Feeding Snarky on The Funny.
This is "the Funny issue" of Comixpedia, and that’s a good excuse to talk about a question that gets asked of me a lot, these days. "Gosh, Eric," the questioner asks — said questioner apparently having just bussed in from a Hollywood version of 1952 — "what makes a funny comic strip… you know… funny?"
Seriously. I get asked this. It kind of surprised me too. I mean, the obvious answer is "jokes," isn’t it? Or "a sense of humor." It seems like a no brainer.
Let’s dig deeper for a moment, though. If you go back some time and look at Hound’s Home, there’s a sequence from back in 2001 called â€Sandy the Cat presents: Why â€˜Inside Jokesâ€™ aren’t funny, even though you think they areâ€. It’s a loving look at the ways people can have a sense of humor with their friends and be total tools in the rest of the world.
The art of making a comic strip funny begins with a sense of humor, yes. Without one, you’re going to suck. I’m sorry, but it’s true. But that’s like saying you need a sense of eyesight to draw a comic strip for the web in the first place. It’s not an endpoint, it’s a given. The skill involved with making a comic strip funny is execution, and it’s the way that you go from panel one to panel whatever and get your audience grinning, nodding, chuckling, laughing, rupturing themselves, or whatever.
Execution requires some basics. You need a set up, you need a followthrough, and you need a punchline. And when I say "need," I’m lying like a son of a bitch. Jim’s Journal didn’t need those. Achewood can make a hysterical comic strip with none of these elements. But if you’re reading this column for advice on the creation of Funny, you’re not Scott Dikkers or Chris Onstad, so let’s leave the advanced stuff for the moment, shall we?
Let’s look at Men in Hats. Specifically, let’s look at the November 17th strip. Which, coincidentially, is the last one Aaron Farber did in that particular spurt of productivity. (One best treats Men in Hats the way they treat the Carnival in small towns. You’re never entirely certain when the Carnival will come to town, but when you do it’s an event, you have a great time, and then it eventually leaves and you bum around the empty lot a couple of weeks later, looking at muddy torn up tickets on the ground and kind of wishing it’d come back right now.) Farber does the setup quickly and easily. Aram tells Gamal that he remembers when required work (school work, we suppose, since it’s in a book form) had significance to him. In the followthrough, he throws it away, thankful that’s over. His life is ahead of him. In the punchline, we learn that Aram has nothing in his life but boredom and worthlessness, and one day, he’ll die.
Reread that paragraph. Did you laugh? No. You didn’t laugh because it wasn’t funny. This is the difference between having a sense of humor — that is, coming up with the premise and knowing what would make it funny — and having execution. Read Farber’s strip. It’s funny. You grin, even though it sounded lame when I described it.
Now, lurch back to October 29. We can dissect the subtext if we want — what Farber is saying about government, about expectations, about twist endings, about cancer — but let’s not. Instead, look at how he constructs this strip. We have concerned realization in panel one. We have elaboration on the concern in panel two. We have an intended action in panel three. And we have resolution of the joke in panel four.
Does this seem entirely too basic to you? Maybe. But if you read any number of comic strips, you’ll run into strips that are trying to do gag-a-day and don’t follow this structure — or any structure. They throw in the wacky fourth panel to cover the fact that panels one through three don’t lead anywhere. Or, they think they can jump ahead eight or nine chapters in the Big Book of Comedy and do nonlinear humor, or anti-humor, but without the foundations that make those forms masterpieces, they’re just writing incoherent garbage. Even if their friends and fandom think they’re brilliant, they’re not.
Now you can move from strict gag-a-day into more story-based humor without sacrificing this sense of structure. pnes, for example, typically has a solid story going on in the background. However, even if Darren Bleuel is moving the plot along from one day to the next, he takes the time to build in his structure and execute his joke — treating each strip as a discrete entity unto itself. Take the recent January 5th strip. This is a plot-heavy strip. However, if you look at it, we have the set up in the beginning, a follow through that builds (and is humorous in tone, of course), and the punchline in the fourth panel. And you’ll notice something remarkable… even if you don’t read pnes, you’ll find you understand the strip from beginning to end. Even though Bleuel is pushing his plot along, the strip stands on its own, and is funny. Actually, honestly funny.
That’s what execution brings to the party. It gives new readers a hook that’ll drag them into regular reading, even if they don’t know the backstory. It gives jaded long time readers a reason to anticipate your strip. It gives your comic a feeling of structure and makes every strip a singular event.
And, it gives you a chance to take that sense of humor, and turn it into an actual joke.
And remember, "a joke" is the obvious answer to "what makes a comic strip funny."
Eric Alfred Burns is a writer and poet who comes from Maine and lives in New Hampshire. He has worked for Steve Jackson Games as a developer for In Nomine and has published articles, short stories and poetry hither and yon. He’s also the writer and developer of Websnark.com, proving he has far too much time on his hands. His one webcomic was terrible, and he has a cat.