Saturday, September 29, 2012

How To Do Dark To Effectively

Something that I'm getting tired of seeing is the dark series that comes so close, but royally botches it. Worse, you have this great series but it doesn't just jump the shark; it gives the shark lasers first. Want to know how to have a dark series and keep it good? Easy...

Avoid angst. Okay, so this why people in general flock these series. I'm not saying that it's necessarily a bad thing, but you do not want your story to literally drip the stuff. It helps to keep a light touch, and keep the emotional turmoil down as much as possible.

Clean things up occasionally. When it comes to noirish tableaus, messy works. However, sometimes it feels as if the way people are dealing with the garbage crisis is to occasionally throw the stuff into the streets. Keep in mind that people don't like living in filth, and that, even if the government completely dies, there will always be some way of keeping the streets clean as long as people are driving on them. If nothing else, keep in mind a great way of showing which areas are under control is to show them with clean streets.

Not everyone has to be a secret agent or vampire. This is probably one of my least favorite cliches. Look at the bond franchise; all things considered, less than a third of the characters are spies, assassins, or even thieves; they are relatively normal people whose skillset Bond needs at the time, or someone who just happens to cross path with Bond. Everyone having the same occupation does not work as well as you would think, and eventually asks the question of what kind of training program a given country has when there are all of these spies.

Ninja suck. Not everyone has to have martial arts training. Or even weapon training. Sometimes all you need to escape trouble is a fast car or a good subway. It just gets annoying when every encounter between two people results in sex, death, or combat, and usually all three. Even if your characters are thousands of years old, it doesn't mean that they all develop combat skills and abilities; someone is bound to realize that being the best researcher and keeping a few envelopes around is sufficient to keep them alive.

The bottom line here is to have some fun, and avoid too many cookie cutter origins. If the only real difference between two characters is their physical characteristics and weapon of choice, it's going to get really boring really quick. Please keep us readers in mind....

Selling Swag

Okay, so you have some great shirt ideas, or whatever, and you want to sell it. What are some great ways to sell it?

[For the purposes of this post, "shirt idea" means any kind of swag that is related to your comic. If you are selling Frisbees with character heads on them or key chains with logos on them, it counts as a "shirt idea"; this just saves me time when it comes to writing, so go with it.]

Print On Demand: This comes up a lot in this blog, but here we go again. Print on demand allows you to create a wide variety of shirt ideas, but not have to print off huge numbers of them. You make the design, upload it, and then decide what kind of shirts it looks best on. Each one has something that makes it unique, such as a wide variety of potential merchandise (CafePress), buyer personalization (Zazzle), or the ability to put the design into the general pool (Spreadshirt). If you like the way the design is put on the shirt, then go for it, but there are a few different ways to do it. For those looking for something entirely different, try Wodans.

Auction Sites: Once you have your shirt idea done up, now you need to sell it. This is where sites like Ebay, Bonanza and Amazon come in. What you need to do is develop a dropshipping system; in essence, you sell something, and then use the funds generated to buy the item and mail it to the person. There are a number of problems with this, and it is best for when you are starting out and can't afford to print off a number of shirts; when you can afford to, print and ship your own shirts. But this is the best way to do it. Word of advice: Make sure you have a bank account or actual credit card (PayPal card doesn't count, people!) or you may not be able to play.

Mini-stores: Some POD sites let you set up mini-stores. This is a widget that allows you to sell stuff straight from your comic without having to go to an auction site. This cuts out the middleman, means you don't have to worry about shipping, and greatly simplifies your life. Just a consideration.

Shirt Sites: There are number of sites, such as Threadless, that do nothing but sell shirts. Sometimes you need to qualify to for the site, such as Threadless' competitions, but they can be worth it. There are number of sites out there, and some of them even support webcomics, so it may worth checking them out.

So, if you are looking for a way to get paid for your artistic vision, this may be the way you do it...

The Levels of Comedy

When it comes to comedy there are a number of different levels. Understanding these levels should help your writing. These are the six basic levels.

