Joy of Webcomics is not serious business

John Avatar at the On Life, The Universe, and Everything blog makes a simple plea: stop over-intellectualizing comics.

I love Eisner’s work, and consider him to be the greatest graphic novelist in history alongside Tezuka Osamu (godfather of manga), and of course what he wrote in this book’s pages are the musings of a veritable grandmaster. But even halfway through, I can’t help feeling that he over-theorizes on what is essentially an art of doing. In more recent times, an equall guilty culprit would be Scott McCloud. After skimming through pages and pages of how panels can portray time, how images prompt eye movement and how gestures illicit shared experiences, I wonder how many students of such theory translate these learnings into bestsellers.

But there’s the cautionary disclaimer – knowing the airy-fairy theories doesn’t make anyone a good comic writer at all. In fact my hypothesis is, to get your work to a larger audience, one can use really simple layouts and obvious pictures to win over people who don’t usually read comics at all; that’ll run counter to the complex compositions of Eisner and McCloud.

Despite this being one of the most over-analytical webcomic blogs around, I do have to agree with John Avatar to an extent. Just like any art, webcomics are about doing, and sometimes we do get too serious in analysis. People sometimes forget that webcomics are fun, and when you’re a stickler, you’re a bit of a killjoy.

BUT… that same criticism about critics can be applied for any art, can’t it? Painting, literature, music… you name it. You can spend your whole life studying literary theory to create the greatest novel in the world, but the some guy named Charles Dickens comes along — who is getting paid by the word, mind you — and his wildly popular books leave conventional theory in the dust. But sometimes we also need to reverse engineer what we know (a.k.a. over-analyze) to try to create something new — a fresh approach to how things have always been done.

Different people are called to do different things. Maybe you’re the next Charles Dickens. Maybe you’re the next James Joyce. Either path is pretty great, but for that second path it helps to have some terribly over-analytical people on your side.

In more “wink wink nudge nudge say no more” type news, Dwight MacPherson (of The Surreal Adventures of Edgar Allan Poo and Zuda’s Sidewise) posts about comedy. In a sudden reversal to my previous link, Dwight’s suggestion is to “analyze”:

It is impossible to write comedy successfully without a good grasp of what comedy is. Sure, we all find things that make us laugh, but that doesn’t mean we understand what makes them humorous.

Take a moment to think about a real-life event that made you laugh until you lost control of your bladder or bowels–or laughed so hard your windpipe constricted and left you a convulsing, heehawing wreck on the living room floor.

[T]here is more to effective comedy than a funny word or statement. There are many factors that will make the event comedic. Writing down humorous events is one of the best ways to understand what makes certain things funny, and understanding is one of the first steps to writing effective comedy.

After reading these last two somewhat contradictory posts, The Webcomic Overlook has come to a stunning conclusion: do whatever, man.

Meanwhile, Coyote Trax takes a look at Valentine-themed webcomics.

And while we’re on the subject of Valentine announcements a day late, don’t miss out on the excellent LOST themed Valentine cards at Adventuring Company. I sent my wife, a huge LOST fan, the Sayid one, and she loved it.


About El Santo

Somehow ended up reading and reviewing almost 300 different webcomics. Life is funny, huh? Despite owning two masks, is not actually a luchador.

Posted on February 15, 2010, in The Webcomic Overlook, webcomics. Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.

  1. I think Macpherson could be jsut as wrong as Scott McCloud (Read McCloud’s book “Making Comics” and did find it interesting) but still just as right at the same time.

    It is true that great things result from both over analysis and lack of it, and for some one direction would turn out better than others. I know for myself that when I’m writing something comedy related I’m at my best just going with it and not thinking about it, and it comes out more naturally that way sometimes too, same for when I’m drawing or painting. When I’m writing usually need a bit of both sides to get it right.

    It’s just the basic left brain vs. right brain idea here. For some people using mostly one works better than the other for that subject. Sometimes it’s just that some people can’t let the right brain take over and get really into what they’re doing in that way.

  2. I had Eisner’s class in the 1990s. His main points can be picked up without the obsessive analysis from Kyle Baker’s “How To Draw Stupid.”

