Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Double acts and Greek myths

This post is partly about how Useleus, the strip Wilbur Dawbarn and I created for the Phoenix came about and what led to making the central decisions that shaped its dynamic. We'd talked about making a strip together to pitch to the Phoenix, but it wasn't a serious thought until a lot of bits and pieces fell into place around an idea I had scrawled into a sketchbook. The idea began as little more than a name: 'Useleus'.

One of the things I wanted to do was to build a strip around a double act relationship. This was a reaction against Nuke Noodle, my strip for The Dandy, which was a one-man show. With a double act you can get humour in every page if you set up the right dynamic. You don't need an antagonist or people falling over to create humour, you can find it in every exchange. And of course, when you throw an antagonist in there, you've got two characters to react against. Here's a sequence from one of the Useleus strips. I've selected it not only because it highlights what I'm talking about, but because of the beautiful first panel-Wilbur's got a knack for melding goofy characters and evocative locations wonderfully.
The Minotaur is such a wonderful creation-an iconic creature, I had to nab him for this strip. The only problem with the Minotaur is that he's a berserk killer monster who lives in a labyrinth-not much to work with. Here's how it went... I had Useleus' name and so his character had to follow from that- although I didn't have his age-and what I felt was needed as a foil was a sensible stick-in-the-mud type. Whilst researching Greek myths I stumbled upon the story of Chiron, a centaur who was Achilles' teacher and then everything fell into place. I made Useleus into Achilles' younger brother, a constant disappointment to his father but from a line of heroes and thus having hero pretentions of his own, and I made the Minotaur into his teacher. Reversing the character of the Minotaur leant him more humour, and gave him a mysterious backstory that I could play with. 

Incidentally, it wasn't until I'd seen how Wilbur worked with the characters in the first one or two episodes that I felt I saw the characters completely clearly, and could nail them in subsequent scripts. That's what happens with comic strips, they develop and mature and characters evolve. 

In Useleus I found I could have a grand scheme-what becomes of Useleus and how does the Minotaur get his fearsome reputation? To hint at that, I decided to make the introductory narration come from a much older Minotaur, retelling the tales to add to the strip the feel of a legend.

And lastly we went from the Minotaur to plain 'Minotaur'. In the mythology his name is Asterion, but Wilbur felt it sounded too much like Asterix, so we went with just Minotaur-which rather nicely simplified things as it happens.

Speaking of Asterix, here's my top 5 comic double acts. Feel free to write 'What about Calvin and Hobbes!' in the comments section. 

1. Asterix and Obelix.

Can't beat 'em; the perfect combination, physically, intellectually, everythingly. The genius of Asterix is manyfold but one of the greatest things about it is how authentic the relationship feels. Witness the way they get screaming angry at each other, sulk and then embrace in tears. In Asterix and the Banquet, only the fifth book in the series, Obelix can confidentally say:

And we believe him 100%.

2. Loady McGee and Sinus O'Gynus (adults only, kids-don't think of googling them)

The world's most disgusting loser and his nerd pal. Loady frequently betrays and often kills Sinus in the most horrible way possible. Johnny Ryan's creations are mesmerisingly hideous, but somehow also feel like a saturday morning cartoon. 

3. Thompson and Thomson.

Another genius creation and totally breaks the mould of double acts by having two identikit characters. Would it have worked if Hergé had had only one Thompson? Nah. One person falling down the stairs is not that funny, but when two people who look exactly the same do it either in unison or one after the other, it's always funny. 

4. Twain & Einstein

Micheal Kupperman's bizarre pulp story-style teaming of these two because they look vaguely alike is one of the funniest things on earth. 

5. Zubrick and Pogeybait (also adults only)

A personal favourite of mine. Check out early issues of Daniel Clowes' Eightball for these two ugly, moronic losers. 

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