Level 1: Scatological Humor. You'll not that as we go through these, there's a plus/minus to humor: The more specific the joke's target, the funnier the joke. However, that also means that a smaller crowd will get it. Body fluid jokes are pretty funny to anyone; that's why you see so many of them. Because almost everyone has experience with sex, urination, defecation, and flatulence, and because they are considered just a bit embarrassing and intimate, they make for some great comedy.

Level 2: Slapstick. Violence is, unfortunately, part of the human condition. At the same time it is deplorable and we all recognize that; no one wants to be the victim of violence himself no matter how tough they may act, and so it's very presence makes us nervous. This is why slapstick works; we understand that it is a way of dealing with a subject with which we are nervous and makes fun of it. Understand that, and you can make this work.

Level 3: Puns. Okay, now we start getting more specific. Puns are reliant on language; if you don't understand the language, you aren't going to get the joke. The best puns are those that make fun of the orginal in meaning, poking some fun at them. After that are the more absurd ones, that we know the original saying, but have nothing to do with it. This is an area to have fun with, but not too much or you will be tracked down and lynched.

Level 4: Parody. Parody has some issues with it. The problem is that it needs to be on target to work; a parody that is on the beam can be absolutely hilarious, but one that is even off a little will die horribly. Look at Mad Magazine or Saturday Night Live; the sections and sketches that work well kill, but there are also a lot of jokes that die horribly. A good humorist needs to keep that in mind, and not be afraid to try anything; yeah, you're going to fail miserably a lot, but when you succeed you are king of the world. At least until the next joke...

Level 5: Satire. Parody makes fun of a specific subject; satire attacks an entire society. This is one where you really need to know the subject or forget about it. Satire walks a very thin line between humor and boorish, and it's a very easy line to cross. "Gulliver's Travels" is the prime example here; you want to make fun of the target and be respected for it, especially when the target has some actual power. Satire is the power of education; it needs to teach what is wrong about a subject so that the problem can get corrected. This is why jesters were kept around; a good jester could warn the king when he was being too big the fool. By listening to the jester, a king could be more effective. However, keep in mind that the jester had some fatal occupational hazards before you decide to be a satirist.

Level 6: Dark Humor. This is the one that is so specific it does not always work. For those who do get it, it can be very biting, very nasty and very funny. This expresses are very fears and pokes fun at them in order to make it less threatening. These are the jokes about 1984 and Cthulhu, about Ayn Rand and religious governments. This makes satire look like a walk in the park. Keep in mind that, in order to be funny, someone has to get it; if you are the only getting the joke, then it probably isn't that funny, so go down a level or two.

Some Clues on How to Write Comedy

Henny Youngman said it best: Dying is easy. Comedy? Now that's hard. Although you would think it's easy to write a joke, it's actually a lot harder than you would think. Because it is a lot harder to write than they would think, a lot people flub it, and flub it hard. In hopes that someone will benefit, here are some basic tips on how to write a joke.

Puns are your friend. Don't be afraid to try a pun. Yeah, I know; it's low-brow, but a good pun at the right moment can make a great punchline, especially if it's one that you spent some time building up. They may cause a certain groaning, but that's exactly why they work; the reader realizes that it's a bad joke, but still appreciates the humor. Just don't use them too often or people will find a way to lynch you.

Slapstick is an ally. Too many comickers forget that they are in a visual medium, and one that uses action. As slapstick is based on visual action, this means that you can use it to tell a joke. Better yet, because so many people are familiar with it, you don't need to complete the action, creating just a little suspense that helps sell it even better. Let's put it this way: What works better: seeing someone hit by a pie, or about to be hit by a pie but realizing that he's about to be hit? Yep. So use some slapstick.

Memes are your enemy. Although I'm as guilty of this as the next person, keep in mind that you do not want to overuse a meme more than absolutely necessary. A meme only works for as long as it works, and that is usually a short time. Your job as a writer is to use the meme a few times, and then drop it. If you're using too many lolcatz jokes, for example, people will start to wonder why they just aren't going to the lolcatz site, so you'll be losing for not just stale jokes, but because you've become a pale imitation of a funnier site.

The more intelligent the victim, the funnier the joke. So I owe this to Shortpacked, but Batman is the perfect victim. He's smart, way too serious, and far too paranoid; he is exactly the person to poke some fun at. We all like to deflate an ego that has grown out of control, and it always seems to be the person most sure of their skill that needs to be deflated. Add in a pie attack, and it really works.

