What is cheating, anyway?

  • On November 17, 2009 ·
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This post is going to cover several topics – the forum and comments, twitter, what you can expect in content, and then the subject of cheating. But first lets do some house cleaning.

Taking the forum offline and enabling comments

I like forums. They’re great places for group discussions. Yes, Twitter is awesome, but sometimes you need/want more than 140 characters. I took posting in our forum much like posting blogs here. I could expand on a subject over several posts, add all sorts of references, links, videos, images. But that created twice the real estate to cover. Blogging in the morning is a good way to focus but too much of it can get in the way of real work. Having to post content in a forum as well increases the amount of stuff I could be doing instead of drawing and what’s the gain in that? I know running a forum means posting lots of fresh content and getting others to do the same. I had friends who signed up but almost none of them invested the time to even make a first post. These are people I know. If they can’t bother to post anything, what’s the likelihood of strangers wanting to register and post? So for the time being I’m going to be realistic and scale back. I’m opening up comments on the blog. Registering is a plus. I’d like folks to register so I can eventually work on a members area for them to interact and whatnot. But right now just comment if you have ideas, suggestions, or like what you see. You don’t have to register to comment – in fact, I’m wiring Twitter up to commenting to encourage folks to join in.

I’m enabling it for blog posts from now on because, really, turning comments on for the entire archive is silly. If anything I should have a time limit on how old articles can be before commenting goes off. I’ve got too many posts to enable/disable comments on everything easily and offering older posts only opens up more room for spammers. Spam is a big concern of mine. Last time I opened comments I got somewhere between 3-5,000 spam comments. The only realistic way I could remove them all was to nuke the database. I don’t want to have to do that again. But I know folks want to discuss the stuff I post here and I really want to engage them in it. Hopefully things will be more manageable this time around.

Who’s this blog for, anyway?

They say you write what you know. So my audience is, in effect, me. Or people like me. I’ve been reading/making webcomics for awhile now and I’m honestly making a serious effort these days. I have a story I like that I want to tell to the best of my abilities and I want to share working on that with the rest of you. It seems a little esoteric right now because I’m discussing the creative process/struggle from the point before the launch. I’ve set a launch date and I’m working to get as much done before then as I can. Once the comic premiers I’ll be sharing more artwork up here and trying to get some opinions on it. I’ll also be streaming some as I work like other webcartoonists are doing. I just don’t want folks getting sick of seeing the same page before it’s actually complete and they see it in context.

Thoughts on cheating

“Cheating” is one of those loaded concepts, like “selling out,” that usually doesn’t have much meaning beyond what’s in the mind of the person saying it. When I first got into webcomics everybody was hating on sprite comics. Megaman, Final Fantasy, whatever it was, people considered them the bottom of the barrel. Anybody could slap some images together and write a fart joke on top of it. But what about sprites you created? What about reusing your own art? Does that mean even original pixel art done in the style of 8-bit games is cheap? How about comics that use pre-existing art like PartiallyClips or Wondermark? Today we have stickfigure comics and other strips where the art is an afterthought to the joke or concept being expressed. This brings up the question – what is cheating?

This is one of those “I know it when I see it” deals. It’s over-used, sure. There are folks who consider anything that isn’t hand-drawn and lettered a cop-out. Use a digital font? Cheater. Wacom tablet? Cheaty McCheatpants. How about 3D comics that use posed models and there’s no real drawing going on? I argue it’s more about intent and motive than anything else. If somebody throws something together haphazardly  and then goes to a forum and brags wanting to show off their skills, we can see through that. We don’t care because you haven’t given us a reason to care. Two guys sitting on a couch playing a video game and you’ve photoshopped in a blurry background. It’d be a masterpiece maybe back in the day when we didn’t have Photoshop or a thousand bland comics about two guys playing games.

Cover to How to Cheat in Photoshop CS3

This right here is what I think of when people talk about cheating. The author wants to show off some quick tricks that’ll fix up any old thing. As with any technology, there is no “make it good” button in Photoshop. You need to pay attention to every element individually as well as look at your piece as a whole. Sometimes it’s as easy as setting up an action and a work flow to correct a recurring problem. Other times you should just rip the thing up and start again. I mean, do you see the hole in his elbow under the cards? Once it’s seen it can’t be unseen.

