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Eric: Stealth Pathos


(From Count Your Sheep. Click on the thumbnail for full sized conflicted emotional response!)

So. Let's talk about execution.

Execution is the pacing of a specific strip's joke from the first to last panel. It's how the strip itself works, discrete from the rest of the strips. Lots of strips that have fantastic pacing -- the development of the strip from one day to the next -- have only adequate execution. Some rare strips have fantastic execution but the pacing is off. (Heck, while I don't think anyone thinks my own writing execution is fantastic, I'm guilty myself of putting too much into execution and not enough into pacing, over on Gossamer Commons. Hopefully the next month will show improvement on that regard. Not that it's relevant to this snark.)

Well, Count Your Sheep is gag-a-day, so pacing isn't hugely relevant. We don't typically have continuity evolving as things go on. We have a premise and then the Funny is Brought. That, of course, makes execution vital. And today's strip is an absolutely perfect example of it.

Wait, you might say, it's not all that funny. And that's true. It's clever, and makes you smile a bit, but not laugh out loud. But that's not what's being executed here.

You read the strip. And have the basic joke strike you. "You say grades are an investment into the future. Let's cash it in now!" Heh. Cute.

Then you stop and reconsider. Katie is turning her mother's platitudes around. There's a statement being made here. Heh. Neat, and a little buried. Nicely do--

HOLY CRAP! We knew the family was in trouble but they're at the point of having to pawn the television?

And then the next level of subtext hits. Katie is concerned about losing the television, because she's a child and the television is huge. But she knows that they need money. She's actually earnest in her offer, here. She doesn't personally value the grades, but she accepts they're valuable. She does value the television. It makes sense to her.

And yet, the last sentence kind of punches you in the heart. "Please don't take the TV," she says in a smaller font and ergo a smaller voice. This is an entreaty. A prayer. And you want to Paypal these people some cash. This means so much to Katie.

Now look at the perspective. We're seeing things through Laurie's eyes. Katie is looking up to us. Offering an A+ -- an A+, when Katie's been having trouble academically. (That bit I said about there not being continuity? I lied. Nyah.) She's offering up proof she worked really really hard to do something she didn't care about, but Laurie -- and we -- do. Maybe she thinks the test can be pawned and maybe she doesn't, but underneath it all, as clear as day, we're hearing a little girl saying I was very, very good. Please don't take my television away. I'm sorry. I'll be good. I SWEAR I'll be good.

It's absolutely heartbreaking. It really is. Because you know Laurie doesn't want to take the television away.

I'm told by my mother that once my older sister got sick, when she was a little, little girl. And the whole time, in fever and in pain, she promised Mom she'd be good. Promised. Because to a little girl, the grownup is the giver of pleasure and punishment, to teach you the rules. It was heartbreaking to know that you would give anything to make that sick girl feel better, but you couldn't.

The further down you go in these three panels, the more depth there is to find. I didn't mine it completely out here. I could go on. But the essential point is clear.

This strip -- this little strip with the joke you've heard before -- is executed nearly perfectly.

Adrian Ramos gets a biscuit. A tasty, tasty biscuit.

Posted by Eric Burns-White at May 4, 2005 12:38 PM

Comments

Comment from: kirabug posted at May 4, 2005 2:02 PM

Thing the first: this particular snark is the best example I could've possibly made to my husband on "So what gives this Eric guy the right to comment on comics, anyway?" Very well done (and well timed too!) thanks!

Thing the second: Uhm... for some reason the navigational linkie thingies at the top of this article go:

Had I known this yesterday, that snark would have run today | Main | Hello my friend, won't you tell me your name?

Movable Type appears to have looped back to the beginning at the top - highly confusing - had me wondering whether you were starting yet another journal. If you're seeing this weirdness too, you might want to check on it...

Comment from: Dave Van Domelen posted at May 4, 2005 2:17 PM

Hm, connection refused to the strip. Could it be that you've snarkdotted them?

Comment from: Eric Burns posted at May 4, 2005 2:26 PM

The day Websnark can slashdot Keenspot is the day I start figuring out a business model.

Comment from: quiller posted at May 4, 2005 3:30 PM

I think you are right. It is the Pathos that adds the flavor.

Count your sheep is a funny comic, it is a cute comic, it is a sweet comic. But what makes it special is that it is also the blues. It is about desperation like this last one, it is about poignant sadness like the grave visit, and it is about loneliness. There are only 3 actual characters in the entire comic, one of them is imaginary. I suppose a 4th character may be the dead husband in a "present by the vacuum he's left" way. In a way, Ship is the only friend their own age for both of them as he is simultaneously a peer to both. And, of course, the everpresent blue motif heightens the effect.