Debate the parody. Although parody is protected by the Fair Use Act, you need to realize that you walk a fine line. On one side, if you paint the parody too broadly it backfires; too many people making fun of Superman tend to concentrate on the powers without understanding that it's the drama and code of honor that makes him tick, so their portrayal of an ultra-powerful character falls flat. Make it too subtle, however, and you can be sued for copyright infringement. In short, if you don't know the subject that well, your parody of that subject will probably be too broad, so don't bother.

These tips should do for now. Hope they help!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Why Werewolves Bite [ducks]

So, I guess I'm obligated to make fun of werewolves as well, as well as other changers, just for the sake of fairness. So...

The Psychological Were: In a surprise twist, the were is not able to actually change shape but instead regresses to an animal-like personality, becoming a lot more fearsome, capable of doing harm to others, and generally acting like an animal. This can work, but the writer makes the mistake of allowing some human mental processes into the mix; familiarity with someone is fine, but memorization of passcodes and advanced strategy is a definite issue. If the point is to make a statement on the human condition by showing that we are all animals, then it gets undone by allowing the animal access to his human abilities; all you have is a psychotic human who is using his animal urges as an excuse to commit evil, and that really does not make the point.

The Teenage Werewolf: There's an obvious analogy between puberty and lycanthropy; the sudden growth, the increased strength and body mass, the rampaging hormones. It has not been lost on horror writers. When it's used well, it works out great; note the difference between Teen Wolf and Teen Wolf 2. However, the problem is that werewolves are being used more and more as replacements for vampires, including the supernatural boost to angst. Although the angst is understandable, given the chances of accidentally killing someone while transformed, it still feels awkward; the point of being a werewolf is the temporary lack of restraints and to saddle them with all of the negative human emotions will always be weird. They just need to come to grips with who they are; a few counseling sessions would improve this character by leaps and bounds.

The Were of Vengeance: Okay, so I get this one: A guy finds out that he can turn into a werewolf and so decides to take advantage of his were form to kill people, possibly becoming more animal-like in human form. The idea here is to explore those little wishes of revenge that we all have and why they aren't necessarily good for us. The problem is that the writer goes overboard on the idea at some point, and makes the were virtually invincible, possibly to suggest the need for revenge can be overwhelming. The problem is that if you're going to show something as a problem, you also need to show it has a solution, be it forgiving your targets or getting killed because you have become worse than those you prosecute. The irony here is a variation on the psycho-were; you are using an animal to express higher mental functions, and once that happens your story invariably goes off-track. End it quickly, or transform the person into a defender of the weak; either way find a resolution before your readers want to put the were down.

The Out of Control Alpha: This is a relatively recent modification, but one worth noting. The alpha of the pack becomes so invincible that no one can do anything about him, and he rules his pack with an iron and ruthless fist. The pack either takes over some major crime ring or becomes a force for anarchy, and although some of the pack wants to do something about him they are too scared of him. This character is usually meant to show that either mankind is no better than animals, that leadership can corrupt, and/or absolute leadership is a bad thing. The obvious problem is that the writer forgets that he's dealing with humans; any solution to a threat works, and, unlike our animal brethren, we are not limited to hand-to-hand combat. Yeah, a basic hunting rifle will solve the problem just fine, or even, in extremis, a slingshot with a silver marble. You can argue that the pack won't respect someone who wins this way, but the winner does define the rules after all, and the usual rule is to honor the new alpha, and any threats from the old, DEAD alpha should evaporate with the wind as the new political structure solidifies. There will be chaos in the wake of his death, but that should work out well for any decent writer.

The Funny Were: Okay, this is cute, and can work out really, really well in the right hands. The concept is that you are taking a random animal, one that people do not usually associate with lycanthropy, exaggerate the traits, and then make a humorous statement on the human condition through satire. The catch is that it takes a really fine control to make it work, and someone with a very definite point in mind, or else it comes off as more silly than humorous, and the point may be lost. The key is to not make the point too broad, while at the same time applying it to humanity in general; a fine balance point, to be sure, but if you can find it your story will really work.

