Stolen Pixels #174: Better Than Aquaman

By Shamus Posted Friday Mar 5, 2010

Filed under: Column 41 comments

Go read the comic, then come back if you like and read a bit about the humor in this strip.

As part of judging the webcomic contest I’ve been thinking a lot about the different humor styles. This one was a very standard 4-panel* “gag a day” style strip: An exchange between two or three characters leading up to a single punchline. It’s not really my strong suit, but it’s interesting and educational to mix things up now and again.

I mentioned earlier in the week that “Sometimes I write the Best Joke EVER and it gets a shrug. Sometimes I put up something that feels lazy and half-finished and it gets praised as the Funniest Thing Ever.” I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that this one will receive a polite but tepid response. We’ll see how accurate that is once it goes live. (I’m writing this on Thursday night.)

The “gag a day” moniker is usually applied disdainfully. I’m not sure why. Pretty much all of the major names of the previous century – Peanuts, Dilbert, Calvin & Hobbes, adhered to this formula in their daily strips. I actually find it a kind of scary style to use. The weight of the whole strip rests on the final panel. If the reader anticipates the punchline or doesn’t like the joke, the whole thing fails. In my own work I nearly always go for the “joke barrage” style. I don’t put too much trust in any one idea. I try to chain a bunch of them together so that even if the last panel is a dud, you might still have found something in the strip that you thought was funny or incisive. My goal is to have one humorous phrase, joke, or interesting observation for every panel. I don’t always hit that lofty goal, but that’s the bar I set for myself.

I might spend a few strips mixing things up, just for fun & variety. Stasis is death.

* I had to do it in 5 panels just because I was dealing with screenshots. If this were drawn, it could easily have been done in 4.


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41 thoughts on “Stolen Pixels #174: Better Than Aquaman

  1. Gary says:

    I know what you mean about the “dud vs critical aclaim” phenomenon that occurs with comics. Humor is a fickle thing. Like you, sometimes something I think is a riot when I draw up the comic becomes an absolute flop. And again, vice versa.

    Such is the life of one who dabbles in comedy.

    I wouldn’t feel bad though. You have quite a bit of success at the funny. I think you do it well.

    Just remember funny is relative :) They say that there exists universal funny out there, but I have yet to find it.

  2. Robert says:

    This one was OK. Polite but tepid…right on the mark!

    1. 6thfloormadness says:

      I agree. When I read the comic there was certainly something off about it, and it wasn’t until Shamus mentioned the joke barrage vs gag a day that I realized what was different.

  3. Deoxy says:

    Enjoyably funny, yet forgettable, as many daily strips are – a few moments of funny in a dull day. Nothing wrong with those – you could make a good living if you could deliver those on a daily basis.

    Not as life-changingly funny as your good stuff, of course. But you knew that.

    Oh, and your “successs/die” graphic up there is a new one (to me, anyway), and very funny… as almost all of those that I have seen have been. There was one that was about as funny as today’s comic (which is still funny, mind you), and the rest… well, they often overshadow your other content these days, at least the first time I see them.

  4. LintMan says:

    I thought this was a pretty good one.

    I’m stuck with the “Super Friends” model in my head as well. That cartoon is a gold mine of unintentional humor. (Seanbaby’s site is a scream, dismantling the show goofy character by goofy character. Unfortunately the video links are down, but the rest is still worth reading.

  5. Man, superman ruins everything

  6. Ingvar says:

    I found it mildly amusing. If nothing else, I can just about see Batman turning into Rabid Batman the second or third time someone says “could you call Superman for us? No? How about Jimmy Olsen, then?” (does JO still have a Superman-summoning wristwatch? He used to, when I read the comic, back before the death and rebirth, in the 80s).

    Then they’d have to send the bat-control people out, to put Batman down, being a rabies source and all. That’d be “haha-sob” rather than “haha-funny!”, though.

    1. Meredith says:

      Yeah, I imagined a Batman rage at being called/asked about Superman for the 4-millionth time.

