Thoughts on entertainment
Posted on August 14th, 2008
This is a long one, so I'll do those of you reading from LiveJournal a favor and cut it.

Recently I've been slowly developing my own webcomic idea and I've been poking around many webcomics I'd previously never heard about. As a result the topic of entertainment has been on the mind a lot, and as a direct result of that I noticed some things that need to be addressed. Well, addressed by my stuff; I don't have a say in what others enjoy.

To start off with, I should point out exactly what entertainment is: it's an escape from the everyday problems, everyday worries, the everyday grind itself. This escape is needed for a healthy mind.

It seems that many forms of media these days create an incomplete escape or simply a mirror of reality's troubles. The former does not resolve itself; it simply drags on the troubles as long as it can. The latter emphasizes the viewer's existing problems instead of giving the viewer a release from them. Thus the viewer's escape from worries now breeds worries of its own or simply makes them worse.

In older TV shows and comics, the situation was different: at the end of the episode the day's troubles had been dealt with, and status quo resumes as if the episode never happened. Sometimes elements of a story such as new characters or new gimmicks that were introduced during an episode reappear in later episodes. However, this does not upset the status quo; the audience merely knows more of the show's world than they knew before and the world continues as it always had.

Major shake ups of the status quo happen. Most seem to be poor decisions by the folks in charge like a change of target audience, a sudden need to "move with the times", a change of premise or just a cast change. From what I've seen, major changes like these are almost uniformly regarded as the point when the show jumped the shark. If it works, don't try to fix it; sadly people will still try.

One of the more prominent webcomic blogs is Websnark. I'm pointing them out because they have two very good names for two common major changes to a story's status quo. Both changes end in disaster nearly every time. These two changes are known as Cerebus Syndrome and First In Ten Syndrome.

In a Cerebus Syndrome a silly gag-a-day comic suddenly attempts to become serious by adding layers of depth to characters that were previously fairly one-dimensional. The end result is that the fun is lost: what was previously a simple two sided black-and-white scenario is now a big smear of gray with many different entangled sides. In rare cases this is workable: Sluggy Freelance is touted as an example. It takes a good writer and patience however, so most that attempt such a drastic change utterly fail.

The First in Ten Syndrome is the condition a comic has if it tried and failed to become serious via Cerebus Syndrome. What is left of the strip makes people wish it would just die quietly. Funky Winkerbean, Crankshaft and For Better or Worse come to mind, but they started off with multidimensional characters instead of one-dimensional characters and thus don't fit the bill for Cerebus Syndrome. They sure came awful close to First in Ten Syndrome however.

A few other things I've noticed on webcomics lately seem to show a problem with the author's imagination or writing ability. One of these problems is a plot that many comics I've been running across follow. The basic summary of the plot is that of a slew of video games: cast is out having a good time like normal folk until they discover a prophecy none of them knew anything about that places the fate of the universe on their heads because they and only they will defeat the dark overlord who plots to destroy everything that ever existed! Invariably the comic begins as a silly gag-a-day style strip, then this prophecy is revealed out of nowhere and things get serious. Shortly following that revelation, the cast of normal people are revealed to either be inhumanly talented martial artists or inhumanly skilled with super powerful weapons (swords, huge guns etc) that they just happened to be carrying this whole time.

The word "contrived" hardy seems to begin to describe it. It gets rather old after the fifth such comic. Also, stop and think a minute. Entertainment is supposed to be an escape. What's the main topic on the news right now? War. War with Iraq, war between Georgia and Russia etc. This world has enough wars against evil doers already; why focus on war against evil doers in entertainment? It defeats the purpose I think.

Another problem I'm seeing with web comics lately is that many of the ideas are stale references to movies. For example, there should be a support group for children that can see dead people; it's a common place malady online from the look of things.

Coming up with your own ideas is pretty easy: take the cast, put them in a jar, shake the jar a bit and see if they'll fight.

The last problem I'm seeing a lot of is sewage. A good comic doesn't need to be a tits and ass fest to get readers. On the same line of thinking, profanity shouldn't be every other word. Also, some topics (taking a crap, masturbation etc) tend towards offensive instead of funny. The skill I see in the artwork in many online comics doesn't come from tweens. Thus you have to be old enough to know better.

Simply put, people could do better. It's the fact that many never bother trying is the real tragedy.

If you stop and think of what web comics have been around from the 90's you'll see very little of any of the above problems. You'll also notice that there are few of them surviving. This is because natural selection works online. People will read the quality comics, and thus those are encouraged to keep going. Anyone with a net connection can retell the story of any video game using MS Paint. It takes effort to pull it off.

If you're going to do a web comic, stop and think about your idea and you'll see countless ways for it to develop. Just by planning ahead carefully you'll move ahead of the pack. Never lose sight of the premise, and something fun should develop. But never choose an option just because every other lemming has gone that route. Choose it because it will work better for your story.

And leave the serious stuff to Mary Worth, Rex Morgan and Apartment 3 G -- serious drama comics. An awful lot of people dislike those comics, and it's no surprise: entertainment is about escape from the daily mundane, not a glorification of it.

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