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My First Week of “Sally Forth”: Day Five

Posted in Uncategorized by cesco7 on March 9, 2012

To start from the beginning please go to Day One.

Friday, January 2, 1998

There’s a classic 1960’s Peanuts strip (but really, aren’t almost all Peanuts strips from the 1960s classic?) in which Lucy, feeling she has reached a therapeutic dead end with her client Charlie Brown, attempts a different approach with an educational slideshow.

It’s a masterpiece of a comic strip made all the more so by the realization that Lucy has been secretly photographing poor Charlie Brown at his worst the whole time. But it also brings up the notion of looking back on past mistakes, which can actually be a very positive exercise so long as you do not dwell on your errors but learn from them instead.

Reviewing my first week of Sally Forth has actually proven a very encouraging experience because it’s reminded me not only of my growing confidence as a writer but also reiterates my feeling of ownership of the strip. I’ve said it before and I will say it again, I think my first few years of writing for the comic made were quite, well, awful. While there were a few solid story arcs here and there I spent those initial years trying to approximate someone else’s voice–one that was very unlike mine–with very mixed results. (Often there would be week after week of mind-numbing stories in which Sally would just give her coworker Alice practical business advice, making for the worst TED conference speeches since Ted himself delivered that instructional seminar “Which Gobot are You?”) And naturally, approximating that very voice was indeed my job as the new verbal caretaker of the comic. Doing so made perfect sense from a business perspective, since if the company had wanted otherwise they would have just launched a different strip instead. But the downside–and I fear this is what happens to a lot of “legacy’ strips–is that in doing so the writer then looks backwards instead of necessarily forwards, drawing ideas from the same well instead of seeking out new territory to explore. And that can create a distancing effect between character and reader, since over time the comic strip’s cast can start to become their own caricatures. (Garfield didn’t like Mondays before? Then, oh boy, is he going to hate them now, despite the fact that he doesn’t have a job and pretty much the only defining difference between days for a cat is the position they fall asleep in.) Of course, this in no way should imply that my approach to changing the strip was the right way or that I really know what the hell I’m doing.

But I do think that in my case changing the strip made me a better writer for that very strip. And a lot of that came from interaction with readers, which can be a powerful creative tool for cartoonists if used correctly and you don’t take to heart such comments as “If Ces doesn’t shoot himself in the fucking head soon I’m going up to New York and do it for him.” When I started visiting comic forums I noticed a lot of people being very critical about the nature of the strip in general and the main character in particular. So I thought why not simply approximate that voice of discontent and put it in the strip. And thus the character of Faye was born. (And as is often the case in ensemble cast sitcoms, over the years Faye has become less a voice of discontent and more a member of the family.) I also noticed a lot of people angrily exclaiming “Why the hell does Sally have to act as if she’s so perfect?” (Well, they didn’t say “hell” and they usually used another word for “Sally.”) So I asked myself, “Yeah, why does Sally have to be so perfect?” And that led to the introduction of a mom character who is almost never satisfied with her daughter’s actions and a younger sister who is thoroughly incapable of leading her own life but just as equally indignant about getting advice–and not just quick-fix help–from her sibling. And all that came from listening to the readers (while ignoring the occasional death threat voicemail or emails of such a disturbing sexual nature that in once case authorities had to be contacted).

But enough looking back as an excuse to get sentimental. Instead, let’s look at the above strip as an excuse to give a brief and almost certainly unhelpful look into a particular writing process. The ways in which one works with a partner in a comic strip (as I do with the artist Craig Macintosh) are as varied as there are comic strip partnerships. Ours may be a little different in that Craig and I have never met and have talked on the phone more than once but less than three times. We also come from different regions in the country, have very different backgrounds, and while Craig actually bravely served his country I never got further than Atari’s “Combat.” I also wonder if every time he comes across new Ted dialogue he just squeezes his eyes shut, pinches the bridge of his nose, and lets out a long, exasperated sigh. But nonetheless the process works, with my sending him a script and Craig working his usual magic.

