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Eric: Actual webcomic snarkage, sans hot babe model pictures. I know. I'm sad too.

(From Help Desk. Click on the thumbnail for full sized easy way out!)

Folks who know me -- and I think some of you do -- know I don't care for metahumor.

It's not that there's anything innately wrong with metahumor, mind. I mean, these are comic strips. And folks have been making referential notes back to the comic strip they're in at least as early as Krazy Kat, and it wouldn't surprise me if the Yellow Kid's shirt had a few comic related phrases too. The problem is, there seems to be a limited number of ways in which metahumor is actually used in comic strips.

Understand, by the way, that "fans" of Unfettered by Talent will remember that strip was wholly based on Metahumor. Long time readers also know my opinions of Unfettered by Talent, so don't take that as evidence I'm a hypocrite. Take that as evidence that I come by my opinions honestly. And also that Unfettered by Talent sucked.

Anyway -- you have the metahumor strip where the cartoonist is running late so he cuts and pastes for four panels. You have the metahumor strip where the characters bemoan their fate for being comic strip characters in the first place -- typically involving an argument with the cartoonist. You have the metahumor strip where the characters use their comic strip status as a Deus Ex Machina to get out of a situation. And, you have the metahumor strip where the joke is the artist is A) Lazy, B) Incompetent or C) Lazy and Incompetent, and so resolves the situation off panel and moves on.

Which is where we are today with Help Desk. And yet, I don't mind it so much.

See, the key to doing a metahumor strip is execution. All too often, writers who use metahumor think that the very fact it's metahumor will make it fall-down funny and avant garde, and it's just not true. We've seen it. Everyone has seen it. It's cliche. Ho ho, hah hah hah. If you go into it knowing that your audience has seen it, however, you can bring the tools to actually make the strip funny. I mean, it's not like 99% of all comic strip humor isn't cliche.

Christopher Wright does pretty good execution here. We get setup, we get hook, we get punchline. The punchline is at least slightly indirect, and the overall humor fits Help Desk well. It's metahumor, but it doesn't make me want to stick my head into a belt sander.

And any morning where my comics trawl doesn't make me want to stick my head into a belt sander has to count as a good one, right?

Posted by Eric Burns-White at July 11, 2005 10:04 AM


Comment from: Bo Lindbergh posted at July 11, 2005 12:21 PM

Speaking of UbT, I hope you don't mind my using it for a joke of the absurd juxtaposition variety.

Comment from: kirabug posted at July 11, 2005 12:25 PM

How often does your trawl make you want to stick your head in a belt sander?

Comment from: Christopher B. Wright posted at July 11, 2005 12:28 PM

The sad truth is that when I sat down to do today's strip I realized I was sick and tired of this storyline... and I wanted an easy out. Ending it properly would have taken a few more days, and I couldn't bring myself to go on...

So I fell back on my one of my two great loves in webcomics, metahumor. I admit it, I *love* metahumor, and breaking the fourth wall, and pretty much all those things you're not supposed to do in order to be taken seriously. Which... ah... explains a few things, now that I mention it, but that's beside the point...

Ultimately I blame Moonlighting for my fascination with metahumor. And Eugene Ionesco. Absurdist theatre as a whole, really, but Ionesco in particular.

My other great love in webcomics? The beat panel. I overuse that, too...

Oh yeah, and... holy shit! I got snarked!

Comment from: SeanH posted at July 11, 2005 1:09 PM

Synchronicity - I see the beginning of a metahumour storyline over at Nothing Nice to Say today...

Comment from: Dave Van Domelen posted at July 11, 2005 1:11 PM

You missed one. There's the metahumor where the physical environment of the strip is taken literally (such as various interactions with the panel borders seen in places like 9 Chickweed Lane, or when someone can't recognize a character when she changes her hairdo because the hair is all that distinguishes the female characters, etc). It's different from the deus ex machina type, and tends towards the absurdist.

Comment from: J.(Channing)Wells posted at July 11, 2005 1:13 PM

Yes! Christopher Wright, you have made me feel less alone in this cold, dark world! I'm glad there's someone else out there who cites the metafictional aspects of "Moonlighting" as a formative influence to their own writing. Now I can pretend like I'm not weird for a while.

Comment from: Christopher B. Wright posted at July 11, 2005 1:24 PM

I think using me as an example of why you're not weird might be a mistake...

Comment from: Crashlander posted at July 11, 2005 1:31 PM

God, I *hate* metahumour in comics. Absolutely despise it. There's only ever one reason it gets used and that's because the cartoonist is being lazy. You should *never* have your characters break character *ever*, it ruins the world you've built for them and takes their voice away. There should be a law goddammit!

Comment from: Christopher B. Wright posted at July 11, 2005 1:35 PM

If there was law it would only encourage more of us to break it.

Comment from: Paul Southworth posted at July 11, 2005 1:45 PM

I agree with Crashlander. Self-aware humor (I refuse to use THAT term) more often than not is clunky, unfunny, and comes off as amateurish in my opinion. I don't know if I've ever used it, but if I have, I apologize to myself. (I did think this Help Desk comic was funny, though. So go figure) :)

Comment from: Paul Gadzikowski posted at July 11, 2005 2:02 PM

I have believed that metahumor must be used with restraint ever since The Great Muppet Caper.

However, I use the beat panel often enough that since Eric recently decried its overuse I've been concerned that I overuse it. This concern hasn't seemed to actually affect any lessening of my usage. But I could stop any time I wanted. Really.

Comment from: SeanH posted at July 11, 2005 2:25 PM

I think metahumour was perfected by Monty Python.

"Suddenly, the cartoonist suffered a fatal heart attack..."

Comment from: Brendan posted at July 11, 2005 2:49 PM

To be honest, I had to go back and check whether UbT was focused on metahumour; what I remembered from it was the argument over flavouring green tea.

Comment from: Dave Van Domelen posted at July 11, 2005 3:06 PM

Crashlander: but what if the metahumor is PART of the characters? Going back to UbT, the main character knows he's badly drawn, with a head like a football. That's part of who he is. He isn't *just* drawn badly, he really looks like that.

