Greetings, most excellent Legions of the Unspoken! I’m Emily Scott, and I am here to tell you all about a totally outstanding 1991 publication from Marvel, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Comic Book! *air guitar* This triumphant comic may have had bogus sales and only lasted 12 issues, but its short run is in no way indicative of how non-heinous this interpretation is of two beloved characters. Anyone who enjoys either movie would totally love these books, so prepare to be fully informed, and…PARTY ON, DUDES!
…Ok, I think I’ve got the bulk of the Bill and Ted speak out of my system, at least for the purposes of this article. I don’t really remember a time when my own vocabulary didn’t include some Bill and Ted-isms, and to this day I refer to things as being non-non-non heinous more often than any reasonable person should. Reading a dozen issues of their vernacular, though, has left me even more susceptible than usual to adding ‘most’ before every adjective and exclaiming, ‘Whoa!’ with hushed awe.
With a new comic book release, chatter about a third movie louder than ever, and the fact that it’s one sequel after a long hiatus that everyone actually seems fine with, there’s no better time to ponder why we’re so eager to be excellent to two dudes we first met over a quarter of a century ago. Their language is a major factor in what still endears us to Bill and Ted and a prime example of the movies’ greatest strengths, taking something that could be pedestrian like late 80’s/early 90’s surfer/stoner/Valley bro talk and making it most atypical. (Sorry that I can’t stop with the Bill and Ted speak…NOT!) You know exactly who these characters are immediately upon hearing them, but they don’t sound quite like anyone else you’ve ever heard.
As the above two panels from the first issue ably demonstrate, writer/artist Evan Dorkin nails Bill and Ted’s verbal eccentricities, a feat made all the more impressive when you learn that he had not seen either movie when he started writing this title. Dorkin, a five-time Eisner Award winner best known for his works Milk and Cheese and Dork, gets just about everything else right too, from the lighthearted tone of the humor to the happy-go-luckiness of the titular characters. One of the comic’s greatest strengths is that if you know Bill and Ted, you know exactly what you’ll be getting. This comic feels the most like the source material just drifted into another medium than almost any other adaptation I’ve ever seen.
Not only does the comic sound just right, but it looks spot on too, with art that is colorful, fun, and busy. Dorkin gets a lot of comedic mileage out of great expressions, and he can make an already zany universe that much zanier by drawing faces so exaggerated not even Keanu Reeves could actually make them. The art is also better than it has any right to be for an adaptation of a comedy about two dudes who travel through time in a phone booth, with an eye for movement and action that flows seamlessly and images that are surreal and vivid, evocative and at times bordering on nightmarish. (In case you were wondering, yes, it does feel incredibly strange to attempt a serious critique of the art in a Bill and Ted comic. It’s so damn good,though, that it deserves to be taken seriously.)
One of my favorite aspects of the entire run is just how much stuff Dorkin manages to squeeze into every panel. From the band shirts and buttons on background characters to random appearances from people like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, I found myself staring at pages for a long time to catch every little detail. Dorkin makes the most of every centimeter of page space, capitalizing on every opportunity to squeeze in another joke or bit of whimsy, from guest letter columns from characters like Station and DeNomolos to something simple like a sword piercing a word balloon:
Just as their speech takes slang we’ve heard coming from a million different mouths and strings it together in most memorable ways, Bill and Ted take pretty well worn character templates, two doofy but lovable dudes, and give them a contagious enthusiasm and hearts so big they cause a moon boot-filled future utopia I sometimes daydream I live in. A lot of similar characters are like cats who always land on their feet because they’re too dumb to know the ground is there. Bill and Ted are the cats who always land on their feet because it wouldn’t even occur to them that the ground would do that to them.
Bill and Ted may be the sort of guys who would never pass a history exam without George Carlin and a magic box, but as Ted reminds us in the clip above, they are well aware of their intellectual shortcomings and more than make up for it with that relentless optimism, allowing them not to be intimated by anyone regardless of their smarts, power, or prowess. These are two dudes who can hang with God, give Satan hell, and even melvin Death. When someone can face that lineup and not be cowed, they can be placed in just about any setting against any foe and believably come out victorious, and Dorkin takes advantage of that versatility by telling stories everywhere from the past to the future to the nexus of time to the Dimension of Utter Boredom. (You can guess how much they love Wyld Stallyns in that last one.)
The Bill and Ted universe has a pretty deep bench, which is unsurprising, considering it could potentially include anyone from any time, and everyone’s favorite characters make an appearance in the comics, from Missy (I mean Mom…) to So-crates to my personal favorite, the Duke of Spook, the Doc of Shock, the Man with No Tan, Death himself. I’ve always had a soft spot for Death as a character, from Death of the Endless to the Grim Reaper in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (if you don’t laugh during this scene, I’m sorry that you were born with no sense of humor), but none approach my fondness for the version of Death with no luck at board games. His portrayal by William Sadler in Bogus Journey makes the movie ten times greater, and even though Death is his skeleton self here, his presence accounts for a surprising amount of the humanity and pathos in the comic, as well as some of its wackier plots.
