Spamusement by Steven Frank, reviewed by Andrew Bonia
Steven Frankâ€™s Spamusement is summed up well on its front page: "Poorly-drawn cartoons inspired by actual spam subject lines!" Itâ€™s a simple concept that goes a long way.
Where most of us would automatically hit "delete", Frank has appropriated the detritus of his inbox and given it new life, recycling his junk mail into single-panel, often silent comics entirely based on the subject lines of his daily pile of spam.
The creativity behind the strip lies within Steven Frankâ€™s interpretations; with spam subject lines becoming increasingly abstract and garbled to fool filters, he has a lot to work with. His humour combines the strange and the obvious: the bizarre spam line with a literal illustration, or vice versa. While a normal-seeming phrase will be given a twisted interpretation, often the more peculiar line will be illustrated literally without adding any further interpretation and allowing the subject to be the joke.
Starting from the beginning of the archive, one can see Frank struggling to strike the right balance between the obvious and the obscure. Some strips, like "Becoming A Millionaire Is a 'Walk in The Park'" seem a bit half-hearted. Others, such as "whole choir stood there", are unintelligible. Still, while a few might leave readers scratching their heads, there are more than enough laugh-out-loud gags to make it worth the read.
The strips are often without words other than the subject line which spawned them. The use of language varies, depending on the gag. Ranging from dialogue to the words actually being the joke. The addition of dialogue or description works most of the time, though occasionally the words seem to be acting as a crutch for a less visual concept.
The art, while described on the site as bad, gives an impression of haste rather than a lack of skill, matching itself quite nicely to subject lines taken as given, frequently without correct spelling and punctuation. The art seems to imitate the tone of the sketchy subject lines, and is seemingly thrown together carelessly from random parts. Its messiness and simplicity only serve the heighten the light-heartedness of the strip as a whole. The human characters are depicted as little more than stick men and women, with occasional photos or clipart thrown in for kicks. More than anything, the style of the strip resembles a stripped-down version of The Perry Bible Fellowship, both in the look of the characters and the tone of the humor. But unlike that comic, Spamusement depends on the unintentional comedy that comes from ridiculous real-life subject lines, then adds its own unique and often twisted interpretation. Itâ€™s like combining a Monty Python sketch with Jay Lenoâ€™s "Headlines".
The layout of the site is as sparse and straightforward as the art is, with only one graphic to speak of, and black text on a plain white background. The strips are listed on the main page by the original subject lines so that the reader can have a chance to form expectations based only on the text before seeing the strip it inspired. This setup serves to intensify the humor, and makes the site quite accessible as well. Itâ€™s a question of comedic timing -- Frank is allowing his readers to form preconceptions about the subject lines, just as they would in their inbox, before revealing his own. If the subject line and comic were both revealed at the same time, it wouldnâ€™t be half as effective.
Spamusement works beautifully because it takes a simple concept and runs with it. The fact that every one of Steven Frankâ€™s readers is sure to have gotten a share of spam canâ€™t hurt either, giving everyone a common ground and personalising the feel of the strip. Filled with absurdist humor, obscure references and wry observation, Spamusement is, as its title suggests, an amusing diversion that brings consistent laughs.
Andrew Bonia lives in a box in your basement. His one joy in life is writing and illustrating Chaos Chronicles, a cartoon science fiction epic.