El Goonish Shive, Cerebus Syndrome, and the plight of the Dramedy

Posted on January 24, 2011


Anyone who knows me well is no stranger to my tendency to get addicted to webcomics. Some of them I still read (XKCD, Questionable Content, The Order of the Stick), some of them I liked but lost interest in (Dr. Mcninja, The Inexplicable Adventures of Bob). Recently I went on an archive binge of El Goonish Shive, a teen drama/sci-fi/fantasy/comedy which I still have mixed feelings about after finishing the archives. Those familiar with the unfortunate syndrome mentioned in the title of this post will figure out why.

Be warned that this post has a multitude of spoilers. If you’re interested in reading the comic, I suggest you do it now and come back to this. I suggest you read it anyways, because it does have it’s good points.

But first, some thoughts on the real topic of this post:

Dramedy (also known as Tragicomedy) is a style of story in which serious and silly, tears and laughter, heavy and light-heartedness are mixed into one. Heart-wrenching drama is interspersed with gut-busting humor. If you can pull it off, then in my mind, you’ve got gold.

People have a tendency to think drama and comedy are two opposing forces, constantly pushing against each other, struggling for dominance, where it is impossible for them to coexist. This is not true. While they are opposites, they are not always caustic to one another, and perhaps it is a product of mankind’s binary thinking to assume you can’t have the best of both.

Imagine reading or viewing stories as eating food. Humor is like ice cream. Drama is like a nice, hearty steak. Humor tastes great, is simple and gratifying, and makes you want more. But after a little bit of humor, there’s not much reason to continue except for more instant gratification. Drama, however, is rich and substantial, takes it time to satisfy, and it’s benefits last longer. But after some drama, your jaw is tired and you want something soft and easy to consume.

Okay, weird metaphor over. My point is that put together into one meal you get both at no other cost. As a side note, trying to put them in one dish is a bit more messy. You can’t try to crack a joke when the reader is bawling. But when the heavy stuff is over, a little light-heartedness may be just what the reader needs.

Note how earlier I said “if you can pull it off”. Getting the balance right is tricky. Making it believable it difficult. Making it great is damn near impossible. But it’s been done before, and with effort and careful planning, it’s definitely able to be pulled off.

But I digress.

Near the beginning EGS was nearly all comedy. Slowly but surely, comedy gave way to drama, though, and a lot of readers were a little upset (understatement!). The most notable instance was the hammers. Yes, EGS readers, the hammers *shudder*.

For those non-bunnies* reading, during the beginnings of the comic there was a running gag in which women would somehow magically summon giant cartoonish hammers whenever a man made an offensive comment, with which they would then lay the smack-down with. The hammers, for some reason, never did serious injury despite being, well, giant fucking hammers, but they did hurt a lot. It was a great gag, and became iconic of the comic.

Later in the story Dan Shive (author) felt the need to seriously explain where exactly the hammers came from, how they work, and so on. Which was a question nobody asked and nobody cared about. We loved the hammers because of their silliness and surreality, and we didn’t want an explanation. In fact, one might venture that explaining them in serious and canonical terms pretty much ruined the joke. Oh, this isn’t surreal at all, this fits perfectly into the world of the comic, so why was I laughing again?

The “hammerchlorians” storyline did indeed add additional depth to the character of Susan, and it did explain some things other than the hammers, but it was the clinching point in the comic of it’s descent into Cerebus Syndrome.

Now, as you may have guessed, this whole rant about EGS was basically proving my point that even a talented writer like Dan can mess up Dramedy. Storytelling is a fickle beast by itself. Contrary to how the old saying goes, comedy is easy. Contrary to what english teachers profess, drama can also be easy.

Trying to get the best of both worlds is hard.

* Members of the EGS fandom have been dubbed “bunnies”. No, I don’t know why.

ALSO: I was going to throw in a rant about another thing that bothers me about EGS, but after thought, my heart’s not really in it. Ah, what the hell. Here goes.

Grace. Yes, Grace. I really hated what Dan did with Grace’s character. She was introduced as innocence personified, someone completely pure of character. I liked this, because it offered such a contrast to the world of violence, corruption, and evil around her. Recently Dan basically retconned this as saying she “lost her innocence a long time ago, and have since been overcompensating” (paraphrased from Jerry the immortal). He also tossed out that she’s been in the habit of “repressing negative emotions”, explaining her bubbly nature. So what, the entire reason I grew to like the character was all an act? A lie? Sure, it added a twist to the character, but seriously? It doesn’t really make her more realistic or more deep, it pretty much just makes a Cerebus Syndrome comic even more depressing.

Since initially writing that rant, however, I’ve decided to pull an ultra-rare anti-canon Alternative character interpretation gambit and consider Grace confused, traumatized, and mad with power rather than corrupted. Maybe I’ll explain that better in a later post.

Stay smart.

Posted in: Writing