By Josh Hechinger
Welcome to From Strip to Script, where I take a page of finished comic art and try to derive a script from it, to see what I can learn from the exercise.
Hi, guess who's still hung up on examining comic strips? Yeah, buddy, it's me.
I forget if I went into this last week, with Peanuts, but comic strips generally have a formula to them, necessitated by the three or four panel limitations. Gag strips settle comfortably into the setup/premise/punchline formula. Adventure strips and dramas tend towards recap, advancement, cliffhanger. There's strips that buck this formula, of course, but it's a basic spine on which new art, dialogue, and situations are mapped.
Ryan North's Dinosaur Comics isn't reverse-formulaic, exactly, it's…alternatively-formulaic? Phew, that sounds awful, though. Formalist over formulaic? Like, 99% of the strips feature an identical layout and identical art, and only the dialogue ever changes. It's simultaneously even stricter than a standard strip, while at the same time…well, we'll save that for the What'd We Learn?
Anywho, today we'll be looking at a strip from August 31st, 2011.
– GOD T-REX LET'S ASSUME THAT SOMEHOW YOU WILL NEVER DIE OF NATURAL CAUSES
– T-REX I hope that by "assume" you mean "make it so" SO MUCH that I'm going to pretend that's what you said! Immortality, here I come!
– GOD THAT'S STILL NOT IMMORTALITY DUDE
– T-REX Impossible!
– GOD NO YOU'RE STILL MORTAL. THE ONLY DIFFERENCE IS YOU WON'T DIE FROM YOUR BODY GETTING OLD INSTEAD EVERYTHING AROUND YOU WILL BE TRYING TO KILL YOU
– GOD YOU KNOW
– GOD ACCIDENTS AND WHAT NOT
– T-REX Hah! I'm PRETTY SURE I can avoid tripping down the stairs if it means LIVING FOREVER.
– UTAHRAPTOR Pretty sure I can prove you can't!
– T-REX Pretty sure I can get a book on how to hold the hand-rail!
– UTAHRAPTOR T-Rex, forever is INFINITY LONG. Even if you're super careful and have only a 1 in 10 trillion chase of dying on the stairs, how often can you expect that happens if you live, oh, I don't know, 10 TRILLION YEARS?
– T-REX O-one?
– UTAHRAPTOR And if you live INFINITY YEARS, the chance of you dying from it becomes 1: TOTAL CERTAINTY.
– UTAHRAPTOR (off) With an infinite natural lifespan, the chance you die of ANYTHING rises to 1. Literally the entire universe will kill you, if you give it enough time.
– T-REX That means if I live long enough, YOU'LL kill me too! Oh man!!
– T-REX This friendship just got…DANGEROUS
So, What'd We Learn?
– So, obvs., standardizing the art and layout for every strip puts the weight of being entertaining on the dialogue. But not just in terms of a clever turn of phrase or wordplay, it also puts it on the pacing of that dialogue. Here, we have the setup in the first two panels ("What if T-Rex was immune to dying natural causes? Not what he thinks!"), the exploration of the premise (living for infinity years increases the probability of bad stuff happening to you) in panels 3 through 5, and the punchline in panel six (T-Rex's main takeaway is the hypothetical hazard Utahraptor now poses). It's pretty perfect pacing: It jumps right in and gets you on the hook right away, breathes out to explore the absurdity of the premise, then ends on a moment of enlightenment (maybe not the ideal one?).
– The choice of foils for T.Rex here is interesting: the setup has the literal Word of God that T.Rex is mistaken, but having the explanation as to why come from a peer in Utahraptor still shows up T. Rex, but doesn't pig-pile him the way God Itself telling him he's wrong for six panels would.
– The art almost never changes, but damned if that second panel of T-Rex's open-mawed close-up doesn't kill me with the right dialogue. I love how it's endlessly open to interpretation as either shock or glee, depending on the right word…balloon? Stick-with-disembodied-text?…is coming out of it.
Philly-based comic writer Josh Hechinger [joshhechinger.tumblr.com] is a Cancer, and his blood type is A+. You can find him being a loquacious dope on Twitter, and read his comic collaborations on Comixology.