Notes on Comic Humor 4: What Makes This Funny?

Today I realized something about a comic I made that people thought was funny and about how that works.


Is what makes this work:

Everything else — all the bigger drawings that lead up to that one tiny little drawing — they're just setup, they're there to build tension and intrigue. There's a bunch of them, they're vague in that we don't know what's going on, and they're dramatic, and there's a bunch of words. All that builds tension and intrigue.

The last little drawing answers all the questions, releasing the tension, ending the intrigue, and we get a wide shot that explains in a surprising, revealing manner, what's been going on all this time.

But if that last, tiny little drawing were wrong, the whole thing would fall apart. Especially the facial expression. It's that wide-eyed look of horror that makes it work. That's what actually makes it funny

Really it just comes down to two tiny squares and two tiny dots.


Notes on Comic Humor: 3

I've often heard it suggested that writing is more important in comic strips than drawing. In fact, here's a quote from the King Features Syndicate submissions page

"Second, we very carefully study a cartoonist’s writing ability. Good writing helps weak art, better than good art helps weak writing."

As someone who is constantly looking at, thinking about and creating comics, I can tell you that this is total bunk. While it's true that the foundation of a comic is often (but not always) the writing, and the drawing doesn't have to be realistic or beautiful, terrible drawing — or drawing that just doesn't work with the writing — can kill a comic just as thoroughly as a poorly turned phrase. 

Saying that writing is more important than drawing in comics is like saying that writing is more important than performance in stand-up comedy. This just isn't true. Go to some open-mics and you'll quickly see that a beautifully crafted joke can easily be killed by terrible delivery, and vice-versa. In comics, the drawing is like the performance of a stand-up comedian. It can enhance, detract or add nothing to the writing.

Working on a recent Malcontent I was again reminded how a drawing can make or break a comic.

Malcontent brand webcomics almost always begin with writing. Usually two or three lines of text, but sometimes only one. These one-sentence Malcontents can be the hardest to draw. The drawing has to add something to the writing or the whole thing tends to flop. Often I'm lazy about it and rely on the facial expression of my protagonist to convey the idea and, thus, some of the humor. But the best one-liners are the ones where the drawing adds a new dimension to the idea set forth in the written text.

To wit, I recently set to work on a Malcontent that consisted of the following line:

"But if you have a cheeseburger you're already in paradise."

That's it, that's the whole gag. It's a pretty funny line on its own, but the drawing will make or break this one. Here was my first attempt:


Here you can see that the drawing just kills the joke. It's static and has no attitude whatsoever. It merely illustrates the most basic elements of the scene: a guy listening to the radio. There's nothing inherently funny about that scene; there's nothing inherently funny about the drawing. There's no emotion to this drawing, no perspective. It's just observation. It's flat. It's decidedly unfunny.

Now here's my second attempt:


This is much better for a bunch of reasons. First of all, there's movement, it's kinetic, it's fun to look at. Secondly, the drawing is funny: the dancing figure in contrast with the static one is a good visual gag. Also, the scene is funnier: this is a scene of two people dancing, but one has stopped to make an observation, which creates tension and drama lacking in the earlier image.

But most importantly, this drawing adds something to the humor, to the story, to the whole of the piece. It adds another dimension. Now it's not just a funny line, but it's about a character. This character can't enjoy himself because he gets too wrapped up in minutia. It speaks to the relationship between these characters as well. While he gets bogged down by details, she happily keeps dancing along. She doesn't let him get her down.

This drawing does something for the comic, where the other did nothing. And that's what I would like to strive for in every comic.  I often fail at this. But it really helps to try and come up with multiple takes on a comic idea, rather than settling on the first one. 

But the fact remains: drawing and writing in comics are equal partners, each complimenting the other. When either element is off, the comic tends to suffer or even fail; but when both are on it's a thing of beauty.

Notes On Comic Humor: 2

I've been thinking a lot about tension in humor, and particularly in comics. I once heard somewhere Louis CK talk about how a joke works. He said, in essence, that it's about tension and release. The person telling the joke first builds tension, and the punchline allows the listener to release that tension, resulting in a laugh. This isn't what makes something funny, per se, but describes the mechanics of a joke. These are the elements, the basic ingredients: tension and release.

In the early days of Malcontent I tried to adhere to a two-panel format as best I could. The first panel was the setup, the second panel the punchline — or, in comic strip parlance, the gag panel. This is a weird format to work in. You rarely see two-panel strips. Comic strips of today are almost always three or four panels long. But until recently I never understood why. 

I realize I've already projected the answer to this riddle in my opening paragraph, but let's take it apart anyway.

The very first Malcontents were simple: setup, punchline, in essentially equal parts. That was it. Over time I started realizing that it made the punchline funnier — or at least punchier — if the setup was longer. So I started making the first panel an extended monologue, and then making the punchline short and sweet. Now I realize that by making the setup longer I was doing that comedic thing that humorists — or, hell, all storytellers — have been doing for centuries, and that Louis CK described so well: I was building tension.

I didn't really realize what was going on, though, until I tried my hand at some three-panel Malcontents. These were not necessarily my greatest work, but making them was instructive nonetheless. They showed me how tension and release work in the context of Malcontent, and since then I've thought a lot about it and feel I have a much better understanding of how and why these things are constructed. 

Not long ago I also began dabbling in the single-panel cartoon, which is a beast unto itself. And lately I've been doing more free-form work. I can't say I fully understand the mechanics of these newer works yet. For now let's just say there is an element of simultaneity. I'll leave the rest for another article and another time.