But this doesn’t just apply to PS. When we draw we take little shortcuts. We all do. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We want to speed things up and get to the parts we like. But how many times do you redraw a memorized pattern for a hand only to later realize it doesn’t look like the person is actually holding anything? How many webcomics these days have characters with their arms crossed and their eyes half open? Now carry this into writing. How many times does snarkiness replace personality in a character? How many “zany neighbor” types do we see? As much as I enjoy Family Guy the character of Peter drives me crazy because he does insane things because, obviously, he’s the dumbest person in the world. Just like how every sitcom dad has to be so stupid he’s dangerous. This is a de-evolution of comedy that comes from being raised on certain things and regurgitating them. A common criticism of  The Simpsons is that there’s nothing left to do. The show’s been on so long that the writers are running out of material to explore. Then there’s the fact that people coming in grew up on the show. I recall hearing that one of the writers was excited about working on the show because he had a class on it in college. As it is now the series is so engrained in people’s minds that it’s stale. And this brings us back to comics in a strange way. Once a strip becomes successful it often grows complacent and formulaic. After all, less folks are going to write in and complain about an inoffensive comic. This breeds mediocrity.

On the other end of the spectrum there’s Jumping the Shark and Worthless Characters. Fonzie jumping the shark in Happy Days is one of those moments where you sit back and go, “What the hell am I even watching anymore?” In comics you might be familiar with Cerebrus Syndrome. Lots of us have been there. We’ve got this goofy gag strip and our characters are doing outlandish things. Then we decide we’re serious artists and turn some one-off bit into this epic 10 year storyline. This makes a comic like an onion. It’s tightly compact, has many layers, and usually brings readers to tears trying to unravel the damned thing. Containment of storylines, arcs, and plot points can be hard to manage. If you need footnotes to orient readers on what’s going on you might be having troubles. It’s best to have a clear narrative and point to what you’re trying to get across. I used to let my stories meander and go all over the place. You can get lost that way if you don’t set some limits and constraints. It doesn’t have to subscribe to the sitcom ideal of everything returning to the status quo by episode’s end, but it’s easier to work with stories if you think of them in bits as opposed to ongoing continuing sagas that never ever end. Ever.

The kid who played Cousin Oliver on the Brady Bunch

I rarely watched The Brady Bunch but I know the loathing people had for Cousin Oliver. You see him a lot in TV shows where they try to recreate lightning in a bottle. Cast chemistry is a magical thing. When it works it just works. Sometimes something new doesn’t belong there. Sometimes something new should be it’s own thing and it shouldn’t encroach on the existing property. And sometimes it’s best to just hang things up when the magic is gone. Take a look at this photo from That 70s Show.

Cast pic from That 70s Show illustrating how nobody likes Randy

Somebody look out of place here? That guy peeping out from the left there? Why yes,it’s Randy, the guy they wrote in to replace Eric and Kelso. I have nothing against this actor personally. Yet every time his character was on screen I would get mad at my TV. He was such a transparent fill-in and I hated how we were just supposed to accept him. At some point we become invested in the characters and the series. If you don’t treat them with care this happens. If you have some sort of agenda to push with your comic or fall back on cliches you lose a lot of the credibility you’ve worked for. Characters should be introduced naturally. Another good example is Superman Returns. They really wanted to return to the Richard Donner/Christopher Reeve era Superman movies. In a lot of ways you can see that movie as a love letter to Superman 2. (So much so that a good case can be made that it doesn’t actually go anywhere new.) Personally, I think you can take your favorite characters out and play with them, fine, but do something interesting with them. And this comes back to the whole new character problem because in this movie we have super baby. That’s right, Lois had a kid and got married while Superman was gone. That’s not what I sign up for when I go to see Superman. I don’t want to see the awkwardness of them wanting to make out and then the husband comes in. Is that what you watch a Supes movie for? Awkward love triangles? With everything they could throw into that movie – a smorgasbord of villains they could introduce into the movie universe – they pull out Lex Luthor. At least it wasn’t another origin story again, right?