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Beasts of Burden

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Root Influence: Bob Burden created such super-silly superheroes as Flaming Carrot and the Shoveler in his 1980s comic books.

The much-hyped movie 'The Mystery Men' originates in the weird comics of Atlanta genius Bob Burden

By Richard von Busack

I NEVER THOUGHT I'd see the day that a movie would be made out of Bob Burden's comic books. Every billboard for The Mystery Men seems like a chimera to me. The comic book tie-in to the film, also titled The Mystery Men (Dark Horse by Bob Fingerman, Chris McLoughlin and Steve Moncuse; $2.95), is more like a manticore than a chimera. Here we see (drum roll, please) a comic book based on a movie based on a dream sequence based on an imaginary comic book. I'll explain everything.

The Mystery Men film is an unpretentious Legion of Superheroes parody. The heroes are, among others, the low-rent vigilantes Mr. Furious (Ben Stiller), the Bowler (Janeane Garofalo) and the Shoveler (William H. Macy). As they battle villains in Champion City, they also fight with their own moms and girlfriends.

I suppose that every generation deserves its own version of Mr. Terrific and Captain Nice. Of course, not many people remember those two TV shows from 1967. They were Batman parodies (on CBS and NBC, respectively)--all about ordinary henpecked, mother-dominated schlubs dressing like superheros in bad homemade outfits. Both shows were canceled after one season. Captain Nice and Mr. Terrific were mourned only by one lonely little boy. Here's the funniest part of the story. Oh, how you'll laugh. That lonely little boy was named "Me."

Bob Burden, who probably doesn't remember Captain Nice either (sob), originally created the Mystery Men as supporting characters in his black-and-white comic Flaming Carrot (also published by Dark Horse). The Mystery Men debuted in Flaming Carrot #16, published in 1987.

In that issue, Burden's peculiar hero Flaming Carrot is dozing in a hammock. He undergoes what a title balloon calls a "Flashback/Dream Sequence." He either remembers or dreams up his adventures with the group of odd vigilantes. Flaming Carrot's semiconscious reveries may be guided by a conversation that he overhears as he falls asleep. His girlfriend is talking with a pal about the Mystery Men comic books she read when she was a kid: "Word has it that William S. Burroughs ghostwrote four or five issues."

In subsequent issues of Flaming Carrot, the Mystery Men turned up as the Carrot's partners in waking adventures. All are pretty much one-joke characters, except for Screwball, a free-associating extraterrestrial who looks like a happy version of Mr. Scream in the famous Edvard Munch painting. (Unfortunately, Screwball didn't make the cut for the new movie.)

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Superzeroes: Burden's wit survives in 'Mystery Man.'

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AS FOR Flaming Carrot himself: he is an addled vigilante who is closer to George Herriman's Krazy Kat than to Batman. Flaming Carrot's distinctive cowl is a 5-foot artificial carrot with luau-torch-sized flames shooting from the top. He's described by a villain named Insolent Dog in Flaming Carrot Annual #1 (1997): "Flaming Carrot is mysterious! No one knows where he came from or even where he's going! He is a superhero without any superpowers! He is very clever and very stupid."

Supposedly, F.C. was once a telephone lineman who read a huge stack of comic books in one sitting as a bet. The experience had a Zenlike effect on the man, permanently simplifying his brain. No longer distracted by the ephemera that confuse us all, he became a powerful force for justice.

Flaming Carrot Annual #1, Burden's most recent Flaming Carrot comic book, includes a typical adventure for the Strangest Man Alive, titled "Arbor Day." Burden sets the stage in a quartet of panels illustrating these words: "In the spring breeze air, a fan turns all by itself ... /From the bathroom, the ghost of a forgotten potato-bug whispers metamorphosed deliriums, like the last words of Dutch Schultz/A Washington quarter lays on the floor/And the dead ... millions of them ... are all still dead ... lying in the ground in rows, dead for a million years."

The Carrot and his girlfriend peel themselves out of bed and go for a long walk. In the woods, they find a 3-inch-tall Abraham Lincoln in a tree and take him home to keep as a pet ("Poor thing! He's shaking like a leaf").

That evening, a deadly garbage fight breaks out between Flaming Carrot and his enemies. In the morning, the newt-sized Abe is missing from his cage, presumably eaten by a fox. But Flaming Carrot's keen detective abilities prove otherwise. Actually, the little Abe dressed a dead mouse in his wee stovepipe hat and claw-hammer coat and threw the corpse under the blades of a lawnmower so to stage his own death and make a clean getaway. The end.

Burden's surreal poetry has made his comics beloved cult items. I hope his unique comics will garner some new readers because of The Mystery Men movie. It's apparent that the movie will be easy, silly work, made to be appreciated by irony lovers in on the joke. Thus it won't be a distillation of Burden but an extraction of him--a movie flavored with as much of Burden's unique talent as the average-Joe palate can stand.

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From the August 12-18, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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