Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Webcomic Worth Wreading, Entry 40: Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal

When confronted with something so totally outside the social norms that there is no way to determine an appropriate response, a human will often resort to laughter. Shock humor exists entirely because of this phenomenon. Overall, I’m not a fan. Making audiences uncomfortable through use of profanity and/or taboo subject matter may get you laughter, but it doesn’t give your jokes any substance.

There are, however, a handful of artists who do both. Their work combines shock value with observations on human nature, irrational actions taken to absurd extremes, or old ideas presented in new and unexpected ways. Today we’ll look at a webcomic that does all of this and more, walking the line between crude and pretentious as few others can. I present to you: Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal is a gag-a-day comic that is at turns delightfully irreverent, heartwarming, cynical and philosophical. Each installment stands on its own, entirely disconnected from whatever came before or since. There’s no need to read them in order, no spoilers or recurring characters to worry about. Feel free to jump in at any point in the archive, to read them all in chronological or reverse-chronological order, or to just hit the “random” button a few times and see what you get.

Certain visual shorthands are used multiple times, such as the representation of god as a sort of shining golden disc, but it’s always easy enough to understand what’s going on.

I certainly won’t discourage binge-reading, because there’s a lot of great material in that archive, but that’s not necessarily the best way to enjoy this comic. Don’t feel pressured to get through all 3,000-plus pages. Just browse awhile and enjoy what you see.

A lot of the jokes are simple, relying on literal interpretations of speech or just presenting a reversal of what’s expected in a given situation. Many installments are single panels, which aren’t actually comics according the McCloudian definition but, hey, I’m here to talk about the stuff I like, not quibble over terminology.

One hallmark of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal is a reversal in tone, taking something apparently innocent and making it depraved, or something apparently horrific and presenting it as innocent. Sometimes these switches will pile up, as the scenario switches back and forth between comfortable and terrifying until the audience doesn’t know which way’s up anymore.

This is a comic with no limits. Any subject matter is on the table, from base observational humor or discussions of advanced mathematical theorems. Highbrow and lowbrow subjects often mix, leading to crude jokes about sophisticated subjects or apparently sophisticated setups that lead up to an inevitable joke about penises. Sometimes the humor lies in these unexpected juxtapositions of subject matter, but often that’s just the starting point. Dismiss closely held ideals, take ridiculous notions seriously, and treat the world as a breeding ground for absurdity, and you’ll begin to understand this comic’s sense of logic.

One of the best examples of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal’s peculiar composition of usually disconnected elements can be found below, where a pair engage in a classic comedy routine with a twist.

It's too big to embed it all here, but click through and read the whole thing. It's worth it.

The thing that I love most about Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal is its political conscience. That’s an odd thing to say about such an irreverent and crude comic, but I find that it promotes a worldview I believe in, one of acceptance and cooperation, quite consistently. A handful of installments are overtly political or satirical (see this, and this), but what I appreciate more are the subtle ways that the comic consistently reinforces an open and egalitarian viewpoint without overtly stating it every time.

When the race or sex of a character is not relevant to the joke, that character may have any of a wide range of appearances. Women and people of color are shown in positions of power, because there’s no reason for them not to be. Same-sex couples show up even when the joke doesn’t specifically require a same-sex couple in order to make sense.

In Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, straight white and male is not the default setting from which all other humans deviate. I wish more media represented this kind of diversity on a regular basis, so I like to acknowledge it when I do see it with the hope that others will start picking up on the idea.

In similar circumstances, I honestly don't think I'd do any better than this guy.

One thing you should be aware of is the red button below each comic. Click on it for a bonus! The earliest installments don’t have anything, the first one being here, but it works for almost all of them after that point. Usually it’s just a little added joke, but sometimes it really makes the comic seem worthwhile to me. For instance, I wouldn’t be nearly as fond of this one:

If it didn’t include this:

Read Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal and enjoy a wealth of humor, some of which will make you feel like a better person, and much of which will make you feel like a significantly worse person. I feel like there’s something there for almost everyone, given the breadth of subject matter and the extensive archive. If you like to look at the world critically without taking much of anything seriously, then Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal is for you.

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal is written and drawn by Zach Weinersmith (né Weiner) and updates every single goddamn day, pretty much. I recommend it to people who are looking for a quick laugh but who secretly want to get sucked into a debate about a philosophical conundrum. By which I mean, humans are weird and I invite you to go laugh at some.

Next Entry: Drive

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Webcomic Worth Wreading, Entry 39: Chainsawsuit

As I curate this blog, at times I have to balance conflicting desires. One such conflict follows: I want to represent a wide swath of webcomics, showing off a diverse selection of creators, genres, and styles. But I, though an avid reader, have only encountered a small portion of what’s out there, and furthermore, my own tastes tend to limit my range of appreciation. For instance, I am more likely to discuss science fiction than other genres, because I tend to like it more.