Comment from: 32_footsteps posted at July 11, 2005 3:14 PM

Man, this is making me feel pity for metahumor. I mean, it's like any other brand of humor - it can be done well and it can be done poorly. Sure, it's easy to do poorly, but that isn't a reason to dismiss it entirely. It just means we have more cause to celebrate when it's done right.

This comic, for instance... well, I wouldn't say it had me rolling in the aisles, but it wasn't terribly done. So you shouldn't hate it just because it uses one overused type of humor.

Comment from: Kristofer Straub posted at July 11, 2005 3:17 PM

It's tragic that now the highest level metahumor can aspire to is "It didn't annoy the bejeezus out of me to read it." (Actually it is not tragic. Metahumor is practically only used as a laziness-demanded escape hatch.)

Comment from: Christopher B. Wright posted at July 11, 2005 3:33 PM

Kris, you say that like it's a *bad* thing...

Comment from: miyaa posted at July 11, 2005 3:40 PM

Laziness escape hatch? It's like one of every eight plots on Real Life Comics involves metahumor.

Comment from: SeanH posted at July 11, 2005 4:34 PM

Kris, isn't the premise of CxN metahumour? I mean, Chex runs the strip, right?

Comment from: Paul Southworth posted at July 11, 2005 4:47 PM

Checkerboard Nightmare is an exception to the rule, in my opinion, because everything it DOES is self-aware. So the self-awareness doesn't intrude on the illusion, because it IS the illusion.


Comment from: larksilver posted at July 11, 2005 4:58 PM

I like Metahumor, personally.. when it's done well. Just like every other humor device out there, it can be handled poorly and leave you.. well.. if not wanting to put your head under a belt sander, then at least wishing you had the time back you wasted reading/watching it.

It's not like it's "Dude, Where's My Car?" bad or anything.. at least, not if it's done well.

But then, maybe I shouldn't be commenting here. I am overly fond of puns and corny jokes on occasion too. I wouldn't want to live there, but man they're fun and silly once in a while. As is metahumor. ehhe

Comment from: gwalla posted at July 11, 2005 5:04 PM

Metahumor has been done well: Checkerboard Nightmare and Framed! both depend on it. However, most often it's just laziness, or an inability to think of anything funny. And the "Hi! Welcome to the comic. I'm your main character. Shoot, now I have to think of something funny to do! Ha ha!" opening to so many webcomics is the epitome of lameness. It virtually guarantees that the comic is never going to be worth reading, since the cartoonist is incapable of recognizing that they've written something terrible and clich»d.

Comment from: Kristofer Straub posted at July 11, 2005 5:05 PM

CxN is metahumor for sure, but the difference is that, often times webcartoonists use metahumor as the end of the line, whereas I have tried to use it to do other things.

In other words, the kind of metahumor I dislike is when the characters go "we're in a comic!" and that that "revelation" is supposed to be where all the novelty becomes from. As if the reader had never, ever seen characters that KNOW they're fictional before. That was way more prevalent like three years ago. I don't have a problem with occasional use.

Comment from: Kate Sith posted at July 11, 2005 5:09 PM

It's not like it's "Dude, Where's My Car?" bad or anything..

::sad face::

Comment from: Christopher B. Wright posted at July 11, 2005 5:31 PM

The question isn't "have the readers ever seen characters that KNOW they're fictional before?"

The question is: "will the readers be willing to see it AGAIN?"

The answer, from my perspective, is a fairly emphatic "YES!". So long as the audience is willing to suspend disbelief, you can get away with just about anything...

As I said earlier, I love metahumor gags... and my experience has been that my audience tends to like them as well. Two story arcs that went over particularly well when I did them are metahumor based:

The first, When Bad Computers Get Worse, was based on a three month stretch of my life when just about every computer I owned but one died due an attempt to network a printer. It started and ended with metahumor commentary from the characters.

The second, Schroedinger's Plot, was done because shortly after posting a previous comic I was concerned that it had contradicted something I'd already set up a day or two before... and I used the Schroedinger's Cat thought experiment to mock my own inattentiveness by calling attention to the plot continuity error, to goof off, endulge in silliness, and buy myself time to come up with an out. Both storylines were well-received. I was enormously pleased with some of the response I got from the Schroedinger's Plot storyline.

So in summation, it doesn't really matter how cheap or overused the device is. What matters is how it will be received by your audience. If you enjoy it and your audience enjoys it, it's a win.

Comment from: Quellan posted at July 11, 2005 6:25 PM

Personally I'm quite fond of metaplot for lack of a better term. When the cartoonist becomes a characters in a certain sense and the dynamic between creator and created is explored.

The best examples of this that I can think of are Tailsteak's 1/0 and parts of Sophie's World, the latter not being a webcomic. Triangle and Robert also does it to a certain extent, I guess.

Just my two pennies.

Comment from: Crashlander posted at July 11, 2005 6:36 PM

"Crashlander: but what if the metahumor is PART of the characters? Going back to UbT, the main character knows he's badly drawn, with a head like a football. That's part of who he is. He isn't *just* drawn badly, he really looks like that."

Sure, if the conceit of the strip is metahumour and it stays true to that idea, it can work. If you haven't set anything up, there's no spell to be broken by having the characters become self-aware. But it usually ain't like that, it just bellyflops in uninvited. I cringe when I see PvP do a metahumour gag, only because it's usually so focused otherwise. But hey, even Peanuts had metahumour in it right at the beginning, so what do I know?

I'm still dead against it though.

Comment from: 32_footsteps posted at July 11, 2005 6:37 PM

Not that it has anything to do with Help Desk...

I notice there's no TrackBack for this post. Is this an oversight, or is Websnark foregoing them from here on out?

Comment from: AndrewWade posted at July 11, 2005 6:43 PM

An interesting question from all this:

Does metahumour help or hinder a new reader's attempt to get into a comic? The gags are usually old stand-bys with a new stance, so familiarity should be helpful, but at the same time, they still feel like in-jokes. So, the new reader would both feel familiar with the comic strip/series of strips, as well as excluded?

It'd make for an interesting article in The Webcomics Examiner or something, if one of you with more knowledge in this area (Straub, I'm looking in your direction) took up the charge.

