Thu Jul 29 05:12:21 EDT 2010

a few words on using too many words

It recently came to my attention that the classic webcomics-criticism blog Your Webcomic Is Bad And You Should Feel Bad has bought the farm. In John Solomon's memory, I'm going to rip the shit out of Subnormality, a webcomic by one "Winston Rowntree", which may or may not deserve it. You decide! Admire this page, chosen not particularly at random.

I don't know about you, but I don't think it's half bad. It's of classic illustrated story form, with drawings accompanying text. The hyperbole is overwrought, but overall, it's competent. There are definitely worse webcomics.

With the comic before that, everything falls to shit.

A specific criticism: The punchline doesn't make any sense. The punchline that is telegraphed wasn't particularly funny, but made a certain kind of har har, Reagan rapping, sense. But in the same manner that reverse stupidity is not intelligence, adding a shocking reversal to a not terribly funny punchline causes it to make no sense at all. Just what is Winston saying here? That Reagan was literally a twenty foot tall rapper, and Margaret Thatcher was a space alien that could summon ICBMs?


A general criticism: There are too many words.

Let me start this off[*] by saying that I have only contempt for people who complain about verbosity. As a person who regularly churns out huge doorstoppers, I cannot help but be a fan of talking a lot. It is certainly possible to be overly verbose, but some ideas are just plain complicated, and have to be explained at length.

But certain mediums are brutally unsuited for long form writing. Viz, the visual ones; movies and comics.

In movies, this is plain to see, inherent in time constraints. A movie is primarily limited by the bladders of the audience. Someone reading text out loud, at a moderate speed, will average something like 3500 words an hour.

This is slow. The audiobook version of Harry Potter 5 is 27 hours. Cryptonomicon is 42. (One can immediately see that Cryptonomicon is the superior book.) You can save quite a lot of time by just panning across a scene, instead of devoting a couple pages to it, but you still have to have actors talking at each other.

And so, in the conversion to screenplay form, a novel will usually end up as about 8,000 words, by excising subplots, redundant characters, the hundred page rant about the evils of capitalism that brings the second act to a halt; as well as subtlety, theme, or anything that made the novel good.

This, incidentally, is about the length of a short story, which, incidentally, is why the short story market imploded around the time Hollywood took off. All the short story writers became screenplay writers, and all the people who read short stories started watching movies instead.

But we're getting away from the point, which is that Subnormality is far, far too verbose for the comic form. It's just got too many words per panel.

This has a number of knock-on effects. For one, the emotional tone of all the words in a speech bubble have to remain about the same, or else the expression on the face of the character becomes incongruous. This can be seen in the third panel of this Penny-Arcade strip. What is being said conflicts with what the character is showing.

Winston appears to be aware of this, jiving with his general competence everywhere else. Unfortunately, the only way to work around this is to write bland dialog. This can be worked around by putting all the talking characters off-screen, like this one but that is of... limited utility. (Full disclosure: I laughed so hard at that one that there may have been some drooling.) You can also just have one character delivering a monologue, with no actions, and no dialog, like this one. That works, and works fairly well, but there's just not a whole lot you can do in that format. And, again, there's no emotional range, which is why all the characters tend to end up wearing expressions of dull surprise.

Note: This is not at all the same thing as "talking a lot". Watchmen probably has an entire novel's worth of words in it, that's cool. Because it's in comic form, with a sane number of words per panel. As I have already said, I like Subnormality page 514, which happens to have a lot of words in it. What's the difference between page 514, which is good, and page 513, which sucks?

Paragraphs. The text in page 514 is in prose format, with line breaks, and paragraphs. The text in page 513 is in giant blocks, in tiny squint-o-vision font. When Winston crams tomes of text into speech bubbles, he is not being verbose, he is being inept. End note.

The second problem is that this results in wasteful storytelling. For an example, look dis.

Wow, that's a lot of words. Let's count the number of words in the eighth panel... and I get 317. Just counting the dialog-heavy panels, and rounding down, that's 2500 words. Uncondensed, since Bruno (No seriously, that's his name!) is summarizing, that's maybe 6000-8000 words. A full short story, a hundred page graphic novel.

In one page. What the fuck? Why are you doing this?

