I’ll admit it: I used to read Homestuck. And when I quit reading it, it left something of a hole in my reading list – a hole shaped like something colorful and funny. What was I to do? It’s a rare piece of comedy that doesn’t rely on harmful and oppressive humor, as I had painfully been reminded by Hussie’s work.
Fortunately, I quickly discovered a new comic, one rapidly gaining recognition and popularity for its colorful, weird characters and raucous, nonstop humor. It was perfect. It was Zack Morrison’s Paranatural.
Studying the science, if you will, of humor has long been a special interest of mine, one I cultivated to compensate for my lack of an intuitive understanding. What makes something funny? Well, it’s actually pretty simple: you set the reader up to expect something, and then you do something else that makes no sense. The setup -> punchline format is a pretty basic example of this. Morrison, on the other hand, doesn’t do basic.
The humor in Paranatural is remarkably dense; instead of setting up a joke and delivering the twist, each page sets up multiple jokes simultaneously, and practically every panel has a punchline of some sort, like an intricate joke-braid. It’s something that often has me doubled over under the fury of its hilarious onslaught. One of my favorite bloggers, Colin Spacetwinks, has criticized Paranatural for the rapid-fire pacing of its jokes, saying that an author should leave room for a joke to “breathe” before launching into the next one. While I agree with this general idea, I don’t think it applies to Paranatural; Morrison pulls it off.
Paranatural’s concept leaves lots of room for absurd moments to pop up: Max, a sullen 13 year old, moves to the strange town of Mayview with his sister and their single dad. Mayview, it turns out, is full of weirdo spirits and ghosts. Max, it turns out, can see them.
Max finds himself swept up into a secret world of magical quests, spooky conspiracies, sinister spirits and even more sinister middle school drama. He gets recruited by his school’s mysterious Activity Club, which is made up of other “spectrals” – people who can see and interact with ethereal entities, and are sometimes granted wacky supernatural powers by them. Things get weird fast for Max, but with his new friends and the giant unknowable ghostly worm that’s granting him magnet powers, there’s probably nothing to worry about!
Max, frankly, looks like the most utterly dull protagonist ever, like the baby version of the ubiquitous brown-haired-white-guy-with-stubble in a shooter game. I expected John Paranatural. But Max is actually a terrific representation of a newly-minted teenager, someone who desperately wants to be simultaneously Cool and Normal but has no clue how to achieve either. We don’t see much of his personality in the first chapter – just a lot of attempts at deadpan snark. But gradually, as he settles into Mayview and the Activity Club, his defenses lower, allowing us to see a troubled kid still hurting from the death of his mother, uprooted from anything familiar and lonely for a friend.
Meanwhile, the jokes continue unabated. The thing that makes Paranatural so successfully funny is that there’s never just one type of joke; Morrison uses wordplay, visual gags, situational comedy, slapstick, and character-based humor, all with a precision of timing that rarely falters. Even the designs of the spirit characters often incorporate clever juxtapositions or visual puns. What he basically never uses, to my infinite relief, is oppressive humor. There are no racist jokes, no men forced to wear dresses for transmisogynist laffs, no “lol gay” moments. Even the bullies and villains never go there! There are some “idiot”s and “psychopath”s and the like but I’ve lowered my standards so much I don’t even notice these words anymore. Assholes and trolls often whine that humor is impossible without offending someone; Paranatural, with a few exceptions, is my counterexample.
That’s not to say it’s completely perfect. The cast is a little too predominantly-white-and-male for my taste; among the central characters, Isabel is the only girl and the only person of color. The supporting cast is more diverse, but Isabel is basically the only non-white-dude who gets any character development. On the other hand, she is an awesome character, her struggle with living in her grandfather’s shadow is a powerful thing to watch, and the story positions her as the secondary protagonist to Max, giving her a lot of screentime. Still, if the enigmatic Dimitri or the mysterious Dr. Zarei got a chance to play a more central role in the story, or even just to be described as something other than “enigmatic” or “mysterious”, I think it would help.
Of course, a huge part of the goings-on of Paranatural are enigmatic and mysterious. Who is the unseen entity pulling strings in Mayview? What is Mr. Spender, the faculty advisor to the Activity Club, up to? Who are the Cousinhood of Man? What’s that rad-looking blacksmith spirit up to? Who will discover the Activity Club’s secret first, Johnny and his gang or Suzy and the Journalism Club? Will Max find his mom’s ghost, or will he get eaten by his spirit first?
There’s not much about Paranatural that I don’t love, and few pages that haven’t made me at least chuckle. It’s a good read and, frankly, a great example for other comedy writers out there. Plus there’s all sorts of elaborate and well-exposited Ghost Rules, so fans of Homestuck’s convoluted systems will find this to be a more than adequate replacement. Seriously, stop reading Homestuck you guys, please.
Final verdict: If you like wacky, over-the-top humor that’s still kid-friendly, you’ll love Paranatural. If you don’t love that kind of humor, you’re about to start.