Today's review: David Stanford, aide de sherpa
I thank Francis Bonnet for volunteering for this public week-long editorial review of his strip Suburban Fairy Tales -- which concludes with today's installment. (If you've been snowed in, sans internet, you can quickly catch up by going here, here, here, and here.)
I admire that Francis has been creating this comic strip with such discipline for so long. It is no small thing. He has been posting his work on Sherpa for most of Sherpa's existence -- and for a good portion of his own.
I've often found that reading a book collection (or binge-reading online) can deepen your appreciation of a strip. In this case it's helped me see things more clearly. I always enjoy reading Suburban Fairy Tales, but I have also felt that I want something more. So what follows is me focusing on what I like, pointing out things that seem not as strong, and overall trying to figure out what that "more" might be.
Your premise: fairy tale figures living in suburbia, most of them younger versions of themselves and hence in school. In committing to this concept you took a huge shortcut, one which pays off but also exacts a price. The payoff: You immediately assembled a huge cast of characters that readers are already familiar with, whose personalities and traits and backstories are, to varying degrees, known. The price: Although you get to create your own versions of these characters you are limited by their familiarity, and have to stay within the general boundaries of who they already are, and the expectations of readers.
So you have traded some of your classic cartoonist freedom -- to create characters and a world of your own -- and thereby took possession of a very deep body of material with which to work, rich in reference points and options and opportunities.
You have a lot of characters, and only in binge-reading did I sort them all out. Goldilocks and Rapunzel I confuse, and sometimes I don't recognize Pinocchio until he lies. Some of your characters seem more solid and filled out, others more like sketches.
For me the biggest plus of the school setting is the teacher/witch Mrs. Hagatha (bonus: she evokes, for me, the witch in Little Lulu). And I like Little Pig 3, who is diarmingly self-aware. I enjoy their interactions:
I am also particularly fond of The Gingerbread Man. He's so lucky that he has a theme song which you can endlessly riff off of.
His strips are often full of action, which livens things up.
Humpty-Dumpty I like because you've put him in exactly the place he shouldn't be. A seemingly fragile fellow living the reckless life with confidence; that has archetypal resonance.
The Pied Piper and his mice-followers I like because, again, they are usually moving. There may be more to explore here beyond the occasional run-by, but whenever they show up it's fun.
Frog Prince (aka Prince Charming One) is the character I worry about the most. I think he's meant to be the hub of the whole thing; the Charlie Brown, if you will. Sometimes he successfully evokes my sympathy, like here, with Hagatha:
But I often feel his cluelessness annoying. With the ur-loser, Charlie Brown, there is always wit and insight even in his dark moments: "I only dread one day at a time." As if what he mainly lacks is confidence or an appreciative audience, but somehow knows inside that he is seeing things clearly. With Frog Prince I get more a sense of, yeah, this guy is a loser. As if not even his creator sees his strengths. So I don't care about what happens to him the way I would like to. Especially if he's the Main Guy.
I mean, who would ever think "How about a date?" is a good conversation starter? There's no excuse; he's not even trying. If he is simply unlikeable, where does the reader go with that? How do you root for him, let alone identify?
One of the drawing conventions you created is that when the wolf eats people (or anything) he does it like this:
It's an act of consumption that exists outside the rules of reality -- how would that waiter go down the wolf's little neck? Why is the wolf bending over from the waist? It is jarring. And yet I've come to see it a twist on a fairy-tale tradition -- in Peter and the Wolf the duck goes in whole, and later comes back out unscathed. "Eating" is a concept, not an actual process. So I'm getting used to it. But it still is jarring!
I agree with comments made earlier this week about facial expressions. With many of your characters, when they are not speaking their mouth is where it belongs. But when they speak, suddenly their mouth begins at their chin. Sometimes when a character is not speaking, their mouth disappears altogether. Add this to the fact that in some of the various eye-styles, the eye is very compressed, almost hemmed in, and I feel like you have limited your characters' ability to express emotion -- which I think of as a core value.
In the strip above, there are eight mouths, but only four options. Left to right: Talking A; Hassled; Talking A; Blank; Blank; Blank; Talking B; Talking B. The dominant visual element clear across is Pinocchio's hair, bold and black and unchanging. In comparison all the eyes are small and you have to seek them out. This strip is about their relationship, and everything really happens between their faces. But the key information we need to see is locked up in a relatively tight amount of space. I feel like I'm being kept at an emotional distance.
Both Talking A mouth and Talking B mouth are very common in the strip, as if everybody is part nutcracker. I know you can play with the shape to flavor it to a degree -- there's quite a difference between mouth 3 and mouth 7 in the strip above. So maybe I am way off base here. But I wonder if it's limiting.
The other mouth that distracts me is that of Rumpelstiltskin. He's a dangerous guy, and it's fine that he has chompers; it's not that. But they seem only half drawn. In fact his whole self sometimes seems a little sketchy, as in the strip below -- helmet of hair, hand, face and suggestion of teeth:
I think he is one of the more dynamic characters, with real menace and energy, and I would focus on really developing him. Both as a drawing and as a being. I really liked the step you took in that direction with this storyline (and all his teeth are filled in!):
Most strips evolve over time, both in writing and drawing. I wonder if Suburban Fairy Tales will get looser in some sense. For me there is still stiffness in it. Sometimes it seems like too much white, not enough line texture, not enough personality and energy in the lines. Too much formatting (hair helmets, etc).
One of the most helpful things Charles Schulz ever said, and I think he said it often, is that it's important to draw funny. Some people's work looks like they a) thought up the gag/strip/drawing, and then b) filled it in. My interpretation of Sparky's advice is that the drawing itself (in the verb sense) is where you put the real content in. Like the lines have to carry emotion and information, not just be in the right place.
What brought that to mind is that I really like the strips where the visual is everything, where the gag is the drawing. Like this one:
And this one:
I have no idea what happened there, but I like it. Some mystery is good (though in this instance I may be the only one who is mystified).
Sometimes the fairy tale context is not really a factor. The characters are just characters who happen to be famous fairy tale figures, interacting in the modern world:
But sometimes in those their fairy tale identities enrich, and add a twist (even if an improbable one) as here:
In the summer of 2012 you really took a step up and out with the big series in which being hit in the head altered Frog Prince's sense of reality:
Getting back to menace and darkness, there's a fair amount of death in the strip, though it's kept light:
And there's the die-and-die-again-later tradition, ala Roadrunner, The Simpsons, et al:
(I wonder if it would have been better to leave off the dialogue in the second panel, or shortened it to "Or mine.")
I look forward to seeing your drawing continue to evolve. You have so many venues and characters and opportunities, it will be interesting to see which parts you choose to focus on. I wonder if you could make the community hang together more completely somehow, while maintaining the diversity of tone, and of storytelling and humor. Whatever else you do, go for funny.
I'll end my review by going back to what I said up top. You get to create your own versions of characters who have had many lives, from the originals gathered by the Brothers Grimm and others, on down through the ages to Golden Books and Disney and Fractured Fairy Tales and James Thurber, whose Red Riding Hood killed the wolf with a .45 -- "Moral: It is not so easy to fool little girls nowadays as it used to be." These stories can be told lightly and for fun, but the originals bear ancient insights into human nature, and tap deep into the human psyche. I personally would love to see the strip get more serious in a sense, by using that -- even while it gets more funny. Once upon a time there was an editor who threw his two cents out there.
Thank you for the ride so far, Mr. Bonnet. Onward!