    Ie. 1. don’t nurture subplots (make it move like Raiders of the Ark with act following act following act) (the subplot issue was something he didn’t like about Watchmen) and 2. avoid cropping the figure (he tolerated it for speed of pace, and I don’t remember him cropping the figure at all).

  3. I loved both McCloud’s and Eisner’s books. I think it’s a good thing for those that want to get into that level of detail to have those kinds of material available. The Beatles is great music and for those that love it, the countless books about it make it more fun, not less. It just gives us shared language in which to communicate about this stuff.

    Whether or not they actually help us make better comics, well that’s to be judged on a case by case basis, it’s so subjective.

  4. I love Eisner and McCloud’s how-to-books. And I find writing manuals like Robert McKee’s Story fascinating. But I never consciously think about craft when making comics. I just write and draw and go with the flow. It’s nice to have that stuff sloshing around in the soup though. If you’ve exposed yourself to a variety of ideas they’re bound to inform the work on a subconscious level. The important thing for me is to not overthink the process while you’re IN the process.

  5. If I were a novelist, and had to choose between Dickens’ path and Joyce’s, I’d go with the former. Not only because I’m quite incapable of the latter, but also because there is something quite repugnant about it — as though it existed only for academic dissection, and not for the simple pleasure of reading. (This reminds me of something I read by Stanley Fish a while back, where he asked what the humanities were useful for, with his reply: “Nothing, and I’m proud of it.” Something like that. If that’s the case, modern literary criticism is certainly not doing literature any favour.)

    Dickens is a peculiar case, as he seemed to write mostly to promote a social agenda (Zola comes to mind as well), so I’m thinking more of writers like Scott, Stevenson and Dumas for a comparison here, who wrote to entertain their public (I’d add Twain, but I have too many doubts about him). And it didn’t seem to do their reputation any harm.

    As to how this pertains to webcomics, I don’t know. I don’t think they’re yet taken seriously enough as an art form to produce anything worthy of comparison to Joyce, and I’m guessing that any such attempt would turn out pretentious as hell. Like that whole “graphic novel” euphemism.

    • Though there are several print comics that are taken serious from a literary standpoint (Watchmen and Maus being the most obvious ones), I agree that webcomics probably aren’t there yet. That doesn’t mean they won’t be there some day, though. I look at some of the stuff being put out by Transmission-X (like Sin Titulo and The Abominable Charles Christopher) and Act-I-Vate (Billy Dogma, Party Bear), and I see a lot of stories that operate on a level beyond the adolescent humor and pop culture references that you’d find in a lot of typical webcomics. More and more artists are finding webcomics to be a viable storytelling option. I think it’s only a matter of time before we see an “academic” webcomic.

      • Yeah, I know, but I never quite saw the appeal of something like Watchmen precisely because I always get the impression of being browbeaten by the Message, so I’m not keen to see it used as an example of a “serious” comic. I’d rather see something that makes itself fun to read first, as opposed to “important” to read.

        The problem with webcomics is that those that aim to please settle for as low as possible, while the others are plagued by the same problems as “serious” comics. I look at some of your reviewed titles and ask myself: “Is this something I would enjoy reading?” And the answer, in at least some of those cases, regardless of your rating, is no.

        Plenty of “adolescent humor and pop culture references” allright in webcomics, but a “viable storytelling option” ought not to mean it should turn into a Message webcomic to the extent that it obfuscates the comic itself. (We really need an updated version of that old pun about leaving messages to Western Union.)

        But why can’t comic creators hit on the right balance between pleasure and message? Some of those old Asterix albums were wildly satirical (“The Mansions of the Gods” comes to mind), but they remain fun to read, even though the object of their satire has more or less evaporated. In the webcomic realm, what do you get? The Order of the Stick and its genteel pokes at Dungeons & Dragons? Penny Arcade and its gaming inside jokes that come with their own “Expires Before” dates (just get a whiff of their first strips, a decade ago, and tell me about it)? Or those more serious webcomics with their niche readership and important messages?

