Feeding Snarky on Pitfalls amidst Pratfalls
So this month here at the ol’ ‘Pedia we’re supposed to talk about Politics. I’d note, by the way, that nine out of ten of our readers (a statistic I have generated through the "out of my butt" method) are so utterly sick of politics that they’re angrier now than they were when Comixpedia featured a woman having sex with an iMac as the cover art. Why angrier? Because a certain percentage of the people who decried the iMac-humping-art secretly described it as "funny" or "pretty hot," but absolutely none of those people describe Politics in 2004 as anything but "a miasma of horror and despair the likes of which we haven’t seen since the Great Depression, (which was so-named because we had no Paxil back then) and they get furious the moment the site loads right now. "I don’t read webcomics for politics," they scream. "I read webcomics to get away from politics!"
Well, my own political opinions aside (you guys couldn’t care less, and you’ve heard it all before, and if after the last four years you don’t agree with me, there’s nothing on Earth I could say now that would cause you to do so), I’m intrigued by the metaquestion raised by the topic. "Politics in Webcomics" is less about what individual webcomics espouse and more about how political content — or more broadly, topical content — can be slid into a webcomic effectively.
Let’s look at some of the pitfalls of political content:
- Some of your readers will be alienated. We’re putting this up top because it’s a given. The moment you put overt politics into your cartoon, you’re putting everyone who disagrees with you on the defensive. Believe it or not, there are people out there who like George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld, and are angry as Hhell at any implication they might be less than perfect. If you’re boiling up over the mere mention of their names in that past sentence, replace them with John Kerry and Michael Moore. I’m not saying avoid politics because of this â€“ Christ no. If you go around worrying you’re going to offend your audience instead of saying what you want to say, you’re going to end up saying nothing at all. But don’t go into this expecteding everyone to love it.
- News cycles last 48 hours, but archives are forever. I don’t care if it’s something stupid Kerry just said or Britney Spears getting temporarily married or Bush laughing off the death of American soldiers at a fundraiser — it’s going to peak in the news, and then it’s going to fade into obscurity. People barely remember the Janet Jackson debacle and while they remember the name "Monica Lewinsky," the names Kenneth Starr and Linda Tripp cause them to pause for a moment. As a webcartoonist, you want people reading back through your archives. If they hit an event that means nothing to them, you’re going to confuse them and they might go away. You need to contextualize the topical content, so they know what you’re talking about, and you need to make the Funny (if Funny there is) timeless. Read through old Doonesbury to see it done right — Trudeau is a master at making topical events the springboard for humor, rather than the point.
- If there is no Funny, it’s just an editorial cartoon. The fine art of satirical cartooning goes back into time. It acts in the tradition of the Court Fool — the editorial cartoonist’s job is to say, in effect, that the Emperor Has No Clothes, damn it, and if people think they’re the fool because of it, well, that’s their job. I respect well-crafted editorial cartoons. However, most webcomics are not editorial cartoons. Whether they’re gag-a-day or have some kind of continuity, they’re meant as entertainment rather than commentary. When bringing political content into your strip, you have to bring a reason for your readers to enjoy it beyond the outrage you hope they feel at the travesty you’re exposing. If, on the other hand, you decide you want your strip to be editorial, that’s fine. Just know it’s what you’re getting into. (FLEM Comics has essentially switched to editorial cartooning, for example, and from all reports J. Grant is sick of people begging him to bring "The Jay Storyline" with all its humor and continuity back.)
- You’re not trying to make friends with political content. This goes hand in hand with the alienation point. If you’re bringing the Political, you have to bring it all the way or it just fails. You can’t just have a caricature of Dick Cheney and hope that’s enough to get people guffawing. You have to go for the throat. You’re outraged enough to be putting this into your art. If you’re weak about it, people will just be annoyed and wish you’d never mentioned it in the first place.
- No one likes propaganda. You know the old saw, "if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all?" Forget it. If you put your personal political heroes into your comic strip, extolling their virtues and selling them to your audience, you’re not doing political content, you’re doing propaganda. People will immediately stop responding to it. Garry Trudeau doesn’t spare any targets in Doonesbury — he holds all of them up to the harsh light of satire. Contrast that with Mallard Fillmore. Which do you want to be compared with?
- If it doesn’t fit your strip, don’t do it. This one’s the hardest for folks. Sometimes, something happens that angries up the blood. They want, very badly, to write a comical strip about it. And they do, and it just doesn’t work. It’s Batman in the M*A*S*H Operating Room, to quote the late Robert Reed. Ozy and Millie has had problems in the past when they’ve put overt political humor in. Sure, it was a sock puppet and it fit Millie’s personality, but it just felt glaringly wrong. On the other side, Llewellyn’s various political candidacies have been perfect integration of political humor into the strip — they’re typically less topical, but they fit.
- You’re not under any obligation to put political content into your strip. Cartoonists sometimes hit the point of thinking they’re abandoning meaning and abrogating their responsibility to make a difference in this world, especially when they begin to get an audience. In the Simpsons, this is the point where whatever bonehead thing Homer is doing this week has become popular, so Lisa shows up to tell him he should use his newfound audience to do some real good. All that ever happens is Homer loses out on what he liked doing. Don’t be like Homer. If you’re happiest telling fart jokes, tell fart jokes.
- You’re not under any obligation to not put political content into your strip. If you want to change the world, do it. If you lose your audience, screw them. Do what lets you look yourself in the mirror the next morning and feel good about yourself.
In the end, the question is whether or not political and topical content is right for your strip. It’s your choice. No one is ever going to notice what you didn’t say in your strip. But if you do decide to walk that path, do it intentionally, make it as timeless as possible, be funny, go for the throat, and don’t sweat all the people who are going to hate you for it. Act with certainty, or not at all.
And please, for my sanity’s sake? Wait until December before you do it. Right about then we might be ready for it, again.
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.