Friday, March 11, 2005

Funny & Familiar

Here's an insightful post from The Comics Reporter on getting syndicated.

It's said that the early episodes of the television show M*A*S*H always had a scene with the doctors in the operating room, because it was believed if they didn't show the costs of war on every episode, audiences would be like to forget about it. Similarly, comic strips have to explain themselves to an audience for a time before they can rely on their audience's knowledge of the characters to be part of the joke.

Take Calvin and Hobbes. After a few years of his popular run, Bill Watterson could make his readers laugh simply by showing a picture of Calvin grinning from ear to ear. It was funny because readers knew Calvin, and could tell by an expression that something mischievous and funny was on the way. But early in the strip's run, before audiences got to know him, Watterson wrote jokes that in addition to being funny explained who Calvin was. At his most daring, he might do a joke that depended on Calvin being a little kid and saying something that might not typically come out of a little kid's mouth -- because any reader could see with a glance that Calvin was a little kid. But he could not count on readers knowing his characters the way he knew them, not for a while.

Each strip in your submission should be funny if it's the very first strip someone reads.

Though some readers might find this surprising, I try to be funny with most of my strips. The tricky part -- aside from writing the punchline -- is reminding myself that not everyone is as familiar with Spot the Frog as, say, the guy who writes it.

That demands a degree of backstory that shouldn't feel like backstory. For example, when Norm entered Cheers and delivered his dour commentary, that might have seemed like a five second throwaway, a little joke to get us closer to the actual story. But in those five seconds you learned a lot about Norm. After a season of Norm shambling into the bar and grumbling en route to his stool, his character seemed as solid as the actor playing him.

In time, just seeing Norman made you smile. You could imagine what he might say, or what he was thinking.

When a comic strip character begins to wear his personality on his sleeve, that's when the familiar becomes funny. But until that happens, let the funny be familiar.

[disclaimer: I can't comment on the mechanics of writing and drawing a strip without mentioning that I submitted for 13 years before becoming syndicated, and I've only been syndicated for a year. That's a lot of rejection, and not a lot of experience. So take everything I say with a grain of salt and any other spice well-equipped to put things in perspective.]