Thursday, August 16, 2007

Chimaera's Challenge 3.5: Putting the "Fun" in "Funeral"/It's All About Me

"You know that criticism that often gets applied to things, that those involved in the creation clearly had a lot of fun making it, but forgot to be able to translate that to the audience?" Graeme McMillan, reviewing the Deadpool/GLI Summer Fun Spectacular for The Savage Critic(s)

If I recall correctly, Alan Moore actually created the America's Best Comics line in response to what he perceived as a darkening in tone in modern superhero comics, partly as the result of his own dark (but in its own way, fun) superhero epic THE WATCHMEN. If ABC wasn't a direct response to that, Moore certainly stated on many occasions his regret that the darker, more "realistic" sheen of the Watchmen and THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS had been embraced by other creators who hadn't absorbed what really made those works special (that being, again if memory serves, their relatively complex narrative structure. I also think both books had a degree of ambition that the majority of mainstream comics at the time lacked--that the majority of mainstream comics at this time still lack, come to think of it--but that's me.)

So Moore created the ABC line as something of an antidote to the grim 'n' gritty atmosphere that was then sweeping through comicdom. His goal, as I understand it, was to make comics that were fun. His relative success can only really be judged on a reader-by-reader basis. For myself, TOP TEN was far and away the most successful and, not coincidentally, fun of the titles. PROMETHEA started off fun (and in its last storyline actually mostly finished that way), but as it became less about mythical heroics and more about educating the title character, and by extension the reader, in the ways of magick, it went off the rails a bit. On a technical level, it was excellent, and I'm sure it was fun for Moore to write. Personally, I didn't enjoy reading a good portion of it.

Which brings us to...

THE PROBLEM WITH FUN, PART TWO

When George described the future first press release for the CSU, he wanted the first line of the PR to be something along the lines of “Remember when superhero universes were fun, exciting places to be?” And that was my touchstone for all the stuff I've done in connection with Chimaera. When working on TITUS: HEROIC FAILURE, TALES OF STUPEFICTION (changed the name from Spooky Action), and Chimaera’s Canadian Champion Contingent, I’ve always come back to “fun” as the requirement for whatever I contribute to the Chimaeraverse. And I've pretty much ignored the idea that the label "fun" is a death sentence in the current comics (direct) marketplace.

Partly that's because I think it's a stupid premise and I want it not to be true, in spite of a substantial body of evidence that says it is. Hey, I want to write comics for a living--"must live in a fantasy world" is practically part of the job description for me. And partly it's because that's a general statement, and I've got a more specific reason to worry about making comics I think are fun. As Graeme McMillan's quote at the start of this post points out, as the PROMETHEA example was intended to illustrate, what's fun for a creator isn't necessarily going to be fun for a reader.

It becomes even more problematic when you consider the idiosyncracies of the creator in question. To get to what I think is my point in this next bit, I'm going to narrow my focus a little, and talk not about fun, but funny.

In Mel Brooks' movie SPACEBALLS, there's a bit where Rick Moranis' Darth Vader knock-off character tells his subordinates he wants them to "Comb the desert"...for something. I don't even recall what they were looking for.

Anyway, a little while later, Moranis is in the desert, and in the background are a couple guys with giant combs, running them through the sand. As a sight gag, it's not great, but it's passable. Brooks wasn't satisfied to leave it a sight gag, however. Moranis makes a big deal out of his guys using a giant comb to comb the desert. At the time, I assumed that was because he believed his audience was too stupid to put two and two together. They needed to have the giant comb pointed out to them, to ensure they got the joke. "Get it? Eh? Get it?"

There's a theory I've heard that if you have to explain the funny part of the joke, the joke isn't that good. As an extension of that theory, I've generally worked from the premise that if you have to point out a joke is actually there, you're cutting into the joke's comedic potential. Part of the reason Douglas Adams' HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY books are things I can go and read every couple of years and still enjoy is because each time I manage to come across a joke or two that I missed the last time around (having a memory like a sieve helps, I think). It took me ages before I realized the exchange:
"It's unpleasantly like being drunk."
"What's unpleasant about being drunk?"
"Ask a glass of water."
wasn't the surreal but still funny non-sequitur I'd taken it for when I first read the book as a kid. I probably never would've figured out what a "Kuhniggut" was in MONTY PYTHON'S THE HOLY GRAIL if someone hadn't actually explained it to me (if I recall correctly, they hadn't figured it out independently themselves, which made me feel slightly less stupid.)

In my long-gestating TOKEN GOBLIN series, the city of Idolon's watchmen are named after the city's most famous mayor, Reegan Onyer. They're the Onyer Guard. It was immensely satisfying to me when, more than a year after a friend had read one of the Token Goblin prose stories I've written and said, "The Onyer Guard. I just got it."

That's a moderately to not-very clever play on words--not a great joke, by any means. But to my mind it would be a lousy one if I'd gone to great lengths to call attention to it--any lengths at all, really, other than to toss it out and act like it wasn't a joke at all. Because it landed months after the initial reading experience, it becomes that much better than actually is.

But is a joke that someone's not going to get on the first read through going to fly in the North American comic market?

Or, to put it another way, is what I think is funny going to read that way to someone else? I worry that it won't, because I've got a superhuman sense of humour. It's going to take most of humanity about five million years of evolution before it'll be able to grasp what I find so patently, self-evidently funny about a store called SofaLand.

It's a concern. Fortunately, my friends and family generally indulge or ignore my tendency to burst into unstoppable giggle fits at the drop of a hat. (My all-time favourite line from my all-time favourite commercial: "Whoops! Dropped my hat!" I'm still chuckling about that one more than twenty years later...)

And I've got other friends who have some sense of what's actually working as comedy and what isn't. I showed the scripts for TITUS: HEROIC FAILURE to my DONE TO DEATH collaborator Fiona Staples. Her first comment on it was, "Boy, you were really angry when you wrote that, weren't you?" Which I was, but that was beside the point.

"Yeah," said I. Then, towering imperiously over her, I demanded an answer to my burning question. "But never mind that: was it funny?"

Said Fiona, "Yes, it was funny."

Which at the time made me happy; someone else thought the book was funny. Looking back on it now, however, it seems to me she answered the question... a little hesitantly. And now I'm starting to worry again.

So there's another aspect of Chimaera's Challenge: produce something that's fun (or funny, if appropriate), not for me, necessarily, but for the comic's eventual readers (both of them.) When I'm having too good a time doing what is, after all, supposed to be work...well, that's when I know I've got to be careful.

Because SofaLand is really quite funny. Just trust me on this.

"This is life. So go and have a ball. Because the world don't move to the beat of just one drum. What might be right for you may not be right for some. You take the good, you take the bad, you take them both and there you have...my opening statement. Sit, Ubu, sit. Good dog." - Peter Griffin

Foley

1 comment:

Alastair said...

I hate the desert combing joke in SPACEBALLS.