While there are a few ongoing stories, including a seeming inevitability where Bill and Ted stand trial for their interference with time, most of the issues stand alone, and two of the best revolve around Death, one in which he quits and the other where he is replaced. In Death Takes a Most Heinous Holiday, instead of searching for the true value of life or exploring what it means to be mortal or any of that other sentimental nonsense, Death treks through time to places like Pompeii and the crash site of the Hindenburg to revel in the mortality of others. Depending on your perspective, he is either the best or worst tourist of all time.
Bill and Ted convince Death to return to work, but in It’s a Living, he has become too concerned with worldly matters and is replaced by a foul mouthed, bad tempered pipsqueak of a reaper named Morty. Odd as it feels to say, this issue demonstrates that Death, constant and immutable, is actually the character who changes the most over the course of the comics. He tries occupations from fast food worker to comic book writer (we’ll come back to that one), makes new friends, and learns a thing or two about compassion from his kindly landlord. I would not have expected to get a little choked up over a story involving a Reap-off and a midget skeleton wearing a Flava Flav clock, but it bears reiterating in case I haven’t made it plain enough yet: this comic is far, far better than it has any right to be. And this is coming from a self-proclaimed big Bill and Ted fan.
Two characters who don’t undergo much change are Bill and Ted themselves, but would anyone really expect them to? Would anyone even want them to? The fact that they can die more than once, experience their own personal Hells, get attacked by evil robot versions of themselves, etc. and still remain the same cheerful dudes is kind of what we love about them in the first place, and the comic rightfully has them stick to what they do best: dealing with the oddity of time travel with the greatest of ease (this time with the addition of a time traveling roller coaster), being excellent to each other, and getting out of precarious situations by waiting for their friends or future versions of themselves to show up in a phone booth and save the day.
The comic does preserve the idea that Bill and Ted get married to the babes and have babies, but these events rarely impact the plot in any significant way. The kids are sort of there a lot, but these issues are free of whacky shenanigans involving Bill and Ted learning fatherly responsibility from Gengis Khan or how to change a diaper from Abraham Lincoln. I assume Little Bill and Ted are there because they existed at the end of Bogus Journey, but even more so because they reinforce the charmed, idyllic lives Bill and Ted lead and the notion that they totally “have it all.”
That the movie marries off and makes fathers of two overgrown adolescents so quickly has always seemed odd to me, but I suppose at least it’s atypical to see male protagonists subscribe to the marriage+kid=happy ending romantic comedy variety of wish fulfillment? I’m glad Dorkin made the kids little more than cooing luggage, but I would have liked to have learned slightly more about Mrs. Bill S. Preston, Esquire and Mrs. Ted “Theodore” Logan because all we know is that 1. they are princesses 2. they are from the past and 3. they are “most chaste” pre-nuptials. I suppose, though, there’s only so much one can expect in terms of character development when the protagonists themselves can tout a lack of emotional complexity as a main endearing quality. If Bill and Ted can basically share one personality, I suppose their wives can too.
Joanna and Elizabeth are at least given several good moments, such as simultaneously knocking out their would-be suitors with their crowns (violence is always better when synchronized), rounding up a rescue party for Bill and Ted when they are on time trial, and, my personal favorite, making zombies do housework for them while they wait for Death to take their souls. They end up seeming like a slightly more assertive female version of Bill and Ted (not to be confused with the alternate reality female Bill and Ted who show up with many other doppelgangers at the end of the last issue), and since we already like Bill and Ted, the more the merrier.
If there is one pattern that has emerged from all the 90’s comics I have read for this site, everything from the more meta Enigma and Satan’s Six to Mr. Hero, it is this: comic books love talking about comic books. I’m really not sure why this is, but Bill and Ted’s Excellent Comic Book is no exception. Both titular characters love a comic called Fight Man (this list of his sidekicks and villains demonstrates why Dorkin was the perfect person to write for Bill and Ted), and, as mentioned earlier, Death briefly moonlights as a writer for an awesome sounding comic called Major Violence:
A whole issue is even devoted to Wyld Stallyns accidentally ending up on a world entirely populated by superheroes and villains. No biting commentary on the state of comic books occurs, but it does give Dorkin a chance to have some fun with the over the top-ness of both superheroes and Bill and Ted, who object to having to wear costumes at one point even though they dress like, well, how they dress. The best parts of the issue, unquestionably, are the names and character designs he comes up with for these alternate reality heroes and villains.
I could go on and on about how much fun these comics are, but the longer I do, the more likely I am to start talking like Bill and Ted, and that would be bogus for everyone. (See?) I really can’t think of anything Dorkin could or should have done differently to make a better Bill and Ted adaptation, and while they might not exactly be essential reading, they’re the perfect distraction to tide us over till the third movie actually films. Speaking of films, we’ll be celebrating the release of Avengers: Age of Ultron with Avengers Month here at The Unspoken Decade, so be sure to check that out, and in the meantime, be excellent to each other!