        • Your definition of what a serious comic is a little confusing, but mine is a comic that doesn’t break the fourth wall and the creator(s) put a lot of thought and work into every page and it tries to immerse you in it’s pages so that you forget you’re even reading a comic at all.

          But from the sound of it your definition is serious comics are allegorical. Not all serious comics are allegories and not all allegories are serious.
          Look at Pixar, all of their movies can be seen as fun kid movies or as allegorical.
          If the message is obvious then it’s not a very good allegory; you might have as well written an article instead but if it’s subtle enough you can interpret it either way and makes for a good story, then that’s good writing.

          I think alot of people spoil Watchmen for others when they tell you it has an important message. That makes you interpret the book differently then if you happened to have found it out yourself. I didn’t even know that it was an allegory when I first read Watchmen until I got close to the end.

    • If I were a novelist, and had to choose between Dickens’ path and Joyce’s, I’d go with the former. Not only because I’m quite incapable of the latter, but also because there is something quite repugnant about it — as though it existed only for academic dissection, and not for the simple pleasure of reading.

      Why is existing only for academic dissection repugnant?

      • Because, in the case of literature, it need not be that way. I understand that a scientific treatise might be so arcane as to be understood only by those well-versed in the field. But the same approach to the humanities in general, and literature in particular, is akin to shutting an open door in somebody’s face. What do you get today? Academic jargon, pseudo-scientific approaches, pet issues relentlessly promoted. But is that the purpose of literature?

        Imagine a novelist playing the game by saying about his work: “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of ensuring one’s immortality.” That’s not too hard to imagine, since these words come from Joyce himself.

        So now you get people priding themselves not on enjoying Joyce’s Ulysses (its appeal seems to stem from the impossibility of enjoying it), but on reading it in the first place. I’ve reached the point where I read either for pleasure or for what is directly useful to me, and I trust that my tastes are eclectic enough to keep an open mind about this. But say: “This is a perfectly dreadful book, but it’s what every well-bred person must have read”, and my eyes roll over. With my background, it’s not like I would ever have been invited to that big metaphorical intellectual party in the first place, so I have no need to be keeping up appearances.

  6. I think people get confused with the role of the artist and the role of the critic. To be an artist, you must think about certain elements of the work, for sure, or it’s just an exercise in artistic masturbation, but some of the most “serious” analysis should be done by critics.

    I like to follow a method of trying to combine theory and practice in different doses to acheive different results. The frankfurt philosophers defined it as an artists’ praxis, something that was adopted from other disciplines and applied to art making.

    I think of all the art mediums, comics are very under analysed. It lends a lot to their disposable nature, and I’m quite happy with the theory that exists. I honestly think there could be more discussion with little to no harm to the medium.

  7. An example from a medium not determined to keep casual fans away: A lot of musicians study musical genres outside of what they play professionally because it helps them learn new techniques that they can apply to their regular playing.

    To me, not reading one of those (or other) books and learning all you can about the medium so you can apply to your work makes you a hack artist.

  8. It’s helpful for people to realize that a given art form has some sort of coherent process to it.

    Personally, one of my favorite books is Lajos Egri’s Art of Dramatic Writing, simply because it’s the first book I’d read that started from the premise that writing a story is a comprehensible process that can be explained, rather then some sort of magic talent you’re just born with. It actually beats you over the head with that idea.

    Knowing that you can improve your art and having an idea how to do it is very inspiring.

    To be honest, I think a lot of this resistance to intellectualizing things stems from a kind of narcissism, from people who would rather think about art as some kind of magical special talent that only they have, rather then a process that any schlub with the time and effort can learn.

    Of course, being brilliant at art can be an inborn trait that only you have, but that’s true of everything. Studying hard probably can’t turn you into Mozart, but it also probably can’t turn you into Einstein, yet somehow nobody ever says physicists should stop reading all those books and just go do physics.

    • To be honest, I think a lot of this resistance to intellectualizing things stems from a kind of narcissism, from people who would rather think about art as some kind of magical special talent that only they have, rather then a process that any schlub with the time and effort can learn.


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