Think what it would be like! First ten pages, you're in orbit with the spess mehreens, some worldbuilding, some subtle backstory, next ten pages, they go down to the surface, introduce the planet itself, some speculation on how a dead world would end up with so much oil, maybe a hint that All Is Not As It seems, next ten pages, the first night, all hell breaks looks, psychedelic horror dreamscape, (which Winston loves drawing etc, etc. That wouldn't be bad!

It wouldn't be good, though. I've got some problems with the story. For one, it's eye-crossingly retarded, postulating a number of incredibly stupid things, most notably, that transporting oil over interstellar distances is profitable, a position that is, to put it lightly, inconsistent with reality. (1.3 MiB pdf. Punchline on page 10.)[**] Plus, he implies we're using an oil-based economy, even after said oil runs out. Ha ha, really?

An aside: What's with Winston and the "there's a lot of ghosts" theme? Also, assuming there's an even twelve billion of baby chick ghosts, outnumbering the human race 2 to 1, then that's one ghost every 42.5 square meters. Not exactly a "carpet". Also: "a level of death unprecedented in nature"? Are we not counting entropy, death by old age, the inevitable death which awaits us all? Because that's a fun one.

Getting back to the story at hand...

Asteroid impacts are rare, but the Earth is old. Over its lifespan it has been repeatedly smashed with terrifyingly huge asteroids, an event that is so common that evidence for it is hard to find, each wiping out trillions of lives at a time. There's been five events where half of all species alive at the time went extinct, were entirely wiped out, and that's just the ones we know of, because before 542 million years ago, they didn't leave behind bodies for us to count!

Yet there are no legions of ghosts carpeting the Earth, furious at how their lives were cut short.

The basic foundation of fantasy (because this sure as hell isn't science fiction) is internal consistency. If something happens for a reason, then it has to happen for the same reason, everywhere.

And this isn't counting that you wouldn't get oil this way. Oil formation is kinda complicated, requiring a few more things than "dead animals", such as suitable rock formations, a certain kind of anaerobic decomposition, etc, etc.

And and this isn't counting that the proximate result of sticking a planet in a time acceleration field is the mother of all ice ages. Accelerate time by a million times, and you reduce the intensity of infalling light by a million times.

First the water would freeze out of the atmosphere, then the oxygen, then the nitrogen. A snowball world, far too cold to sustain any atmosphere at all. Does this sound like the kind of place where mudslides happen?

This all takes place while the planet gently drifts out of the solar system. Accelerate time by a million times, and you reduce inertia by a million times. This "plan" doesn't even begin to make sense.

Speaking of basic factual errors, this comic. 18 years? If you're going to make a joke based on the speed of light, check to make sure that the solar system isn't 36 light years wide. Or how this comic assumes that technology can be banned. The example used in the comic, and I am not kidding, are nuclear weapons. Which nobody has ever misused, right?

He then goes on to assume the existence of both free will and predestination, simultaneously!

This isn't even mentioning Winston's habit of making bizarrely pointless comics. Ha ha, reusable envelopes are hilarious! Except for the point where you forgot to actually write a joke. That makes even less sense than it would in context, since it's part of an extended riff, but even when even considering it as a whole it just isn't funny.

But since Winston obviously wants to be a political cartoonist, what with his taste for captions and subtle humor, he could do well by emulating the greatest political cartoonist in the history of the world, Tim Kreider, who has a habit of appending multi-thousand-word artist's statements to cartoons.

That way you get the best of both words, saving the complex ideas for the essay, and the luscious breasts for the comic. (Apparently Winston liked that idea so much he did it twice. What's the punchline for either of these? Ha ha, attractive women are attractive?)

Another webcomic that operates using this model is the venerable Penny Arcade, where indeed the first thing you see when you visit their site is the essay, and then you have to click a link to see the comic.

A webcomic along those lines is a webcomic I'd read. Heck, I might even buy a printed collection, a monumental act of faith I have invested in very few comics. Subnormality could be one of them!

If only it didn't suck.

*: "No offense, but those pants make you look, like, super fat. Five thousand calories a day fat. Medical emergency fat. Fatty fat fat fat fat."

**: See also: The Myth Of The Starship, by Charles Stross. Punchline: Sublight starships as we think of them do not, can not, and will not ever exist, without really startling breakthroughs in quite a lot of fields.

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