Writing Prompt: 05/31/10

"Your phone rings. When you answer it, you make a startling discovery: the person on the other end is dead. What does he/she say and why are they calling you?"

Write for 15-30 minutes. My response will be posted 6/02/10.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Essay: What can you learn from a webcomic?

I've been reading a lot of webcomics lately. You'll find links to some of my favorites to the right. I particularly recommend Sluggy Freelance by Pete Abrams. Since 1997 this webcomic has updated five times per week and featured several volumes worth of storylines and character development.

Incidentally, it also has the honor (such as it is) of affecting my life in a deeply personal manner. In 2008 I began reading Sluggy over the Christmas Break, knowing that in a few short weeks one of the most stressful times in a young teacher's life was going to crop up. I'm speaking, of course, of the monumental waste of time that is student teaching. (The only thing that consoles me about how much time and money I wasted on my student teaching is that it was slightly more worthwhile than the two years of theoretical study and pointless essay writing that preceded it.)

At the same time I was trying to cajole 33 sixth graders to study Ancient Rome and learn fractions, I was unwinding at night by reading the antics of Torg, Riff, and Bun-bun, a homicidal mini-lop rabbit. (Where does a mini-lop keep a switchblade and a Glock-19?)

I'm leaving one character out. Kiki, one of the most adorable anthropomorphic characters in comic history, literally changed my life when I became so interested in ferrets that I finally adopted a starving little girl rescued from the wild. Ankhesenamun (or "Mun" as I call her for short) is just about everything that Kiki is: sweet, naive, difficult to potty train (well, only in one spot, really), and the only thing that really keeps me sane most of the time.

If I could just stop the little weasel from raiding my paranormal investigation kit for toys, I'd be much happier.

Lest this blog degenerate into a Livejournal-ish diary and my blatherings drift towards similar styling to that of a 14-year-old emo chick, I'll stop talking about my personal life now. I'll say only that ferrets are wonderful pets. There are far too many of them in animal shelters that need good homes. They are nothing like dogs and cats and take a lot more work than both, and if you are even remotely interested in one as a pet then you need to read Ferrets for Dummies. I also strongly recommend that you volunteer at a local ferret shelter for at least two months before you adopt one. Not only will that give you a chance to get to know them and meet your soulmate, but it'll also help that shelter out. Most ferret shelters are run by private individuals who receive no assistance from local government-- no funds and no equipment. They exist by private donation and volunteer support.

All right, enough! I promise...

Back to webcomics. There are hundreds of webcomics out there. Most are free, some are dropped after only a few days or weeks, and some of them go on for years. Some, like Something Positive, cover themes ranging from homosexuality to suicide and grief (and yet still manage to make me laugh out loud when they aren't bringing tears to my eyes. Read S*P and see if you can keep your eyes from clouding when Davan's father is trying to tell his beloved wife that he has Alzheimer's.)

Some comics, like Penny Arcade, are devoted to video games. (BTW: that link will take you to the blog. Each comic has a blog post attached to it, and their home page points to it for some reason. Look to the upper left hand side for a link to the comic.) While Penny Arcade is ofttimes insanely violent and strangely tangential to the world of gaming, it also happens to be utterly hysterical (one of the few examples of any medium that has made me laugh out loud hard enough to not be able to stop).

For those gifted with a sense of altruism, Penny Arcade is also the source for "Child's Play." This wonderful charity raises money to buy gaming systems for kids in hospitals. If you ever spent any time in a hospital as a child, like I did with an utterly destroyed knee at age six, you can appreciate a charity so devoted to easing the pain of children in that situation with a diversion like a Nintendo DS. Read a few of the letters on the Child's Play website. If your eyes don't well up then you're a stronger man than I.

This post isn't just a bunch of commentary about how great webcomics are when you've worked a 16 hour day that includes four hours of lesson planning, spending $250 of your own money on teaching materials, and a two hour meeting with an administrator that hasn't been in a classroom as a regular teacher in six years who wants to shred your teaching methodology. There's a lot more here than that.

Webcomics can also give you insights into character and plot development. On the right hand side of this blog you'll find a list of links to my favorite webcomics. (Except for some NSFW ones.) On this list is Ctrl-Alt-Del, another gaming webcomic. One of the reasons I like this comic, other than the strangely twisted humor, is Ethan's growing maturity throughout its run. Beginning as a gamehead with no concept of responsibility, who spends his rent money on new game releases, Ethan grows up, loses a child, accidentally ends up as the owner of a game store and business owner, gets married, and develops. As you read the comic, you'll see him grow into something new, something different... possibly even something wonderful.

