Episode 77: Getting Back in the Saddle

I’m trying to get back into writing mode in a semi consistent basis. In honor of super cool webcomic Hyperbole and a Half coming from hiatus but first putting a buffer update, I shall do the same. The following is the paper I presented at the URI Grad Conference that was a month ago. I would have sworn I uploaded this shortly afterwards but I guess it was all part of a dream. Something far more serially analytical and nerdy coming up in about 24 hours from now. I hope.

Whose genre is it anyway? Exploring Expectations of Authorship in Serialized Works

There is an old proverb in Spanish “zapatero a tus zapatos” which literally translates to “shoemaker to your shoes”. We as readers have expectations toward the qualifications of any author towards his/her literary output. No one bats an eyelash when someone with a background in literature writes an epic narrative or a comedy but when he or she shifts into philosophy or complex scientific principles one wonders whether the author has the right to do this. My paper analyzes how authors change their texts over time through close readings of multiple installments, as well as interviews on the authors themselves, to see their motivations for moving in another direction and the reception by their readerships.
While the term “author” is fairly difficult to define, especially within the context of academia, perhaps we should try and stick with a simple approach. Before we start dueling Barthes and Foucault quotes, let’s consider the basic definition of author as the entity responsible for the production and publication of a particular text. This can range from a conglomerate of writers, directors, actors, etc to a one person operation like in self publishing or webcomic cartoonists. Readerships also get jumbled up within technical terminology so let’s try and keep it within the basics. I am making a distinction, for the sake of this paper, between a silent readership, ie one where people do not interact with author beyond reading his/her work, and a vocal readership where people use email, forums, and forms of social media to communicate with the author and amongst themselves.
I specifically focus on serialized literature because it allows for an analysis centered on one particular narrative. Consider the case of legendary film director Stanley Kubrick who has done standalone masterpieces in just about every genre and style of movies, but these were active choices in doing something different every time. Within serialization, in that “continuing story over an extended period of time with enforced interruptions”, you have one project, one literary output that is changing over months and years which allows for a fluid identity of authorship and readership.
Let’s do a quick overview of one the most famous contemporary pieces of print serial literature to see how expectations of authorship played a big part in its reception. Of course I am talking about JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series. The story of eleven year old’s finding themselves in the fantastical world of their magical education at Hogwarts was a huge hit that basically came out of nowhere from a virtually unknown writer in her debut book. The second installment stayed within that same line of whimsical fun and fantastic adventures but this time the stakes were higher as imminent threats of petrification to the students made its way around. As the local English readership was giving way to a more global fandom, the third installment decided to trade in some of the more fantastic elements for more mundane and “legitimate” scary things. As Internet blogger Mark Oshiro of the “Marc reads” series so elegantly stated, “Hey children did you enjoy this wonderful children’s book full of wonderful awesome things for children well let me WRITE A BOOK BUILT ENTIRELY ON THE FEAR THAT A DERANGED, PSYCHOPATHIC MURDERER IS GOING TO EITHER KILL YOU IN YOUR SLEEP OR DESTROY YOU IN ANY SORT OF OPEN, PUBLIC SPACE.” The series shifted in a way that completely placed the main antagonist of he who should not be named to the background and the change to a more gritty tone is one that makes Prisoner of Azkaban the best of the seven books for many critics and fans. With darker themes, you could tell that the readership was now longer one of children but rather one of young adults (most likely the one’s from the very start that had now grown up). The fourth book now actively added romantic subplots and the death of Cedric ensured that the next installments were ones with death being a real possibility. As more prominent characters were killed off (most notably Sirius Black in Order of the Phoenix and Dumbledore in Half-blood Prince) we as readers knew that the final installment would be a massacre and the revelation of its title The Deadly Hallows cemented that expectation. So over the years, the original readers grew up alongside these literary characters and this pseudo simultaneous maturing led to an expectation of more adult themes which Rowling masterly supplied.
