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Feeding Snarky by Eric Burns

When I was your age our webcomics didn't have pictures That's right -- they were made out of words. Words! And we liked it that way. You don't know how it is, with your 'webs' and your 'graphical user interfaces' and your 'more than 1200 baud modems.' You don't know how good you have it. We had mainframes and LISTSERV and BITNET.

BITNET.

The funny thing is, I'm not kidding. In a real way, I was part of the first big online comics scene, only we weren't drawing, we were writing. These were LISTSERVs of things like the Dargon Project or Sfstory, or NICBBS (I won't even try to explain NICBBS) and the like.

My little corner was Superguy, a now oddly legendary shared universe made to satirize comic books, adventure movies, popular culture and whatever else crossed our radar. Superguy featured characters like Dangerousman, who fought crime with his amazingly dangerous powers (he could set off thermonuclear explosions with a tap of his foot) and Rad, the tan Californian superhero.

Hey, it was the 80's. Rad was apropos.

I wrote a series that started as a Justice League parody and became something very not a Justice League parody. It was called Adjusted League Unimpeachable. In my defense, I was twenty and grew up in Northern Maine, so I had little exposure to good naming. It was an adventure comic, if a funny one (until it stopped being funny. People who read Websnark know the words Cerebus Syndrome and 'First and Ten Syndrome'. I know what I'm talking about with them, because I lived it myself, once upon a time.)

Writing a series like ALU meant writing a lot of fight scenes. It made sense. These were super heroes. Super heroes based in parody with names like "Spandex Babe" and "The Masked Bruce" and "The Non-Biodegradable Trashman," but super heroes nonetheless. I had to pit them against their enemies, and that pitting involved lots of punching, energy beams from alien crowbars, and the tactical use of squeezable I Can't Believe It's Not Butter. And that leads me to talking about the hardest part of adventure comic strips -- the fight scene.

Fight scenes are horrible to write, because when you have several characters in your comic, you have to give them all something to do. It's not enough to simply declare "and then they were fighting." Especially in comic strips, since you actually have to draw them. You need to show them facing off, while keeping them in character, having their skillsets shown off, and also not letting them either win or lose until you're ready to move on to the next scene. Which was always hard, back in my ALU days, because satirical or not, these were super heroes. One could run faster than light. Another was super strong. A third incredibly skilled in the martial arts. A fourth could summon zambonis out of thin air. These are not particularly easy to flesh out into a unified fight scene that made sense to the reader without either nerfing my heroes or getting them unreasonably overwhelmed.

And when you're writing adventure, people expect the fight scenes to be more than one or two panels of vague melee. They want to see the actual fighting. And thanks to comic books, people know what fight scenes look like -- there are expectations involved.

Take a strip like Fans. T Campbell and Jason Waltrip (and now David Willis) do fight scenes and do them well. Rumiko's fighting style is very different from Will's, who is different than Alisin (and her chain), and so on. They pace fights out, giving each character a moment to shine, while never letting any one overwhelm the others. This contrasts somewhat with Willis's own webcomic, It's Walky. While Willis did have fight scenes (and sometimes had epic ones), the superhuman abilities S.E.M.M.E. possessed often didn't come out clearly in the earlier days (I was never sure if Joyce was super strong, for example, and Walky's strength came and went depending on the storyline). Willis had to learn the language of combat style and let it flow more naturally. Later It's Walky strips showed he learned those lessons very well.

Even strips that don't get into heavy combat detail need to pay attention to these rules. The Order of the Stick might be stick-figure art, but those stick figures have demonstrable abilities in combat that Burlew uses consistently, always
balancing the threat level to their ability level to produce the desired result. (Which often means the Order fleeing the scene desperately, which is part of the fun).

If you intend to have fight scenes in your comic strip, here's a few rules of thumb:

1. Don't make your characters too powerful. Superman and the Flash are bitches to write for, from all accounts, because it's hard to believe they couldn't win the fight all on their own. The more flaws your heroes have, the easier it is to make a dramatically engaging fight scene.

2. Don't make your characters too weak. No one wants to see rout after rout after rout, unless your strip is a humor strip and that's the joke. (And if that's the case, perhaps it doesn't count for this essay in the first place.)

3. Don't have more characters than you need involved. At its height (if we can use the word 'height' here), ALU had eight characters in it. After some initial mistakes, I was careful to never use more than three or four at a time, except in rare climax moments, so I didn't need to worry about giving all eight their moment to shine in the fight scene. Of course, you have to give a reason for this.

4. Make sure all the characters you do have involved have something to do. If you're going to put Robin Hood, Will Scarlet, Friar Tuck and Little John in a fight, you really should have at least glimpses of all four of them during the course of the fight. If Little John's strength makes it too hard to balance the fight, then have someone knock him out in the initial attack, but don't just keep him off panel and hope no one notices.

5. Don't end the fight scene too quickly. If you're going to have fighting, have fighting. Give a sense of risk and of reward as your heroes fight. Don't do two panels of chaos and then cut to after the battle.

6. Don't let the fight drag on too long. If you're on strip ten of a given fight scene, chances are people are sick of it and want you to move on. Never let a fight drag on to the point where the readers are rooting for the bad guys.

7. Superfluous fight scenes feel superfluous. The only time random encounters work are in role playing games, and your RPG based comic isn't a role playing game. There should be some underlying reason for the fight, either dramatically or comedically, or you run the risk of boring people.

Combat makes adventure strips exciting. It's visceral, adding adrenalin and fear to scenes that might otherwise be dull, and helps engage the reader. Just make sure that you balance your fight scenes, use your characters well, and keep the pace high without dragging things on.

Done right, your strip will thrill and amaze. Done wrong... well, it won't.

Oh, and for the record? I don't recommend naming one of your characters "Spandex Babe." The joke isn't worth the embarrassment of telling people about it seventeen years later.

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.

Re: Feeding Snarky by Eric Burns

scarfman's picture

As of 9:32 P.M. 3/13 CST the sixth paragraph has an error in its HTML.
Good article though. I didn't write online comics parodies in the 70s but in the 80s I knew people who did. My experience in writing battle scenes is limited, but there are a couple in upcoming months.

Re: Feeding Snarky by Eric Burns

I find your rules too negative. It's too much like hypothetic criticism on something I haven't written yet. People don't want warnings, we want formulas.

When I was first learning how to drive, my father taught me that a 90-degree turn was three pulls with the turn and then two pulls backwards to complete the turn. I was skeptic, but it worked. Also remember the three-act formula for easily plotted drama.

Where a juice concentrate label should have mixing proportions, I would not want to read, "1. Add enough water so the juice doesn't taste too sweet; 2. Do not add to much water, or the juice will taste watery."

Re: Feeding Snarky by Eric Burns

Driving and drink mixing require a little more precision, I think, than writing a story. There is and should be way more flexibility there. I'd like to hope good driving isn't open to artistic interpretation.

Re: Feeding Snarky by Eric Burns

I wish I'd had these rules to work from when I was writing for Superguy. And for the record, you handled Spandex Babe particularly well and developed her into a complex, fully realized, three-dimensional, empowered character with a detailed backstory and an unfortunate hero name.

Spandex Babe... heh!