Shine a Light

Today it’s about semi-autobiographical comics – fiction pieces that depict things close to the author, drawing heavily upon their immediate concerns, small press almost by definition, but not featuring the author as a character or claiming to depict their actual life. They loot freely from themselves and their kin and acquaintances, but put it into just enough of a fictional blender to be its own thing. I’ve been meaning to post about them for a long time, but it didn’t gel until a bit ago, along with the thinking that prompted my previous post.

My perhaps-questionable love of definitions forces me to set aside the semi-fictional comics which do feature the author directly – Colin Upton’s Big Thing, David Chelsea in Love, It’s a Good Life if You Don’t Weaken, Cancer Vixen, and obviously, American Splendor. But you can see them just over that perhaps-arbitrary line from here, quite easily, and a lot of the stylistic details I talk about in a minute apply to them too.

It’s a role-playing design post too, so be warned. I’m pretty wrapped up with that issue right now, even more so than the past months of blogging here would indicate – see the Patreon link for more about why and how.

The titles closest to me are indisputably 90s and tied very much to my own before-and-after thirty existence, including Dykes to Watch Out For, Wendel, Hate, Alec: The King Canute Crowd, Box Office Poison, and Minimum Wage [Beg the Question], all of which I’ve posted about on-and-off throughout the blog; you can probably best find them through the Category “The 90s me.” I mentioned I was writing a game on/about/inspired by this, right? Here’s a bit about the comics from there:

Slice-of-life homeliness, the engagement with day to day routine. It’s mostly about what this person or these people habitually do, and nothing is too personal or too minor to depict. The effect may seem trivial or even pointless, but over time, the characters’ lives are illumined and grounded, and above all intimately compared with the reader’s. Sex and nudity are the more subversive for being as matter of fact and incidental as everything else.

Creative room to breathe. You write and draw what you want, with no rules of any other medium. There’s depth when you want, whether introspective, social, or illuminating the past; changes in the characters’ lives when you want; and focus on whichever character you want, adding or abandoning them without explanation. And when you don’t, there’s no rush or need to impose change and drama.

The joy of timing. The stories or strips ultimately focus on critical or illuminating dialogue, but as an emergent property rather than as planned gags. This is the art of the naturalistic punchline. It happens rarely, but when it does, look out. The overall effect combines a thoroughly enjoyable sense of improv with – sometimes – a solid mastery of short-term storyline.

Utter freedom of your opinion. The genre respects no boundaries and is famous for deconstructing, leveling, lampooning, humanizing, and exposing the author’s own chosen identity politics.

Ongoing, freewheeling surrealism, flights of fancy, and messing with the medium.

  • Time is nothing but silly putty. Storylines hop into the past and future without warning; time speeds by in decades in two pages or slows to a few seconds for twenty pages.
  • Art styles shift by subject, ranging from crazy expressionism to dot-by-dot photorealism, or God knows what, all grounded in the friendly cartooning of most of the work.
  • Bizarre events and imagery break bounds between the depicted fiction and the content of a character’s mind.
  • Fourth wall techniques abound, as the characters speak to the reader, criticize and occasionally revolt against the author, respond to interviews from some omniscient source, and generally violate all rules of ordinary fiction.

These stories are created using aggressively underground comic strip thinking, for which every new installment is its own thing, written in and for the now. If, in the long run, this turns out to be a bigger story or even a graphic novel, then fine, but that wasn’t the driving aesthetic behind most of its production.

I can hear you out there. Oh! Like Seinfeld! “About nothing,” I get it! … Aarrghh. If I had a bat with a bent nail in it, I’d be using it right now. “About nothing” was a successful marketing slogan. It masked the show’s consistent focus on the effectiveness of lying, and the challenging content which permitted that effectiveness to vary. There’s a certain truth to the analogy, insofar as Seinfeld was, mildly, to situation-comedy as these comics are, more pointedly, to the most mainstream comics, by which I mean the broadest swath, especially newspaper strips.

However, these comics break with the TV model via the medium’s marginal status, i.e., freedom to speak. They are shot through and through with economics and the characters’ understanding that they’ve somehow landed in adulthood and job-world in a deeply Kierkegaard “Fear and Trembling” sense.

How did I get into the world? Why was I not asked about it and why was I not informed of the rules and regulations but just thrust into the ranks as if I had been bought by a peddling shanghaier of human beings? How did I get involved in this big enterprise called actuality? Why should I be involved? Isn’t it a matter of choice? And if I am compelled to be involved, where is the manager – I have something to say about this. Is there no manager? To whom shall I make my complaint?