Rowling did a incrediblejob of shifting by degrees and we love her for that but she is clearly the exception rather than the rule. Let me give you an overview of a legendary film series that tried something too different between installments that left fans face-palming all over the world. I am referring to the Star Wars series. While we often ascribe the role of author to George Lucas for all six installments, it’s important to note that he is only technically the director for Episodes 1-4. The epic science fantasy story of the original trilogy is one that epitomizes the space opera/western/samurai so well beloved. Expectations ran high for the prequel trilogy and most were met with disappointment. While Lucas’s narrative choices are very subjective to reception there are some elements that are fairly accepted by a large percentage of the fandom to be bad. Jar Jar Binks alone still makes me and many others frustrated and most of us agree that George Lucas is not well suited to write a love story. The change from adventure to a coming of age tale, to then a romance, both of which were heavily laden to socio-political commentary was too drastic from the original tone and left many in disapproval. Episode 3’s descent into darkness and heavy into action went back to some of the elements that made the original films so well liked but these are often overshadowed by some of the more hammy acting and the infamous Vader “Noooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” Lucas tried to do something completely different within the same overarching story but strayed too much from the roots he had already planted and in a way alienated much of his original fandom.
The changing in overall tone over the lifespan of a serialized work goes by many names. When it goes from lighthearted to more serious the term that is most prevalently used by current fandoms is that of Cerebus Syndrome. Originally coined by Eric Burns of websnark.com in reference to Dave Sim’s epic Cerebus the Aardvark series. Burns uses it primarily to describe webcomics of a humorous nature that shift into a heavily narrative focus because “boredom is generally the key to a Cerebus Syndrome attempt. After a while, even a successful webcartoonist gets tired of fart jokes and sight gags and wants to make these characters more than they’ve been.” I focus a lot of my research of serialization in webcomics for a lot of reasons but from a publication perspective one really stands out. The amount of content per installment is large enough for the story to develop while small enough that production value between them allows for readers to actively voice their opinions and potentially affect narrative production. Webcomics are in effect, microserialized in that each installment makes up less than one percent of the total story(from Eric Balder of Erfworld). This way, Cerebus Syndrome can be analyzed as it progresses gradually and can help attune reader expectations.
From an authorial perspective, webcomics are amazing to study in that many of these people have no idea what they are doing. Without any of the more traditional barriers to publishing (editors, money, publishing houses) many artists/writers first attempts at a literary output come out to no readership (silent or vocal). A quick glance through webcomic portals show that Sturgeon’s Law is in full effect (90% of everything is crud). However that 10% of people that really hone their craft and eventually turn their webcomics into their career and livelihood go through this amazing transformation. And if you are lucky to catch them early on, you get to witness it first hand and even help mold it. Still, there are a lot of ways this evolution manifests. Tarol Hunt aka Thunt of Goblins has stated in various interviews, forum posts, and tweets that he had written the story in almost painstaking detail years before he started making his webcomic. Here the story’s Cerebus Syndrome is planned and deliberate but you can see the changes in his artwork. On the other hand, you have Rich Burlew from the Order of the Stick who made his story a lot more detailed after a year or so of starting out. In the commentary for his third book of compilation strips he explains how the process is still something that eludes even his own understanding.
I really just write this story the way that I think it would be most interesting, without too much regard for writing theory or structure. I mean, the idea of a serialized one-page-per installment story (that almost always ends in a punchline) isn’t really directly analogous to most other media anyway – a TV show dispenses an hour a week, while a comic book gives you 22 pages per month. Even a double-length OOTS comic has room for only a fraction of the plot advancement of either format. Thus, I’m usually stuck trying to adapt my story to this format without any guidelines – I’m always flying without a net. How many strips is too many to focus on the villains? Do I need to recap previous plot points, or do I trust them [the readers] to figure it out on their own? I have struggled with many of these questions over the last few years, with no clear cut answers yet appearing. (War and Xps, How I Didn’t Learn to Write a Plot)
Cerebus Syndrome was called that by name in one of the installments and the change from making fun of Dungeons & Dragons rules, to its own full fledged dramatic fantasy adventure occurred over the span of years and hundreds of installments.