Comment from: Kristofer Straub posted at July 11, 2005 6:49 PM

Does metahumour help or hinder a new reader's attempt to get into a comic?

It depends on the nature of the strip, but for me it totally hinders my attempts. I hate to see a serious or directed humor strip bail out of a situation to deploy a cheap "none of this matters anyway because we're fiction! Wonk wonk wonk!" joke.

A really over-the-top analogy would be like, Gone With The Wind stopping about 20 minutes before the end with a huge fart noise, and then the whole cast cracks up as the camera pans all the way back to an embarrassed director who says "I thought I could hold it in for the whole picture!" Now if they try to return to the proceedings of the story, it's been dissolved. It's now just a bunch of actors saying something someone wrote. Or a comic, or whatever. But like I said, it depends on the kind of strip it is.

Also I think Comixpedia was doing a metahumor month one of these summer months, and I will have an article to submit.

Comment from: Eric Burns posted at July 11, 2005 7:17 PM

For now, we're done with Trackback. Trackback spam sucks.

Comment from: The Matt Who Is posted at July 11, 2005 8:30 PM

My favorite example of web comic metahumor... the "plays with physical structure of comic" variety.

Warning: contains language.


Pancakes! Damn, I love that panel.


Comment from: Steve Mollmann posted at July 11, 2005 10:45 PM

Every now and then Narbonic uses "metahumor" (like here, and I feel that's basically the only flaw with an otherwise excellent comic. It just knocks you out of the story, and isn't funny. (I do like the Sunday strips where the characters talk about fanart and such-- but then that's a different situation.)

Though I like Checkerboard Nightmare a lot, the strip that handles it the best is probably Triangle and Robert.


Comment from: tynic posted at July 11, 2005 11:05 PM

Come to think of it, I always enjoyed Doonesbury's excursions into metahumour. But then, it tied in well with the topical conceit of the strip.

Comment from: Egarwaen posted at July 11, 2005 11:31 PM

And Doonesbury's were typically very separate from the main strip. Very rarely do the characters, in the course of their lives, notice they're in a comic strip. That only happens in special "behind the scenes" segments like the mailbag that are clearly and obviously set apart from the main strip. And they're usually quite funny, too.

FoxTrot is also very good about this. Rarely do the characters actually acknowledge that they're in a comic strip... However, there are a lot of jokes, situations, and background elements that make jokes about the fact that it's a comic strip. Bill Amend's in-strip alter-ego, who's apparently some kind of ultra-rich celebrity cartoonist and shows up frequently on magazines, posters, TV shows, and the like, is a good example. Or headlines in newspapers about the plight of overworked cartoonists, or cartoonists who accomplish impossible feats.

Comment from: siwangmu posted at July 11, 2005 11:48 PM

It's odd... I wasn't sure how I felt on this issue until I followed the Narbonic link aove to remind myself and realized that I *loved* that aside at the time and I love it now--I don't know why, exactly, but unless you are in fact in the last twenty minutes of Gone with the Wind, I almost always enjoy that sort of thing. As others have stated, it's a mood issue (i.e. tone of the work, tone of the reality-violating content)--but perhaps since I come from, among other backgrounds, theatre and fanfiction, the leap is easier for me.

I already have it planted in my head that characters can make asides (in and of themselves violations of immediate reality, since others onstage cannot hear them and the audience is technically being addressed by a character who shouldn't know an audience exists) and in a great deal of excellent literature asides are employed to spectacular effect.

Secondly, from the fanfiction angle (I don't know why this makes sense to me but it does), I already carry around an assumption that the characters I love have mental and emotional lives that extend past the boundaries of the work they were created in. Normally the portraits of those emotional/mental lives are explored in a context that is designed to be compatible with the originally created reality, but it's a series of small steps from "What X would do if he talked to Y" to "What X would do if Y did whatever" to "What X would do if Y were still alive" to "What X might be like if Y had never existed" to "What X would be like if more of his environment or the entire environment were different" and hopefully you can follow the chain all the way to crossovers, What-ifs, etc. Naturally this kind of thing is frequently done badly, but that doesn't make the well-done examples less interesting or valid.

So: Theatre: characters humorously comment on events in a way that we are accustomed to but which technically violates the onstage reality.

Fanfic: It's interesting and valuable to explore characterization by varying context and finding the continuities that therefore define the characters.

Mix it up together and you get an aside from the Forensice Linguist, pointing out that if he were designing the strip this whole sequence would be a hilarious send-up of MacBeth. I *loved* that, because it was not laziness, or any other such thing; it was a moment of characterization for Antonio Smith that both rang completely true and made me laugh. Not to mention the fact that to employ an aside here at all (I'm not sure if I should technically be calling them asides, just bear with me) calls to mind Shakespearean presentation, which reinforces the joke.

Asides like this are not about the characters knowing they're part of fiction, they're about the audience knowing that and the author leveraging that knowledge to make a different kind of joke or comment which usually serves their overall goals of straight humor, characterization, humor through characterization, what have you.

As others have pointed out, there are times when you desperately want to avoid reminding your audience of that (the fictionality (heh, not a word, I know)), but I would argue that this is not one of them. And actually, the juxtaposition of being reminded I'm reading a four-panel comic and a character proposing an alternate sequence of same wherein we have a hilarious MacBeth send-up served to heighten the effect in a positive way for me since the dialogue is more sophisticated and the characters more fun than (forgive me, comic aficionados) the "traditional" four-panel gag-a-day.

I'm sorry this post is so bloated, but I disagree with everybody so I figured I should try and explain why.

Comment from: siwangmu posted at July 12, 2005 1:04 AM

It has occurred to me that the sheer length of the above post could prevent anyone wanting to read it and thereby hurt the overall discussion because everyone's just sort of like, "Um, I'll just wait until someone else says something and ignore that."

If this is so, someone should let me know! I do not wish to impede the free exchange of ideas and I do not mind criticisms!

Comment from: TheNintenGenius posted at July 12, 2005 1:13 AM

The main thing I can say about metahumor is, like most any other form of humor, it can be hilarious if executed properly and groanworthy if not. I think I must have a higher tolerance for metahumor than most of the people that've posted so far, since I've never really found myself actively hating/dreading/loathing it, but then again I've always had an odd sense of humor anyway.

