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[GUEST POST] Dan Abnett on Puns and Triumff

Dan Abnett has written numerous comics for 2000AD and Marvel and has written many Warhammer 40k novels for Black Library. His latest novel is Triumff, an alternate history fantasy adventure.

The Spectre of the Pun

Johnson who, let’s face it, ought to know, called puns the lowest form of wit. He should try coming down here sometime. Wilde, on the other hand, once boasted he could compose a pun on any subject. Some bloke in the audience suggested, “Queen Victoria!” Wilde returned that he couldn’t, because she was the Queen and therefore not an appropriate target for puns of any kind.

Or something.

People often come up to me and say, “Dan, do people really come up to you?” Also, they ask what it is with me and puns. Call me paranomasiac, but I love ’em, god help me. Homophonic puns, homonymic puns, homographic puns, Homer Simpson puns, I can’t get enough. I love graphological puns and morphological puns, logical puns and illogical puns, polysemic puns and metonymic puns, old school puns and current puns and, at the risk of fracturing myself, I love compound puns. I can’t have too many multiple puns and as for double entendres, woof! get a load of the double entendres on that, if you know what I mean. I enjoy a good feghoot and adore a fine eggcorn. Recursive puns have made me swear more than once. I like big loud puns like the Puns of Navarone, I like hard rocking puns like Puns and Roses, and I like quiet, relaxing puns like a late Punday afternoon in high summer. I cannot, furthermore, help but admire the following:

“I’d like to die like my father, quietly, in his sleep – not screaming and terrified like his passengers.” (Bob Monkhouse)

and the following just cracks me up:

“It’s too bad that whole families have to be torn apart by something as simple as wild dogs.” (Jack Handey)

They’re both paraprosdokians, by the way. In case you were interested. Paraprosdokians are my second favorite kind of puns after paronomasiac slogans and names. There are a lot of those in my 2000AD strip Sinister Dexter, usually the name of Downlode businesses (the eaterie “Breakfast Epiphanies”, the gourmet hamburger joint “Good Burgers of Calais”, the screen-and-blind repair service “Awning Has Broken”, the strip club “Where The Wild Thongs Are”, the 24 tapas bar “Rioja Round The Clock”…I could go on. I do go on).

I can’t explain why I like them. I realised quite recently that they’d been occurring to me, and appealing to me, for years now, and I’ve been noting them down. Collecting them. Gathering them. I think Sinister Dexter, which I created and started writing fifteen years ago, was in part a desperate desire to find a way of venting the built up pun pressure. I think Triumff was too.

Like Sinister Dexter, Triumff can trace its inception to the early nineties. The published novel, which finally arrives in US stores this month (big plug there – fitted with a US adaptor), has come a long way since then, and has been honed and refined, but it comes from the same place as Sinister Dexter. They have a lot in common: a humorous intent and tone, a viciousness, a setting with personality where the city backdrop is actually one of the main characters, and puns galore. To me, the most interesting thing they have in common is they are both, at heart, serious adventure stories, serious dramas. They just both happen to come tricked out in jokes, japery and (did I mention?) puns.

It’s never really occurred to me that they’re not serious stories. When people mention the high pun count, I’m often surprised. That’s just set dressing. The humour’s there principally as part of a particular, light-footed narrative style. They weren’t created to be basic action plots forming vehicles for comedy. They were written as character-driven dramas with comic decoration.

Does that distinction matter? Does the intention have any bearing on the end result? It does (and did) to me, at least. I don’t think I could sit down and say to myself, “okay, I will now write a comedy novel”. That takes a heck of a lot more self-confidence and chutzpah than I could ever dredge up. It was more a case of sitting down to write a novel and not being too bothered if something funny or silly popped up along the way. Humour, to me, is a vital part of fiction and character. People resort to jokes all the times, for many reasons. It can be very telling. Life itself would become very stodgy if it wasn’t leavened by at least a smidge of light-hearted banter. The colossal cosmic stories Andy Lanning and I spin for Marvel Comics, which regularly involve the threatened end to at least one universe, would become staggering po-faced and dull if it wasn’t for the ability of Star-Lord or Cosmo to wisecrack in the face (or the toe, at least) of Galactus. Even in the grim darkness of the far future, where I spend a good deal of my working hours writing Warhammer 40,000, humour is a vital tool. The protagonists of the Gaunt’s Ghosts novels face down the cosmic horror of endless battle and emerge as real people thanks to the fact that they’re not allergic to a gag now and then. I suppose the thing with Triumff is that the pun factor is dialed right up. It’s only like cranking up the colour contrast on a TV. Law and Order: Special Victims Unit is still just as serious. It’s simply that their faces are more orange.

It’s important to remember that puns are part of life’s experience. After all, in just a few seconds, a good pun can make you fully groan.

The fact is, there’s a lot of serious period research and authentic Elizabethan alternate-world-building under the draped japery of Triumff. Yes, the humour is louder than in some other things I write. So sue me. I’m just exercising a different set of creative muscles. Having built up a reputation as something of a whiz when it comes to shooty-death-kill-in-space (the technical literary term for Combat SF), I suppose it was a surprise when my first Angry Robot book turned out to be a puntastic alternate history fantasy adventure. A breath of fresh air for me and for the readers, I’d say. Funnily – and I use the word advisedly – enough, my second Angry Robot book is an extremely serious and dramatic combat SF story called Embedded. Even so, as a vital part of its creative mix, there are jokes in it.

I’m not claiming I’ve invented some brand new form of fiction. I’ve just found a particular mix of ingredients that appeals to me, both to write and to deliver with the expectation of entertaining someone. You never know, it could be you.

And remember: puns don’t kill people. It’s guns. Guns are the bad things.

1 Comment on [GUEST POST] Dan Abnett on Puns and Triumff

  1. According to the original meaning of “low” and how it was used to describe a pun,  “the lowest form of humor” means the simplest form, not the most debased form, of humor.  

    Also, remember that even Shakespeare loved and used a good pun, now and then, and if he did, that’s good enough for the rest of us.

    Be proud to pun!

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