Webcomic historian Troy Campbell further defines Cerebus Syndrome by classifying it into three phases. First pure humor, second dramatic turn, and a potential third phase that he calls “tonal juggling”. It’s that tonal juggling that is so hard to achieve in a way that pleases your original humor centered readers as well as the new story centered ones you have picked up along the way. Campbell goes on to say that:
Some strips never moved past Phase Two, but after a time, most at least tried to coax new
readers in again, to recapture the spirit of fun with which they’d begun. This was the
greatest challenge – done wrong, the humor could spill spoil the drama, the drama weigh
down the humor . . . It was a sign of a new medium testing its limits and finding its way.
It was more sign of freedom from old standards. (The Melting Pot: Cerebus Syndrome)
Episode 3 of Star Wars kind of gets there but if you really want to see the master in action, I highly recommend Order of the Stick. As someone in the forums there once posted: come for the D&D jokes, stay for the Cerebus Syndrome”.
For as many good examples of an author trying to branch out into their own uncharted narrative waters, there are exponentially more that make Fonzi jumping the shark look like a logical choice for where the story should. Tim Buckley’s Ctrl+Alt+Del webcomic might just be the uber example of things that change too fast and for no apparent reason. Quick summary, Ethan are Lucas are roommates and they discuss video games. Their new neighbor Lilah joins in on their video gaming. She and Ethan start dating, then she is pregnant, then she has a miscarriage. Needless to say, this is Cerebus Syndrome to the highest degree and has been almost universally received as horrible. Jerry Holkins of Penny Arcade fame went on to say that “Tim Buckley is the antichrist, and I think [that] storyline was the first horseman of the Apocalypse”.
Outside of the realm of narrative, I’ve been searching for a way to study webcomics and other forms of serial lit for those that do not have an ongoing overarching story. The closest I have found so far is to study genre and style. There are two webcomic cartoonists that I feel best exemplify an erratic nature of presenting between installments that have expanded their style over the years to the point that the readership will accept pretty much anything. Randall Munroe of xkcd has this incredible variety of installments. Just this week he went through a representational map of every subway system in North America, a joke about the abundance of Adobe updates, a geologist that displays rocks as hunting trophies, plus a blog post on the dangers of pressure cookers. The warning of “this comic occasionally contains strong language (which may be unsuitable for children), unusual humor (which may be unsuitable for adults), and advanced mathematics (which may be unsuitable for liberal-arts majors)” still doesn’t do it justice. Munroe’s background as a former NASA scientist is evident in the geekiest of things but his humor through puns and other jokes doesn’t seem to fit within any particular part of his bio.
On the other hand, you have Zach Weinersmith of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal. Just this week he made installments on proton interactions, statistical knowledge as a superpower, religious conversion through Batman, and the nature of Internet discussions. You can see Zach’s eclectic nature and his background in English and observational analysis. But then you see all of his graph jokes, advanced philosophy and some of the more esoteric material and it seems fairly odd that you get this kind of material from this guy. It’s not until you go through his interviews that you can see that he reads voraciously on just about every topic and that he actually went back to school to get his degree in physics. So we see examples of scientist expanding into broader humor and vice versa, which is something that really amazes as both a fan and a scholar in this field.
It’s very interesting how our expectations need to be validated by background. With the previous examples we find academic accreditation to verify this particular notion of authorship. And yet, it’s not like you need to be licenced or have permission before you can write any of these. Not to mention, that there isn’t exactly a BA in comedy or a certificate in romance. A lot of these skills are acquired through experience in writing but webcomics equates that process to the initial publishing. So when you have both the author and the readership without clear cut expectations on either side, we don’t get that bias
. Sure we are going to find a lot of crud along the way but there is always a hope that we find golden literary nugget. And the best part of this serial reading experience is that we get to be a part of that growth.

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