To be honest, the only reason I posted is just to say that the Bob the Angry Flower comic that The Matt Who Is posted in here is probably my favorite Bob the Angry Flower comic and one of my favorite comics ever, period, not just because of the extremely interesting structuring of the drawing, but just how it manages to combine ages of philisophical debate about free will, out-of-control rage, and complete irrelevance (b/w pancakes) together with killer timing/execution.

Yeah, I know all this post mainly is is a love letter to a comic I like, but I've always been pretty excitable.

Comment from: IvoryTiger posted at July 12, 2005 2:23 AM

So what you're saying is we don't want any Mel Brooks films as comic strips then?



Comment from: Plaid Phantom posted at July 12, 2005 2:31 AM

I'm with siwangmu on this one.

Now, I had something else to say here. Wish I knew what it was.

Comment from: SeanH posted at July 12, 2005 3:36 AM

I cringe when I see PvP do a metahumour gag

Because Kurtz is such a HACK!

Comment from: Crashlander posted at July 12, 2005 4:35 AM

I should also say that I'm not against metahumour in other mediums - it works great in movies, TV, even animation. Hell, Duck Amuck is probably the greatest Looney Tunes short there is.

I just don't think it works in comics. It's a limitation of the form.

Comment from: Grumblin posted at July 12, 2005 7:30 AM

Hmmm... As someone commented before, Greg Dean has used a lot of "metahumor" in his comics, sometimes using it for entire plotlines, like Alan the Extra, sometimes as single gag fillers (Look! Hands!!! :)

Just to point out one of the most obvious black swans regarding the "limitation of the form" remark above.

Comment from: Paul Gadzikowski posted at July 12, 2005 10:29 AM

With this discussion on my mind I went back and reviewed all the step-past-the-fourth-wall cartoons to date in Arthur, King of Time and Space. None of them are about stepping past the fourth wall; they're all gags - or, in the case of some cartoons that appeared in the news section, exposition - that the characters simply couldn't have delivered from behind the fourth wall (for instance, their review of last summer's movie King Arthur, or Lot complaining that he doesn't want to appear in only flashbacks from now on to Uther's unsympathetic ears).

Comment from: Pooga posted at July 12, 2005 11:08 AM

I just don't think it works in comics. It's a limitation of the form.

Funny, I think it's almost the opposite. Comics, especially comic strips, lend themselves to metahumor better than most other mediums. First, with any plot being doled out in (generally) four panel increments, the suspension of disbelief factor is fairly low. I find poorly placed metahumor a much bigger crime in film, tv or theater than in comics. If you're caught up in a story, metahumor can be worse than a glaring anachronism for pulling you out of the moment.

Second, sequential art is very flexible. When going from one frame to the next represents an indeterminate jump in time and space, it encourages artists to play around with the format. Having the characters notice the conventions and oddities of their universe is something that makes more sense when that universe is constructed in such a disjointed manner.

Comics and metahumor are a natural fit. I think this is part of metahumor's image problem in the webcomics world. It's used more often comic strips, especially the UbTs littering KeenSpace, which means the jokes have a lot more mileage on them. But as with any old joke, when delivered well, it can seem new. That's why so many of the arguments against metahumor around here are peppered with exceptions.

I thought Straub was making a joke with his condemnation of metahumor, given the nature of CxN. I'm still not sure if he's serious, trolling, or playing devil's advocate (which probably means he's pulling a metahumor joke in the Andy Kaufman style). I mean, if you're going to pick a strawman to argue against metahumor, can you at least pick one from the field of comedy? Go with My Man Godfrey, or It Happened One Night. Any kind of fart joke in the last 20 minutes of GWTW, meta or not, is going to ruin the movie.

Comment from: kirabug posted at July 12, 2005 11:13 AM

I enjoy most metahumor of the subtle type. I think it works well in AKOTAS not only because it's usually pretty subtle, but there's also the knowledge that Arthur and his crew are alreadly living in a really whacky world, what with the constant changing of which timestream they're in, and I'm not sure it'd shock any of them to discover that they're actually living in a comic.

And in Help Desk, a certain expectation has been set up in the reader by this point that at least one character (usually Alex) is capable of stopping, stepping over to the audience, saying a quick note to them, and stepping back into the scene.

I think if the rules of the universe include these asides, and they seem natural to the characters, then usually the humor will come through. But protecting against overuse is important....

I'm pretty sure I've only used metahumor once in my hackneyed attempt at a comic, but I set up strict rules about it a while ago. No "the author is a character" - there's too much of me in the girls now, and no "I can see what's happening two panels down and to the left" 'cause Bob the Angry Flower's the only example of that I've liked. But the characters can "see" each others' speech bubbles (but not their thought bubbles) - it's just an aspect in the the world they're living in, like gravity.

As a newbie to the scene, I ask: Too much?

Comment from: Shaenon posted at July 12, 2005 3:21 PM

I think having everyone crack up in the last twenty minutes of "Gone with the Wind" would be hilarious. I mean, just picture the audience sitting there for three hours, enraptured, deeply into the epic romance and slavery nostalgia, and then Scarlett farts... come on, that's about as funny as funny gets.

...Okay, then, what about the end of "Blazing Saddles," when the brawl spills out of the Western and into all the other movie sets? That's an actual example of a movie suddenly switching to self-referencial humor at the very end, and it's hilarious.

I think it comes down to a difference in the way people enjoy comics (or any pop entertainment, especially serial entertainment). There are readers who want to immerse themselves in the "world" of the comic, to experience the story as an alternate reality and the characters as people. For them, metahumor can be painfully jarring, because it destroys that illusion of reality -- "knocks you out of the story." Other readers enjoy the comic strictly as a comic, and get off on the structural mechanics of the endeavor: the themes, the plot arcs, the way the various elements hang together. A lot of those readers *love* metahumor, because it rewards a structuralist reading: it's essentially the cartoonist winking at the reader and saying, "yup, it's a puppet show -- now watch me pull the strings."

