Three Quick Tips For Including Obscure In-Jokes And References In Your Webcomic (With A Comic Preview)

2017 Artwork Obscure In jokes

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 full comic update will appear here on the 7th April

The full comic update will appear here on the 7th April

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.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Inspiration, News Media And Obscure Topics – A Ramble (With An Art Preview)

2017 Artwork Obscure things inspiration article sketch

Although this is an article about how to use your own experiences and knowledge to create interesting and distinctive things, I’m going to have to spend the next five or six paragraphs talking about the failings of the mainstream news media. There’s a reason for this that I hope becomes obvious later.

A few months ago, I was reading the news online when I had a type of experience that always surprises me whenever it happens. It was prompted by an article about sales tactics in casinos of all things.

It was one of those moments when I suddenly thought “This is only just news now? I knew about this eight years ago!” shortly after remembering a conversation with someone I knew at the time, who once mentioned how a casino he’d worked at one summer basically gave out free sandwiches etc.. to the regulars as a matter of routine, to get them to stay.

This, naturally, made me think about the limitations of journalism. Namely, that journalists often tend to be literal years behind whenever it comes to reporting on various obscure subjects. Anything that seems to fall outside of the mainstream, anything that isn’t trending on Twitter etc… often doesn’t tend to get reported.

But, it’s often surprising how many blind spots the mainstream media has when it comes to various topics. For creative people, this can – of course- be an absolute goldmine when it comes to inspiration.

Chances are, there’s probably something important, interesting and/or fascinating in your life experience or your knowledge that hasn’t been widely reported. Or, something that interests you which is virtually unknown by mainstream culture (eg: a musical genre, an obscure sub genre of fiction/cinema etc..). Using this for inspiration will, of course, make the things you create stand out from the crowd quite a bit.

Of course, some topics can seem too personal or too political to really be useful for inspiration. But, if you can find one that you feel comfortable writing about, making comics about or making art about, then you can really create something distinctive that feels relevant.

To use a fairly apolitical example, 1990s nostalgia is one of those things that hasn’t quite become fully mainstream in the way that – say- 1980s nostalgia has. Sure, you can find a lot of 1990s nostalgia on the internet but – since most of the people in the mainstream media are just slightly too old to really have childhood nostalgia about the 1990s – it doesn’t really appear as prominently as it probably will in five to ten years time.

So, naturally, it’s a topic that I tend to write about, make art about and make comics about quite a lot. Since it both fascinates me and because there really isn’t enough stuff about it out there yet. In fact, here’s yet another reduced-size preview of a painting from a 1990s-themed art series that I’ll be posting here near the end of the month.

The full-size painting will be posted here later this month.

The full-size painting will be posted here later this month.

In addition to all of this, drawing on obscure topics from your knowledge and/or experience can also make your creative works more interesting for the simple reason that – with more obscure topics – you give your audience a chance to feel like they’re ‘in the know’ or that they’re learning things that they wouldn’t learn from more mainstream sources.

So, yes, obscure topics (even only very mildly obscure ones, like 1990s nostalgia) can make your creative works significantly more unique and interesting.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Four Things To Do If You’ve Missed The Heyday Of An Interesting Genre

2016 Artwork Genre Heyday article

Although this is an article that is intended to help you make interesting comics and/or write interesting fiction, I’m going to have to start by talking about one of my own interests. As usual, there’s a good reason for this that I hope becomes obvious.

A while before I started writing this aritlce, I found myself returning once again to one of the coolest genres of comics in existence. I am, of course, talking about old 1940s-50s American horror comics. Although I have at least one book of them, quite a few great examples of the genre are also posted on a historical archive site called “The Horrors Of It All“.

I love the melodramatic artwork, the hilariously dark humour, the “so bad that it’s good” storylines, the vintage fashions, the delightfully over-dramatic dialogue etc… Ever since I discovered this old genre of comics, it’s been one of my favourites.

In fact, they were the things that finally allowed me to work up the motivation to get back into making comics again in 2015, after a year or so when I hadn’t made any comics. Even though the first comic I made was a 1980s-style sci-fi/comedy/horror comic, it was at least slightly inspired by old horror comics.

These old horror comics are such a joy to read and whenever I’ve made anything even vaguely similar (like the Halloween comic that is currently being posted here every night), it has almost made itself.

And, yet, the heyday of this genre of comics has long-since passed. It’s always annoying when you find a really cool genre, only to discover that no-one else really makes or reads anything in it any more. So, what can you – as a writer and/or comic maker – do?

Here are a few suggestions:

1) Make it anyway: This is the obvious suggestion. If you really love an obscure and forgotten genre of comics and/or fiction, then make your own examples of it. If the genre really fascinates you, then coming up with story ideas probably won’t be that difficult. Likewise, you’ll probably be so enthusiastic that your story or comic will pretty much make itself.