Now each script reads like a play (albeit one that would probably close in New Haven long before having a chance to bomb on Broadway), in that there is dialogue and brief scene description. Here, for example, is what the script would look like for the above strip’s first panel…

Except for each Monday’s strip (unless it’s a continuation from the previous week), most Sally Forth first panel scene descriptions use the phrase “Same day” or “Same evening as yesterday” because most week-long stories occur over a single day and to serve as a reminder that the cast should continue wearing the exact same outfits for continuity sake. Unfortunately, this message isn’t always picked up when the daily comics are outsourced to be colorized. (While all cartoonists color their own Sunday strips, the coloring of daily comics is handled by a syndicate contractor. There are a few exceptions, though, most noticeably that of the brilliant artist Dan Piraro of Bizarro who actually does four versions for each of his daily strips.) And so Ted’s tie may change color from day to day or Alice may suddenly tan like an Italian on beach holiday.

But what might have stood out more in the above description was the line “Ted looks at Sally with #2.” (Which initially makes as much sense as “Ted writes cheese with tears,” and other lines that may in fact capture the true essence of the man.) Long before I assumed writing duties, the strip’s creator Greg Howard and Craig worked out a numeric shorthand for facial expressions, I assume to speed up the scriptwriting process. Hence #2 means “smile.” I still use the system to this day but often find it a little visually constricting, so I almost as often describe what the character is feeling, if they are making eye contact or not, and the shape of their mouth. (In cartooning, how you draw the mouth is the most obvious and effective means of indicating the character’s current emotional state, especially since many strips use dots for eyes.) And since someone is bound to ask, the numeric shorthand for the famous/infamous Sally Forth smirk is #13.5. Why not just #13? Because #13 owed a lot of bad people a lot of money and was “taken care of.”

Of course, not every script makes it through the editing system untouched (though such issues are very infrequent). Once I had to change the name of a violent video game Hilary was not supposed to play from my original title “The Knifing on Knife Hill: Knifer’s Edition.” And recently I found out that I could not use the phrase “Winter sucks” in a Sunday comic strip. I then rightly assumed “Winter blows” wouldn’t work either. So instead I offered “Winter slowly drags its tongue up the shaft.” And thus the line “Winter stinks” was born.

I also want to take this moment to realize just how often I’ve used the “Let’s just leave our old life behind and flee” joke in Sally Forth, perhaps inadvertently giving an all-too-alarming glimpse into just how good I am in a crisis. I believe the last time I did so was during an impending visit from Sally’s mom Laura, causing Ted to proclaim, “We can change our name to ‘The Chadwells.’ That way it sounds like we own horses.” But here the line falls uncharacteristically (at least in retrospect) to the usually stable and determined main character, showing my initially slim grasp of the protagonist by instantly having her start over as the middle American equivalent of Irish travellers, a course of action that nowadays in the strip would immediately cause Ted to start making up his own Pavee dialect.

Please join me tomorrow as we end this whole thing on the wrong punchline.

To be continued…
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6 Responses

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  1. yellojkt said, on March 9, 2012 at 11:14 am

    emails of such a disturbing sexual nature that in once case authorities had to be contacted

    You really need to lighten up. Nobody even makes a buttplug that big. And please lift the restraining order. The 2000 foot limit is going to make watching the St. Patrick’s Day parade very complicated.

  2. cesco7 said, on March 9, 2012 at 11:23 am

    Okay, Yellojkt. You can now come within firing range of me. 🙂

  3. Harold said, on March 9, 2012 at 11:41 am

    I….I can’t imagine what Charlie Brown was doing in that slide. Actually I CAN imagine, and none of it fits in with what I believed I understood about that strip.

  4. Naked Bunny with a Whip said, on March 9, 2012 at 11:41 am

    “If Ces doesn’t shoot himself in the fucking head soon I’m going up to New York and do it for him.”

    Yeah, sorry about that. I shouldn’t be such a potty mouth.

  5. yellojkt said, on March 9, 2012 at 11:44 am

    It is New York City. Do you think I’m one of those hayseeds that doesn’t check the local unconstitutional Second Amendment restrictions before I pack my Barrett M82 for the weekend?

    Seriously, I have enjoyed this series. I find it funny that you and the artist have never met. My memory of the transition from Howard to you is hazy but I do remember the shitstorm that erupted when Mac tried to use a less angular style on some of the Sunday strips.

    I do enjoy the widened character roster as it gives more ways for the central characters to interact.

  6. Nil Zed said, on March 9, 2012 at 6:05 pm

    At least now I understand why for years I just couldn’t make up my mind about Sally Forth!

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