Benefit of Writing Comics: Humour or Humor

June 19, 2015

Welcome one and all to the final installment in my ongoing series about the benefits towards prose writing that can be gained from comic strip writing. All writing has its challenges, but for me, at least, the most difficult writing to get right is humor writing. For nearly a decade, the Cubes comic strip has let me practice writing humorous scenes and stories and it’s still difficult.

When I set about creating the Cubes comic strip my main inspiration was my working life. There were a lot of events happening on an almost daily basis that just seemed bizarre or humorous. The types of things that if you had to explain them to someone who had never worked in an office setting they would think you were crazy. Incidentally, I’d also like to point to university as another source of bizarreness. Many people claim that university is there to prepare you for the “real world.” The reality is that universities operate on their own rule system completely foreign to anything else you’re likely to encounter.

I started writing Cubes because I wanted to highlight the humor in everyday things. To get through this old world you either have to laugh or cry. I prefer the one that doesn’t give you worry lines. So the humor of office life became the core of the comic.

When I write the comic I try to keep it humorous, but I (usually) don’t try for jokes. I want the humor to come from the situations and rhythms of the characters rather than try to be in-your-face funny. This, I feel, is important for prose writing as well. I haven’t ever read a novel that is a series of jokes. A series of humorous or satirical situations? Yes. A series of jokes? No.

The important thing about writing humor is to not sell it with jokes. If something is funny to a person it will come across as funny without having to beat them over the head with it.

Written humor is probably the most difficult kind of humor to put across. Certainly it’s at least the most difficult kind of verbal humor to put across. If you think about a sit-com, or a stand up comedian, or even a funny radio show, all of those forms have tools to help sell the humor. Things that are only mildly humorous or not even humorous at all can be made so simply by how a person says them (what people in “the biz” call “delivery”). Perhaps a line is delivered in a funny voice. Perhaps it’s delivered…in a…halting…exaggerated…William Shatner…sort of way. Perhaps certain words are emphasized in peculiar ways.

But when you’re on the written page, or even when you’re in a comic strip with pictures backing you up, basically all you have is the written word. There’s nowhere to hide. Lines are either funny or they’re not on their own merits. What makes this challenge even more challenging is different people find different things funny.

So how do you write something humorous? Well, I don’t know how you write it, but for myself I start in reality. I take a real world situation. I then look at how that situation might be perceived by different people. The difference between perception and true reality can often be startling. That tends to give rise to comics like this:

[Cubes 104: A Matter of Perspective]
A Matter of Perspective

Sometimes that real world inspiration is not an event, sometimes it’s based on what people say. For example, in software development programmers sometimes say, “I’m going to bullet-proof that code.” It’s a weird thing to say about something that’s completely virtual. It’s the type of thing that leads to a comic like this:

[The Lost Comics 6: Beta Testing]
Beta Testing

And then sometimes situations arise that are just inherently humorous but need some exaggeration to really make them funny. One office building I worked at had people who were hot on part of the floor and people who were chilly in another part of the same floor. Exaggerate out the extremes a little and you get something like this:

[Cubes 41: Seasons]

Humor is where you find it. As well, humor is not always something that is necessarily funny but something that is a tension builder. The classic example of this is the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indiana Jones shoots the Cairo swordsman. From an objective standpoint this is a murder. Not very funny. From a tension standpoint it comes at the climax of an action scene and is such an unexpected way to relieve that tension that it gets a laugh from the audience.

Humor, when done right, allows you to have fun with otherwise serious topics. At first glance the Cubes comic is a very light comic series that pokes gentle fun at office life, office spaces, and office denizens. However, over the ten years of the comic, humor has allowed me to touch upon such issues as obesity, theft, substance abuse, relationships, corporate ethics, hazardous workplaces, embezzlement, body image, negative stereotypes, environmentalism, religion, and even death (hey, one of the characters is a ghost).

Although Cubes has included the occasional sight gag, for the most part it’s a “talking heads” comic. The humor comes across in the words the characters say, with little if any extra tools to work with. That humor can be used to touch on touchy subjects. It can be used to help control the tension in a story. But it’s not easy. As with so many other things, it requires practice, practice, practice. And the occasional exploding dishwasher.

[Cubes 10: DishBlaster 3000]
DishBlaster 3000

Thank you for reading up on the benefits of writing comics. Be sure to check out the previous entries in the series below. For you writers out there, I hope this has encouraged you to try your hand at writing comics. For you non-writers, I hope this has provided some insight into one writer’s method of doing things and the lessons said writer has learned over the years (said writer being me). See you in the funny papers.