Humor may seem easy to write, but it is really the opposite. It is not simply a matter of coming up with cute punchlines. There is the extra tricky aspect of pinpointing the right tone. Few things are more painful than forced whimsy. Sometimes the writer comes off as too proud of their cleverness or, at the other end of the spectrum, striving too hard for levity. What is the correct mixture of lowbrow and highbrow? How many puns are too many? Do the jokes aid in expressing character or hinder the development of coherent ones? Plus, there is still the matter of making the reader laugh in the first place. When done right, all these elements blend together, and the humor feels effortless. One example of this type of success can be found in the series Public Relations from Devils Due/1First Comics.
The setup for Public Relations is a little high concept. Dan Clover is a hapless mid-level employee at the Hurwitz & Goldman public relations firm. His life is in a bit of a holding pattern when he receives from his estranged father an invitation for said absent father’s 50th birthday party. Included is the wish that Dan bring along his “special someone,” which naturally Dan does not have. Still he is able to work up enough nerve to finally ask out co-worker/intern Threnody Dark. Threnody says yes and soon they are flying (via Air Presumptive airlines) to the magical land of Sardonia.
Sardonia is a small, picturesque kingdom where 21st Century life mixes with dragons, fairies and other fantastical elements. It is governed, in a sense, by Dan’s father, King Clover. His Majesty has a free-spirited manner which occasionally (alright often) shifts into viscous outbursts of temper. Luckily he has a monkey (Mr. Winkles) to help with the paperwork and a therapist to assist with the emotional heavy lifting. In-between, he does not have much time for one-on-one with Dan, though, he does setup his son with his own P.R. firm, i.e. puts Dan in charge of cleaning up his father’s diplomatic messes. Meanwhile, stalk(sulk?)ing in the shadows is Kade, Dan’s goth warlock half-brother, who (again literally) worships at the altar of Trent Renzor.
The plot of Public Relations centers on Dan’s fumbling attempts to balance gaining his father’s approval, the attentions of Threnody and not losing his head in the process of running his new firm, 4Leaf. All of these story elements are well managed by writers Dave Justus and Matthew Sturges. They keep the narrative flowing smoothly, juggling an increasing supporting cast as the series progresses. There are plenty of jokes, yet they do not come at the expense of establishing character. Justus and Sturges build Dan into a protagonist the reader cares about, even if they flinch at his lack of social graces (his fumbles in befriending a black co-worker are particularly wincing). The farcical tone combined with the quip and vulgarity heavy dialogue is sometimes reminiscent of the TV series Archer. Both series seem to exist in worlds of their own devising, which follow a set of absurd rules which, in their context, make total sense. Finally, Public Relations is simply hilarious, freely skewering whatever targets Justus and Sturges place in their sights. Each installment contains at least one laugh out loud moment.
Art for the first arc (#1-5) is provided by David Hahn. Hahn has a cartoony style which matches the whimsical manner of Justus and Sturges’ scripts. He highlights the absurdity in the concept by inserting fantasy elements into otherwise mundane scenes and vice-versa. His art has a charm of its own which increases the humor of the situations. Hahn is followed on the current arc by Steve Rolston, who continues the same vibe with his illustrations. In addition, there are various artists who contribute to the backup tales often found in the back on the issue. (These scripts are by Justus and Sturges as well). The most note-worthy of these would be Sam Lotfi who is working on the “Ladies’ Night” serial running at the end of the current arc. Lotfi’s art has a slightly sharper line, which benefits the tone of Threnody’s increasing odd girls’ night out. Finally covers for the series are provided by Annie Wu, who lends her own distinct flair to the title.
Public Relations is a concept that could have easily been tripped up by its own cleverness. Instead it is a delightfully entertaining read. I picked up the first issue at DC’s recent Awesome Con, read it on the bus home, then bought and read the next seven issues as quickly as I could. Comedy may not be easy to create, yet, when it works as well as this, it reads as entirely effortless.