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Dex Lives, fine online comics

by Bernadette Yarnot

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On Comics

I’m sure that, by this time, most people have seen at least one article on the reason for web comics. At least most people who read web comics to begin with.

And I’m sure that most people are acquainted with the term "syndicate" , meaning those five or six nationwide companies that act as comic distributors. Likewise, you probably know that maybe three or four new slots for comics are available for nationwide distribution every year, and that hundreds or thousands of cartoonists are competing for those few slots.

In other words, it’s highly improbable that any single cartoonist can make money cartooning. You have a better chance of writing a bestseller than making a living as a cartoonist.

So how is it that web comics have become so popular? Or, alternately, doesn’t the fact that syndicated comics have readership in the hundreds of thousands, while web comics cater to thousands at best, indicate that web comics are marginal and second-rate?

Newspapers hate to change their funny pages. There’s a good reason for this: no matter how little-liked a particular strip is, someone will LOUDLY object to its removal. However, there’s only so much room to go around, and that means if no old strips are removed, no new strips can get a chance.

What’s worse is that newspapers have to cater to a full audience. They have to have content that will not offend the little old lady with Puritan morals, and they have to have content that appeals to the father, the child, the teenager, the grandmother, the single twentysomething, the married fortysomething, and so on.

The aspiring cartoonist has to come up with a strip that is new and unique while, at the same time, does not offend the majority of readers. It’s quite a tightrope. Then that aspiring cartoonist has to compete against hundreds of other aspiring cartoonists for a few slots in a few newspapers. Moreover, there’s only a few syndicates, so once you’ve run the gauntlet, there’s nowhere else to go.

It’s even worse when a cartoonist dies and someone else takes over the strip. There are certain strips that have been running for decades under various artists. Of course, those strips likewise take up precious space and leave even less room for the up-and-coming cartoonist.

Enter the Internet.

With only a little technical knowledge, and some reasonably priced equipment, a cartoonist can publish online. While some use the Internet as a stepping stone to syndication, many have decided to avoid the complications involved altogether and remain online. Quite honestly, there’s about the same amount of money to be made after the middleman is eradicated.

Another benefit of a web comic is the fact that readership levels are more concrete, even with repeated page viewings, because when a newspaper claims a certain number of readers for its comics, it is estimating based on the number of papers sold. It cannot, without costly surveys, find out how many people read and enjoy a particular comic. It can only guess.

What about the technology? The Internet is still a novelty. We’re still in the stages where your kid might go next door to watch "Howdy Doody" because that’s the only television on the block. And though you might not like this idea, more than half of Internet use is for the receipt and distribution of porn or mp3s. It’s a fact.

Those two or three thousand readers are looking better all the time, aren’t they?

And how many people know that web comics exist? I started finding comics online only after searching out comics I had seen in syndication. I didn’t realize that there were comics that existed solely in cyberspace until mid-2000, and I’m sure there’s a vast readership pool waiting to be tapped.

In my opinion, there are three major types of comics, excluding editorial and fun stuff (Slylock Fox), which are basically illustrated puzzles. They are:

1. Character-driven comics.

This type of comic is centered on the characters, who are ideally well-defined and unique. The strip deals with how they interact and react to situations. Character-driven comics are not weak on plot but do not rely on plot to provide impetus to get from day to day. Good examples of character-driven online comics are College Roommates From Hell, Sluggy Freelance, and Bruno the Bandit. While bizarre things happen in these comic worlds, we care more because of the characters’ reactions. (I know people just like those in Sluggy Freelance, and were they to be assaulted by demons they would react in much the same way.) As you’ve probably guessed, Dex Lives is a character-driven comic.

Syndicated character-driven comic examples are For Better Or For Worse, Calvin and Hobbes, 9 Chickweed Lane, and Liberty Meadows. (note: Liberty Meadows is no longer in syndication because its creator disliked the lack of control he had over his strip.)

