Full disclosure: Mystery Science Theater 3000 is my favorite show of all time. I own dozens of episodes on DVD, can sing virtually every song from the Mike Nelson years from memory, and even have a Tom Servo tattoo. I say all this not to brag, but to show that I am a serious fan of the series and love the whole riffing genre. That all being said, MST3K The Comic is a fun experiment that proves the series’ formula of quick-witted quips juxtaposed against mediocre films from yesteryear is best left in the theater. That’s not to say the print version is without its charm, but it’s simply not as effective as the live action version.
For the uninitiated, MST3K follows the continuing adventures of Jonah Heston, a lunar technician who is kidnapped by the mad scientist pair of Kinga Forrester and TV’s Son of TV’s Frank, A.K.A. Max, and forced to watch cheesy movies (the worst they can find) as part of a psychological experiment. Joining Jonah in his Sisyphean quest to endure the crappiest films of all time is a cast of robot pals, chief among them the childlike “golden spider duck” Crow and the worldly, literally barrel-chested gum ball machine Tom Servo. The TV series’ signature gag is a silhouette of our three main characters set against a large movie screen as they joke and snap at the movie unfolding before them. It’s an iconic and instantly recognizable image that helps add to the comedy of the series — and the fact that it’s missing from the Dark Horse comic series it inspired is emblematic of the problem converting MST3K’s unique brand of comedy to a printed medium.
In attempting to recreate the TV series’ particular comedic style, MST3K The Comic trades in the sci-fi films and educational shorts of the ‘50s and ‘60s for the pulpy comic strips of the same era. It’s in these mock comic series that the book finds its greatest successes. With ‘series’ like the Tales From the Crypt-inspired “Horrific” to “Tom Servo, Teen Reporter” (my personal favorite), the series are loving homages to the kinds of books that informed them. Though there are certainly laughs to be found here, the real stars of these segments are the artists who lovingly recreate the faded tones and signature line work of the comic strips of yesteryear. Jack Pollock’s “Black Cat and Jonah” is a ton of fun for an old-school superhero story that simultaneously calls to mind silver age Superman books as well as Archie comics, and Mimi Simon’s “Horrific” segments lean beautifully into the influence of books like “The Haunt of Fear.” Not to be a broken record here, but the segment that will catch the most eyes is Mike Manley’s “Teen Reporter” segments. Owing a lot to the Hardy Boys and more mundane superhero-adjacent series like Jimmy Olsen, there are few laughs bigger in the book than the mere image of Tom Servo’s trademark dome popping out of the shoulders of a skinny teen.
Which is kind of the problem. Though the book is penned by several writers from the revived Netflix series, the humor that made the most recent episodes of the long-running show stand out is somewhat misplaced in this more visual format. When it first appeared in 2017, the revived version of MST3K sought to distinguish itself from its forebears with a more fast-paced riffing style than had been common during the series’ most prominent years (under former host Mike Nelson, himself a replacement for series creator — and credited writer on this series — Joel Hodgson). This newer, faster-paced style of joking took a bit of getting used to for some longtime viewers, but we grew to love it over the course of that first season and it allowed the third (broadcast) assortment of riffers stand out, and it’s natural that a book based on this iteration of MST3K (written by many of the same writers as the current Netflix series, no less) would ape its pace and comedic styling. The problem is, many of the crew’s most successful jokes are not meant to be read, they’re meant to be heard. As such, some lines’ pith is lost in a series of occasionally long-winded barbs that just don’t land with the same oomph they would coming from the mouths of Jonah and the bots. In a way, it allows the series a bit more authenticity, as a lot of the silver age books the series lampoons were similarly wordy, dense reads from would-be pulp novelists. Of course, they weren’t cracking jokes most of the time.
Still, the book can hit some highs at points, with some panels emerging less as pieces of a story and more as standalone memes. The individual stories are about as interesting as the source material it seems to mock, the “host” segments that involve Mads are also fairly true to form, and the intermittent Totinos gags are the kind of nod to the medium of comics that you would expect from a series with this kind of pedigree.
While a lot of the magic is lost in the translation from the screen to print, that’s not to say that Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Comic isn’t a fun and worthwhile read — it’s just an often dense one that could maybe have used a more draconian editor. There’s plenty here for new readers to enjoy, though long-served fans of the various TV series will likely have the most fun with it as there are plenty of callbacks and Easter eggs to be found throughout.