Friday, September 12, 2008

Risks and Triumphs of Reader Mail

Now and then you get fan letters that threaten all your plans.

This week brought one from a chap kind enough to offer a mini-review. While it was clear that the comic in question -- Li'l Nyet -- was a bit over his head, I read his comments with interest. I agreed with some minor points, but listening while he explained my comic without understanding it himself soured me on the letter.

Then came an exchange of letters with a terrific woman who demonstrated with specific examples that she perceived and enjoyed some of the most subtle aspects of our strips. Pug and I had a good time with her because we saw she "got it."

From the standpoint of running an experiment, and trying to make a success out of our comic concepts to see if we succeed or fail, it is important to know whether our comics are any good. That's not too hard to do: people will vote with their feet if the comic stinks. 

Another question is whether the comics are accessible. The mail I described suggests that they are accessible to a portion of readers, but there are obviously readers who will come to the strips between the light and deep humor. The bell curve that describes human IQ distribution tells us that there is a big drop-off between a cream pie in the face and a play on words that requires familiarity with the the works of Nietzsche.

My writing style is to load as much humor as possible into a strip, dispersing gags and wickedness of all kinds wherever I can. For a long time I have felt that this allows people of different tastes and abilities to find their level and coast with it. There are young people who enjoy our strips, for example. The lecturing correspondent, however, has me worried that this provides an excuse to read lazily and file our work next to Garfield and Crankshaft. Worse, this encourages skimming, to the detriment of foreshadowing and comic build-up. I spot reviewers skimming all the time, and I can see what's coming if one of our strips ends up in their hands. (One of the reasons I review so little is that unless I say otherwise, I've read the entire strip with care. That eats a lot of time.)

The multi-layered architecture of the strips I am attempting requires uncommon qualities: sensitivity to a variety of humor types, some background in areas like history and sociology, and a passionate curiosity to find and unlock everything I've worked hard to inject into the stories.

That's where we might fail. There might not be enough people like the woman who wrote us to help us with word of mouth, alerting others that first impressions might be false and that the strips reward attentive and thoughtful reading. Call it "critical mass" or "the tipping point" -- my biggest worry is that we will be broadly understood only someday, or perhaps never at all. If I don't make it sufficiently rewarding to plunge the depths, we are in trouble.

Taking a couple of years off, working day and night to see if we can create a popular comic that also pleases us, is risky. We're not rich, we don't travel, we don't drive posh cars. In the spirit of intellectual and creative inquiry, we are attempting something that jeopardizes our retirement, inserts detours into our career trajectories, and frightens relatives. It's an experiment, but it's also a dream -- something we must attempt.

When I read the mail, and think about how our work is perceived, I ask myself, Did I figure wrong? Did I misjudge the audience? Did I make the strips too intricate? Are they too far from any particular genre to welcome people?

The part of me that thinks about paying bills and being secure worries about those things. But a much larger part of me doesn't care. That's because I want to love the strips. They're our consolation prize if things don't work out, and they'll have little value to me if they've been compromised.