In the Narbonic strip mentioned above, part of the impetus for the self-referential humor is that the strip already steps out of the Narbonic "reality"; the characters are doing a little Star Wars parody, which, in addition to being geeky and lame, is something they can only do in the first place if they kind of know they're fictional characters. And Antonio Smith, if he were a real person with free will as opposed to a crude cartoon drawing in thrall to my every whim, would probably think that the whole parody gag was idiotic. I'd like to plead the age of that strip and say that I grew out of this stuff over time, but in fact the only thing I've grown out of is thinking Star Wars references are funny.

Comment from: 32_footsteps posted at July 12, 2005 4:50 PM

The only reason Star Wars jokes aren't funny is because the last three movies have been inadvertently so. Call me terrible, but I laughed, loudly, when Obi-Wan delivered the coup de grace on Anakin in Episode 3. I mean, he even warned Anakin right before he did something incredibly stupid. I couldn't help but think, this moron is the guy who was so menacing for three movies in my youth? One loud "No" was just icing on the cake.

I like to think of metahumor on a surrealist scale. It's still the same reality as before, the characters are just daring to take a look at it from a different angle. Perhaps it's crazy and makes no sense. But as long as it's funny, it's done the job it wanted to do.

Comment from: Pooga posted at July 12, 2005 5:32 PM

Shaenon: About GWTW, okay, point. That would be funny. I only referred to a fart joke "ruining" the movie because it was not built as a comedy overall. Assuming you're watching it for the ... epic dramaness of the thing, any kind of silly gag is going to completely disrupt that.

I was only saying that if he was serious about his argument against metahumor, and going to use some made up example to show it wouldn't work, GWTW wasn't a movie to prove his point with. As you kindly pointed out, Blazing Saddles is a perfect case of metahumor that completely disrupts the fictional "reality", but is very funny and really fits the overall movie.

Metahumor is just one tools of many in a comic's, er, toolbox. Thinking about it, I'm not sure I can come up with any kind of comedy where I could definitely say it wouldn't work. I was going to suggest certain sitcoms, but usually those are cases where it would interfere with plot-related, dramatic elements of the shows. As has been pointed out, several comics do metahumor quite well. If it's funny, it works. If not, it's not metahumor. I don't think a good writer should throw out a usefull method of bringing the Funny just because of a perceptual bias against the form.

Comment from: Kristofer Straub posted at July 12, 2005 8:20 PM

That's why I said my example was over-the-top, because GWTW would have been ruined by a fart joke -- one that shows the director and cameramen, no less -- while Blazing Saddles depended on it at the end, and really sold the movie.

What I'm saying is, if you have any minor investment in characters, especially if metahumor hasn't been used before, its appearance can be bad. Especially when its appearance is being used for its own sake.

Checkerboard Nightmare is metahumor, but I have tried not to make that the end of it. The metahumor is a means to get to the rest of the story or the jokes, not just "Hey! I'm a drawing! Unexpected, right?" I don't think anyone can get away with that anymore.

Another example. In Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, a not-very-serious movie and almost a parody of View Askew, Ben Affleck says something like "now who'd waste their money on a movie about Jay and Silent Bob?" And then the three of them slowly give the camera a look. "YOU'RE dumb enough," is the joke. While you don't see that joke in movies often at all, I've seen it so many times in webcomics that I didn't think it was funny.

Comment from: Shaenon posted at July 12, 2005 10:07 PM

I think that was just because "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back" was not very funny. In that case, the joke hit too close to home.

Comment from: gwalla posted at July 13, 2005 1:43 AM

I think we can start identifying different kinds of metahumor and how they work:

  • The Audience Confidant - in which a character (usually the POV character) breaks the 4th wall by directly addressing the audience with an aside, but does not otherwise acknowledge their medium or fictionality. The aside is not acknowledged by other characters. The Antonio Smith comment is of this type, and the Help Desk commentary by Alex involves it. Outside of webcomics, it has been used to good effect by Shakespeare...and in Malcolm in the Middle.
  • The Insider Comment - When a character explicitly refers to being in a comic. Used to good effect in Sluggy Freelance and Narbonic. The appropriateness of this technique depends on the nature of the comic (it works fine in the very "self-aware" Sluggyverse, which frequently features pop culture parodies that don't really attempt to maintain an illusion, but would fall flat in CRFH, in which hazards are treated as serious problems, even when they're as silly as Cthulhu's pet microdragon), and even the character delivering the line (appropriate for Torg and Riff, but not the level-headed Zo‘). Characters may accept the line in conversation without themselves ever acknowledging the fourth wall.
  • The Fifth Finger - When the characters acknowledge a stylistic quirk of the medium without acknowledging fictionality. From a gag in The Simpsons: "This magazine article says that in the future, humans will evolve a fifth finger!" "Ew, freakshow!"
  • The Visible String - When the artist directly and overtly affects something in the comic. For example, an "accidental" ink spill becomes a blackout. More subtly, an event can be explained as explicit hand-waving on the part of the author (as in the Help Desk example).
  • The Backstage Pass segment - A segment that is "behind the scenes" of the usual comic. The characters are presented as "actors", who may display varying degrees of awareness of the medium; they usually act like their in-story characters (and share their names), but events in the backstage segment do not have in-story effects. Doonesbury's and Narbonic's mailbag segments are of this type. The "Hi, my name is **** and I'm the main character of this comic" fails because it tries to go behind the scenes before setting a scene in the first place.
  • The Chuck Amok - Basically a combination of the Visible String and the Audience Confidant or Insider Comment: when a character directly addresses the artist, who has full control over the character's circumstances. POV is usually a sort of second person, with the character looking through the 4th wall to address his creator. Chuck Jones' Duck Amok is the most famous example of this. In webcomics, it was the entire foundation of Framed!, and Road Waffles has flirted with it.

Did I miss any?

Comment from: gwalla posted at July 13, 2005 1:45 AM

By "subtly" I meant to say "abstractly". There's nothing particularly subtle about that Help Desk strip.

I really ought to read what I've written when I preview posts...

