Cameos and Crossovers
Cameos and crossovers. Two very little things that have, very unfortunately, been way overdone in the world of Internet comics.
It was inevitable, perhaps, as it is impossible to miss the sheer amount of fanfic that is devoted to characters from one story appearing in another. Publishers and producers, by using such techniques, have hoped to gain the audience from another series. They look at the prospect of more viewers or readers and see M-O-N-E-Y. So why shouldn't struggling Internet artists also take advantage of it?
A cameo is when some visibly famous person is in the background of the medium you are presenting. For an example, in the movie The Wizard of Speed and Time, there is a point when characters get a pointed direction from a guy leaning against the wall in an alley, reading a script... and the guy just happens to be Woody Allen. It's not pointed out, and the humor relies entirely upon the audience's knowledge of the person.
In a comic, this is simplified by the fact that drawing a character into a strip is considerably easier (and cheaper) than getting somebody famous to appear in your public-access cable show. The "people" involved don't even have to really exist.
When cameos are done well, they are sort of an inside joke between the artist and the viewer, a sort of sharing of common knowledge. For example, when GPF did its "Nerdvana" storyline, the mystical park had attendees from other "geek" strips, such as Sluggy Freelance and User Friendly. The audience was likely to have read such strips and could get the joke of having Torg and Riff in the background of the park.
Moreover, the joke did not rely on the "guests" but instead entirely ignored them... if you got it, that was good, but if you didn't, it didn't matter.
And that is where the problems come in with the overuse of cameos. Many artists will have increasingly obscure cameos and hang the joke on the audience immediately grasping who the guest is (with all of the odd motivations and hang-ups.) It is nearly impossible to keep up with all of the Internet comics being produced today, and that number is only going to go up.
Crossovers are when characters from one universe (in this case, a comic strip) go and do something with the characters from another universe (another comic strip.) Let me state, at the outset, that I have seen this done well. College Roomies From Hell!!! is particularly good at this, but then any comic strip which starts off with the dorms exploding and which currently has as a guy with a tentacle, one with laser vision, and a werecoyote with an eye in his hand can handle the weirdness usually associated with crossovers.
The problem that crossovers usually have is that they don't make sense. In other words, far too often it is the product of "what if?" rather than the result of seeing the similarities between the two worlds and realizing that interesting things might come of a meeting.
Sometimes the difficulties are the result of disparate world-structures. For example, Dex Lives is almost certain to not cross over to another strip because of the inherent difficulties of making people-shaped dragons fit into another reality. (I can think of a couple of plausible methods for creating such a crossover; however, I question the necessity of doing so.)
I actually once saw a comic book that crossed the Star Trek (TNG) universe with that of the X-Men. Why?
Obviously, the easiest way to avoid the weirdness of cameos and crossovers is to not do them. However, if you feel you must, take heed of a few simple rules:
1. Know your audience.
By this, I mean that you should have a decent idea of what your audience is reading. If your comic is Goth Animé, don't expect a cameo from a tech-oriented strip such as PvP to fly. Take a look around Keenspot and see which comics "belong together" in your mind. Then see which of those groups your comic would go with. You probably should not cameo anyone from outside that group unless that character is so well known that he she or it has transcended that comic (Bun Bun from Sluggy Freelance is a good example of this.)
2. Always look to the more famous for cameos.
This rule is just so that people will know who on earth you're talking about. There can be justifiable exceptions, particularly if your audience is a close group of friends or if you are attempting to bring greater fame to a more obscure comic.
3. Look for plausibility.
It is plausible that Dex and Junior would be found at a concert. It is far, far less plausible that they would be at a strip joint. You either want to have crossovers and cameos occur in a likely setting, or you want the unlikely setting to be the focus of the humor. The moment the reader says, "But this doesn't make any sense," you've lost.
4. Ask for permission.
Obviously, you don't have to ask for permission every time you have someone else's character walk through your background, but you don't want to incur someone's hostility by continually using a character without permission. You should also include a copyright notice stating that the cameo is copyright to somebody else, or at least a link back to his or her site.
I'm pretty okay with people using my characters in cameos, as long as they tell me, but not everyone is so blase.
And now, having said all that, I am off to work on material for a Keenspace Halloween event, which is nothing but cameos. There are no hard and fast rules. Not even that one.
What do you think? Talk to me.