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Relationships in Webcomics: Infinite Canvas or Crowded Space?

One of the things I learned, pretty early on, is that I don't want people in my space. Maybe a single person, and then only on the grounds that there are certain relationships one can't easily conduct when one doesn't let anyone into the house. You can come over for coffee, or for anime, or for whatever it is we've decided to do. Then, you will have to get out, because it is my bloody space.

Part of the reason why I find myself losing interest in so many of the webcomics I first enjoyed is that I can't identify with the basic community-cum-ensemble-cast mechanisms which I keep coming up against: either everyone lives in the same building, or everyone works in the same place. It works out the same, because the community sticks together, dates within itself, and can only form further associations by absorbing its chosen. The room upstairs opened up. The girl is crashing over at her friend's. Oh my goodness, we just happen to need a contractor and two interns; how convenient. Welcome to the Moebius strip of community, the Escher print of relationships. You will never leave!

Honestly, I don't have a frame of reference. My friends are all over the place, and exist in pockets which don't typically overlap. My coworkers have not been my partners; my housemates have not been the sorts of folks I've gone drinking with.

This may be because I live a very different life from the creators whose work I followed at first, or it might be because I neglected to have a high-concept existence. Next time, I must remember to be lazier about the formation of my ensemble. Or perhaps I just need to get them from Ikea, as I might procure a sofa bed; if, in the evening, I can fold my friends out into a comfortable, horizontal position, then there's no need to pick up unnecessary extra partners.

I might be exaggerating. The conspiratorial side of myself, infrequently entertained, suggests that I should look to television, to drama and sitcom. How many roommates, awkward extended families, unusual couple'n'friends groups have been buying up TV real estate since the sixties? How many kids in shared houses watched Friends? More likely, how many caught endless reruns of its predecessor, Three's Company? Did they follow workplace shows, the exquisite M*A*S*H, hell, Star Trek? Life experience meets fictionalized crucible and poor socialization, simmers down to comedy brass: film at eleven. Let's make a comic!

I sometimes wonder what happens when any given character develops an outside interest. It'd be cool to follow that, not in terms of assimilating acquaintances from those outside interests into OUR MERRY BAND OF GAMERS, but to see what the other friends are like. Or, hell, what this character is like when they're not in the proverbial womb their community offers. What changes? What's the character, and what's simply her lines in the community script?

I also wonder what would happen to various casts if the incestuous community concept were taken to its logical extreme: where are the webcomics about sixties/seventies style communal living? Not just a few devoted, Bechdelesque housemates, but larger institutions, often spiritually or ecologically inspired. Larger-scale, intentional community: where is that in webcomics? Where's the webcomic inspired by a stint at the Findhorn Community? Where is the thinly disguised strip about Jesus People USA?

I know, I know. If this is what I want, I should go back to my beloved Doonesbury. Ignore the politics; it's a beautiful example of character development over time. The initial core characters (mostly) lived in intentional community during their time at Walden, but grew up and apart. Some got married, to one another or to outsiders, and had children; one couple divorced later on. Storylines follow characters who live scattered around the world, connecting but only sometimes overlapping. Over time, the strip acquired characters who had no reason to be acquainted with one another, and haven't had those connections forced.

Granted, Doonesbury has had over thirty years to make this situation manifest -- made painfully obvious as the current generation of characters begins to emerge from university -- but these sorts of foundations can be put down almost immediately in an ensemble comic. Even while at the Walden commune, the characters had independent interests: football, radio, pot. Their own distinct majors. Their unusual uncles. It got them out of the house, active, and developed. It gave them lives outside of The Group.

I mean, I see Mac Hall doing this already; it's a shared house, but we're following cast members to jobs (and meeting their coworkers), back home, and the like.

They're getting on with themselves, and we get to see it. It's not all about shared-situation quips. No collapsing in upon itself here, because Mac Hall chooses to expand. Likewise, we have Queen Of Wands's Kestrel looking to escape her shared-house situation and perhaps move to another state. This is normal. This is flux.

And this is also why I dig /usr/bin/w00t, or even identify with it. Sarah's got friends from work, but they're not the ones she's LARPed with. They're not the sum total of her romantic experience. And when she goes home, it's to her place. With her cats.

