torsdag 31 maj 2012

Comics storytelling 21: Establishing a cue

OK, this one is both kinda advanced and easy to understand at the same time. Mort Walker needed to establish that the sound WHOOSH! meant "extremely fast" to emphasize that Beetle is a lazy goof-off who'll only work when under close supervision by a superior officer. Beetle moving extremely fast out of General Halftrack's office shows this, and also that he's the consummate goof-off – when it's necessary, he can move so fast that nobody realizes he's been lazing about all morning.

But while that is a decent joke, playing to one of the strip's strengths – character consistency – it's not strong enough to carry three panels, of which two are some serious build-up. However, with the added cue of the General turning his head, you learn in the final panel that Beetle isn't just fast, he's as fast as a jet fighter airplane – and you have to admit, that's pretty darn fast.

This is an example of things coming in threes in comics, a principle I've used myself when I wrote a few scripts for the Swedish humor comic 91:an. In a couple of stories, I needed to establish a pattern in order to break it towards the end of the story, hopefully producing surprise and laughter in the reader. The principle is the same: First, something happens, second, something more happens, conforming to a pattern with the first event; you need two events to establish the pattern, as one event could be just a random occurrence. Once you have the pattern, you can either break it for comedic effect, as I did, or use it to cue the reader in about something, as Walker does in this strip. Using the General's head-turning as a signal (or "sign", if you're feeling particularly semiotic today) of "extremely fast", Walker conveys the speed of Beetle's movement in the last panel in a sufficiently immediate manner to enhance the joke from "somewhat amusing" to "laugh-worthy".

A lot of comic strip humor works on this principle – to a larger extent in older times, when artists had more space to work in, I believe – using the first panels to build up towards the reader immediately understanding the gag in the final panel, thus enhancing the joke. It's worth keeping an lookout out for when reading humor comics; what has the artist done to make sure I "get" the joke in the final panel? Was it a joke that took a fair bit of work on his part?

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