Comment from: vortexae posted at July 13, 2005 2:14 AM

Well, speaking of CRFH--you're right, it typically wouldn't wear metahumor well, HOWEVER... there was that one-off comic way back when (maybe it was a guest strip) in which Roger is seen talking to the audience, and the other characters write it off as another example of him being several nuts short of a fruitcake.

It worked (for me) because it was a one-off (and therefore not to be considered particularly canon), because the character breaking the 4th wall was known to be somewhat insane, and because by the end of the strip you're no longer sure that he actually was breaking the 4th wall after all.

Perhaps we can call this the Yes, But He's Nuts catagory of metahumor.

(This post would be aided by a link to the comic in question; sadly, I doubt I'll be able to find it in under an hour, and hours don't come cheap, people!)

Comment from: Suzanne posted at July 13, 2005 3:29 AM

Holy crap, Eric.

The comments on this post are amazing.

Good snark; awesome commenters.

Go you.

(Does this make up for the drama?)

Comment from: 32_footsteps posted at July 13, 2005 11:31 AM

Here's a question, where does Greystone Inn fall in terms of metahumor? Argus and company realize they... well, were working on a comic strip, but not that they were in a comic about making a comic strip. This allows Guigar to mock the cliches and the expediencies of sequential art, but his characters never break the "second fourth wall." Is that backstage pass, insider comment, or does it get its own category?

Comment from: Eric Burns posted at July 13, 2005 11:42 AM

32 -- Greystone Inn doesn't count, really. Its premise was "behind the scenes at a studio where cartoon characters produced a comic strip." The core concept was deconstructionist, certainly, but it wasn't metahumor. If anything, those rare times we actually saw "Greystone Inn, by Creative Contract Studios" strips were the opposite of metahumor -- they became "a strip within a strip," to pull out the Play within a Play convention.

To my knowledge, GI never took that further step of referencing their innate "comic strip about a comic strip studio" status.

Comment from: Christopher B. Wright posted at July 13, 2005 11:50 AM

Greystone Inn is a lot more like the play-within-a-play concept in A Midsummer Night's Dream, only without the Faeries, but with Supervillians and a Gargoyle.

Comment from: 32_footsteps posted at July 13, 2005 12:48 PM

See, I think that falls under the "character is unaware of the metahumor" idea behind The Fifth Finger. The fact that the characters don't realize they're in a comic outside of that produced by Creative Contract Studios doesn't prevent it from being metahumor, just as Bart Simpson has had his moments of metahumor (the fifth finger comment, his frustration at being labelled "yellow trash," his rage when Lisa "stole [his] catchphrase") without ever realizing he was a character in a cartoon (episodes like The Simpsons Spin-off Showcase and Behind The Laughter excluded).

Maybe Guigar has done the greatest metahumor joke of all - he's fooled people into thinking he isn't delving into metahumor.

Comment from: gwalla posted at July 13, 2005 2:17 PM

I like the term Yes, But He's Nuts. Torg in Sluggy kind of has this excuse too. She-Hulk, under some writers, has also acknowledged her own fictionality, and this has been treated as an "eccentricity" by other characters (the same with Animal Man, after the "Second Crisis" storyline in his own title). It's a handy way to let a character break the fourth wall on occasion without breaking it for all characters.

That also brings up a category that is similar to Audience Confidant and Insider Comment, but doesn't really fall under either. It's like an Audience Confidant moment, but the other characters do hear it, and it's left ambiguous whether the character really is addressing the audience or just making a general comment to nobody in particular while looking towards the "camera". Torg does this a lot, particularly in earlier strips; Roger's lines in that CRFH guest strip are also of this type. Not sure what to call this; maybe a "Torgism"?

The play within a play can be considered a form of metahumor (at least, when used for humorous effect). It's a classic.

Also, I can't believe I missed one type: The Page Warp, when the artist takes advantage of a quirk of the medium to do something that has no possible analogue in the "world within the comic": something that can only work, or only make sense, because of the medium. Common subtypes include The Great Escape, when characters exit the panel to roam around the page as a surface (a friend of mine in university once drew a comic about a pair of jungle adventurers for the college newspaper, who in one strip climbed under the second panel to avoid a monster that was waiting for them), and the Time Looker Forward Tube, where a prop defies conventional sequence by projecting out of the panels. In many cases the humor involves tweaking causality and sequence, as in the BtAF example. This is very meta metahumor, because it draws attention to the fact that, although the sequence of images is treated as having a time dimension, it's really a static 2D image.

Comment from: Bo Lindbergh posted at July 13, 2005 3:41 PM

So how would you classify Joyce's "downloaded" lament?

Comment from: 32_footsteps posted at July 13, 2005 3:53 PM

Bo - clear Fifth Finger - it makes fun of part of the medium while making perfect sense within the world itself.

Comment from: Pooga posted at July 13, 2005 4:04 PM

(Started this, got busy at work, then came back to it. I like a lot of the discussion that's gone on in the meantime, but figured I'd stick to my original point, for the time being.)

That's why I said my example was over-the-top, because GWTW would have been ruined by a fart joke -- one that shows the director and cameramen, no less -- while Blazing Saddles depended on it at the end, and really sold the movie.

But once again, that's not an argument against metahumor, that's an argument against poorly placed humor.

What I'm saying is, if you have any minor investment in characters, especially if metahumor hasn't been used before, its appearance can be bad. Especially when its appearance is being used for its own sake.

I'm not sure I agree. Most failures of metahumor I've seen tend to be failures of execution or placement. Sluggy Freelance, a strip where many fans have significantly more than "a minor investment in the characters", uses metahumor every so often, and usually to good effect. But it doesn't do so at highly dramatic points in the story. Torg telling Riff his news was "so three panels ago" when Riff announced he was moving to Alaska worked. Torg referencing his awareness of being a comic strip character in the final battles of That Which Redeems would have been jarring. Even there, if done carefully, could have worked. Probably only as far as an Audience Aside or Insider Comment (to borrow gwalla's definitions). A Visible String or Page Warp (ie, Pete intervening to help Torg escape, or Torg dropping from an upper panel to a lower one) would have gone too far at that point.

Checkerboard Nightmare is metahumor, but I have tried not to make that the end of it. The metahumor is a means to get to the rest of the story or the jokes, not just "Hey! I'm a drawing! Unexpected, right?" I don't think anyone can get away with that anymore.

