If you’re making a webcomic, it can be very tempting to include all sorts of obscure/nerdy references and in-jokes in your comic. After all, it’s a really fun thing to do. However, if you aren’t careful, you can end up confusing and bewildering a large portion of your audience.
So, how can you avoid this? Here are three quick tips:
1) Mention it: This won’t work in every context, but sometimes a good way to avoid confusing people with an obscure reference is to mention what the reference is.
This works best during dialogue, where another character can comment about the reference. Like in this scene from yet another upcoming webcomic mini series of mine that I was busy making at the time of writing:
The dialogue is a parody of “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg (or the one part of it that I can remember at least). But, since many people haven’t heard of “Howl”, I thought that I’d briefly mention Allen Ginsberg in the dialogue (in case anyone wanted to look him up on Wikipedia or whatever).
You can also do something similar to this in your dialogue by having your characters say something like “This is just like that one time in ‘Star Trek’ when…” or something like that before making a reference and/or in-joke.
Obviously, it isn’t practical to do this kind of thing for all of your in-jokes and references, but try to do it for at least a few of them.
2) Independence: Ideally, if you’re making an obscure in-joke or a reference, then try to make sure that the humour doesn’t rely entirely on the audience understanding the reference.
In other words, either surround the in-joke with lots of “ordinary” jokes or tell the joke in such a way that the audience can still find it funny from the context (regardless of whether they’ve read or seen the thing you’re referencing).
For example, the scene immediately before the comic panel I included earlier shows Roz (the beatnik character) offering Harvey (the detective) a joint. If you’ve read “Howl”, then the dialogue in the example is a funny parody of the poem.
If you haven’t read “Howl” – it’s also an amusingly cynical, if strangely-phrased, description of how people sometimes act when they’re stoned.
So, try to include at least a few “dual-purpose” references in your comic, which are funny regardless of whether your audience gets the reference or not.
3) Background details: This one is fairly obvious but, in comics, the best place for super-obscure references and in-jokes is often in the background details.
Since precise background details aren’t often essential to the plot, the references will probably be ignored by people who don’t get them – but noticed by people who do. So, you can add a lot of obscure humour for people with the same interests as you, but without ruining the experience for people who haven’t read the same books, played the same games etc… as you have.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