Going back to Sluggy Freelance, Torg begins the comic run in 1997 as a rather naively innocent goofball, more interested in beer and chicks (if he could find one) than in personal responsibility. However, as time marches on he becomes wiser, more focused, and in the That Which Redeems storyline he steps into the role of action hero in a manner that touched my heart. Let's just say that I have an enormous soft spot in my heart for anyone with the cojones to leap off a mountain of bones into the teeth of a demon lord carrying nothing but a sword and a heart full of furious rage. (By the way, that last panel is my all-time favorite comic artwork E-V-E-R!)

If you're looking for further sweeping storylines, check out another comic on the list to the right, Order of the Stick. Rich Burlew was a writer for Wizards of the Coast (the company that screwed up Advanced Dungeons and Dragons when they bought out TSR several years ago.) Not only does Burlew break the fourth wall more or less continuously to make references to gameplay mechanics, but he's managed to create character depth where at first glance there is nothing but stock fantasy.

Don't be fooled by what appears to be simplistic artwork, either. I defy you to find another comic artist, online or otherwise, that could show a battle every bit as broad in scope as the battle of Helm's Deep from Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy-- using stick figures.

Because I am most interested in fantasy and science fiction, I am deeply impressed with Burlew's ability to develop complex and far-reaching "quests" for his characters. His MacGuffins are not merely magical plot devices used to get characters moving. He develops a real resonating purpose for each character's focus on the plot goals. (One caveat of this webcomic: I recommend staying out of the online forums. The rabid users there are every bit as pig-ignorant as the commentators on Yahoo News, and have no problems flaming to a crisp anyone that doesn't agree with their point of view. Moderation is usually done after the fact and makes no attempt to be fair or even reasonable. I was very disappointed in my brief sojourn there, and have not returned since October of 2008.)

Of course, the next question I can hear you thinking is, "Why a webcomic, Chris? Why not just read a book to get examples of characterization, plot development, and action sequences?"

Of course you can do that. I don't discount that much of my writing comes from influences like Chris Bunch, David Eddings, Simon Green, and Terry Pratchett. I'm all for reading as much and as widely as possible in your chosen genre and trying to absorb as much as you can from it. This is just one more example of that in action.

There was a time when webcomics were laughed at. United Artists-- the same company that forced Bill Watterson to stop making Calvin and Hobbes because they insisted on licensing his merchandise against his will, openly laughed at webcomics in the early 1990s, claiming that the medium was not only not profitable, but it was only effective for comic writers who couldn't get published any other way.

By the way, this is the same miserable bullshit argument that professional editors and publishers use to to defame self-publishing. They were the ones to call it "Vanity Press," and they still insist that self-publication means that you weren't good enough to make it in the "real" world of publication. Rich Burlew (Order of the Stick), Tim Buckley (Ctrl-Alt-Del), Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik (Penny Arcade), and Dave Kellet (Sheldon) may disagree that the medium isn't successful, since they make their livings off of it. (In fact, you can simply go HERE and check out a list of comics that pay handsomely enough to keep their writers solvent.)

My point here is a simple one: as an author, you should probably be seeking out examples of good writing wherever they may lurk. Just because it's bound to a simplistic form and also uses pictures to convey meaning rather than expository description doesn't mean that comics aren't also a source of good writing. Since most webcomics are freely available, including archives that go back more than a decade in some cases (like Sluggy), you can read them as you choose, unlike buying a $2.99 comic book every month, or shelling out $9.99 for a novel. (Not that I am trying to discourage either of those purchases, but free is always good.)

In addition to some laugh out loud humor and some incredible artwork, you might find something else as well...

... you might come home with a new family member.

Write On!

Christopher Rivan

Virgins Slain, Dragons Rescued.
Reasonable rates for all budgets!



1 comment:

  1. It is clear that webcomics are an influence in your writings and life. Having grown up with MAD Magazine, CRACKED and Archie, I feel that comics are an essential part of the writing world. They cannot work without all the elements any other story needs, and with the addition of wonderful artwork produced by talented people, comics often supersede what words alone convey.

    My entire allowance between ages 10-14 went to MAD Magazine. What? Me Worry? No way. It was an investment in laughter worth every penny.

    This post makes me want to dig out my MAD collection (Mom? Where'd you put them?). Oh, and your ferret is absolutely the cutest thing on this planet.

    - Julie