And, while I would love each post to highlight the work of a different creator than all other posts, there are some creators whose work particularly resonates with me. When these creators have multiple comics to their names, I’m left with a dilemma regarding which comic to discuss, or whether to dedicate multiple posts to the same creator.

With Jeffrey Rowland, I solved the problem by discussing all of his comics in one post. I mostly ignored this problem when I got around to Not Invented Here, because the team behind that comic is unique, even if certain creators worked on other comics that I had already discussed.

Today, I’m revisiting a creator whose work has been featured on this blog in the past. Kris Straub’s Broodhollow is haunting and beautiful, a carefully crafted tale of horror wherein the depth of the story is perfectly complemented by its humor. There is no way that I could thoroughly discuss a gag-a-day comic, with little continuity and less consistency in logic, in the same post as Broodhollow and maintain any sort of coherence. So here I am, on a new day with a fresh post, to tell you all about Chainsawsuit.

Chainsawsuit typically presents quick, simple jokes, using running gags, absurdity, exaggeration, or whatever other techniques are required to make a joke work. The three-panel format is almost incontrovertible; nearly every Chainsawsuit installment fits into this exact shape, though a handful will add a second row for a total of six panels. This is ephemeral humor; usually providing a brief escapism into this comical world before one moves on to either reality or the next source of escape. Even so, there are a handful of Chainsawsuit jokes that really stick with me, that I think back to months or years after reading them and still crack a smile.

The ephemeral nature of Chainsawsuit is reflected in the website design. There’s no easy way to navigate to the first comic, discouraging readers from going through the whole archive at once. Almost every installment works perfectly well in isolation without having read anything leading up to it. If a reader desires, it’s entirely possible to read the whole archive in reverse-chronological order by repeatedly clicking the arrow for the previous comic. Or, you can just let me link you to the first comic and read from there. It’s not by any means required, though, and Chainsawsuit is a rare case where I’d argue that jumping in and not worrying about the archive or catching up is a superior experience to reading everything from the beginning. If you do enjoy archive-bingeing, you can see the first appearances of various recurring characters, as well as the origin of the title.

Otherwise, just go ahead and start reading anywhere. There’s even a random button if you’d like to skip around. Everything should make approximately the same amount of sense whether you’ve read the whole Chainsawsuit archive or not.

Subject matter ranges from incidental to philosophical, working in critiques of media or society, commentary on current events, or just silly ideas that don’t seem related to anything outside the author’s singular imagination. Every Chainsawsuit installment is an individual piece, sometimes with a completely dissimilar tone from every other Chainsawsuit installment. There’s an incredible variety to this comic. I definitely recommend browsing through it a little; even if the first few examples you come across don’t strike your fancy, there may be one just around the corner that makes you laugh like a toddler who’s encountered a puppet. At least, that’s the way my experience tends to run.

Occasionally the humor veers toward topical subjects. I always hesitate to use topical comics as examples in this blog, because there’s no guarantee that other people will remember or care about a past event enough to enjoy a joke about it. The following one, however, struck me as funny enough that I would be derelict in my duties as a blogger if I did not share it with you.

To my knowledge, Hulu never did wind up pushing this change.

Chainsawsuit displays a carefully cultivated level of crudity, both in art style and subject matter. This comic has never encountered the concept of formality, frowns on the use of capital letters, and revels in irreverence. For all that, there’s surprisingly little recourse to shock humor. The occasional provocative joke comes off more as charmingly naive than devious or underhanded, though clearly the author knows exactly what he’s doing. For this style of humor, crudity works. Visual complexity would dilute the jokes, and tact requires extra space without adding to comedic value.

This is not a comic I’d recommend to the easily offended, but at the same time it’s not a comic that I’d describe as offensive. It’s more the type of comic that marketers would want to label as offensive in order to make it seem edgier, because the number of people who’ll refuse to read it is smaller than the number of people who’ll be more interested in something that’s too real for the mainstream.

Really, though, it’s just a matter of presenting simple ideas in as clear and funny a way as possible. Most of the time there’s nothing directly challenging cultural sensibilities; it’s more that cultural sensibilities are not directly relevant to making something funny.

The format, oppressive though it may seem, allows for a great deal of variety in execution. Chainsawsuit often uses text to label or narrate significant aspects of the comic, allowing for more information than can easily be communicated in three simple drawings. Often the images are secondary to the text, sometimes entirely unnecessary to understand the joke, and on rare occasions the comic will consist of nothing (or nearly so) but text.

Sometimes, though, very little text is needed to get the point across.

Chainsawsuit is a wonderfully varied source of simple humor. There are twists on old jokes, plays on modern trends, and just plain absurd fun. Rarely have I found such good-hearted joviality in such close proximity to hardened cynicism. You never quite know what you’re gonna get, so just be prepared for anything.

Or, maybe don’t try to prepare, because being taken by surprise is half the fun.

Chainsawsuit is written and drawn by Kris Straub and updates more or less consistently on weekdays. I recommend it to casual readers looking for a quick laugh. That’s right. Go ahead, laugh. Casually. And be quick about it.