However, unless you’ve already built up a large fanbase, it’s possible that your project might not have a very large audience. In other words, if you want to make something that is squarely within a long-dead genre, then don’t expect it to be the thing that suddenly brings this genre back to life and makes it popular again.

But, if you’re just making a fun project, then this doesn’t really matter. The real joy is in making something that you love and making something that the few remaining fans of this obscure old genre will also love.

2) Look for it’s modern equivalent: Genres never really die. They might change a lot over time, but they never really die. If a sub-genre was particularly popular, then there’s a good chance that it will have been absorbed into the “mainstream” version of this genre (eg: back in the 1970s-90s, a gory horror novel was a “splatterpunk” novel, now it’s just a “horror novel”).

In addition to this, some obscure genres have blended with other genres over time. For example, very few people write westerns these days, but – over the past decade or two – the western genre has had some influence on the sci-fi genre (eg: TV shows like “Firefly” etc…). The same is true for how the vampire genre has mostly gone from being a sub-genre of horror fiction to being a sub-genre of romance fiction these days.

So, if you want to make something that appeals to a slightly wider audience and/or which seems a bit more contemporary, then look for the modern equivalent of your favourite obscure genres. Once you’ve found it, then try to see if you can find a way to tell the story you want to tell within the “new” version of your forgotten genre.

For example, when I made my Halloween comic, I didn’t really think that much about old 1950s horror comics. If anything, it was probably more inspired by other parts of the horror genre (eg: zombie movies). And, yet, I was still making a horror comic. And having a lot of fun making it.

3) Let it influence other things: If you don’t feel confident about pouring lots of time and energy into making things that fit into mostly-forgotten genres, then this doesn’t mean that you should abandon them entirely. Instead, learn as much as you can about this genre and let it influence the things that you make in other genres.

In fact, if you’re interested enough in an old genre, then you don’t have have to try to do this. It’ll probably just happen naturally, possibly even without you even realising it.

4) Parody: One of the problems with really cool old genres is that they’re… well… old. If you try to make “serious” or “realistic” things within these genres, then they’re probably going to seem somewhat contrived and/or old-fashioned.

Either that, or you’re going to have to do a ridiculous amount of research in order to get everything right – and, if a genre has mostly been forgotten, then finding research materials might be something of a challenge.

So, relax and have some affectionate fun with the genre. In other words, make a parody of it. Not only will this probably be extremely fun to make, but comedy has a fairly wide appeal too. So, even people who aren’t fans of the old genre might want to read your story or comic, because it’s funny.

And, if they really like it, then it might even make them curious about the things that inspired it….

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Why Are Gamebooks Such An Overlooked Genre?

2016 Artwork Why Aren't Gamebooks more popular

[NOTE: Since I write these articles fairly far in advance, this article was actually written shortly before I wrote “Acolyte!” – a free interactive gamebook style horror/comedy story].

Even though this is an article about an old genre of fiction that is often overlooked, I’m going to have to start by talking about videogames briefly. As usual, there’s a good reason for this that I hope will become obvious later.

Anyway, for a few days before I originally wrote this article, I’ve been watching a series of “let’s play” videos for a modern horror game called “Until Dawn”. This is a game that’s based on old slasher movies and the game seems to play out like a movie, but you get to make decisions at various points in the story which affect which characters survive, what happens next etc…

Although the game requires a far more modern games console than any that I own and, looking at the videos, it doesn’t have a huge amount of actual gameplay in it- it fascinated me because it’s basically a modern version of those old gamebooks that used to be popular in the 1970s-90s (eg: “Fighting Fantasy“, “Choose Your Own Adventure“, “Give Yourself Goosebumps” etc..).

In case you’ve never seen these books before, they start out like a normal novel but – after a couple of pages, you’ll be given a decision to make. If you choose one option, then the book instructs you to turn to – say- page 53. If you choose the other option, the book instructs you to turn to – say- page 75. Whichever page you turn to will also contain another set of decisions etc…. Your decisions affect how the story plays out.

In other words, there are many possible paths through the story. If you were to map out the possible paths through these books, then they would look more like a flowchart of some kind than a single straight line.

When I was younger, I amassed quite a collection of these gamebooks and even tried (and failed) to write some of my own. In fact, I also tried (and failed) to write one as recently as 2013 [It’s the fourth thing on the index in this article]. It’s possible that I may or may not have made another attempt between the time I wrote this article and the time it is posted. [Edit: As mentioned earlier, I did and it can be read here].

And, yes, I also wrote another article about this genre back in 2013 too. Seriously, it’s one of those genres that I keep forgetting about and then becoming fascinated with again.

The thing that really surprises me is how unknown and under-appreciated this genre is. Books in this genre mostly seem to be written for and marketed towards kids and teenagers and they virtually never get any real recognition. Most modern authors wouldn’t even think about writing one of these stories. This is a real shame because these stories have the advantage of being interactive in a way that “traditional” stories don’t.

So, why is this genre so overlooked and under-used?

