Thursday, February 10, 2005

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thinking about comic strips

Reading Websnark on the recent events in the comic strip Cathy, I found myself agreeing with him. Ordinarily I can't stand that strip, but I do have to offer up my props on making such a big change to the whole premise. Nice!

But thinking about comic strips, I realized that I don't dislike Cathy for the content as much as I thought I did. Yes, it's cheesy stereotypical single girl territory - shopping, bathing suits, moaning about being single, overbearing moms, and purses. Maybe I'm not such a fan of this kind of content, but that's like complaining about Tank McNamara because I don't like professional sports.

What irks me more is the repetitive formula approach. It's something I notice especially in Cathy but also in many other comic strips, which could explain why I don't read as many strips these days as I used to. Similar formula setups, similar pacing. Even with completely different characters and premises, many strips have ways of pitching gags that feel boringly familiar.

Formula 1: The list
Panel 1: Character starts narrating a list - observations, possessions, whatever. (e.g. "Three pairs of high heels. Four pairs of mules.")
Panel 2: List continues.
Panel 3: List continues, possibly to an absurd extreme.
Panel 4: Character makes bumper sticker-esque observation. ("Some people have X. I have Y.")

Formula 2: Squashed idealism
Panel 1: Statement of situation.
"Here we are at the art museum."

Panel 2: Observation.
"Look at all of this culture!"

Panel 3: Idealistic statement.
"What a noble housing of artistic pursuit! Imagine what you could glean about the nature of humanity here!"

Panel 4: Crass counter-statement from second character.
"Dude! I found the room with the naked statues!" First character smacks own forehead.

Somewhere along the line, I became more accustomed to reading longer stories, like graphic novels, or strips longer than four panels with more room for storytelling, like Too Much Coffee Man or Carol Lay's Story Minute. Reading regular gag-a-day strips now feels strange. The pacing is like an EKG readout - setup, punchline spike, setup, punchline spike, setup, punchline spike.

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