Saturday, April 30, 2011

Curse you, cartoon animals!

(I'm gonna *try* to get this blog going again, but I make no promises about regular updates yet!)

When I first conceived of what would become Precocious, my characters were all human. They stayed human in my mind in all the years between inception and when I decided to give the strip a go. Then, suddenly, CRITTERS! What made me change?

First, I'd always had an affinity for what I called "philosophizing animal" strips. I thought that adapting animal forms would add a level of cuteness to the strip that would help me out.

Second, and I'm not sure I should admit this, it was a practical choice to get my cartooning earlier. Let the record show I was/am a rather inept cartoonist. I've never had a natural talent for it and I'm only where I am now because passion overrode the shame of poor drawing skills. The thing about cartoon animals - the human eye is WAY more tolerant of them. Think of all the cartoon mice you've seen - they all look completely different from each other, but we readily accept them as mice. Anthropomorphic animals aren't real and we are more likely to accept the artist's vision. When it comes to drawing humans, we all know what humans look like. Looking at humans drawn by an artist with a shaky, unformed style (like me!) draws the eye right to all the inaccuracies and errors. It takes the reader out of the moment and doesn't create a pleasant reading experience. By going with cartoon animals, I was able to launch the strip much earlier in my stylistic development that if I had chosen humans.

Finally, I chose animal forms because it create a separation from real life. It let me craft my own world, with its own rules, in which my characters could play. My goal was to create something universal; something that could be read decades down the road and still be understood. By keeping my universe to itself, I could avoid taking easy shots at topical humor that might not be remembered in the eyes of history. It was a good idea at the time, but it's gotten me into a heap of trouble in practice.

First of all, I clearly haven't avoided topical humor and real life references completely. Ignoring reality completely is a great way to limit one's storytelling potential. So here I am, having my cake and eating it too - praying no one thinks too hard about things. "But if everyone here is an animal, does that mean those famous people being referenced are animals too?" AAAARRRGGGHHH! I fully intend to never address it, but is sweeping it under the rug really an acceptable solution? It *has* to be.

Cheap as it is, I have to go with the "it's just a comic strip" excuse. If I think the gag is good, I invoke the rule of funny and go with it. It's sloppy, but freeing. If I *didn't* rely on this principle, I would be paralyzed. While, ideally, I ably handle both, I'll always focus on humor more than continuity.

Using animal characters just makes things worse for me when it comes to these issues. Sure, I can say over and over they are merely meant to be cutified humans and are thus treated as humans - or point out my choice of dog/cat depiction was mostly an attempted ship-sinking visual cue on character compatibility - but I put that issue out there and I have to deal with the consequences. "Dogs can't eat chocolate!" "They are eating pork! Did they murder an anthro pig?" "Why won't you introduce some bunnies to the strip?" "Why can't a dog marry a cat?"

*head explodes*

For me, the animal thing was just another twist on standard comic surreality. The main characters almost never change their outfits! No one ages, yet they (sometimes) retain memories of past years' events! Little details constantly shift around to best fit the joke! If we can accept that (and, yes, some of us can't) then we should be able to gloss over the animal thing. After all, aside from two regrettable strips acknowledging that they have tails, have they EVER mentioned anything about being animals?

I hope this doesn't sound too much like complaining. It's more of me rambling to get my thoughts out. The reason people ASK these questions is because people CARE about the comic - and that is the most important thing. I will gladly frustrate readers with my animal creations, and suffer the consequences, if it means I have readers! It's also my fault for playing both hard and loose with continuity. Some elements of the strip are locked into place. Others, which I don't deem as important, can change from day to day. That's lazy cartooning on my part, and I apologize for it.

The motivation behind the creation of this essay comes from my struggles with Monday's strip. In this arc, I am taking the kids to the "city." I've never given the city a name, but for all intents and purposes it's Washington DC. I'm struggling with how much reality to allow into a highly fictional comic. Do I include the highly-recognizable monuments? Do I make lots of DC references? Do I name drop the museums they might visit? Every time I add in a real-world reference, I open myself up to the "so... how does this jive with animals?" scrutiny.

I wish I had a good solution, but right now I'm set to cruise forward with a "don't think too hard" message - which kinda conflicts with a comic that (in theory) praises intelligence and intellectual curiosity, doesn't it? I fail. :-(


Tekaramity said...

I'm not qualified to counter-debate all of your points, but I'll touch on a few:

1) Critters. Honestly, what attracted me to Precocious in the first place was that eye-catching 125x125 advertisement of Autumn and Jacob. They were SUPER-cute (they still *are*, of course!), and I've always loved anthropomorphic critters. That they *are* kitty/doggy/fox/wolf/etc. kids, despite "being" 100% human save for a few trivial features, speaks very well of your character construction for them. You had specific animal forms in mind for each kid, yet you retain their humanity and - dare I say? - realistic natures. Yes, the comic is full of cognitive dissonance...yet, somehow, it all makes sense.

