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. :-(