Is the Stereotype Dead?
Submitted by Sean C on August 22, 2006 - 15:27
Before we begin this discussion, I should clarify just what I mean by "stereotype". I do not intend for stereotype to mean racial stereotypes, or even cultural stereotypes. What I plan to evaluate is the character stereotypes that exist in so many webcomics - characters like the hardcore gamer, the amnesia-suffering loner hero anime character, the "frisky" furry or anthro character, etc...
We've all seen them before, and in the rapidly-expanding universe of webcomics, will characters so familiar actually help a young comic? We need to weigh the pros and cons first. Let's just go with the short list...
1 Familiarity - The fact that we've seen these characters before can generate an attraction to the overall comic. There is a comfort zone generated by what is familiar. Why else would we have all wasted money on seeing all three Star Wars prequel movies?
2 Ease - This applies mostly for the cartoonist. They have the advantage of writing characters that basically write themselves. Stereotypes tend to be one-dimensional (It's their nature.) and it doesn't take much creativity to work with them. It can be appealing for a cartoonist to take the easy way out.
1 Familiarity - It's a double-edged sword. While some readers may like the sense of the familiar, many more will just avoid the comic entirely, electing to go find something more creative and original. If you've seen it once, you've seen it a thousand times. How many more "crazy guy and straight man on a couch" gamer comics does the world really need?
Ease - Also can hurt the creator. Peers and readers will see the creator as taking the easy way out, rather than developing something better. It can be seen as wasted potential, and bad products can sink potentially good creators.
Limited Use - Stereotypes are found in many humor or cookie-cutter American manga comics. They don't have a place in more developed, ongoing stories or even "highbrow" humor strips. You'll find stereotyopes in plenty of gamer strips, but you don't see them in strips like Achewood, or the Perry Bible Fellowship. (Note: I choose not to single out any comics that try to coast on stereotypes simply because I do not want to start a pointless flame war.) If the creator relies too much on stereotypes, they may not be able to create a truly great strip.
The overall question remains; can stereotypes actually help a fledgling comic gain readership? In the short run, it might be able to get a few additional readers, but in the long run, that reader base may not grow due to the limits of the comic's writing. If the writing relies on cookie-cutter, shallow characters, then there is little room for growth and development, which can destroy a comic. Stereotypes tend to hurt comics more than help them.
Original, well-developed characters seem to have more of an appeal now; it could be this way simply because there is a glut of comics relying on stereotypical characters. It could be thatÃ‚ webcomic readers are just moreÃ‚ appreciative of good writing.Ã‚ Deep, witty, and thoughtful writing challenges the creator and the reader, and though that kind of mental stimualtion may turn off many ADD-I-Need-To-Click-Now-Now-Now readers, it can generate a loyal fanbase. PvP, Dr. McNinja, and Questionable Content, though while wildly different comics, all aim for a more clever approach, and have solid reader bases that will stay with those comics during the good runs and the bad runs. There are few comics that rely on stereotypes that will experience that kind of success.
The stereotypical character may one day rise again; there may be some creator who comes along and does something brilliant with an entire cast of stereotypes. But, in today's webcomic world, they just don't seem to do much good for a comic. In my opinion, I like it this way. I like to see more original, daring comics that try to do something new, or at least try to do something fresh with an old genre. I don't want to see more comics with stereotypical characters anymore, but that's just me.