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Feeding Snarky by Eric A. Burns

The theme this month is mystery webcomics. And for the first time since I took this gig...

...well, I have no freaking clue what to write. It's like they said "this month, the theme is finbotz comics," and I'd smile and nod and sit down in front of the word processor.

It's not that I don't read mysteries. I do. Mysteries, P.I. comics, you name it. I read Will Eisner's JOHN LAW. I read Lost and Found, I read whatever mystery/P.I.-based comic John Troutman hasn't ended or put on hiatus this month, I read Joe Zabel's Trespassers stories....

So why is this such an opaque topic for me? What is it about this genre that makes it hard to write a column? I mean, it's not like I have much difficulty spewing out words, normally.

In the end, it's the difference between genre and toolset that's tripping me up. And as many genres can be toolsets, it's easy to get confused.

A genre is a given art form's categories, elected by individual criteria (which are often the subject of debate). In webcomics, genres can be anything from setting based (science fiction, fantasy, western) to structural (mystery, journal/autobiography, gag-a-day), to tone (comedy, tragedy, slice of life). Almost anything can be a genre if you work at it.

A toolset is, as the name implies, a set of tools that any webcartoonist can bring to the table. They are many and varied – everything from purely artistic tools (hatching, pen and ink drawing, computer coloring) to purely conceptual tools (mythology, history, obsession with Japan). They're not the point of the comic – that's more a genre quality – so much as the pieces the webcartoonist puts together to make the comic.

So, the question is, when is a webcomic a mystery webcomic – which is to say a webcomic that structures itself in a mystery tradition, with the core point of the webcomic the investigation and resolution of a specific mystery – as opposed to a webcomic that uses mystery in it?

A lot of webcomics use mystery without really being mysteries. It's Walky! has plenty of unknowns that had to be investigated, for example. Fans! did too. Goats has mysteries woven into it right now. Heck, my own Gossamer Commons has plenty of unanswered questions in it, but I wouldn't call it a mystery.

On the other hand, everything in a given mystery webcomic is about the mystery. If we ignore the literary traditions of mystery stories versus detective stories (in brief – you don't expect a Hercule Poirot story to read the same as Mike Hammer, even though both are often investigating the same kind of mystery) there are a good number of stories that fall into that category. Something like Lost and Found, even though it's a gag-a-day comic with some plotlines that go completely off the genre, is basically a mystery webcomic, by that definition. When Frank takes a case, that case becomes the foundation of the plotline, and many if not most of the plotlines are in fact cases. Basil Flint, P.I. and Andiewear, by the ubiquitous Troutman, both followed the same formula. When they were on the case, the case was the entire point.

Of course, you also have certain webcomics where a single mystery dominates the comic. Joe Zabel's most recent Trespassers story, The Ice Queen, fell into that category, as all the Trespassers stories do. When the mystery is over, the comic ends. Further adventures aren't collected into a single Trespassers webcomic. Instead, Zabel launches a new comic for a new mystery, even if many of the same characters appear in the next one.

A somewhat arbitrary distinction? Maybe so. But it serves to completely isolate the mystery genre from the toolset in that case. The Ice Queen is a mystery webcomic, period. It's about one mystery. Fans, on the other hand, had mysteries in it, but it wasn't a mystery webcomic. It just used the toolset to tell its overall story.

So where does something like Lost and Found fall? Like I said above, it structures itself around the cases Frank goes on, but at the same time it structures itself around gag-a-day humor. And there's plenty of 'between cases' character and plot development as well.

Is it a mystery webcomic? Or a webcomic with mysteries in it?

I don't know. And I'm not going to lose sleep either way.

Next month's "year in review." Thank God. I know what comics came out in the last year, damn it. I might have a column for that one.

Eric Burns is a staff columnist for Comixpedia, founder and half of Websnark, and the writer of Gossamer Commons. His latest project is The Adventures of Brigadier General John Stark.

Re: Feeding Snarky by Eric A. Burns

Joe Zabel's picture

As I see it, a genre means something slightly different depending on whether you are a member of the audience or a creator.

From the audience POV, genre is a signifier of various expectations you should have when reading the story. When a reader picks up a Western, they expect a certain time period, people riding horses, and usually a gunfight. When they pick up science fiction, they expect certain kinds of unlikely events, and with fantasy they expect a different set of unlikely, impossible events.

"Mystery" generally refers to a set of overlapping genres; other signifiers on the book or film help the reader sort it out. These overlapping genres have some common elements: the period is usually the twentieth century, and the story revolves around crime (usually murder.)

The classic mystery, invented by Edgar Allen Poe with his Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin stories, involves a particular character as a central figure, a person engaged in solving a puzzle associated with the crime. Readers of this kind of mystery are expecting to be entertained by a variations of this archetypal character.

Genre has a different meaning from the POV of the creator. For a creator, a genre is a framework, or vehicle, to build their story upon. While the reader expects to be entertained by the various expectations of the genre, the writer uses them as a guide for writing, to focus the piece and make it easier to write, and also incidentally easier to find an audience for.

What writers build upon these frameworks leads to some of the confusion about genres-- because the writer might very well be using one genre as the vehicle for another.

For instance, many classic mystery stories are really comedies of manners using mystery as a vehicle. The mystery can also be a vehicle for horror stories, quasi-ghost stories, social commentaries, etc. Sam Space and Miss Jane Marple may be the same basic archetype, but the milieus are completely different.

By the same token, a writer may be using another genre as the vehicle for a mystery story. If you put Sherlock Holmes on the holodeck, it's still a science fiction story, but it allows the writer and the readers to enjoy some of the conventions of the mystery genre as well.

I think that's the case with some of the comics that Eric and Alex are struggling with. The comics are actually representatives of the comedy genre (for want of a better term), but they are using the framework of that genre as the vehicle for presenting a quasi-mystery story.

Re: Feeding Snarky by Eric A. Burns

Tim Broderick's picture

One thing to consider is how mysteries are defined: Mystery Writers of America, for the purpose of their annual awards, define mysteries as any story centered around a crime- or something like that. At any rate, that pretty much gets rid of the distinction you brought up regarding amatuer detectives such as Poirot and private eyes. And don't forget stuff like police procedurals (like CSI or Law and Order) or noir stories that feature people on the edge of society.

It does draw a distinction between mysteries and thrillers - to the point that there's been a breakaway group from MWA calling itself Thriller Writers of America. (Why can't we all just get along?)

I do like that you notice the difference between a comic that contains elements of a mystery and a comic that really does have crime as the central element.

Re: Feeding Snarky by Eric A. Burns

This is exactly the question I had to wrestle with in picking the comics to talk about in my own article, and it sure wasn't easy! In my case, I settled on a very restrictive definition (Lost and Found is one of the ones I read through and decided not to use), not so much because my own definition is really that restrictive, but because I felt that if I was going to write about writing mysteries, I needed my examples to be completely unambiguous as representatives of the form. Among other things, I ruled out comics that were satirizing the genre as much as they were using it. This stict definition didn't leave much to choose from; the truly unambiguous mystery webcomic is a rare thing!

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