The debased form of character-driven comics is caricature-driven comics. Caricatures are the archetypical characters, but they possess no outside qualities, and they do not change. One particular example that bothered me in my hometown newspaper was Andy Capp. Andy Capp is the epitome of the Cockney drunk who goes to bars, gets drunk, hits on a lovely young lady who turns him down, then goes home to his less than lovely wife who gets mad at him and knocks him down the stairs. That’s it. That’s the strip. It got to the point where my eye would automatically avoid that spot on the comics page.

Other comics that have become caricature-driven are Garfield and Cathy. Caricatures can still be funny, but it gets stale after a while.

2. Plot-driven comics

These are strips that may have well defined characters but rely on the plot to keep your interest. It is sometimes very difficult to tell the difference between a well-done plot comic and a well-done character comic. Online, I think good examples are Schlock Mercenary, which has so many unusual and bizarre situations that we don’t need much character exposition to appreciate them, and Clan of the Cats, in which the situational exposition overwhelms the character exposition.

Syndicated versions include, of course, any soap-opera style strip such as Mary Worth or Rex Morgan, M.D.

When plot-driven comics go bad, they take three months for a storyline, nothing interesting happens for days, and you can’t tell the characters apart because they’re so ill-defined. I can’t give you any examples because it takes a lot for a plot-driven comic to pull me in.

3. Situational comics

These comics are of the gag-a-day variety. They may not have the same characters day to day, and they certainly don’t have a plot, so they have no history to catch up on. This is the category that famous strips such as the Far Side and Non Sequitur fall into. This is also the category that many people think of when they think of comic strips, especially since newspapers prefer comics that don't require much exposition.

This is also, in my opinion, one of the hardest comic styles to pull off. Finding irony on a daily basis is a difficult proposition, and the two examples I cited above are of the select few to manage it.  (Most daily syndicated comics do not rely entirely on the gag-a-day format, but pull in as much character exposition and plot as they can get away with.  More power to them.)

This comic style goes bad when the cartoonist has to re-use material. There are only so many times that following Billy’s trail in Family Circus is mildly amusing. (Cute Things Kids Say is a category I stopped finding funny a long time ago.) It also goes bad when a cartoonist has to get obscure to be original. If you have to explain the joke, it’s no longer funny.

Okay, I’m going to go out on a limb here and draw the ire of at least half of my readership and say that newspapers should drop Peanuts.

I’m not kidding. I am one of the few people in the world, apparently, who does not think of Charles Schultz as the greatest cartoonist ever. (That would be Walt Kelly.) I admire the man for his dedication, his vision, and his insistence that no one else should ever draw the strip. But I never felt the awe that everyone else seems to attach to his strips. Not even when I was a child.

Sure, I like the characters well enough, but Peanuts was not and never has been my favorite comic strip. And while I know that many parents want "my child to feel the same wonder I felt when reading Peanuts", I am going to hazard a guess that this will not happen the way they want it to.

The world moves on. Times change. More importantly, cartoonists take the tools of the revered greats and improve upon them.

When Peanuts first appeared, it was unique. Fifty years later, it was once again unique, but that is because the rest of the world took the lessons that Schultz presented, learned from them, and moved on. Reissuing old cartoons does not teach us anything new. Besides, any parent who wants his or her child to experience the joy of Peanuts can go out and buy any one of several dozen Peanuts anthologies. A newspaper is not the only format for that strip, but it might be the only viable venue for an up-and-comer.

My co-conspirator mentioned that reading Calvin & Hobbes does not present the same thrill that it used to. That was a very revealing comment, as it shows how we can’t go back. Other cartoonists learned from Watterson, from his drawing style and his method of showing imagination, and you can see traces of Watterson in current strips such as Foxtrot and 9 Chickweed Lane.

It’s sad but true that Calvin & Hobbes, though part of the canon, will not seem that wonderful twenty years from now, because what we considered revelations, our children will consider obvious— the only way to draw cartoons. It’s much the same for Peanuts. Give some new comics a chance.

