Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Cart Before the Horse

Today's strip (Two Oscars) is an example of a joke for the sake of the joke.

Are we really supposed to believe that Cole and Brent are such an odd pairing that Neil Simon-esque antics are about to ensue? Is Brent known to be particularly neat? Is Cole known to be particularly slovenly? Not that I'm aware of, and I've been reading PVP for quite some time. As a reader, I don't buy Jade's theory for a second, ruining the strip from the start. These guys are best friends after all.

(Aside: the fact that Brent is a Mac guy and Cole presumably isn't is not sufficient motivation for Jade's statement. If we were talking Brent and Francis, maybe.)

(Second Aside: Commenters just reminded me of the storyline where Jade moved in with Brent and he acted like a total girl. [Looking for links.] I stand corrected on this point. It doesn't change the fact that the first panel totally set up a predictable joke.)

Aside from that, the joke itself is presented in a fairly weak manner. Yes, this is hyper-specific, but these are the things that get under my skin.

The joke is supposedly in panel three (panels two and three shown below), with panel four simply extending it:

First: There are only four panels to work with. Why throw away the last one with a second, weaker, punchline? Jokes require a setup and a release -- use the extra panel to extend the setup, making the reader anticipate the (unfortunately predictable) release longer.

Second: The order of events in panel three completely ruin the joke. The way the panel is laid out we (first) read Brent's line ("There, now the table's finally level...") then (second) "hear" a "KLUNK!"

Wouldn't the joke be funnier if the "KLUNK!" came first?

Yes it would. By introducing the sound effect first, you allow the reader time to wonder if, because Cole is Oscar and Brent is Felix after all, Brent has just hit Cole over the head with the ashtray he brought "in here for a reason."

But wait! He didn't! He's an Oscar too! Those rascals will get along just fine and they can finally.. build their.. beer can pyramid.

(Seriously -- that was the best option?)

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

No Hate, Just Love

Well, "love" may be too strong, but I have no problems with any of the strips that have run since I last posted. Despite what I see as a weak lead-in to the story line, Kurtz is handling the arc with a humor and pacing that isn't bad.

Sorry to disappoint.

Friday, January 25, 2008

From Zero to Sixty Way Too Fast

I was impressed by the latest strip (Fire Away); Scott Kurtz is taking the story into relatively unpredicted territory, which is a breath of fresh air.

However... I don't buy it. I'm quickly identifying my biggest gripe with PVP -- the lack of emotional display.

This all started when Brent overheard Cole's remarks about Brent's lack of follow-through. A brief exchange between the two of them followed, and from this Jade and Brent have decided that Cole "must really be hurting."

If a guy's marriage is on the rocks, hell yes he must be hurting. But let's take a look at what Brent saw:

This is the sum total of Cole's "lashing out." Show me the hurt, please. In the second panel above, he rolls his eyes. In the third panel he starts apologizing. This is not a man at the end of his rope.

In today's strip, I think I understand what Kurtz was trying to put forth -- the panel in which Cole steeples his fingers is a portrait of a man seemingly in total control, but then he hits us with a curve ball from left field. But it rings false. Because it hasn't been set up effectively, Cole's statement about his marriage falling apart feels like a non sequitur (typo fixed, thanks), rather than the intended, and creative, plot twist.

We should have been led to this storyline much more gradually -- small screw-ups by Cole that start us wondering; a shouting match with Brent instead of a meek backing down. Maybe even take it so far as to bring the friendship to the brink. At that point Brent can be the bigger man and say, "What the fuck?"

Kurtz obviously takes his characters seriously, so he ought to portray their inner lives with a bit more care. Cole "must be hurting"? Then show us. Cole "lashed out"? We didn't see that. His marriage is on the rocks? This guy should be a wreck.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Let Down

So, now that I know there are more than two eyes reading this, today's strip comes as something of a disappointment -- It's not bad. I don't love it, but there's nothing worth getting too worked up about. I actually appreciate the thoughtfulness of Jade's remarks (until she ruins it with the punchline).

FYI, I have a general rule not to respond to comments -- I prefer not to feed the trolls. But there have been some thoughtful remarks and questions, and one thing came up I'd like to address:

In my post Ugh. How about a little effort? I set forth the opinion that Scratch's reaction to the lasagna was somewhat less than inspiring, while comparing the entire sequence of events to Looney Tunes and Ren & Stimpy.

It was not my intention to suggest that the characters in PVP should become as expressive as either of those animated cartoons. Scratch is not Stimpy, and the world of PVP is based around a physical system that is much more life-like than, say, the Road Runner's desert.

I don't expect Stimpy-like levels of reaction, just more than what we got. (I normalized the drawings for size.) Skull's last line depends on it, not to mention our amusement at the supposedly rapid decline in Garfield's favor. For the joke to reach any serious level of success (and hilariousness), the cat has to be just devastated with his lasagna experience.

In fact -- What you see here would have been a great third panel, freeing up the fourth panel to really drive the horror of the lasagna home.