I might just be a mistrustful sort. The worst part of my occasional bookmarks-folder cleansing is realizing that, not only am I sick of the insular community uber alles mindset, I have absolutely no idea why anyone would take their housemates or their coworkers or their fellow dorm residents to save the world from evil. Never mind that doom is a great way to force character development without actually having to deal with the ordinary formative. If these people are like other people, they take all the office supplies, drink the milk, and leave the TV room an utter mess. What the hell good are they going to do against the diabolical forces of melodrama, and why do they get security clearance? Can't I hire consultants?

(There's probably money in that, actually. "Qualified world-saving geeks, carrying thirty to fifty cumulative years experience in dealing with planet-threatening disasters. Will not disrupt your existing social dynamic. Call Space Owl on 0800 OMGWTF." Contain the disaster, return characters to work, engage in crossover, drink beer. OK.)

Nah. Change comes in quiet moments, too. Eventually, someone's just going to have to take a damn Pilates course. Or transfer to the school/job/department across the hall, street or town. And the housemates are going to have to break up, the coworkers are going to have to split up. Kids grow up, move out, and shack up. The story shouldn't end there, or reset itself; it really can just go on.

Re: Relationships in Webcomics: infinite canvas or crowded space

scarfman's picture

I might be exaggerating. The conspiratorial side of myself, infrequently entertained, suggests that I should look to television, to drama and sitcom. How many roommates, awkward extended families, unusual couple'n'friends groups have been buying up TV real estate since the sixties? How many kids in shared houses watched Friends? More likely, how many caught endless reruns of its predecessor, Three's Company? Did they follow workplace shows, the exquisite M*A*S*H, hell, Star Trek? Life experience meets fictionalized crucible and poor socialization, simmers down to comedy brass: film at eleven. Let's make a comic!

It's probably not far out of place to blame tv. I think of it as the Hill Street Blues Effect. Between M*A*S*H and Hill Street Blues, the top critically successful tv shows for ten, twelve years from about 1975 were ensemble shows.

I don't want to shock anyone here, but there was a time when prime time comedy and drama television shows didn't end every season with a cliffhanger. But then came Hill Street Blues, an ensemble "prime time soap" (though I don't recall it was ever called that), and suddenly the standard even for sitcoms was for characters to actually grow as they proceed.

Where this effect is best seen is in the Star Trek franchise. The original concept for Star Trek was "Hornblower in space", the lonely autonomous commander making important decisions without a net. Star Trek started out with two regular actors billed in the main titles, expanded to three for the last season. But in 1987 (the year Hill Street Blues finaled) and ever since, when a new Star Trek series has debuted it's done so with eight people topbilled.

Now I love an ensemble cast. M*A*S*H was the obsession that got me through adolesence, the way some boys latch onto cars or football or (as I also did) Star Trek. But it's not the best route for every premise. The best Star Trek ever made remains the episodes that hark back to the original premise, and if you don't believe me then the next time you screen The Wrath of Khan proceed directly to Captain Horatio Hornblower with Gregory Peck. Try to tell me Nick Meyer didn't do it on purpose.

...On the other hand, a new webcomic needs not to have too confusingly large a cast of characters. It takes Trudeau's thirty years or Schulz's half a century to build a cast large and diverse and loved enough that a hero can afford to conquer Narnia leaving his officemates behind, and still not lose his audience.

Re: Relationships in Webcomics: infinite canvas or crowded space

Trek was actually intended to be "Wagon Train in space", but same diff.

Re: Relationships in Webcomics: infinite canvas or crowded space

scarfman's picture

Well, "Wagon Train to the stars" is how Gene put it talking the network, speaking their language to get them to buy it. "Here's how my show is exactly the same as this other riotously successful show. It only looks different, it's really just the same." But "Hornblower in space" was the seed that sprouted the idea. (cf. Stephen E. Whitfield, The Making of Star Trek, Ballantine 1968.)

Re: Relationships in Webcomics: infinite canvas or crowded space

Whoo! I love the Petit Prince reference in the picture.