Recently I agreed to publicly advise cartoonist Scott Meyer, in the fashion of a reality show, with your help, as he attempts to develop his comic, Basic Instructions, for a bigger audience. If you are new to this blog, start with this link to catch up:
In my previous post on this topic, I asked my readers whether Scott Meyer should focus his strip on relationships, to make it more marketable, or keep it general. The overwhelming majority of readers recommended keeping it general.
How many comics have succeeded with a “general” topic? The most successful example that comes to mind is The Far Side. There’s also Bizarro, Herman, Bloom County, and Non Sequitur.
But how general are they really?
Arguably, The Far Side had a wildlife theme. It usually featured some sort of creature acting like a human. And it often focused on an unlucky coincidence, such as the daycare center being next to the dingo dog sanctuary.
The purpose of having a theme is so readers can say, “That’s me.” The Far Side accomplished that in a novel way. When people would send me their favorite Far Side clipping, it was their way of saying, “This is my sense of humor. I am weirder and darker than you might imagine.” It was completely personal. It was also one-of-a-kind.
Bloom County had kids and a penguin and a guy in a wheelchair. Its themes were all over the place. But interestingly, he won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning. While the author, Breathed, certainly thought he was covering a wide variety of themes, many readers perceived it as a political comic.
Hold that thought, and allow me expand it with a story from my own experience.
When Dilbert was new, a computer publication approached United Media to reprint all of my computer-themed Dilbert strips in their magazine. The deal was made. Then United Media went to the archives to assemble all of my computer-related comics.
There were six.
Over a thousand Dilbert comics had been published, and both the computer publication people and my own syndication company thought Dilbert was “about computers.” Readers tell you what your comic is about, regardless of how many times you address a theme.
Not long after that strange event, the media started going nuts for Dilbert. They liked the fact that it showed the workers’ point of view. Again, this was news to me. In the early days of Dilbert, my themes were quite general. Dilbert had a job, but it wasn’t the focus. In those days, when I showed the workplace, I was as likely to show the management view as the employee view. The media, and my readers, told me I had a workplace strip that took the workers’ perspective. I took the hint, changed the focus to actually be about the workplace, and Dilbert’s perspective, and the strip took off like crazy.
It’s much easier to sell a comic if you can describe what it’s about in a word or two.
Dilbert: cubicle dwellers
Calvin and Hobbes: Little boy
For Better or For Worse: Family
Marmaduke: Big dog
Get Fuzzy: Dog and Cat
Pearls Before Swine: Stupidity
My advice to Scott Meyer is to focus on men-women themes about 25% of the time at this stage. That’s enough to give the strip an identity without seriously limiting the topics he can address. And from the samples I’ve seen, those themes are often his best.
For the other 75% of his comics, it’s enough to simply have a man and woman in the conversation, acting as men and women do, and it will seem like a relationship strip regardless of the topic. He can even feature one character, a male, acting typically male, and it will still seem like a strip about men and women in the larger context of the comic.
Strategically, if he plans to submit his work for syndication, this approach will give the editors who review it some choices on which way to develop it. Scott can always say no to any offer or advice. But if the only syndication offer comes attached with the strong advice to make Basic Instructions more about relationships, to make it easier for them to sell, Scott can at least have that option.
Once he’s in 1,000 newspapers, he can do anything he wants.