That’s the real tie-in to my post Generation who, which is understandably in place due to the generational overlap between me and many of the authors. Not only the stories’ content but these kinds of comics wouldn’t even exist except as an artifact of the socio-economic dynamics I described there.

Click for source page

Another feature is the kind of character development that seems to occur merely in the doing, rather than through Swiss-watch artifice. The content undergoes inadvertent growth from gags and strips to stories, as the partial author avatar shifts into their own person. (Pity the author, like Bechdel, who has to gently dodge the fans’ love-affair with Mo’s early nuttiness and bleed that onto her.) The series mostly begin with the characters in their early twenties, but they often age with the author, or characters are added who reflect the author’s current age. Sometimes, and simultaneously, as the author becomes more skilled and, as I see it, more artistically ambitious and self-revealing, the stories include more material about the characters’ past so their childhood and teen selves get some attention.

Death is absolutely, always present in the stories, striking in its randomness and variety of cause. It’s almost invisible until you look again; they are shot through with lethal accidents, senescence, suicide, and murder. It’s markedly different from sex, in a complex way. You might see them as equivalent, as sex is also ubiquitous, and also random and various. But it’s not the same. If I mentally relax a little and think of all the titles at once, they unequivocally depict an unbuttoned and varying depiction of sexuality in tandem with everything else in life, but a disquisition on death’s disruption of all those things as a collective. In them, death doesn’t get adjusted and internalized and matured, and it is decidedly not a cute chick.

Religion’s there too, and blessedly, it’s wonderfully normal, just the way people do it, with all the casual-life ambiguities and criss-crosses about values and identity. It’s in all of them, but I give honorable mention to Minimum Wage, in which Rob’s “little man upon the stair” religious background turns out to be far more central than you’ll notice at first. Characteristically for these comics, it’s brought up early and brutally as hell – “You’re Jewish enough for the ovens,” snarks an also-Jewish pal after Rob berates him for being too much so – and then only really operates as a plot feature because it makes sense, not because anyone spells it out for you. The whole story, after all, is about whether you get married for children or not – and the crux hits upon the nigh-simultaneous funerals of Sylvia’s grandma and Rob’s mom. It’s about a Catholic Italian-American and a Jewish German-American, both entirely secular, sex-positive, and non-identifying with their family histories, who only think they’ve found escape from their backgrounds in each other.

Now for the game I did. It’s one of four intimately linked games about religion I’ve designed but never taken through late-stage playtesting about publication: Estimated Prophet, Shine Light Cathedral, and Daemon Lover. Shine a Light is the one I’m talking about here; you can get it as a free download through the link. It focuses on observance, as I wrote about in Everyday religion and Super good. As with the other three, the song it’s named after is important:

It’s also nothing but this precise sort of comic done – not emulated, done – through the role-playing medium. I’ve messed with what a “session” is to reflect the ambiguity between strip and story; I’ve focused on coming-of-age; I’ve decreed that real-player childhood religious background is invoked; and – um – I kind of made up a heretical religion for one of the characters to have, both rooted strongly in real religious history and profoundly at variance with the Abrahamic tradition in terms of death.

I really like it. Playtesting has showed me that the “guts,” the functions of the cards and talking – the diagram reproduced here – works very well. It’s also showed me that the initial buy-in needs some easier steps, and faces a considerable barrier in the hobby-gamer conceptual habit of thinking the religion-content is setting. At least if we’re thinking about this as a publishable game intended to inspire and appeal more broadly, the approach I’ve taken to that latter would probably have to get scrapped.

But maybe I don’t want it to. These four games may suit best as the opposite of the conventional wisdom about role-playing design, that it’s supposed to expand beyond “play it with me.” That might be analogous to finding some way for Box Office Poison or whatever to become a franchise, a Universe, a mine for computer gaming and movie-making. I hesitate profoundly to contemplate making them “accessible.” Maybe “play it with me” is what these games are written and designed for, with outside instances – like the evidently kick-ass playtest of Estimated Prophet in Italy – being a bonus.

Links: my website material about these games

Next column: The whites

About Ron Edwards

Game author, publisher, consultant, teacher

Posted on November 19, 2017, in Absent friends, The 90s me and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. I’ve been following your rpg posts and this piece was just as engrossing. It confirms to me that it’s your writing style and your lucidity that keeps me coming back.

    I was fascinated by your analysis of Seinfeld: dead on, even though I’d never looked at it that way. It opens up a new perspective on that series and perhaps explains the subversive vibe I could never get a handle on.

