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Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Ambush Bug: How a little-known DC character paved the way for Deadpool

He began life as a villain. Finding this role didn't suit him, he teamed up with a popular hero, much to that hero's chagrin. After a while of playing the comic to said hero's 'straight man', he got his own series. A series in which he exhibited a unique fourth-wall-breaking brand of humor - chatting with the audience about how difficult it was being a comic book character.

Who am I speaking of?

Why Ambush Bug, of course. Did you think I mean Marvel's Deadpool? If so, it is easy to see how you might come to that misconceived notion. The similarities between the two characters are staggering.

Ambush Bug sprang from the demented brow of Keith Giffen as a comedic foil in the now classic DC Comics Presents #52. The year of that appearance was 1982 and at the time, DC Comics Presents ran as a 'Superman team-up' book. Issue number 52 featured none other than the Doom Patrol, a squad known for attracting odd rogues. Yet Ambush Bug, the unorthodox villain of this piece, attached himself to the Man of Steel instead.

Ambush Bug was the alter-ego of Irwin Schwab, who may or may not have been a mental patient. His power came from his suit which had both narrowly escaped the destruction of its home planet via rocket ship and been bitten by a giant radioactive space spider. It endowed Schwab with the power to teleport. Taking on the name Ambush Bug, he proved to be a raving nutjob from the very beginning.

His first few appearances mirrors Deadpool's scuffles with X- Force - in that they don't exactly capture the tone of the character. This nascent form of both gentlemen-antiheroes doesn't bear the trademark humor and fourth-wall breaking commentary for which they would become known. Eventually both of them evolved into a kindlier, more relatable lunatic (if such a thing is even possible).

Deadpool: before he was 'funny' (X-Force #11)

A minor adjustment happened in Supergirl v2 #16 (1984) in which Ambush Bug decided to become a hero, an issue penned by Paul Kupperberg. A similar shift struck Deadpool much later in his own career path. Yet neither of them became true heroes, both emerging more as wacky and irreverent commentaries on the medium they inhabited.

For Ambush Bug, his complete metamorphosis occurred in his fourth appearance, Action Comics #560 (1984). Back in the capable hands of Keith Giffen as writer/artist and joined with Robert Loren Fleming providing dialogue, suddenly Ambush Bug hit a groove. In the issue he figured out Superman's secret identity in a comedic series of panels that had him undress Clark Kent, right down to administering the classic spit curl. From there on out the issue got more demented, showcasing his inclination of talking to the audience and Giffen's own penchant for nibbling at the hand that feeds him. 

Ambush Bug 'uncovering' Superman

The very next year was huge for the Bug. He starred in two Superman titles and went on to host his own four issue mini-series. Through those four books, Giffen and Fleming stabbed their biting wits at everything from DC's editorial process, to what became of the lost characters wiped away by DC's Crisis on Infinite Earths, to the very comic book readers themselves.

And it is precisely this brand of commentary that echoes in Deadpool's unlimited series. The characters know the medium they inhabit and frequently reference that fact. If anything, Ambush Bug went further than Deadpool even dared, dragging the creators in as butts of the joke and openly mocking the editor-in-chief of DC comics.

True, Ambush Bug never came off as a bloodthirsty killer with an amoral center and no respect for human life. Deadpool certainly did. However, something along those lines happens at the end of issue 2 of his first limited series when he cures the giant-sized Quantis, The Koala That Walks Like A Man, and then subsequently crushes the mad scientist he turns back into with a giant-sized glass syringe. For laughs.

And we the audience accept this on-camera slaughter because the heroes know they are just ink on a page. When Deadpool says he hasn't seen a villain since "issue sixteen" and then goes on to straight up murder an entire alleyway of clowns, we can laugh with him at the absurdity instead of being horrified. The indifference is earned.

Ambush Bug showed how to desensitize the audience. His entire second series featured a running joke on Ambush Bug dying and being sent to Hell multiple times. The punchline being that there was a door to exit anytime he wanted to leave. In a way, Cheeks the Toy Wonder even predicted the Death in the Family storyline and coined the phrase "Dead heroes sell".

Sadly, Ambush Bug never achieved the popularity of his spiritual heir. I believe he owes much of that to the fact that Giffen and Fleming's humor wasn't as widely understood as Deadpool's. The jokes about bit characters The Green Team and the flagging success of Fleming's Thriller title were obscure jabs even then. In context, and with an informed comic book fan audience, they backed up a Brinks truck of comedy gold. However, accessibility by the mainstream, non-comic buying audience was elusive.

And while the character remained popular, his potshots across the bow during the second series, Son of Ambush Bug, may have led to editorial shutting down future books. Or Giffen's success with his incarnation of the Justice League took too much of a toll on him to continue. Either way, we the audience were left poorer for it.

What we do have is a hand full of appearances in other books and three limited series, the latest in 2008, as treasures to preserve. And while The New 52 is currently deemed a bust, the idea of using Ambush Bug as part of the two-page Channel 52 news spot previewing upcoming titles in the back of each book was sheer genius. If only the execution had matched it.

For now we will have to sit on our hands and wait. DC's Rebirth is supposed to put some things back as they were. We can only hope that Ambush Bug, with Giffen and Fleming at the helm, will pop in to spice things up. Maybe even crossover with Deadpool. Or star in his own movie. I hear they are all the rage these days.


All content in this article entry written by Michael Alan Carlyle. If you want to attribute any of this work, please credit Michael Alan Carlyle. Michael also writes the very fun Crapbox of Son Of Cthulhu blog which we recommend you check out.


  1. I wish I could be excited about a Giffen-written Ambush Bug in the near future...but the stuff he's written lately just has not been funny. Maybe it's an editorial issue, because his run on the Doom Patrol pre-Flashpoint (which featured Ambush Bug) was great!

    1. I feel somewhat the same. Ambush Bug hasn't seemed like Ambush Bug for quite a long time. I would still give him a shot though. Giffen often surprises. And I think I lept off his Doom Patrol far to early, missing AB's appearances completely.

  2. As soon as I saw the success of Deadpool, I thought that WB would take a look at Ambush Bug. I just don't know if they would work with him on either the big or little screen. Berlanti could even work him into his shows now and I think he would work.

    Great write-up, by the way. Makes me want to record a podcast on the subject.

    How about a team up? Ambush bug and the Tick! ( I know, different companies.)
    It would be great to See Cheeks, The Toy Wonder team up with Little Wooden Boy.

    1. You were the man that put Ambush Bug in my hands. You know that, right?

  3. I was so happy when they released the SHOWCASE PRESENTS: Ambush Bug, which was an advantageous... advantageous... way of reading a whole lotta AB.


    1. Someone bump the table, Chris' record has a scratch in it.