Friday, April 16, 2010

Natural Drama vs Artificial Trauma

I was going to do another Newspaper article this week, but I got a better idea.

Since I started this blog, I had a thought of trying to describe a concept I nicknamed the "Dramatic Downshift."  It's a play on an old Civilization act where you change to a Democracy in order to grow faster in the future while sacrificing growth in the nearterm.

The Dramatic Downshift  refers to act of shifting a comedic strip into a dramatic strip.  Websnark, when he still talked about webcomics (it's been a while) called this the Cerebus Syndrome, a concept I don't disagree with, but don't think holds true always.  The idea is that drama and comedy are at odds with each other and when you try to switch between the two, or do both at the same time, it can ruin a comic.  That's the part I disagree with, by the way, it does work, but it takes effort, and a good foundation.

The foundation is important.  Without a good foundation, the Cerebus Syndrome functions at full effect, ripping the comic down.  After all, a character that was spouting puns in one strip and then giving a serious soliloquy the next isn't likely to be a very good comic.  So until the shift can occur outright, some depth has to be added to the characters, spiking their normal humorous play with a bit of drama every now and then.

The best example of this is actually General Protection Fault, on two fronts.  Now, it has been YEARS since I read GPF, so all this stuff is old opinions, but valid ones.  The story where this worked was one I remember as The Flood (I don't remember the original name and I'm not going to look).  In it a flash flood hit the town GPF takes place in and caused all sorts of mayhem.

The Flood story was designed to do two things.  First, it was a "change of venue" story, where the characters, who had gotten comfortable in their current situation, are forced out and into the world (the company they worked for was flooded out).  This is good for comedy adventure comics like GPF because it allows new jokes and situations to arise.  Sluggy Freelance does this VERY frequently and the results are almost always positive.

The next purpose was character development.  It was a big story for the time, and drew on some smaller steps that had happened earlier.   This is what I am calling a Natural Drama.  It helped expand the characters a bit, transforming generally two dimensional comedy characters into something more.  It didn't do a lot, of course, but it did add to the story.  This is what a Natural Drama does and it makes it an important tool in a Dramatic Downshift.  Typically, Natural Dramas should be small, building up to a "defining" moment story, which solidifies the gains up to that point and help set up even greater stories.  Sluggy does this constantly and frequently so when the great confrontation of the book takes place, the characters are tuned up and ready for it.

The Flood story worked on both these fronts, if it was a bit heavy, but it worked well and I remember thinking how good it was at the time.  The problem is that there was actually a third purpose to the story, to set up Serendipitous Machines.

I've complained about that story before, and it was THE reason I stopped reading GPF, and why?  Because it was a Artificial Trauma.  Essentially, it was the same kind of thing as a Natural Drama, a character expanding story.  The issue is that it's bigger, and much heavier.  The term "heavy handed" only begins to describe what's going on here.

Instead of merely expanding the character, they're blown up into massive edifices of CHARACTER that must be watched.  Or, at least they must be because the artist/author says so.  Instead of the characters naturally evolving into their new forms, they're mutated into what the artist wants them to be.  It's not that these characters didn't have the potential to be these new creatures, they did, but the artist is in a hurry and wants to tell the "grand epic" now rather than waiting another year of development.  Like cranking up the oven to cook something faster, the result is a blackened mess only a few crazy people like.

College Roomies from Hell suffered the same problems as it kept going.  It managed to avoid the Trauma side of the line for a long time, but as it went on, the Dramas became much more traumatic to the characters, and far less natural.  Often it felt completely forced and about then I stopped reading it.

Sluggy, on the other hand, has managed to stay out of the trap, somehow.  I suppose the constant shifting between drama and comedy that it does has helped, but also that there are frequent minor stories that help mold the characters between the big fights that keep any one of them from being overpowering.

How to avoid Artificial Traumas?  Think and take your time.  Unless your whole comic is written around a story, there's no reason why you can't delay your epic masterpieces a few months or years to get the characters in position to make the big jump. And if you really can't wait, scale back on the epic or break it apart.  Odds are good you'll be pleasantly surprised.

Next week, I hope to cover that Newspaper Comic article I promised last week.

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