      1. SolkaTruesilver says:

        I think it would be worse if Superman himself was asked to contact Batman..

        “What do you mean, contact Batman? What can he do that I can’t?!”

  7. pnf says:

    If the reader anticipates the punchline or doesn't like the joke, the whole thing fails.

    I don’t know if this works the same way for other people, but if I anticipate a funny punchline (“Oh, wouldn’t it be funny if…”), and then that actually happens, I consider that a bonus. But yeah, predictably bad is worse.

    Was going to mention Seanbaby’s Superfriends site if LintMan hadn’t. Funny, funny stuff.

  8. Jordi says:

    I anticipated the punchline and I didn’t think it was your best work. Could be just because I recently saw a vid* with the same premise though.

    * contains The Dark Knight spoilers I guess

  9. David V.S. says:

    To me, this one was “polite but tepid” just because it’s focus was an old and well-used thought.

    If the cop and woman had said, “Well, at least he’s not Aquaman”, that would be slightly better, as only Seanbaby regularly makes that joke.

    If the cop and woman had asked him to come back later, to not try to save the day until he was with Wendy, Marvin and Wonderdog, then — combined with your link to the SuperFriends opening video, it would have been much more original and funny, an over-the-top way to say the same thing.

    1. Shamus says:

      Wow. That would have been a daring joke. The Escapist audience is a good bit younger than the one we have here. I wonder how many would recognize Marvin and Wendy? It might have been a surprise nostalgia ambush, or it might have sailed right by them like a Soupy Sales reference.

      Would be interesting to try for some 70’s material at some point and see who bites.

      1. H.M says:

        Hell, I only know about them due to my unhealthy obsession with comic book trivia

    2. Mari says:

      The “at least he’s not Aquaman” thing is almost as cliched as Superman > Batman. But yeah Wendy, Marvin, and Wonderdog would have been as unexpected as the Spanish Inquisition. The Wonder Twins would also have worked, with or without Gleek but been less obscure.

      SuperFriends ruined a whole lot of things for comics fans of that generation. For instance, am I the only one who ever wondered what the point of Wonder Woman’s “invisible” jet would be if she was visible inside it? “Oh look! There’s Wonder Woman flying sitting down again! She must be way more awesome than Superman because he still has to stand to fly.” And if the Legion of Doom had their creepy Darth Vader head headquarters in a swamp why didn’t Superman just use his heat vision and super breath to dry up every swamp in the world until he found the LoD then kick their butts? And if the LoD was so smart why did nobody figure out to load a gun with a yellow bullet and off Green Lantern? Speaking of the LoD, if they were so smart why did they need to steal the SuperFriends’ computer at all. I mean, they theoretically had several super geniuses on their side, why not just make their own?

    3. Blake says:

      Who the hell are Wendy and Marvin?

      1. Wendy is from Peter Pan and Marvin (the Paranoid Android) is from Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Batman once saved Wendy from Captain Hook and they went on to fight crime in space using the Starship Heart of Gold. Marvin used to be like, “We can’t win this time!” but Wendy would retort, “Sure we can, nobody’s using soap to stick their shadow back on here” and Batman would be in the shadows (they used subtle humour back then) and he’d leap out and yell, giving Wendy a fright and they’d all laugh. Then they beat the bad guys and told everyone a moral at the end. It was a pretty awesome show.

        1. Shamus says:

          Believe this answer. It’s less painful than the truth.

  10. Kiwipolish says:

    I always preferred the “joke barrage” for the same reasons you stated above: my favorite strip of DMotR, where the three players are running from the ridiculous skull trap in the Caves of the Dead, had me rolling on the floor in every panel *except* the last one. I don’t know, maybe I sympathized too much with the “whiny, nitpicking players” comment from the GM to really get a laugh out of it. I seem to recall the expectation of the same format is what caused a lot of the complaining over Chainmail Bikini, unjustified though much of it was (what WAS that one guy’s problem with Ivy?)