A one-trick pony can last a long time, if the trick is fairly unique. There are a depressing number of sitcoms that prove this concept. Generally, though, once the trick gets old, or another pony comes along that can do the trick better AND has a few other tricks up it's ... sleeve (I've got to find a better set of metaphors), even if the original pony can get by, a new pony with just that one old trick isn't going to cut it.

Another example. In Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, a not-very-serious movie and almost a parody of View Askew, Ben Affleck says something like "now who'd waste their money on a movie about Jay and Silent Bob?" And then the three of them slowly give the camera a look. "YOU'RE dumb enough," is the joke. While you don't see that joke in movies often at all, I've seen it so many times in webcomics that I didn't think it was funny.

While Shaenon makes an excellent point, and I think in other hands that same bit could have been executed in a way that was funny, the problem is less with the metahumor than with the freshness of the gag in question. "Hi, I'm the main character of this new comic strip!" is kind of the webcomic equivalent of "It was a dark and stormy night." It's not bad because it's metahumor, it's bad because it's so overused it's become cliche.

Comment from: gwalla posted at July 13, 2005 7:48 PM

I'm not sure if that Joyce line really qualifies as a Fifth Finger gag. Joyce is being downloaded in the comic world, but not literally. It doesn't turn a stylistic quirk into cartoon reality.

I guess I'd call this an Author Wink: a line that the audience recognizes as referring to the medium, but in the context of the story is just a line. This is pretty common. I've lost count (like I was ever really keeping count) of the times I've seen some character say something like "aren't comics just for kids?" in a comic book. Greystone Inn's play-within-a-play structure could fall under this heading.

That reminds me, I forgot to mention the most straightforward kind of fourth-wall breakage: the Hey You, when a character talks directly to the reader without breaking away from the story. The reader's existence and presence is taken for granted within the comic. This seems like it's almost always a bad idea, because by itself it's not very funny or novel, and it pretty much permanently demolishes the fourth wall; unlike with the Audience Aside, the Backstage Pass, or even the Insider Comment, it's really difficult to recover from a direct, rather than oblique, break in the fourth wall that isn't buffered by being explicitly "out of continuity".

I guess you could say that a Torgism is a quantum superposition between an Author Wink and a Hey You or Insider Comment.

Comment from: gwalla posted at July 13, 2005 7:49 PM

Curses, I really screwed up the formattinge. :( There were supposed to be a couple more paragraph breaks in there.

Comment from: gwalla posted at July 13, 2005 8:12 PM

Boy, I just suck at the Internet today.

Comment from: Alun Clewe posted at July 14, 2005 12:35 AM

Actually, the page Bo Lindbergh linked to in the very first comment intrigues me. That seems an interesting and potentially useful sort of site, though currently it apparently only has eight comics in its database--is this a new project that's going to be expanded later? Is there any sort of home page or greater explanation? I know here in the comments to Eric's post may not be the best place to ask this, but since I couldn't find any contact info either on the page itself or on Bo Lindbergh's Profile Page, I don't know where else to ask.

To bring things more on topic, I guess I could share my own feelings on metahumor, but they're nothing particularly novel or profound; it's pretty much just what some others have already said. I don't like metahumor if it seems jarring within the context of the strip, if the strip's reality doesn't seem to encompass it, but if the strip's metaphysics seem constructed so as to allow metahumor without disrupting its sense of reality, it works. I don't know if the preceding sentence made any sense at all.

I do have something to say about the Audience Confidante style of metahumor, as gwalla called it. You know, that type of aside doesn't necessarily imply that the character is aware he's in a comic strip. There is, of course, always the possibility that the character is making asides to the audience merely because he is open to the possibility that there may be an audience to make asides to, while having no actual proof of this conjecture.

This may still seem unlikely, but heck, that's something you could, in principle, do in real life. There's nothing that prevents you from making asides to a (hypothetical) audience, just in case on some ontological level you're a fictional character, right? Of course, if you didn't want people to think you were completely insane, it would probably be best to do so only when no one else was around, or at least when people were around to make your asides sotto voce so they didn't hear. Also, for the same reason, it would probably be best, if the subject somehow came up, to deny that you ever made such asides.

By the way, I feel that I should state for the record that, uh, I never make such asides.

Comment from: gwalla posted at July 14, 2005 12:52 AM

Bo's comics database is indeed nifty. It's actually not new, but it mostly just has the comics he reads regularly in it. Partly because the comics need to be transcribed and entered by hand, which can take a while for a comic with a significant archive.

Actually, I don't think you can do an Audience Confidant aside in real life, guessing or not. An Audience Confidant by definition briefly goes out of the story world. For example, when Malcolm makes his asides in MitM, nobody around him notices that he's said anything. At best you can do an Insider Comment. The difference between a Yes, But He's Crazy and an Audience Confidant is that in the former, the surrounding characters are aware of the comment but dismiss it as "just being weird", while in the latter it's not something they can hear; it's not on their plane.

Comment from: siwangmu posted at July 14, 2005 2:00 AM

A little behind: Wow!

Gwalla, your categorization scheme is awesome. And very Burns-ian.

Comment from: Christopher B. Wright posted at July 14, 2005 8:01 AM

All right, what about Schlock Mercenary? Aside from times when there is an obvious fourth wall breech (which has only happened once that I can remember) the narrator box is involved in some kind of metahumor/meta-narration because it talks directly to the audience and sometimes delivers the punchline regarding what's going on in the story.

What kind of meta-category would that fall in?

Comment from: Pooga posted at July 14, 2005 10:14 AM

Regarding Schlock's Narrator: I don't know. Most of the time he is almost an outside observer to the strip. Every once in a while, though, he becomes an active participant in the story, interacting with the characters. Since it's also clear from some of his narration that he's not the voice of the author, it's hard to pigeonhole him. Since it's a fairly unique situation, I don't know if either creating a new category or trying to make him fit the currently defined categories is appropriate.

