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Eric: Zen and Cartoon Characters


(From Nukees. Click the thumbnail for full sized fetishes!)

This got a full out snort from me, and that leads inexorably to talking about something a successful webcomic does: characterization.

There are a good number of cartoonists who think character development means adding layer upon layer of depth to their characters, taking a character of limited dimension and making them fuller, richer characters. Taking what was fun on one level and showing the reality beneath it.

Those cartoonists are wrong. They're going for "Cerebus" Syndrome and end up with "First and Ten" Syndrome instead.

Cerebus Syndrome refers to Dave Sim's epic, sometimes tragically flawed magnum opus, Cerebus the Aardvark. Cerebus started life as a parody of Conan the Barbarian starring an Earth-Pig born. Over time, it grew extremely complex, philosophical, and in many ways much much funnier. Then, Dave Sim went batshit crazy and Cerebus went straight to Hell, but that's for another day. People saw how Cerebus's humble roots could lead to glorious heights, and as cartoonists get bored with what they're doing, they decided to pull a Cerebus of their own. Sadly, nine times out of ten, they get "First and Ten Syndrome."

"First and Ten" was one of the earliest "made for HBO" television series, and bears about as much resemblance to "The Sopranos" as "American Pie" bears to "American Beauty." It was a tits-n-ass fest with football player stereotypes and the always 'fun' plot of having a woman own the team. Because women? And football? Gosh, that could never happen. It was light, frothy and fun, in an exploitive way for a couple of seasons.

And then, they decided to make it serious. O.J. Simpson came on board because at the time he was seen as inoffensive and earnest. The stereotypical coach became a browbeater who emotionally abused his assistant coach because he suspected the coach would leave. It tried to become dramatic -- in part because it's felt drama is easier to pull off than humor.

Well, I admit it's hard to find the Funny if you don't know what you're doing, but losing the Funny in exchange for 'character development' leaves pure schlock, untouched by new viewers who weren't interested in the comedy series, but alienating the existing fanbase. When the E True Hollywood Story is produced 20 years later, inevitably the "change of direction" is touted as the reason for the inevitable decline and failure. It is, in the end, extremely hard to do what Cerebus did. It is pathetically easy to do what First and Ten did.

Bleuel (a name that makes me think Darren "Gav" Bleuel is secretly Bleu-El, Superman's cousin from Krypton's west coast, where he used to play Kandorian Bebop) avoids the trap of "First and Ten" syndrome by not going for "Cerebus" Syndrome. Character development does occur in Nukees -- things happen and those things affect the characters, who grow. However, their essential natures remain the same. King Luca can be kidnapped for extended periods of time by Cecilia -- an act that ultimately broke him up with his beloved Duchess Suzy Gee -- but he remains King Luca, who leaps forth, holds sway over his domain, and accepts the fealty from underclassmen whom he also protects. So, when Cecilia seems deeply troubled, despite the fact that she's the reason his happiness was lost, King Luca leaps off to save her.

"Damsel in Distress Fetish" explains it nicely. With Funny. Luca remains recognizable. He remains fun. And the strip doesn't mistake 'growth' for 'increasingly morbid.'

And Danny is just plain Danny, and that's okay with me.

Posted by Eric Burns-White at August 25, 2004 1:04 PM

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