Watterson quit because he felt his work would become stale if he continued. Gary Larson and Berke Breathed discontinued their strips for much the same reasons. While I wouldn’t mind seeing Bloom County or the Far Side reappear, I cannot fault the artists for stepping away before people got sick of them, or before they grew tired of their own strips.

If you want to jump on the bandwagon and become an Internet cartoonist, go to it. Here’s my checklist to go through first:

1. Learn to draw. You don’t have to be daVinci, but as a reader, I want to be able to know what it is I’m looking at. Continuity is highly important, as is character differentiation. I need to be able to tell the same character from panel to panel, and I need to not confuse characters. Also important is INKING. Unless you know how to scan pencil artwork properly (Everything Jake), I will most likely have difficulty making out which lines are intended and which are accidental.

It doesn't have to be beautiful.  Kitsune, of C.Ulture Shocked, considers her artwork to be sub-par, but it does what it needs to-- each character is distinct, it is clear what they are doing, and the panels are not so visually cluttered that the characters are hard to make out.

2. Learn to write. You should either be a fluent speaker of the language you’re writing in or have someone who is a fluent speaker proof your work. Humor does not translate that well; what may seem hilarious in the original language will most likely fall flat if not translated properly. I have several songs of mine that I have translated into Spanish (for class assignments); you’ll never see them because I suspect that while they are in the correct form, they are unpoetic and childish in translation.

Maritza Campos does not speak English as her native language, and I never would have guessed if it weren't in her bio.

3. Figure out the purpose of your strip. You should be able to categorize your strip as one of three types quite easily— even though many strips partake of all three types, it should be predominantly one type. If it isn’t, you may want to focus your work a bit more and figure out which style you want to do.

4. Designate your core audience. Is your strip just for your friends to enjoy? You can stick in all of the references and in-jokes you want. Is it for a wider audience? You may have to revise your humor style. It’s pretty simple: I don’t expect Trekkies to get Titanic jokes and I don’t expect the wide world to understand the context of the fascist carrot or about the engineers in the Piraeus .

5. Create a month’s worth of strips. That’s right, a MONTH. If you’ve never drawn a comic before, you’ll need at least that much to let you develop your characters/plotlines/sense of humor. If you have drawn your comic before, that month of strips becomes a buffer, a guard against writer’s block. Try to keep at least a week ahead of publishing. If you can’t create a month’s worth of strips, you may want to reconsider your idea to become an online cartoonist.

Even if you throw them out, that month will be valuable.

6. When you design your website, remember two things: the vast majority of the surfing public has neither a fast connection nor a large screen. Keep your flashing, beautiful graphics to a minimum, as they slow down the connection. Unless, of course, you’re aiming your strip at buyers with T-1 and DSL lines. Likewise, web resolution is 72 dpi and anything above that eats bandwidth. Frustrated viewers go elsewhere. And scrolling is annoying. (The smallest monitor size is 640 pixels by 480; the most common size today is 800 by 600. I keep my comic to 640 pixels wide because that leaves room on the sides for navigation bars and the like.  I may make it bigger at some point in the future.) You may want to redesign your format to a more vertical version to keep the artwork large. And that caution goes for font size, too. I love Sinfest but I have a difficult time reading the archives because on my screen, the font is about four pixels high and completely unreadable. (That should sufficiently explain why the font on these pages is so LARGE.)

7. If it isn’t fun, it isn’t necessary. I mean it. You’re never going to become rich as a cartoonist. Especially if you don’t enjoy it. It’s too much work for too little (monetary) reward. And usually the feedback is also inconsistent. Were it not for my co-conspirator, this strip would never have gotten on the web because I needed that outside push. (That’s why he’s got the title. He provides the motivation and I provide the strip. Don’t knock it; it works.)

Wow, that's a long rant.  Do you have any comments about it?  Talk to me.

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