#34: Three Men and a Comic Book

Season 2: Episode 21. Original airdate: May 9, 1991.

“Three Men and a Comic Book” is a dynamite episode of The Simpsons, but that almost goes without saying. Not only is it a classic, but it marks an important milestone in the show’s growth from a cartoon curiosity to a cultural phenomenon. May 9, 1991, the original airdate of this episode, was the night The Simpsons beat The Cosby Show.

FOX took a huge risk back in the fall of 1990 in putting the show up against the Cosby juggernaut, but Season 2 managed pretty solid ratings by today’s standards. Those were different times though, and even on nights against reruns, The Simpsons was devastated by Cosby. That is, until this episode, which admittedly was up against a rerun, but nonetheless won. It was a watershed moment for the series, and for the animation community as a whole, proving that a cartoon could compete with the biggest show on television.

It’s almost fitting that this was the episode that put the show at the center of the zeitgeist. It’s one featuring subject matter that would have been fairly alien to the audiences of 1991 (comic book culture), and made a compelling story while helping introduce the public to nerd society. In fact, the ongoing renaissance of everything geek can largely be attributed to The Simpsons, as it was a show created, written, and directed by total geeks. Their fascination with the various aspects of fandom was always present in the numerous movie homages the show did, but “Three Men” marks the first episode truly dedicated to nerdery.

Boy, is it a good one. Aside from a comparatively unsatisfying middle act (which I’ll get to later), this episode is a love letter to those who hold comics dear. The opening scenes, set at a ComicCon type event, are full of little touches that operate both as jokes and nudges to those in the know about superheroes. For those out of the loop, there’s still much to enjoy, like Mayor Quimby’s attempts to seem “in,” which remind me eerily of Mitt Romney’s latest campaign routines. The real star of the convention is Bart’s favorite hero, Radioactive Man, who is an obvious riff on The Incredible Hulk, right down to the manner in which he got his superpowers. For anyone familiar with collectibles, Bart’s affinity with a rare comic book will ring very true, as not even the $100 asking price will stop him in his quest.

Bart first takes the tried-and-true route of begging Homer for the money. When denied, Homer pulls a brilliant reversal of Bart’s incessant nagging, eventually goading him into working for the money. After trying a lemonade beer stand, he finds himself employed by an old woman voiced by Cloris Leachman. She’s definitely a game vocal talent, but this portion of the episode falls a little flat for me. It felt far too much like a deviation from the meat of the episode in the early and later acts, and may have played better at the beginning of the episode, though I can’t explain that logistically. It’s not bad by any means, but other than getting Bart some money to spend with, it feels a little bit like padding.

Once Bart gets the money, he visits the comic shop, where Comic Book Guy is introduced. Much like Lionel Hutz has become the shyster lawyer, Comic Book Guy has become the most recognized and quoted voice of his culture. He is the consummate nerd, with just the right amount of pretension and dedication for his passion. At the shop, Bart runs into Martin and Milhouse, the latter of whom just wants to buy a Carl Yastrzemski baseball card. The three conspire to pool their funds and buy the Radioactive Man book, only to realize that none are keen on sharing.

The boys take the book to Bart’s treehouse, where they bicker and debate who should have the book. There are all the classic bargains seen in “sharing trouble” episodes of sitcoms, but what makes this sequence stand out is the way it devolves into a Treasure of the Sierra Madre homage, with Bart becoming more and more paranoid, even tying Martin up in fear of conspiracy. Aside from Marge interrupting with refreshments, the battle for the comic wages on, until the stakes are raised to the point of Milhouse dangling from the treehouse and Bart being forced to choose his friend or the comic. Of course he chooses to save Milhouse, and the comic is lost to a massive rainstorm.

The next morning, the boys wake up to mourn their comic. This may be the most beautiful sequence the show has done yet, with some genuinely pretty work done on the shadows and lighting of the sunrise. All three boys recognize what the comic did to them, but luckily they don’t seem to care too much, and they go on with their lives, moving on to the next rare comic to show up in Comic Book Guy’s shop. It’s this kind of episode in which I’m glad nobody learns too big a lesson, as changing their ways here would be antithetical to everything a nerdy boy believes in. Well played, Simpsons. 

This episode served as the functional season finale, as “Blood Feud” didn’t get burned off until mid-July. I’ll be reviewing that one tomorrow, but this one works really well as a true finale, especially with that beautifully atmospheric closing sequence. All in all, Season 2 has been incredible, and what’s even more exciting is knowing that this is just the beginning. I’ve heard that Season 3 is pretty decent too, so consider me intrigued.

 

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