“Tonight’s episode: Enter . . . The Collector.” – TV Announcer
There are basically no characters on the show who haven’t undergone a serious dumbing down in the Zombie Simpsons era (Gil, maybe?). Some of them gradually devolved, others had sudden changes in a single episode; either way, there’s often a moment when you knew that the original version was never coming back. For Comic Book Guy, I’ve always thought that moment came in Season 11 when he materialized out of nowhere to complain about the Simpsons getting a horse again. Homer asks if anyone cares what “this guy” thinks, and the assembled crowd shouts “No!”.
He’d been used as a stand-in for the audience before, of course, but that was them dropping all the subtlety and treating this strawman approximation of their audience seriously. They knew people were going to bitch because they were nakedly repeating something, and instead of thinking “maybe we shouldn’t repeat things”, they thought “haters gonna hate”. Comic Book Guy has been a way for the show to paper over its own shoddiness ever since.
The difference between the two is on full display when you consider the ways they used him in very similar positions in “Brick Like Me” and as “The Collector” in “Treehouse of Horror X”. (Which aired, incidentally, just a few months before the second horsey episode.) In both cases he’s playing a science fiction bad guy who knows how cliched his actions are, but in one that’s the basis of a wide ranging satire, in the other it’s a contradictory and expository excuse.
This is Lego Comic Book Guy’s first line in “Brick Like Me”, right after Homer asks him for the Lego princess set:
Lego Comic Book Guy: Ah, always good to meet a fellow AMFoP.
Lego Comic Book Guy: Adult Male Fan of Princesses.
As a punchline, “Adult Male Fan of Princesses” isn’t bad, but to have Lego Comic Book Guy just explain it to the audience doesn’t do it any favors. At least it’s got a punchline, though.
In Lego Comic Book Guy’s next scene, after some extended Homer freaking out scenes, he doesn’t even get a line. He just stands there while Homer grabs the toy box to go back to regular Springfield. After that, Homer returns and we get what may be the clunkiest lines in an episode that had an awful lot of them:
Lego Comic Book Guy: Okay, apparently our whole world is a fantasy in the mind of an emotionally devastated Homer Simpson.
Marge: One of the main questions I have about that is, why?
Lego Comic Book Guy: The real Homer fears losing his daughter’s love so he invented this toy world where nothing will ever change.
Marge: How can you be sure?
Lego Comic Book Guy: I have devoted my life to second rate science fiction. Trust me, that is what we are dealing with here.
Homer: So if I don’t find my way out of here, I could be trapped in a fantasy forever?
Lego Comic Book Guy: I’m afraid so.
That would be bad enough if we hadn’t already had that explained to us several times, including by Homer immediately preceding it (“I wish I lived in little Springfield, everything fits together and no one ever gets hurt.”). But it gets worse when you remember that he’s supposed to be the damned villain.
Not only is he unnecessarily telling us things we already know, but if he really is supposed to be the part of Homer that wants him to stay in Lego land forever, then it’s 100% against Lego Comic Book Guy’s interests to explain everything. The writers actually know this, because they tell us directly in yet another masterpiece of unnecessary exposition later in the episode:
Homer: Now tell me how to get out of here!
Lego Comic Book Guy: All you need to do is open the box back to your so-called reality. But I can’t let that happen.
Homer: You’re the bad guy? I thought you were the rule explainer guy!
Lego Comic Book Guy: As an adult who surrounds himself with child’s toys, I represent the part of your psyche that prefers this artificial world.
Sometimes villains don’t get revealed until right before the final confrontation, and that’s fine provided that the villain’s previous actions make sense in light of that reveal. But literally telling the audience that Lego Comic Book Guy is the bad guy while offering no reason whatsoever for his behavior up to that point is hacktacular almost beyond comprehension.
As if that wasn’t enough, right before the final confrontation, Comic Book Guy quickly builds a castle to keep Homer from reaching the princess set:
Homer: How did you do that?