    But the other reason I prefer it is the dialogue just feels more natural compared to a gag a day strip. Most real life conversations that I’ve found humorous match up to the “joke barrage” style, and often the jokes keep building up on each other. Gag-a-days can and often are done well, but sometimes feel stilted and unnatural because they have to set up the pun at the end, and have to pace the joke to last four panels exact.

  11. Drexer says:

    Zum (taunting): “You must be Aquaman. What can you do? You can’t fly or run fast, can you? Your skin may be tough, but not so tough I can’t just… cut through. What can you do, apart from talk to fish?”
    Aquaman: “Let me think…. I can locate your brain’s basal ganglia, the part inherited from your marine ancestors… and, just for starters, I can give you a seizure.”

    Have you experienced any seizures lately Shamus?

    EDIT: I hate when I mis-write my email. Imagine a niftier avatar than that weird pentagon please.

  12. Maddy says:

    I wouldn’t have minded the punchline so much if I hadn’t seen the missed opportunity that you had to give up in exchange for the setup. Batman could have reacted more, y’know, Batmanly to being called “the other one,” opening the door to another Shamusly joke barrage.

  13. Moridin says:

    The problem with gag-a-day style comic is that sometimes it’s going to be just “meh”. Like this one. Whereas when one strip contains multiple jokes, they don’t need to be particularly funny for the strip in its entirety to be funny.

  14. Vladius says:

    Superman is a terrible character because he’s so inhuman. He’s an alien, but instead of being an interesting alien, he’s one that looks exactly like a human except with god powers. Even his “weakness” is uninteresting – instead of the emotional problems that would probably come with being a superhero, he has green rocks. He has no supervillains worth mentioning, and you have to really try to provide a reason for why he could get beat up like a normal person in order to shoehorn any sort of plot togehter.
    All of his movies are terrible too.

    Superman sux

    Batman supremacy 4 lyfe

  15. Juni says:

    Huh, I thought this joke was pretty great. Maybe I just have bad taste?

  16. Blackbird71 says:

    Heh. Reminded me of this episode of Freakazoid! featuring Lord Bravery:

    (cut to around 4:00 for the superman bit)

    1. Aaron says:

      Oh my gosh, Freakazoid was amazing.

  17. Joshua says:

    Lump me in with those who like joke barrage. One awesome example of this is Scott Meyer, as each of his panels have different jokes, and the last isn’t always the funniest one.

    In regards to your style Shamus, I wouldn’t describe your best jokes as a “barrage”, but rather a build-up. There’s a final punch-line, but there’s humor all of the way there too. One good example I can think of off the top of my head is this one:

    I like them much better than the ones where you do a straight-man routine all of the way and then finish with the punch-line.

  18. Avatar says:

    Scott Adams talked about this in one of his books. He pointed out that putting one joke in a comic fell flat a lot of the time. From a list of a few “comedic elements”, he’d always try to use at least two, and three if he could manage it. Cuteness was one of them, as was meanness, so practically anything Dogbert would do turned out well. Stupidity isn’t enough, but stupidity plus cuteness plus sarcasm worked better.

    You don’t necessarily need a barrage of humor – there’s more to it than throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks. But it helps to have a reaction to the punchline.

    The strip above, for example, had one joke – “Batman isn’t very super”. Why was it flat? You had two straight men and no snark. Make Batman a little sarcastic instead of “don’t worry, citizen, I’m here to help”, and the humor multiplies.

    1. Joshua says:

      Some insightful answers here. However, I realized that Shamus usually has some additional humor in the commentary that goes along with the comic. Oftentimes, the insight to the right can bolster a good joke and make it better. This is a formula that worked really well with DMotR.

  19. Hawk says:

    Better punchline:

    (Disappointed) “Oh … we need someone who can talk to fish.”

    It inverts the whole Aquaman joke.

    1. Zaxares says:

      ^ That would have been a MUCH better punchline. Although it would require reworking the entire comic strip.

      But yeah, this comic got “polite applause” from me. I can see the joke in the strip, but it failed to make me laugh.

