Gasps and Guffaws: Balancing Humor and Drama in Webcomics by Jeff Darlington
Free from the stranglehold of syndicate and newspaper editors, webcomics have the luxury of unfettered imagination, allowing creators to develop their characters however they wish, catering only to their own (and presumably their readers') whims. The protagonist may be a lighthearted loveable oaf, a brooding anti-hero with deep psychological scars, or a seductive vixen with dubious motives. However, somewhere in the development process, the creator – consciously or subconsciously – must decide what comprises their work, and one core decision is the balance between humor and drama.
It may seem like stating the obvious, but it's a question every writer must face. I'd wager most of us don't sit around analyzing our product and quantifying the number of laughs per panel verses the forlorn stares, but it does make an interesting thought study. Is humor the strongest draw of a comic, or is a deep, complex character with many layers of emotions more compelling? Or is there a magic number, a Golden Ratio of Comics, where humor and drama balance to make the perfect story?
To be overly simplistic, I would classify most comics into one of three loose categories. The first would be your strict gag-a-day comic, where every strip has a punch line and the goal is to leave your audience in stitches with every installment. Here, characters are often flat and one-dimensional, but this is acceptable since the emphasis is on a rapid succession of jokes. The second category would be a more dramatic, story-driven comic, where plot advancement and character development are driving forces. The writer's goal is to draw the reader deeply into his or her world to keep that reader enthralled and coming back for another episode. Finally, there's my personal favorite: everything in between. That may seem overly broad, but a healthy mixture of gasps and guffaws can be even more addictive than the other, more pure options.
Think about it for a moment. Even the most dramatic film, play, or television series has its moments of humor, whether they be cheery jabs between the principle characters, subtle irony, or the occasional moment of slapstick. Serious dramatic works need that occasional injection of humor to relieve the palpable tension. Humor can even work toward deepening a character, making them more realistic, giving them defense mechanisms, neuroses, or other stimulating qualities. By contrast, even the infamous sitcom with its non-stop laugh track has waxed melodramatic when a cause deemed serious by the producers is broached. Comedic works can benefit greatly from continuity, character growth, and change, which come most effectively through conflict. Consider that every Shakespearean tragedy has its moments of wit, and every Shakespearean comedy has moments of tension and suspense. In many ways, the two go hand in hand.
A mixture of humor and drama is desirable, but also needs to be balanced to work effectively. A suspenseful murder mystery could suddenly choke if your butler inexplicably instigates a pie fight in the middle of tense investigations. Likewise, if your work is generally more comedic, a sudden turn of melodrama could have you suffering from the "Tonight on a Very Special 'Blossom'" syndrome. Either change, when too abrupt, can confuse or alienate your reader. If you plan to mix humor and drama, you need to make sure that you have established the overall impression of what the comic is about, so when you switch modes it will be surprising but not jarring to the reader.
You should also consider what your strengths are as a writer and concentrate on what is a better use of your talents and not necessarily what will "get a ton of readers." If drama is your main focus, keep your humor close to the subjects and characters of your drama. If comedy is your strong point, find moments of drama and conflict within your existing universe and let them flow naturally without creating overly artificial sources of tension. Stretching yourself too far in directions you aren't as experienced with only strains your work and exasperates your readers. This doesn't mean you shouldn't experiment and try new things, but knowing where your strong points are can give you a starting point for experimentation, and a fall-back point if something should go awry.
Another aspect to consider is that your comic will be read at a minimum in two different ways. While you might expect readers to visit your site with each update and follow it as it progresses, keep in mind that new readers will likely breeze through your entire archive and read large chunks of it at once. (This also applies to those who have large portions of your archive collected in print.) As you write, consider how a certain sequence of strips will flow when they are read individually one per day and how they feel when read all at once. You will likely discover that they have greatly different impacts, and very tense, dramatic sequences can be draining on your audience when drawn out over extended periods of time. For example, take the first several chapters of my year-long story arc, "Surreptitious Machinations." When read as a whole, these chapters flow quickly and set up the groundwork for the action-packed finale to come, while serving a heaping helping of angst, helplessness, and despair. However, when this sequence was metered out in daily installments over the course of several months, it created frustration and anguish among my regular readers who were forced to watch their favorite characters be slowly and methodically torn apart, with no apparent relief in sight. While part of this anguish was intentional on my part, one error I made was not to include enough humor at frequent intervals to counteract some of the drama.
Finally, you should never underestimate the power of a good second opinion. As artists, cartoonists are far too close to their work to be completely objective about it. Having a friend, relative, or spouse whose opinion you value look over your work and proofread it is extremely valuable. A second (or third, or even fourth) pair of eyes can give you priceless information on how your story and characters are progressing. While other cartoonists can give you precious technical advice on your presentation, a "layperson" or non-artist can provide you with blunt observations on the impact of your work. I know I'm always anxious when my wife reads my scripts, and by now she's used to me interrupting her with "What did you find funny?" every time she laughs or smiles. Watch them as they read your work, and observe their reactions. This can give you a good idea how your readers may react when they see your finished product.
So, is there some sort of mystical balance of drama and humor that makes for the perfect comic? No. It's a complex mixture of what effect you are trying to achieve, who your audience is, and your skill as a writer in combining the funny with the friction. But a successful cartoonist is one that knows his or her own strengths. They can learn from past mistakes, carefully observe their peers, and build up experience to the point where they can masterfully combine pressure with pratfalls, and create lasting, memorable characters that their readers will love.