the writer who co-created Batman, but was long ignored in favor of Bob Kane, the artist - is said to be the prototypical example.

The Finger Award comes in two categories, living and posthumous, and for this year's posthumous award, the jury has fingered E. Nelson Bridwell. Not being much of a student of comics, I had never heard of him, but it turns out I should have. Evanier's announcement credits Bridwell with co-creating a comic called The Inferior Five, which I'd never heard of either. A quick visit to its Wikipedia page proves that it's exactly what it sounds like, a sort of precursor to Mystery Men, a rare case of a superhero movie I rather liked. So I might enjoy The Inferior Five as well, especially as Evanier says that Bridwell's "writing was marked by a wicked sense of humor."

But it was by clicking from there on Bridwell's own Wikipedia entry that I discovered what he really deserves to be remembered for. While writing for MAD Magazine in the 1950s, he created one of our culture's truly classic, memorable, and lasting jokes. It's usually rendered something like this:
The Lone Ranger and Tonto find themselves surrounded by hostile Indians.
"Well, Tonto," says the Lone Ranger, "we're really in trouble now."
And Tonto replies,
"What you mean 'we', white man?"
I can't tell you how often I've seen that last line invoked, often without any further reference to the joke which readers are assumed to know. And sure enough, whenever lazy essayists or reviewers - and they're usually white men - assume their personal reactions are universal and write something like, for instance, Edmund Wilson on The Lord of the Rings that "we never feel Sauron's power," I'm there to murmur, "What you mean 'we', white man?"

And did Bridwell invent this joke? Apparently. According to Wikipedia's sources, nobody's been able to find it told earlier than a 1958 MAD article by Bridwell and artist Joe Orlando depicting moments you'll never see in popular TV shows. In Bridwell's script, Tonto just says "What you mean ... we?" but it's the same joke.

For that alone, he is worth honoring.

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