The New Were: Sometimes people get tired of the usual suspects, and so create a new kind of were. They either research a specific species or come up with one to fill a niche, and sometimes a little bit of both, but any case a new changer is born. The key in all cases is to make sure that your new were fills a niche, or you will get a lot of weird looks from readers; an animal that is just there and doesn't bother fitting just feels like a waste of space. My personal suggestion is to avoid the trickster and warrior roles, as they have lots filling those spots already. Another issue to bear in mind is to not mess with existing too much; if you find a were-antelope that already fills a specific niche for an African tribe, for example, don't mess with it too much or you may offend someone who actually knows about it, and then you have troll issues. Basically, fill a niche or keep it to an established niche, and you should do fine.

Why Vampires Suck [ducks]

Halloween. Yay. There is a reason I've begun dreading this holiday: New vampires. It seems like the easiest way someone can prove how much they love Halloween is by coming up with some new species of vampire. Now, don't get me wrong, I sort of understand why people love them: The angst, the immortality, the power, the not having to do a regular job. I can live with that. But it's time to try something new: Do it old school. There's a good reason the old school vampire works; the combination of super-human abilities, fangs, need for blood, fangs, and weaknesses such as sunlight make a formidable foe with a reason to hide. But, if you need to change him, here are some ways people get this cool monster wrong.

The New Vampire: Someone gets bored of the old vampires and so decides to come up with a new one. He takes away a weakness or two, adds something new, and voila: New boring monster. Or hero. Whatever. However, there is a reason that the old school vamp works: If the vampires have no weaknesses, then they have no reason to hide; the more damaging those weaknesses, the more reason they have to hide. Look at this from a strategist's viewpoint: Give a vampire access to enough blood, and a small number of them can take on an army. Better yet, the vampire only needs enough blood to get started; those he slays provide him with replacement blood. If you attack the right places, the vampires can take over the world in a few short years.

Not enough people write about vampires taking over. Give the vamps some counseling, combat training, and just tell them where to strike. For some ideas, check out Kate Locke's "God Save The Queen."

The Scientific Vampire: This is even worse. An author does his homework, and finds out how to scientifically explain some of the issues with being a vampire and explains away other details as folklore. This can work, but it requires some thought beyond wanting to debunk the supernatural; you need a desire to tell a great story. The British TV series Ultraviolet works great, but that's because they also use some the weaknesses to come up with some great weapons, and they keep what makes a vampire fun, namely that they have to deal with their longevity somehow and that humans outnumber them, so they have to keep hidden. Read: The keep the drama and keep the horror coming. Too many scientific vampires have had all of the fun drained out of them along with the mystery, and they become just part of the background. That should never happen with a monster with a vampire's pedigree.

PS: Energy vampires suck. It is an attempt at creating a bloodless vampire. Although it can work in superhero and SF comics, it usually comes off as, well, lacking a certain sanguineness. So don't do it.

The Omnipotent Vampire: It may sound like a great idea, but somewhere along the line someone comes up with a vampire that is essentially invincible. In a way, this is where Vampire: The Masquerade (the RPG) jumped the shark; once it allowed vampires to be really old and therefore powerful, there was really no reason to play anything else, and the game was no longer fun. The same applies to writing; a really powerful vampire either needs to rule the world or become a bogeyman, otherwise people are going to come after him. A writer needs a character who can be beaten, or it just becomes boring really quickly.

The Angsty Vampire: Last, and probably least. Usually combined with one of the above with the idea that it is a limiting factor, and it usually does not work that way. The theory is that girls like guys that are sad, and so want to cheer them up. Guys know this; that's why they use sadness to get chicks in bars. However, somewhere someone got the idea that a vampire should be sad about living forever, and the idea spread. Now, it works for some characters, such as when the vampire has a past he wants to work, such as Aiden in "Being Human", or Spike, but that's because they recognize the issues with being a vampire and make allowances for it. They have accepted that they can be murderers and they have made their peace with it. Edward is still hanging high schools banging high school girls, knowing that he either turns them, creating a problem with the local vampires, or they die. I personally believe that if your vampires are acting like humans after fifty or so years, other vampires are likely to kill them off. So just stop it...