Comment from: GrimRX posted at May 4, 2005 5:32 PM

I commented something to this Snark's effect on the Message board for CYS, though my comments were shorter and, well, much less descriptive with what I saw.

Still, you're right, it does make you want to paypal them what cash you have extra.

Comment from: Zaq posted at May 4, 2005 8:24 PM

Back in high school, I had a rule (one which I was often, in fact, almost always, forced to break... I suppose it was more of a sort of a mental, If-I-Ran-The-World type ideal), for which my English teachers always showed a flagrant disregard. That rule was "Never write more about the work than the author did." Writing a five-page critical article on a short story barely two pages long always seemed ludicrous to me, and I could never even begin to fathom what the people who could write pages and pages about what a little ten-line poem "meant" (I confess, I still hold no great regard for poetry. Sorry.) were thinking. If you want to talk about some work of literature, go for it. That's what makes art great; the fact that you can think about it. You want to expand on a point, knock yourself out. But to talk about a piece to such an extent that your thoughts exceed the artist's, well, that always struck me as a little weird. I suppose I always took it as you claiming to know more than they did, and if they wanted to have said more, they could have (There's absolutely nothing wrong with bringing up subtle points, of course, and discussing them for a bit. That's good stuff. They were subtle for a reason, but they were also there for a reason, and if you want to bring them to the surface for a while, that's great. But don't drone on and on and on about it, giving it way more thought than the original creator ever did!).

Well, I have to say that this pretty much shattered that little notion of mine. Sure, I realized that there was a very small joke hiding a very large amount of sadness embodied in this strip when I read it (before reading the corresponding snark), but reading Eric's comments just made it very real for me. Beautifully said, Eric. (And, of course, Mr. Ramos as well, I might add.)

Comment from: RMG posted at May 4, 2005 10:25 PM

I've known about CYS for a while now, and I've occasionally checked it maybe every couple of months or so on the basis of it being adorable.

But this snark made me finally read through the archives and decide to follow it regularly. For what starts off as yet another "kid and his/her imaginary friend" strip, there's a real sense of melancholy woven in. The strips at the dad's grave made me want to cry.

Comment from: Paul Gadzikowski posted at May 4, 2005 10:28 PM

I'm afraid I'm going to have to change my Websnark-reading habits. This is a great essay on a great three-panel cartoon. But because I tend to check here for new articles every few hours, yet read my webcomics in several shifts - all right, trawls - throughout the day, I'll sometimes see articles here on the day's installment of one of my comics I haven't read yet today. When I go ahead and read the comic and the article anyway, I'm treated to a good, often great cartoon and a page or seven of well-written analysis in one lump. The problem with this is that I'm left with no opportunity to form a reaction of my own to this great cartoon before I assimilate Eric's reaction. It happened today, it happened yesterday, and it happened when Randy ran down a redhead in the road. It's happened more often than this, I'm certain, but these cases stand out because in each of these cases I've been robbed of my own spontaneously-formed reaction when I'd've liked very much to have my own. This is no fault of Eric, of course (no one is doing this robbing but myself), and in fact is quite contrary to his purpose in putting his opinion out for us to read - how could there be any worthwhile discussion if we were all accidentally programming ourselves to have the opinion that was being held up for discussion? I guess I just have to save Websnark for the end of the day from now on, and read my evening trawl early enough that if Eric's got one or seven pages of comment hooks it doesn't mean I'll be up past my bedtime.

Eric, please, you must use this power only for good.

Comment from: toddandpenguin posted at May 5, 2005 12:51 AM

Adrian and I are in a contest to see who can be more depressing. :0)

Seriously, though, CYS is an awesome strip and Adrian is a Very nice guy. If you read my interview with him at Comixpedia, we talk a bit about depression. We had a lot of fun talking about sad things.

http://www.comixpedia.com/modules.php?op=modload&name=News&file=article&sid=1819&mode=thread&order=0&thold=0&POSTNUKESID=f5b326a3f3a4eb13fa8b86ea6956aea2

Comment from: Plaid Phantom posted at May 5, 2005 12:55 AM

Y'know, I was in a good mood until I read this.

On another note: don't read this and listen to the slow, sad parts of the Star Trek: Nemesis soundtrack.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some tears to laugh through.

Comment from: Steve Mollmann posted at May 5, 2005 1:21 AM

Oh, thanks Eric. Because what I really needed was yet another webcomic to read.

Comment from: JackSlack posted at May 12, 2005 4:17 AM

Heh. I drop Something Positive from my lineup a few days back, and then I start reading Count Your Sheep.

Damn. I'm sold. This is the best thing I've been reading in a long damn while.

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