For something is amiss or out of place
When mice with wings can wear a human face.
If you ever came across this quotation, perhaps as the flavor text of Vampire Bats, you might have wondered what the tone was meant to be. It certainly sounds like a couple of light, humorous lines, right? On the other side, it still conveys some sort of creepy vibes, those coming from anything which is "out of place."
That's the reason why Bats is the best card to kick off this new instalment, after the last dealt with horror-themed cards from the expansion Legends. In fact, half of the cards we are going to analyze today come straight from just that same set. What do they have in common?
In this new piece, we are going to tackle a theme we have left alone so far: that of humor and comedy. As you'll see, the very conception of what is funny has changed a lot through time. To better appreciate such shift, we are going to analyze three cards from the older days of Magic, and three cards from later times. Let's start with some cards out of Legends!
O! it is excellentWilliam Shakespeare, Measure for Measure (1603)
To have a giant’s strength, but it is tyrannous
To use it like a giant.
Giant Strength might be among the first examples of this kind of humor. It's not entirely based on the flavor text; on the contrary, the image plays the major role. We have several other cases, even if we want to stick to Legends. Think of Gaseous Form and Greed: what do they have in common?
It's the approach the artist took when creating the illustration, of course. In this particular case, it's also the same artist who did both cards: Phil Foglio. He's a renowned artist who created many great pieces during the early years of Magic, and is especially famous for his cartoonish, humorous style. Among these three cards, I chose to focus on Giant Strength just because it leaves a bit more room for the flavor text. Besides, we've already mentioned Greed in a previous instalment.
The quote comes from one of Shakespeare's less famous (and less frequently performed) plays: Measure for Measure. This time, we don't really care for context, so let's just say one of the protagonists, Isabella, confronts another character, Angelo, accusing him of corruption. The funny thing is that the illustration by Justin Hampton shows an actual giant, intent on dragging some sort of war chariot, which is obviously not the situation Shakespeare had in mind. Also, the giant seems vaguely annoyed with his task, and there is no indication that he is corrupt.
The turtle lives ‘twixt plated decksOgden Nash, The Turtle (1945)
Which practically conceal its sex.
I think it clever of the turtle
In such a fix to be so fertile.
Giant Turtle is a bit different from Giant Strength, as the very quotation is already willingly comic, even in the original context. This turtle is a 2/4 for three mana, with the downside of only being able to attack if it didn't attack during your last turn. Given its sizing, this ability is not that bad a downgrade, as it will likely be used as a blocker.
The citation comes from "The Turtle," a poem published in 1945 by Ogden Nash, among the most popular American writers of humorous verse. The joke is just a paradox based on animal life's oddity. Most of the charm of this short poem comes from its musicality and witty choice of terms.
Of course, the poem is 80 years old; this is not the kind of comedy you might laugh at nowadays. I find it a good choice on this card, though, as the illustration of the turtle and the general layout of cards from Legends also share an aura of ancientness.
For something is amiss or out of placeTheodore Roethke, The Bat (1941)
When mice with wings can wear a human face.
First printed in Legends, Vampire Bats also kept the same flavor text in Fourth Edition and Fifth Edition. It's a small black creature, just a 0/1 for one mana. Its ability, however, allows you to spend a maximum of two mana every turn to give it +1/+0 each time. It's not that bad, especially in limited formats, but we haven't seen it since Tenth Edition.
The flavor text again comes from a poem, although this time it's a bit longer at ten lines. "The Bat" was written by Theodore Roethke in 1941, and deals with the repulsion caused by bats. It starts with a funny couple of hendecasyllables (By day the bat is cousin to the mouse. / He likes the attic of an aging house), but when it gets close to the end, it gets a bit darker.
The two lines quoted on the card are the ones that close the poem, signalling how there is definitely something wrong with this weird animal. All the horror and disgust felt by the persona speaking is finally revealed, and attributed to the fact that "a mice with wings can wear a human face." The illustration is actually not that scary, and this makes the choice even funnier.
You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.David Banner, The Incredible Hulk (1978)
Let's move away from Legends and into Scourge, which saw light almost ten years later. Enrage is an exception in this list: as you all probably know, the quotation is actually the most famous catchphrase of the Hulk, from Marvel Comics. As such, it appears in a regular set, even though in 2003 only core sets were getting real-world quotations.
This is again some different kind of "funny," as the sentence itself has humor in it. The point is just that players would be surprised to find a quote from the Hulk on a Magic card, as this had no precedents. There is not a particular link between the character of the Hulk and the man illustrated by Justin Sweet. We just see him breaking free from his armor, perhaps because he is increasing his size, as does the Hulk. Which is totally reasonable, since Enrage's effect is precisely to give +X/+0 to a target creature, in keeping with the Hulk's telltale rage.
We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.Benjamin Franklin, Life of Franklin (1776)
With Solidarity we move to a core set, namely Eighth Edition. The first printing of this card, which is mostly famous for giving the name to the deck Solidarity, was in Urza's Legacy, but since it was an expansion set it couldn't use any real-world flavor text. Solidarity gives your creatures +0/+5 for four mana, at instant speed. Not that impressive, unless you are called David Gearhardt and play Limited.
The citation is by Benjamin Franklin, who apparently pronunced it in 1776. We don't really know if he did, but it probably was what he and the other delegates were thinking when signing the Declaration of Independence. The point of the joke lies in the double meaning of the verb "hang." Despite the distance between a serious, historical moment such as the signing of the Declaration of Independence and a Magic card, this quote actually doesn't sound bad on Solidarity. After all, it promotes the typical values of the color white in Magic.
Not to be. That is the answer.
Let's close this instalment with another card from a core set: Unsummon, from Magic 2013. This cheap blue instant is pretty famous, as it was reprinted almost thirty times after its first appearence in Limited Edition Alpha. Anyway, it was only in Magic 2013 that it got this quote, which then disappeared again.
This time, the humorous part is that the flavor text sounds like an arrogant answer to what is probably the most famous line in English literature (Hamlet's "To be or not to be"). The speaking voice is simply stating that the right answer is "not to be," and in fact the effect of Unsummon is to return target creature to its owner's hand.
Different Kinds of Comedy
We have seen six different cards, coming from two different periods of Magic. The first three cards, all from Legends (1994), come off as a tad misguided in their attempts to sound funny. It might be the old layout, or the fact that the quotations themselves come from old literary works. Or even that most of the fun comes from the illustrations, while the flavor text only adds some nuance.
On the contrary, the more recent cards demonstrate a wider variety of devices to reach the same goal. Printed in the years between 2003 and 2012, they don't make use of actual quotations. One of them contains a catchphrase from a comic; one quotes Benjamin Franklin; and one goes so far as to cut off Hamlet's soliloquy.
What do you think of these different approaches? Which one do you prefer? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter, and don't forget to mention other cards we might have missed!