      1. Joe says:

        How about:
        “Oh… Can you at least talk to fish?”

        Maintains the inversion, but removes the need to rewrite the whole thing. Bonus points because we expect routine joke, but actually get… that.

  20. Cuthalion says:

    See, I never read comics, and I’m only 20, so I don’t think I’d heard any Superman > Batman jokes before. So I thought it was funny.

  21. Josh says:

    To be honest, much of the humor in this strip for me was the subvertion of the whole “Batman beats Superman Stravaganza” that has taken over the web in the last few years. Maybe I just like subvertions.

  22. Ramsus says:

    I found the most amusing part of this one the “give rides to people” line. As the show itself is older than I am the link was also nice.

    I suppose you were right about it failing if the reader anticipates the joke because I saw it coming at the end of the second panel. Not saying it didn’t give me a chuckle anyway. I wasn’t actually sure you were going to make that joke or do something more unexpected (like perhaps a play of some kind on that kind of joke).

  23. Jeysie says:

    I think a gag comic (or gag/punchline anything) is all about a combination of surprise and predictability. Basically, the reader should be surprised at the outcome, yet be able to look back and realize they should have expected it. (Or maybe they suspect it a little, but don’t predict the full details until they get hit with it.)

    That’s obviously a hard balance to achieve, though.

    I do agree with you on humor being subjective. I’ve had so many times myself that some line I never expected to be funny, or intended to only be mildly funny, gets an uproarious response from someone. And conversely, something I intended to be really funny gets an “eh”.

    Looking on it further, I think I’m actually a little like you, in that I usually tend to fill my “funny” stories with lots of overall quirkiness and humor rather than going for just a single punchline. (Although the one time I tried going for a punchline comic it seemed to go over rather well. That was a single full page rather than a strip, though.)

  24. suedenim says:

    This one got a hearty out-loud laugh from me, for what it’s worth.

  25. luagha says:

    I believe it was Gail Simone who had an excellent bit in a Wonder Woman comic she was writing. Wonder Woman is at her embassy and she’s having a meeting with her publicist who is explaining to her why her political efforts to make the world a generically better place aren’t working out so hot. The publicist says:

    “Take Superman. He’s obvious. Superman is everyone’s friend. He’s your big brother. He’s always there to help, and he never judges. He’s established that place, and that’s why everyone listens to him.

    Batman is different. Batman fights the things in dark places that we are afraid of. We are all happy that there is a Batman, doing what he does, because deep down we know it has to be done. But, no one ever wants to see Batman because if you see Batman then something very dangerous is happening very close by. If Batman tells you it’s dangerous and you should run, you run.”

    Wonder Woman doesn’t quite have either of those positions staked out.

  26. oleyo says:

    As usual for me, I laughed hardest during “the breakdown” in the sidebar. I dont know why but this sort of scholarly analysis of a usually inane concept always makes me laugh. This time I burst out laughing when I clicked the link and saw batman “give someone a ride” in his action intro as was observed.

  27. Roll-a-die says:

    Aquaman is such a disregarded superhero it’s not even funny anymore. It’s fun to explain to people what the pressure is like at the bottom of the ocean, just note Challenger Deep has 16,000 psi of pressure. He stands at 6’2″ so 74 inches tall at (74 tall*18.5 wide)*2 for both sides of his body he has 2654 inches of his body exposed at all times. He is potentially exposed to 42464000 pounds of pressure at all times. Fuck jumping over a sky scraper he could leap to the moon if his body has the strength to overcome that. That’s 21232.5 tons of force. He could lift and throw a bridge.

    And that’s assuming he has a 26 inch waist.

    I’m using challenger deep because he said his eyes were adjusted to 36,000 feet CD is 35,838.

    Yet the comics always portray him as weak. Which is odd he should be able to go toe to toe with superman and potentially win just on strength alone. He lacks superman’s assorted other powers though. I don’t know if Superman has any aquatic ancestors either.

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