On the way to work today, I realized there is another form of metahumor I've seen occasionally. At least, I think it counts. I'd call it the Bite in the Moon. About the best way I can describe is is glaring and jarring continuity. The reason for the name is one of the best examples I could think of: early in the Tick cartoon series, a giant Galactus-type being took a bite out of the moon. From then on, almost any night scene with a view of the sky featured the moon with a big bite out of it in the background. Later (I think it was later. It's been a looooong time since I saw The Tick), a supervillian started carving his name in the moon with a giant laser. I believe he got as far as "CHA" and was thwarted. Again, from that point on, anytime the moon was shown, it had both the bite and the letters.

You could say it's just an attention to series continuity, but it's one that reminds the audience in a very definite way that this is a fictional universe. If it is metahumor, it's fairly subtle. I suppose it could fall under Fifth Finger, except usually it's just a visual cue to the audience, not directly acknowledged by the characters.

I'm of two minds about it, because usually it occurs in fictional universes where the foreground plots and characters are fairly unusual. On the other hand, once you get used to the conventions of a given fictional universe, the fact that the characters have super powers, or aliens living next door, or whatever are the main, day-to-day oddities of the world tend to be accepted without thought. A rarely seen background element can do more to point out the fictionality than the main character being able to benchpress a tractor-trailer.

But is it metahumor? I don't know. That's why I proposed it here.

Comment from: 32_footsteps posted at July 14, 2005 8:27 PM

First off, for Schlock's narriator - I don't think that counts as metahumor, per se. This is simply because the narriator never addresses the characters in a way that lets them break the fourth wall or anything (except when Nick died, and that was unknown to any other character - I think that also counts as an Audience Aside). Of course, there are the occasional strips where Howard just draws something silly to illustrate his point ("mon canard est en feu!"), but those are only to stretch a metaphor to absurdist levels and don't actually interact with the characters. My guess would be to call that Metaphor Theater.

As for The Tick - oh, I watched enough of that to know the continuity (yes, and read the comics too). Originally, Chairface Chippendale was to celebrate his birthday by carving his name on the moon with a laser. The Tick and company stopped him after he completed the "CHA" - and later episodes remembered to keep that there.

Then, in a later episode, The Tick was sent to the moon to repair the damage. He screwed up, though, only getting rid of the "C" and being launched into space, where he ran into Omnipitous and became his herald. Omnipitous was going to eat Earth for energy, but The Tick convinced him that Earth was full of good things and should be spared. ("Tick, you can't fight evil with a macaroni duck!" "I'll be the judge of that!") However, Omnipitous was feeling peckish, so he took a nibble out of the closest uninhabited thing - the moon. This was early in the second season, and the moon said "HA" with a missing bite for the rest of the show's run.

That isn't metahumor - that's just a running gag, and attention to continuity. The cartoon version of The Tick was great at that, like remembering that there was a hydroelectric dam just outside The City (featured in the first episode and one of the last, "The Tick LOVES Santa").

Comment from: gwalla posted at July 14, 2005 11:52 PM

siwnagmu: Thanks, I try. ;)

32_footsteps: I agree. Neither is metahumor. Narration generally addresses the reader fairly directly. And The Tick's moon is just continuity; silly continuity, but just continuity.

Comment from: Christopher B. Wright posted at July 15, 2005 8:13 AM

I disagree, I think it is metahumor -- the narraton box, not the moon in the Tick. A narrator is a metastory device -- a way of giving the reader information that is outside the boundaries of the story proper. It's an accepted device that doesn't really register as something that sits outside the story proper, but it's there anyway.

Comment from: 32_footsteps posted at July 15, 2005 9:57 AM

Thing about the narriator, though, is that it often isn't humorous and isn't meant to be. Moreover, the fact that there is a narriator doesn't ususally result in humorous reactions from the character (and those that do would fall under Page Warp or Audience Aside, I believe).

A narriator is a metastory element, but a metastory element that tells jokes is not automatically metahumor. It's meta-made humor.

Comment from: Christopher B. Wright posted at July 15, 2005 10:36 AM

That seems like hair-splitting to me. Metahumor is a subset of meta-storytelling. So a meta-storytelling device that is used for humor (as in the schlock narrator, quite often) is engaging in metahumor.

Comment from: 32_footsteps posted at July 15, 2005 12:06 PM

But the humor told by the metastory device in Schock Mercenary isn't metahumor at all. Those jokes could have been told by a character in the story with only minor tweaks (as in, who they were addressing, not any content) and worked without breaking the fourth wall at all. If the narriator ever discussed the nature of it being a comic at all, then it would be metahumor. Otherwise, it isn't.

Comment from: Christopher B. Wright posted at July 15, 2005 1:53 PM

When the narrator speaks directly to the audience in an attempt to illustrate something from a previous comic you're solidly into the realm of metahumor. :)

Comment from: 32_footsteps posted at July 15, 2005 3:12 PM

Wait, when doesn't the narriator speak directly to the audience? Even as it addresses characters in metahumor situations, it's addressing the audience as well.

Now, as I've said before, the series involving "mon canard est en feu!" (which, as someone with a degree in French, was priceless) is certainly metahumor. But the metahumor doesn't come from the narriator, it comes from expounding upon the metaphor to the point of absurdity. If another character had done that, simply calling it an Audience Aside wouldn't have cut it, either.

Comment from: gwalla posted at July 17, 2005 6:13 PM

A narrator addressing the audience is not metahumor. A narrator is by default separate from the events of the comic. Now, if a character interacts with a narrator, that's metahumor (usually an Insider Comment or Audience Confidant; in some cases possibly a Fifth Finger if the characters can see the narration boxes; sometimes a mild Chuck Amok if the narrator stands in for the artist).

Comment from: Alun Clewe posted at July 18, 2005 5:46 PM

Actually, I don't think you can do an Audience Confidant aside in real life, guessing or not.

Er...that part of my post was intended mostly as a joke. (But, to continue with the overanalysis just for the heck of it...so are you saying that by definition an Audience Confidant must take place when other characters are around but not noticing it; that it doesn't count if the character is speaking directly to the audience unless there are other characters around who'd be in a position to overhear? That seems something of an arbitrary distinction...)

And, of course, to the serious part of my post, the question to Bo Lindbergh, I get no response...oh, well...

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