by Kevin Czap
Note: This post is a continuation of an apparent series where I talk about story-telling methods and artistic practices that interest me, particularly in how they can be applied to comics.
“People say that life is just one damn thing after another. That is not true. It’s the same damn thing over and over again, and you’ve gotta keep your head loose enough to see it as it comes around again.” – Del Close
In high school I was a theater kid. This meant that my friends and I took theater classes every semester, we showed up on Saturday to build sets, we acted and sometimes sang in the school plays, we wrote and directed one-acts, things like that. It also meant that we did improv occasionally. Some of the most fun we had thoughout our high school careers was during improv practices and competitions (thanks in no small part to seanbaby.com).
Every once in a while we used to have a so-called improvisational theater expert come in, and he was the one who introduced us to the Harold, an improv game that was always too complicated for us to get right. To perform effectively, the Harold requires a tightly knit improv team at the top of their game, a description that certainly did not apply to us kids. The basic idea was, starting with an audience suggestion, the team spins out a series of parallel but unrelated scenes from an opening setup. For instance, each parallel scene would riff off of some element of the opening. With each round, the scenes become more complex, expounding on their beginnings and in effect exploring various aspects of the initial suggestion. By, the final round, the scenes overlap eachother and the game weaves itself into a cohesive whole. Check out this great interview with Harold creator and improv guru Del Close, as he elaborates on the game to get a better idea of how it all works:
I’m not sure which is the chicken or the egg in this high-school-improv scenario, but it was around this time that The Upright Citizens Brigade was airing on Comedy Central. This show (along with Strangers with Candy, which ran the same night) was a massive influence on my formative years, and is still the standard to which I hold most other comedy shows. The UCB cast are all highly accomplished improvisers, and have set up improv schools on both US coasts to spread their comedy methods. While I’ve seen a show at the UCB Theater in New York, I’m much more familiar with the TV show, which is one of the most finely-crafted sketch comedy series I’ve ever seen. The humor is absurd and off the wall, but the structure, for as wild and loose as it felt, is actually perfectly tuned. The show, you see, is one big Harold.
It’s not too surprising the UCB turned out to be such great Harolders, as they were students/disciples of Del Close (Close performs the voice-over on the show’s opening segment). Each episode follows the basic structure of the game — several sketches explore the bizarre nooks and crannies of the overarching theme, eventually having the sketches overlap by the end. What I find most impressive, though, is how an entire season ends up being an even bigger Harold. Throughout the episodes in any one of the three seasons, characters and background elements will make passing reference to a particular topic, like the sport Pro Thunderball. Over time, we learn more and more what Pro Thunderball is. This all leads up to the season finale, which is dedicated to the underlying seasonal theme. The ending episodes are over the top, explosive and rewarding. Ingenious in terms of improvisational comedy, this tactic is notable for the subtle world building the it lends itself to. I can get really hung up on verisimilitude, certain things will really bug me if they don’t ring true (Which might seem to contradict my love of absurd and cartoony humor… I’m sure there’s a consistent logic somewhere, but this is just how I am). The most common offender is blatant exposition. If I feel like I’m being told something which is critical for the story, but would never occur naturally as played out in a million years it can really take me out of the work. That being the case, I really really love it when I am able to piece together a universe from details and in-context dialogue, without sacrificing the credibility of the scene.
I’ve written about my interests in atomic or modular narratives on this blog before and the Harold as performed by the Upright Citizens Brigade is the epitome of what I seek. Loosely related pieces that function perfectly well on their own, but are intricately woven together in the grander scheme of things. I tend not to talk very much about my own work on this site, but in this case I have to make an exception. When I really started to get serious about making my webcomic, I realized that I wanted to see if I could finally make a Harold work. Certainly not as tight or imaginative as the UCB, but essentially their show was one of the biggest influences for Spoilers.
One of the clearest examples of this influence is the Pizza Time Comics gag. These are little short strips within the larger strip that, at first, seem anti-climactic. A pizza delivery guy goes around, trying to deliver pizzas, only to discover each time that no one ordered said pizza. Appearance of these strips is intermittent, and no connection to the preceding chapter is blatant (if I am guilty of one thing more than any other, I think it might be a misjudgment of the fine line between subtle and incomprehensible). Over time, as the joke repeats, hopefully you’ll notice that it appears during particular circumstances, like when someone needs to go to or from somewhere. Anyway, by appearing in these otherwise unrelated situations, the pizza guy unites these chapters together. The waiter/chemistry teacher as well as the shadowy government agents also serve this purpose. The tagline for the strip, “a girl wants to disappear completely and things fall apart,” lays out the themes I was riffing off of, namely disappearance, entropy and falling… death, more or less. So I tried to set up echoes through the comic — falling stars, teeth falling out, pizza with a slice missing, implying consumption, blah blah — that would build up to create a gestalt impression of the actual story hiding behind the surface.
Most of the chapters of Spoilers are non-sequiturs that relate more by theme than a single strand of continuity. One single narrative story runs through the strip, more or less, but I tried to make it as fractured as possible. My intention was portray these different aspects of the main theme separately, snippets from a particular event and then, over the course of the comic, have the reader follow the paths down to see where they all intersect. For me, this is the point of the whole thing (which is summed up by Mr. Johnson’s speech for his chemistry class), to realize the connection. The main thing I want my comics to promote is also the thing that both is required in performing an effective Harold, as well as what the audience needs to get the most out watching the game — an ability to pay attention to surroundings, notice patterns and connections and, ultimately, participate with agency. More than just entertainment, I think this skill is greatly needed for navigating the minefield of our culture, which has a vested interest in keeping our memories short and our attentions distracted. I don’t mean to get preachy, but yeah, Spoilers is political in nature, so any discussion is going to expose some of my politics. To be blunt about it, there’s so much stuff going on in the world (cough, three acknowledged wars) that seems to have no relation to stuff going on here. Everyone’s minding their business and nothing touches anything else. I disagree completely with this view, everything is interacting and nothing is autonomous completely.
What’s interesting about the above video of Close is how it seems, to a certain extent, the Harold was political for him as well. “It is possible to make art by committee” and similar talk, about bringing people together, seems to jive well with my ideas about comics. Both forms rely on bringing things together to create an grander experience, be it improv sketches or panels on a page. This kinship may be a bit of a stretch to some of you, but I tend to see everything through comics-colored glasses, so it makes perfect sense to me. Subjectivity aside, I think that there’s evidence enough that the Harold structure works well with comics — think about any serial story. You want to have each installment be interesting and able to stand on its own, at the same you want it to resonate and add to the overarching story. Whether you have a scattered non-linear narrative or a more conventional chronological story doesn’t matter much, it depends on what you’re trying to do. The key is to emphasize and work with the micro and macrocosm of the comics medium. My own goals are concerned with highlighting the connections between people and events, and I see a lot of potential in non-linear, fractured narrative for addressing those goals.
I opened this article with a quote from Del which we can interpret as coming from his particular view of the world, a view I very much agree with. In fact, that statement fits very well with my intentions for Spoilers. Having only just come across the quote as I was preparing for this article, it’s interesting following the thread from Del Close through UCB and my own teen years, leading towards me making this comic based on Close’s ideas.