Lego Comic Book Guy: Because, as the ultimate collector, I have every playset ever made!
Here you can see the damage that their utter contempt for storytelling does to the rest of the episode. As a villain in a Lego universe, Comic Book Guy makes perfect sense. If there’s anyone in Springfield who’d have every Lego set, it’s him. But instead of using his time in the episode to show us some of his sets, or maybe (heaven forbid) foreshadow it a little bit in his previous scenes, they just have him say why he did what he just did and then hold up the things he’s talking about. The script is full of so much explanatory clutter that there’s no room for any kind of humor beyond “ooh, look at that”.
Good thing this video program has live narration, or we’d never know what was happening.
And that’s how Zombie Simpsons portrays Comic Book Guy as the villain in their big budget, heavily advertised, and no doubt delicately negotiated Lego episode: as a manic narrator who can’t even be called one dimensional after they basically negated his already thin character with an unrelated and contradictory one at the end.
Now compare that to the regular budget, just another Halloween episode portrayal in “Treehouse of Horror X”. Like the Lego episode, a Halloween episode lets them put their regular characters into way out and wacky personas. Unlike the Lego episode, they gave Comic Book Guy’s “The Collector” everything that a good and funny character needs: motivation, foibles and weaknesses, jokes and a coherent story.
Consider this, from right after he kidnaps Lucy Lawless:
The Collector: Care for a Rollo, sweet Xena?
Lucy Lawless: Alright, Collector, stick this in your tweezers, I’m not Xena! I’m an actress, you lunatic!
The Collector: Oh, please, I’m not insane. I simply wish to take you back to my layer and make you my bride.
Eating candy while he drives a rusted out hatchback, he claims to not be insane while doing something clearly insane. He’s not directly explaining anything because his actions and words convey the basics so the jokes can float on top. He doesn’t need to say, “I’m caricature of a collector geek as an Adam-West-Batman cheesy villainy” because it’s written into the fabric of the episode. Similarly, Lawless’s contempt for tweezers using collectors doesn’t need to be explained because we know her and can see it.
Characters doing stuff without concurrently narrating it. Even Season 11 knew how to do this.
Even when the characters do talk about what they’re doing, it’s descriptive, not explanatory:
The Collector: I have here the only working phaser ever built. It was fired only once, to keep William Shatner from making another album.
He’s describing the concrete thing in his hand right now, not explaining the overarching background of what’s happening. And when he fires, he doesn’t explain what a phaser is or how it works. The show trusts its audience to be know that already. Moreover, calling it a phaser also acts as setup for the Shatner punchline, and who doesn’t love a good Shatner joke?
The rest of the segment is just like that. When they describe something, they don’t explain what it is or how it works, they expect you to know it. So when Lawless points out that he’s removed the light saber from it’s original packaging, she doesn’t have to explain why he’s suddenly distraught. Ditto for when the Collector ends his death in “classic Lorne Greene pose” and when Lisa points out that Xena can’t fly.
The Collector is Comic Book Guy as a character within the show who’s been turned, for this one episode, into an exaggerated bad guy version of himself. He’s still a person under there, though, so when he cackles about being “unbelievably amused” or whines that he fell for a “ruse so hackneyed it would make Stan Lee blush” it fits with who he is regularly as well as the character he’s inhabiting. Lego Comic Book Guy, on the other hand, is a kind of stand-in proxy narrator for the writing staff who spends most of his time on screen explaining a very simple concept that had already been explained several times before. Having used him as a crutch instead of a character right until the end, it makes a certain kind of lazy sense to just keep leaning on him and have him be the bad guy as well, coherent narrative be damned.
None of that is unusual for Zombie Simpsons, of course; nonsensical exposition, plot swerves, and bizarre character behavior are are in every episode. But it neatly illustrates the fact that, for all the hoopla, “Brick Like Me” was just another episode.