    And this part resonated for me: “The joy of timing. The stories or strips ultimately focus on critical or illuminating dialogue, but as an emergent property rather than as planned gags. This is the art of the naturalistic punchline. It happens rarely, but when it does, look out.” Truly, this is when writing soars, but it’s not something I’ve been able to understand until I read that. This approach at first comes across as very egocentric, like a very vain style of writing. But it’s true that the product of this method is more rewarding than a planned gag; when the joke emerges naturally from a complex secondary world that has been created, one without a specific agenda, one seemingly without a deadline or even a goal, it creates a more genuine laugh.

    Recently I was reading about how Philip K. Dick wrote Ubik. He said that he wrote the first twelve pages and then let his subconscious take over, so he was just as surprised as the readers as to how it unfolded. I wondered if the creators of these titles operated the same way. I checked out Wikipedia, and Box Office Poison has 600 pages to it.

    So I read an issue of Box Office Poison (thank you for introducing me). I found this in the creator’s “Box Office Post-Script” comments on the last page: “I have no idea why I gave Sherman’s room such an odd configuration…It’s possible I had a future story in mind that I abandoned, something that happened a lot, especially in the early issues…I usually wrote and drew one page at a time, with a vague idea of what would happen next. I liked the improvisatory nature of working that way, essentially reading the story one page ahead of the audience.” (Box Office Poison Color Comics #1 from IDW, pg. 27)

    Liked by 2 people

    • That’s a hell of a nice comment. I greatly appreciate your kind words.

      If my book about evolution and Doctor Moreau had taken off, I would have written a second one about mass-media stories, mainly movies, but with a nod to certain TV shows, based on a class I invented and taught for about 20 years. The Seinfeld analysis comes from there, including a classroom episode-creation exercise in which you choose one from each:

        – Choose two protagonists from the four (NB: George almost always lies, Kramer almost never lies, Jerry lies strategically but feels bad and tries not to, Elaine does the same but thinks nothing of it)
        – Choose two of the following, one for each protagonist you chose (two of the same is OK): family, work, romance – each one copes with a relevant crisis in his or her category by either lying or not lying – note that each protagonist is capable of the full range of response, it’s a matter of what’s typical for them
        – For each one, provide the response of one, two, or three of the others – whether they think it’s right or wrong, what they propose for the currently-conflicted one to do next
        – For each one, say whether it works out well or badly – significantly, and atypically for TV, it can go either way regardless of whether he or she lied or told the truth

        We ended up with some pretty good episodes, allowing for the script doctor to hammer out the intersection of the plots and the ensuing comedy outcomes.

        Regarding the “joy of timing” issue, this ties into something I’m preparing as a presentation within my Patreon right now. It’s a matter of the author experience vs. the audience experience concerning “when is it a story,” and also the question of how much the latter is permitted into the former.

        The tricky thing is that a story is either good or not based fully on whether it is a story [this being separate from whether it’s a story I personally like or find morally acceptable]. And that “is” has nothing to do with how the author brought it about, or experienced bringing it about. It could have been utterly mechanical and by-the-tropes, or “atchoo! oh look, a story,” or anything in between. Fandom, scholarship, and connoisseurship overlap greatly in romanticizing a spontaneous, ineffable, unexplainable “moment” the author experiences, and thus those authors who tend to be unreflective or undeliberate for a lot of the process quickly learn to play that up, or even pretend to have been super-spontaneous. Historically, I think this has led to a lot of fog, obscuring the interesting fact that for every single story ever, its creator began without one and ended up with one.

        There came a point, evident in reading, when the content of Box Office Poison acquires more structure and more subtle plot development. For example, the shark-like lawyer (and never-apprehended murderer) who cuts the deal with Mr. Flavor got to him long, long before any of the main characters knew about it; Robinson was clearly past the “spaghetti on the wall” point by then no matter how spontaneously various more obvious scenes at that same point seemed or played out.

        The same goes for a lot of widely-repeated “this author is so spontaneous” topics. Roger Zelazny said he didn’t have any idea where he was going with the first few chapters of Nine Princes in Amber. That’s fine – but I’ve noted how often people seem to think that applies to the entirety of the novel, indeed the whole Amber series, not just its opening bits. They also seem to miss how much of that opening content and tone are abandoned as the material became more settled.

        Anyway, I’m not dissing the spontaneity, toss-it-in process – far from it, I think it’s a piece of how it’s done, period. And if that state of mind is maintained for a while, as things gel and one ends up concentrating on this-or-that character or set of events, that’s cool too. I agree with you that it’s a curiously intimate and rewarding experience for the reader to be included, inadvertently, when that side of the creative process is more evident.