2) I'm not overly concerned with whether "the city" is D.C., Winchester, Savannah, or West Chicago. (Hi, DRB!) What matters is the relevance of the setting to the hijinks at hand - and, already, we saw Sky's brief excursion capture a snapshot of the larger framework that holds together the Precociousphere.

3) If you are indeed looking to capture the precocial intelligence and curiosity of genius kids, you might do well to keep reinforcing their youth. I know the desire exists here and there to "age" the characters, show a glimpse of them as teens or young adults, and so on - and, for the record, their atypically proficient vocabulary *is* a commanding strength of theirs - but occasionally, simply reminding us of the innocence and purity of youth can be enough. I recall a strip during Kaitlyn's birthday party in which Tiffany built a fort. That. Was. Spot. On. It was neither out of character nor out of place in the plot, yet it portrayed Tiffany as the adorably sweet 9-year-old girl that she has always been and shall commendably continue to be. Technical art skills can be developed and honed, but a inspiring moment like that resonates regardless of the finer details.

You don't fail, Chris. You trip, and you stumble, but you have most certainly not *failed* at all...and I, for one, anticipate what joys the future of Precocious will bring me.

DRB_II said...

With the points pretty well taken care of (Hi, Tek!), I'll just throw out my two cents.

It's your universe. So long as we know the rules, you do whatever you damn well please. Dogs don't eat chocolate? Here, they can. Why not introduce bunnies? It's a cat and dog world, that's why. They're eating pork? Again, cat and dog world, whatever pigs there are must simply be pigs. Why don't dogs marry cats? That's simply how it works here. I see no problem in this, and most everyone else I can think of who reads the comic feels the same way.

Sure, continuity may be questioned from time to time by the kind of uber-nerds who remember the throwaway lines, or read and even reply to the blog (wait...), but I don't think you have to worry about those types. Rule of funny is a powerful rule. So, if you want Washington, DC, go for it. If you want *name not specified*, that works too. Hell, make it West Chicago, but I should warn you, we have nothing here.

Christopher J Paulsen said...

Yeah, it would be nice if I could set the rules and play by them, but I change them all the time! Bad, Chrispy!

I'm taking my own advice and trying not to think about things too hard. Monday's strip is a good example. In depicting the city, half the imagery is totally made up and half is inspired by real buildings. Note the "inspired" part, as I found myself improvising while drawing, so the structures depicted aren't accurate at all. I think that qualifies as failing on all accounts, but I'm still happy with it!

Iron Ed said...

First off; I agree with everything Tekaramity said, and with DRB_II too!

MY personal opinion added:
I -liked- the two strips that acknowledged that the characters have tails! Both were extremely relevant to the settings, both were extremely funny usages and neither actually went out of its way to rub the readers' noses in the fact of the characters having tails. You just made a good funny and then continued on as normal. Excellent!

Your current "what city?" dilemma:
I like the approach you explained in your own post. Leave the city name blank and do all the hedging you want with landmarks. Rule of Funny rules! I think the strip will be much more readable in the future if you don't let tooo many real world references in. I never heard of Ozzy & Millie until I read about it in one of your "my inspirations" posts. When I went back and read their archive I loved them, but the topical political humor kinda fails after a few years. ;-)

Precocious is wonderful as it is and I hope you continue for many more years!

THANK YOU for all you've done so far!!!

Greg said...

My recommendation? If it's not relevant to the story you're telling, then don't change any details. Your story is about a bunch of precocious children. The kids live in what the reader will recognize as an upper middle class suburb in the United States. It doesn't need to be any more specific than that.

As for traveling to the city? It doesn't need to be specified. Now, should the plot take them to something like the national spelling bee, in Washington D.C., then you'd mention that. But a generic "to the city"? It doesn't matter, unless you personally want to showcase the city.

How much it matters what animal a character is represented as is also entirely up to you. If your goal is to use different animal types to represent the differences in humankind, then it's relevant. If that's not your goal, it isn't relevant. It's that simple. Same thing for your other concerns. To me, the reader, I understand the humor in Bud being able to cook duck perfectly. I, the reader, understand "duck" to be the same thing as duck in the real world. It doesn't matter whether, in this universe, only predator mammals are people, or if there exist animals and animal people that are understood to be different (as we humans consider chimpanzees to be different), or if there's another explanation entirely ("duck" is their name for a particular form of tofu).

This post reminds me of a "Where does wool come from?" thread from the discussion of a universe where mammals were sentient and work animals and livestock were reptiles. Do some people shave themselves? Are there herds of fluffy woolly spiders with big anime eyes? Again, if all that matters is what a sweater is made of, that detail isn't important.