Hello PVP & Its Readers

Thanks to Scott K. for linking here, I appreciate your thoughts. This is intended as useful criticism so I will try to keep my balance and flail as little as possible. At the same time it's an exercise in writing, and flailing is occasionally fun, so I hope you will forgive me.

I enjoyed your readers' comments -- I assume you knew what would be unleashed when you linked; I certainly expected nothing less. Now that the tempest seems to have left my little tea cup, I'd like to thank those who left thoughtful comments, both pro and con. The rest of them can go back to drinking their parents' milk now. (My favorite comment. Almost shot milk out of my nose when I read it. My parents' milk.)

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Nice! I'm totally being sarcastic right now.

One of the strengths of PVP is that characters are well-defined -- they've been around for a while, and the author has a decent sense of how to write for each of them. This does not come without some pitfalls, however, ones that should be easily avoided but often aren't.

In today's strip, we find Cole talking to Francis about Brent's upcoming wedding. Cole thinks there's a good chance that there won't be a wedding, due to shortcomings on Brent's part.

Ruh-roh. Brent has overheard. But how will Brent react? The totally predictable set up leads us to believe that Brent will not be happy to hear it. But the way the panel is drawn (and even lettered) implies almost no sense of sarcasm in Brent's delivery, leaving the reader up in the air.

The author is too close to his characters, and I'm guessing that he hears the script in his mind, as if spoken out loud, as he lays out his panels. The problem is he doesn't take into account the difficulty in projecting sarcasm using only the written word. Email is a perfect example of this -- we use emoticons in IM and email for just this purpose, but in a comic strip the art is supposed to do the job.

The depiction of both Brent and Cole in the last panel are so lacking in context, that we can do almost anything with the dialog in this panel, including give the line to Cole:

... or give Cole a new line:

This ambiguity can hurt an on-going story line by leaving the reader with a false impression of what happened in the previous strip. If readers aren't given a solid sense of Brent's reaction at the end of this strip, they will be confused when Brent preditably decides that perhaps Cole isn't the right man for the job. And makes the troll his best man. Until Cole redeems himself.

(Anyone want to take bets on whether this is the planned storyline?)

Monday, January 21, 2008

Ugh. How about a little effort?

Things have been relatively quiet on PVP so far this year. Today's strip, however, highlights the artistic laziness of the artist.

This week the cat is experiencing a bout of Garfield-worship, so is going to eat lasagna. Panels 2-4:

Ignoring the "don't scratch" confusion created by the script in the second panel, and ignoring also the complete and utter predictability of the joke, my biggest problem with this strip lies in the way the cat's experience is drawn.

This is a fairly standard scenario of long-standing tradition. I like to imagine it was invented by Looney Tunes, but it was certainly perfected by Ren and Stimpy. The traditional progression of action is as follows:

1. A character unknowingly eats something terrible, for example, a cake with an anvil baked into it or a soup with giant hot pepper in it. (Whatever it is, the character is usually looking forward to eating it.)

2. The character freezes for a moment. (Reality sets in.)

3. We witness a huge, over-the-top reaction. (The character's teeth all fall out due to hardness of anvil; the character's head turns red and blows steam due to hotness of pepper.)

3b. The alternative to the over-the-top reaction, one embraced by this particular strip: Internalized horror.

This progression being inferred, here are the expected emotional states of the cat:

Panel 2: Hesitance (never had lasagna -- hope it's good); anticipation (Garfield loves it, therefore I will love it); rebellion (screw you troll, I eat what I want).

Panel 3: Surprise; confusion; betrayal.

Panel 4: Internalized horror.

Here are the states actually portrayed in the strip:

Panel 2: Hesitance.

Panel 3: Surprise.

Panel 4: Dislike. (Sum total of visible reaction: one laid-back ear, one half-closed eye.) (edit: he has also slumped in his seat a bit.)

The fourth panel is the punchline! This is a pathetic display of emotions from a cartoon cat. Where are the gritted teeth? The eyeballs trying to escape? The lips pulled back into the mouth that says "Must! Not! Spit out!" Perhaps the world of PVP does not allow for such "cartoony" effects, but you can at least imply them without sacrificing the physics of your world.

The author should have skipped the second reaction state (surprise) entirely, heading straight from anticipation to horror, which would have allowed for a much better reaction when the troll tells him he has to eat it all.

Without the horror that is the cat's expected dislike for lasagna, the troll's admonition is worth little.

Misc. Nitpick 1: Who the hell forks their food so that the tines poke all the way through? No one, that's who. There's a little thing called a plate in the way.

Misc. Nitpick 2: Where the hell did his ear go in the last panel? Yes, cats' ears flatten when distressed, but they don't slide entirely to the back of their skulls. The lack of any other extreme reaction on the cat's part makes this almost uninterpretable. I thought for a moment the cat had a ponytail I was unaware of.

Fun Punchline Facts

Punchline exists? Yes.
Punchline rating: 3 out of 10

Thursday, January 17, 2008

I'm back -- and it's funny... wwwhhhaaAAAA?!

Just kidding. Props where props are due -- the past few weeks have been relatively inoffensive, and today's strip actually made me laugh. Yes, it's potty humor, but we'll take it where we can get it.

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