        I think the part I’m really trying to bring forward in the post is this: that no matter what, in these kinds of comics I’m talking about, the authors feel no need – zip, zilch, nada – to leave that state, and only do so – and they do! – when utterly compelled by the material. Mo wasn’t the main character of Dykes to Watch Out For, initially … and hey, I forgot something, I was planning to include Doonesbury in this post. Goddammit – that was actually supposed to be a big deal; now I have to write it up as a Part 2. My present point being that Mike Doonesbury ended up being less important than B.D. – Zonker too, but B.D. proved to have the most staying power. Also worth pointing out that both Doonesbury and For Better or For Worse visibly suffered in phases when they became “too much plot.”

        Liked by 1 person

      • I’m super excited about this! I can’t believe someone got to take-apart-and-rebuild Seinfeld like that.
        Also, I’m not sure if this is related, but I’ve always wondered about and been fascinated by the relationship between plot and extension, and frequency. I can’t even put it into words properly, but the differences between novels that were published by chapters as the author was writing them, vs the ones that aren’t, or the way monday-to-friday soap operas (you guys got those right?) have multiple parallel plots and a big cast of characters to fill the time, vs a weekly drama/sitcom or a movie have only a handful of characters and A and B plots. Since I haven’t been able to think clearly about this I may be veering off topic, mixing things up, but I’m eager to read the future “author/audience experience” post.

        Also, I guess you (Ron) are also treading the line between what’s a story and what’s not? Or, should I say, these comics do? I’m sorry I haven’t read them, but from your description it sounds like they start like comic strips, like Peanuts or Calvin & Hobbes, and then they start developing recurrencies and plot. It’s interesting to me from a comics studies point of view because, at least in Argentina, comic strips have a much wider cultural penetration than comics. Or, as we say, Humor Gráfico vs Historieta. Imagine if you will a culture in which, when you try to tell someone you’re reading something like Spider-Man, their only experience with something similar is Garfield, and The Family Circus.

        I’m playing up my naiveté – I know Harvey Pekar’s cartoons aren’t the same as Peanuts, or at least I’ve seen the movie American Splendor. But I do suspect the “thing” that’s going on is not so simple as to posit a continuum, with The Family Circus in one end, then Garfield and Peanuts very close by, then Calvin & Hobbes, all these semi-autobiographical comics in the middle, and Spider-Man and (say) Maus on the other end.

        Also, lastly, I’m personally concerned that I can give scriptwriting classes for comics but I don’t have a clue about doing comic strips. Yet I’m a good stand up comedian – and Instagram video comedian as well. I wish I could explain myself, I don’t get how I can write jokes-with-no story for stand up but not for “sequential art”. (Sorry if it sounds bourgeois but it’s a mess to talk about comedy so close to the term “comics”.)

        Hm. I find it very suspicious that I just wrote “jokes-with-no-story” so carelessly, as if I was sure that was a thing. It’s like this unexamined notion I get sometimes that story “doesn’t matter” or is “an excuse” in genres like comedy, porn, horror and musical. (Action too?) There’s something there.

        Sorry if I ramble. I found this exchange between you two very inspiring.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Nice. Yes, I agree that the writing process is often misrepresented and/or sensationalized. Dick’s comments are suspect. Again, that’s why I like this blog. It illuminates foggy concepts like this. I’m sure writers struggle with whether they are planning enough in advance, outlining, etc. or whether they re flying by the seat of their pants too much. This entry provides affirmation that either is okay, because, as you said, “for every single story ever, its creator began without one and ended up with one.”

    That would be a nice quote to have above a writing desk, I think.

    I enjoyed your whole response above, but I am forced to stop here!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I am looking forward to your Doonesbury post, and I would love to hear more about the ideas you would have put into your second book about mass media stories. Perhaps you could come back to those every few weeks! I suppose it draws you away from your original thesis, but maybe there’s some way you can weave it in as you have done this time around.

    I think there’s a wide audience for this topic. You mentioned that you were preparing a “joy of timing” presentation along these lines within your Patreon. I think you are on the right track with that and I am definitely part of the target audience who will be interested in that presentation!


  4. I just read it, and I enjoyed it immensely. I particularly liked your interpretation of what “theme” is; yet again, you’re grappling with concepts that I’ve been mulling over for years, and you’re giving me new insights. I’ll have to dig deeper into that blog now!

    And, for those who haven’t read that post, there is also a great (and, thankfully, sincere) analysis of the original Die Hard movie.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Brian T Renninger

    The Jane Austin title for Seinfeld is Manners and Mannerisms.


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