To follow up our last "Archive Dive" post, on Five Wondermark Firsts, I thought this time I would examine individual Wondermark comics that have been inspired in some way by true events.
In that post, I admitted that I had written a comic that could be considered, in some form or fashion, true. I wrote:
Not many of my comics are autobiographical — I’d be very afraid, if they were — but a few do indeed comprise a category that might be called “verbatim transcripts of conversations with my wife.”
That last was a comic about a baby, and as it turned out, there really was a baby. In real life.
Despite what I said in the post, in a sense all my comics are autobiographical, in the way that anyone's writing is defined by being a thing that that specific person thinks is worth writing about. You could graph enough points from my body of work to triangulate a map of my mind, probably.
But here are five comics that were quite specifically inspired by actual things that happened in my life -- events, sometimes unfunny events, that I shamelessly mined for their entertainment value without you ever knowing I was doing it.
THE CENTENNIAL // #100; In which Bob is made to lose his Train of Thought (March 29, 2005)
A few words of explanation. The reference to "voting" is because this comic ACTUALLY originally appeared in November 2004, just after the election in which George W. Bush defeated John Kerry.
At that time I was doing comics more-or-less weekly, but I had done a big clump at the beginning and then some irregularly for a while until I took up the regular schedule. My old website didn't have any sort of date-based archiving system, which seems crazy now -- but it was just a static HTML page I typed an image tag into whenever I wanted to add a new comic to a page. Whenever a page got 10 comics on it I'd duplicate it, hard-code a link to it, and start a new page.
(In a way, I think that sort of layout, with 10 comics or more in a row displayed at once, has a certain appeal. You can read on and on and let the feeling of the comics accumulate and cascade without pause. It's more like reading a blog, scrolling down to as you continue reading, than a traditional webcomic site showing one comic per page. But I digress.)
When my site got its first revamp, in late 2005, into something that resembled a typical webcomic site with a dated archive, all the comics that had run back on the "dateless" site ended up being assigned arbitrary dates so the archive would have a single comic every week, stretching back to the start of it all in April 2003.
So, this comic was originally posted (to the older site) just after the 2004 election. Readers at the time, both of them, would have gotten the voting reference. While the comic was rarely overtly political at that time, I think the "toothpaste" bit was a dig at George W. and his dumbness. This is what we call in the biz HARD HITTING SATIRE.
But the event that inspired this comic per se was clearly the occasion of it being the 100th episode. (This was also the point at which I decided "episode" would be my canonical term for an individual strip.)
I don't think going meta is necessarily clever, and clearly I didn't at the time either -- hence making sure to have one character "not get" the meta statement, in order to lampshade it as absurd. But 100 comics is indeed a lot, and a year and a half is a long time, and I recall thinking that I should commemorate the occasion somehow.
I did a sort-of meta-comic earlier than that as well, in #026, with the punchline being -- similar to #100 -- that it wasn't really meta at all.
It took me nine years, but I did eventually do another "comic about comics" with #853 , and I've now decided I'm on a nine-year cycle. Stay tuned for the next nonennial meta-comic in sunny 2021.
THE OUTAGE // #124; In which Life improves for a while (Sept 13, 2005)
I wrote this comic at my old job, on my laptop (on battery), while the power was out at work and no one could do any other work.
It was great. We had been working on something with a deadline, surely, and we were rushed and stressed, and then the power went out, and there was nothing we could do but sit around and wait.
The fact that this happened in real life isn't germane to the strip; in fact, it probably makes it less interesting, if it does anything. Early on I decided I didn't want Wondermark to be one of those webcomics with a little author's note section underneath each comic, explaining the inspiration for that day's strip. I thought it would become a crutch. I wanted each comic to have to work on its own, without any explanation or context provided by me. I also wanted to center the comic, instead of me personally.
Also, I didn't want to obligate myself to have to write something about each strip -- sometimes there really is nothing personal I need to add.
(I think Kris handles this well with chainsawsuit; the annotation after each strip is usually in-character, the sort of button I might put in the mouseover text, but he's also free to get personal in that space too.)
All that said, the power outage really did happen, so it gave me the idea to talk about a power outage -- to plumb the depths of how the power outage truly did make me feel, and what a power outage could mean.
All these strips are prototypical examples of taking something that happened in my actual life, using that as a seed idea, and then spinning it out into absurdity. Or staring at it uncomfortably closely for a long time, and watching the ways in which it squirms.
Anything that happens to you or me can be a seed idea. It's why the best cure for writer's block is going outside and doing any social action or interacting with any human being.
Especially with a gag comic like mine, it's a joke-writing exercise to take literally any statement overheard from any person, and completely overanalyze it, or have someone react completely incorrectly to it.
(This is also a thing you can do in improv, and in fact, I wrote a writing advice post about doing exactly this.)
Now, you can get in trouble with this if people who know you personally read your comic. Inevitably someone will recognize something they said, or some situation they were witness to, reflected in the comic -- and then they think everything in that comic is supposed to be a true story.
I had a friend react like this once. I'd used as a setup the basis of a conversation we'd had, and then had one character go completely absurdly off the rails with it. He said to me, "Is that really how you think I feel?" And he was offended.
