Sometimes I read someone else’s post about a topic I’m interested in, and I see a different post that could have been. I’m not always sure my criticism of the post is a product of the content or my reading of it (I’ll often get stuck on one thing and not see past it). But sometimes, it does lead me to write something that seems worth sharing. So…
Over at Comixpedia, Joel Fagin posts about “serious webcomics” and how they can learn dramatic structure from gag webcomics. Go have a read.
So what’s wrong with Joel Fagin’s post? I find it simplistic and limiting.
The dramatic structure that he describes as related to gag comics involves each strip ending with a climax. Why would that draw the reader back next time? The joke is finished. There’s no dangling punchline waiting to be found in the next strip.
On the other hand, the example of multi-issue superhero comics stories that rely on rising tension and cliffhangers is one reason someone might come back next time to keep reading, but it is not the only reason. In fact it is one of the most simplistic reasons someone would keep reading. It works, as evidenced by the number of people that keep reading the same lame superhero comics even after admitting that they don’t really like them anymore, but it’s one tool of many.
Isn’t there more to the reading experience than “what happens next”?
For gag comics, I’d imagine it’s the humor, though personally I don’t read a lot of the genre. If a comic is funny to you, you’ll come back next time to read something new that’s funny. I keep reading Dinosaur Comics because more often than not, it makes me laugh.
For other genres of webcomics (I just can’t get behind “serious” as way to describe it), there are a number of reasons to keep reading. Maybe it’s the art style, or the way the comic is designed/layed-out/structured. Maybe it’s the theme of the story, the characters, interesting dialogue, or great writing.
In some cases “what happens next” is a big part of it. For me, Scary Go Round is as much about “what happens next” as it is about the humor, strangeness, or the crisp graphic style.
If one is interested in dramatic structure and the cliffhanger ending, there are many better models than either gag comics or superhero comics, starting with the classic action and drama comic strips of the past. How did Milton Caniff, Harold Gray, or Leonard Starr keep readers interested? All three are extremely skilled at the use of suspense, but they also use characters and themes to involve the reader. We want to know what happens next but we also care about the fictional lives of Annie or Mary. The distinctive graphic style of each could also add to the readers’ interest (it does for me).
What about Gasoline Alley? King employs an everyday rhythm that mirrors our lives. We read to see the repetitions and growths of life: the old, the new, and the old made new. He does use suspense as well as humor and drama, but does not rely on any one tactic.
Why do I keep buying and reading the Complete Peanuts volumes? It isn’t to see what happens next. More often than not, it’s something that already happened with a slight variation. Sometimes it’s the humor, though Peanuts is not really a laugh out loud kind of strip. I keep reading for the haiku-like minimalism that arrives in endless variations with a masterful execution. One could make a similar argument for Bushmiller’s Nancy.
Can webcomics creators learn from classic comic strips? Of course. The comic strip model is where gag webcomics came from, so maybe the “serious” webcomics should look a little further than their funny (or attempting to be funny) web brethren and examination of serialization from strips in the paper. There’s a lot to learn in those old strips and now more than ever there are plenty of reprints available to delve into.
Joey Manley mentioned this post in reply to Joel Fagin’s post:
For what it’s worth: my thinking, on a subjective level, tends more toward Derik Badman’s position — he seems like he should be right — but there’s no denying that, objectively, gag strips tend to do better on the web than others, and there has to be a reason for that.
I’d hazard that partly it is due to a desire to not get involved in anything complicated, a lack of interest in committment. A gag strip is easy to follow, and if you miss a day or two or a week, you can still follow along and laugh at the jokes. A comic that is more serialized takes a committment to follow along and pay attention over a period of time.
One could compare it to the extreme popularity of police procedurals on television. You don’t have to follow along week to week, you can watch one episode and everything is self-contained. Compare that to something like Lost or Battlestar Galactica which require continued viewing over time to make any sense (and in the case of Lost very little sense).
On the other hand, we could also argue that gag comics require less in the way of visual skill. When the gag is the important part, the art can be minimal, sub-par, or outright crappy. It’s harder to follow a “serious” story if the art is cookie cutter simple, unskilled, or mind numbingly repetitive.
It might also just be a lack of good serious webcomics that will appeal to a lot of people. Gag comics have an advantage of finding a niche market and attracting people that don’t normally read comics but will read a three panel gag everyday for a quick laugh. Getting someone to read a daily or weekly or twice weekly story is harder. You might also consider that most of the webcomics out there that are “serious” are crap and finding the good stuff is hard. Even if you go actively looking for good serious webcomics you have to plow through hundreds of fifth-rate manga clones and fantasy comics.
Though I can think of exceptions to any of these cases.