Daily Archives: October 11, 2010
Long ago, in the halcyon days of webcomic reviewing, the esteemed Eric Burns-White once coined a term that is apt for both print comics and, now, the rather mature webcomic genre. He called it Cerebus Syndrome:
The effort to create character development by adding layer upon layer of depth to their characters, taking a character of limited dimension (or meant to be a joke character) and making them fuller and richer. The idea is to take what was fun on one level and showing the reality beneath it. ‘Cerebus Syndrome’ refers to Dave Sim’s epic, sometimes tragically flawed magnum opus, Cerebus the Aardvark. Cerebus started life as a parody of Conan the Barbarian starring an Earth-Pig born. Over time, it grew extremely complex, philosophical, and in many ways much much funnier. Then, Dave Sim went batshit crazy and Cerebus went straight to Hell, but that’s for another day. People saw how Cerebus’s humble roots could lead to glorious heights, and as cartoonists get bored with what they’re doing, they decided to pull a Cerebus of their own.
Boredom is generally the key to a Cerebus Syndrome attempt. After a while, even a successful webcartoonist gets tired of fart jokes and sight gags and wants to make these characters more than they’ve been.
It is extremely hard to take a light, joke a day strip and push it through a successful Cerebus Syndrome. Dave Sim did it in stages, and at least in the early days of the transformation brought massive amounts of Funny to cover it over. Done perfectly, one only realizes in hindsight that the strip has turned out to be quite different than it used to be. Done sloppily, the Cerebus Syndrome fails, and the webcomic enters First and Ten Syndrome. Unfortunately, a failed Cerebus Syndrome is an excruciating process for the webcomic’s fans to endure.
Personally, I would’ve called this “Funky Winkerbean Disorder,” and I may yet do so as not to infringe on Mr. Burns-White’s proprietary terminology. But there you go. As we enter the third decade of webcomics, this phenomenon becomes more and more apparent. The most infamous example of Cerebus Syndrome is probably the “Loss” strip from Ctrl+Alt+Del. It’s hardly the first to flip the switch from “wry sarcasm” to “maudlin,” though. The same thing can be seen in MegaTokyo, Sluggy Freelance, Questionable Content, and every webcomic David Willis has ever worked on.
There are times, though, when someone pulls the transition off just right.
When Sam Logan’s Sam & Fuzzy starts, it’s the comic that’s metaphorically about farts and sights that Eric is talking about. But the modern version, the ones that current fans seems to have embraced, is less reliant on random wackiness and is more concerned about telling long-term, cohesive stories. Sure, it’s hardly complex or philosophical… but there is an Earth-Pig. Actually, a Fig Pig. And… I think I may have lost my train of thought here.