First of all, it’s probably because of the technical difficulties involved in writing one of these stories. Not only do you have to meticulously plan out the whole story before even writing the first page, but you basically have to plan out many possible versions of the same story.

If there are too many decisions, then the novel can become unwieldy and too complex. If there aren’t enough different decisions, then the novel can become boring quickly.

Secondly, these types of novels require a radically different approach to both narration and characterisation. Since the main character is supposed to be the reader, they have to be a “blank slate”, so there isn’t a huge amount of room for characterisation. Likewise, you also have to write in a much more descriptive way than in a traditional novel.

Not only that, these types of novels are unique in that they’re about the only genre of fiction that has to be written in both the present tense and from a second-person perspective (eg: “You descend the cold slate staircase into the ink-black cellar. As your eyes adjust to the gloom, a sinking feeling fills the pit of your stomach”). Writing fiction in this style can take a bit of getting used to and it’s something that many writers don’t have much practice or experience with.

Thirdly, these types of stories were at their most popular in the 1970s-90s because story-based computer and videogames were a lot less advanced back then. Yes, there were text-based adventure games and – later- “point and click” adventure games too – but these were the preserve of geeks, academics and/or wealthy people during the 1970s-90s.

Back then, gamebooks were cheap and they could tell far more immersive interactive stories than even the most advanced computer game or videogame could. Even today, the graphical capabilities of the human imagination can still surpass the most advanced computers. But, these days, computer and video games have become a lot more popular and a lot more advanced. So, there’s less of a reason for gamebooks to exist than there was a few decades ago.

Finally, like when computer and video games were in their infancy, gamebooks are often percieved to be a “kids” genre. After all, virtually every well-known book in this genre has been aimed at younger audiences. They’re seen as something for kids. Computer and video games only really emerged as something that adults could confidently enjoy sometime during in the 1990s or early 00s, but that was only after decades of experimentation, popularity, marketing and widespread use. Gamebooks never really quite had this opportunity.

So, yes, these are a few of the reasons why this amazing genre isn’t as popular as it should be.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Should You Make Stuff In “Abandoned” Genres?

2015 Artwork Dead Genres Article Sketch

A few months ago, I was looking through the “stats” page for this site, when I suddenly noticed one of the Google queries that had led someone to this site. The question went something along the lines of “are splatterpunk novels still being written ?

This was an interesting question since splatterpunk fiction is one of my favourite types of horror fiction and I absolutely loved reading old second-hand splatterpunk novels from the 80s and 90s when I was a teenager. But, apart from a couple of old-school splatterpunk authors who still sometimes work in the genre (like Shaun Hutson), there aren’t really a huge number of splatterpunk writers out there these days.

But, that’s not to say that splatterpunk is dead – far from it. It’s just that splatterpunk fiction has influenced the horror genre as a whole – and made it ok for horror stories to be as gruesome as the author wants them to be.

As such, “splatterpunk” novels aren’t being written that often today because, in a strange way, the genre has served it’s purpose. If your horror story features a few gruesome scenes, then most people will just think of it as “ordinary” horror fiction, rather than “splatterpunk fiction”. This probably wouldn’t have been the case thirty or forty years ago.

The same sort of thing is also kind of true for the cyberpunk genre too – after all, it was a daring vision of the future in the 1980s. But, these days, we all use the internet. In fact, unless you’re reading a printout of this article, then you’re using it right now. You’re using something that was a key part of a “futuristic” type of science fiction back in the 1980s. Just let that sink in for a moment.

But, the cyberpunk genre has – in it’s own way – had a huge influence on the science fiction genre as a whole. There are more than a few “ordinary” modern science fiction novels that are set in dystopic versions of the future, where the world is ruled by large corporations. This (mostly) came from the cyberpunk genre.

Not to mention that many ‘near future’ science fiction films, comics and computer games made since the early-mid 1980s are at least slightly visually influenced by old cyberpunk movies like “Blade Runner” and “Akira”.

So, it isn’t that obscure old genres such as these have been “abandoned”, it’s just that they’ve kind of been absorbed back into the genre that they came from. They’ve become part of the mainstream idea of what that particular genre looks like. Although they may have started out as a way to rebel against the traditions of a particular genre, they’ve ended up becoming one of those traditions.

Of course, the important question here is whether you should work in one of these old genres or not. The answer to this question is pretty simple – if you like the genre, then work in it. If you don’t like the genre, then don’t work in it.

But, even if you decide not to work in one of these old genres, then there’s a good chance that at least part of them will end up in your work anyway.

For example, even if you’ve never read a splatterpunk novel before, then there’s a good chance that some splatterpunk stuff might creep into your horror novel or comic without your knowledge – for the simple reason that it’s an “ordinary” part of the horror genre these days. The modern horror stories that might have inspired you to write one of your own have probably been at least slightly inspired (directly or indirectly) by old splatterpunk novels.

So, yes, you might already be writing something in an obscure old genre without even really knowing that you’re doing it.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