I mean, maybe deep down in the silent parts he did feel the absurd way like the character did, I don't know. But to him, the point of the comic could only have been to poke fun at him for ostensibly thinking something weird -- whereas what I'd actually done was to take the basic idea we'd discussed and had a character keep playing with it until it became weird. That's when it became interesting to write about.
I took this idea of "spinning a situation off into absurdity" and spun it itself off into absurdity in episode #1131.
After all that talking about how comics aren't intended to be documentaries... here is a comic that is a completely true story, paraphrased in this episode as best as I could remember it.
The guy wasn't waving his hands like this, but I was indeed at the airport. He did indeed approach me. It otherwise all went down just like it reads.
This was an example of something so weird that I felt I had to put it down in comic form. There is no punchline besides "This weird thing happened. It REALLY happened."
What makes this hard to pull off is that Wondermark already exists in a heightened reality. The cast of Wondermark speak their minds in ways real people rarely do. They take absurdity in stride; they have to, to function in the world they live in. If this monk from the strip said this same stuff to someone from Wondermark, it wouldn't even be the weirdest thing that'd happened to them in that hour.
A friend sometimes tells me things that happen to him, and caps it with "You should make that a comic!" The problem is, the stuff that happened to him is weird by the standard of real life. But most of real life is not nearly weird enough to exist, by itself and un-embellished, in a standard-issue gag comic strip.
So telling a true story is only powerful if you reset the stage and say "THIS time, we're talking about this happening IN REAL LIFE." And even then, depending on the story, it only sometimes works as a full, self-contained strip, with no polishing or context.
I recall thinking at the time that my conversation with the monk was so weird, it might work in Wondermark. It might have been over the threshold -- and besides, I wanted to tell someone about it. I couldn't just let that moment fade away, forgotten in a day.
I think I've only done that "The punchline is that this is a true story" move one other time. It was episode #251, and it happened before Twitter was really a thing. If something like the conversation in that comic were to happen again, and I thought it worth noting, it'd probably become a tweet. Tweets are allowed to be weird without having to be funny.
I've only been fired from a job once in my life. It was around the time of this comic, early 2006.
I was working at an advertising agency, doing movie trailers. We were sent a set of quotes from a reviewer for use in our ads. They seemed suspicious to me -- like, not legit-sounding. I did some Googling and found a website talking about this reviewer and how suspicious his quotes were.
The going theory was that he just liked to see his name in print and would give a glowing review to every movie to try and get in the ads. There was also a debate about whether he actually even wrote reviews or just the pull-quotes themselves. Based on the sheet I was given it really looked like the latter, which I found kinda gross.
I was 25 and righteous, so I (anonymously) emailed a person at the site and we had a brief correspondence. Our conversation was published on his site. A few months later, someone in the trailer industry found the article and it got passed around the industry. It was pretty quickly traced back to me, based on details from the article, and I was fired for breaking confidentiality.
It's a story I've never told before publicly because, well, I'm a bit embarrassed by it.
This was on the heels of an industry scandal about a fully fictional reviewer -- in which a trailer company had just assigned a fake name to reviews, rather than writing reviews for the sake of the ads and going through the formality of asking a reviewer if they wanted to claim them -- so everyone was on edge about the matter.
Despite being fired, it wasn't the end of my career in trailers. An ally who thought I'd gotten a raw deal hooked me up with a better gig at a different agency, and the matter never came up again. My whistleblowing, such as it was, changed nothing, except the company lost the client whose movie those reviews were for.
So, like, I survived it. I ended up better for it, perhaps -- because maybe I'd still be at that place now, working 60-hour weeks in the service of princess movies and talking dog shows, if I hadn't gotten my ass kicked out proatively.
But the whole ordeal was tough to go through emotionally. It was the subject on the top my mind for a while, which meant I mentally worked through different facets of it by writing comics. In addition to #150 above (mouseover text: "these real life comics are starting to get kind of worrisome"), there was also #148 from around the same time, and #131 from just before that.
These particular comics are just gags, not specific to the agency situation except obliquely. But they gave me a way to complain about something that was bothering me, to vent that psychic pressure a bit -- especially because it was an embarrassing situation I didn't really want to talk about otherwise.
You, the audience, were acting as my therapist, AND YOU DIDN'T EVEN KNOW. You still are, by the way. (Maybe it's actually obvious?)
The first two panels are a verbatim monologue from a very chatty tourist at the diner where I used to go and write, some mornings.
A diner breakfast is the perfect place to write, for me. Leave one's phone in the car and just bring a notebook. Sit at the counter, fuel up with an omelet, and nurse a cup of coffee. I can usually get about an hour before the constant influx of coffee makes me have to use the restroom.
I don't do it perfectly very often, but my best days are when I just open to a blank page, draw some stick figures, and write dialogue for a while, about anything.
I have to remind myself that the first few scripts will not be good -- that's fine, it's part of the process. It's necessary to churn out some bad stuff to get the hand moving and the brain engaged in the correct gear. Script number 5 and onward is usually pretty okay, if I can keep the train rolling that far.
The diner where the conversation in the above strip occurred has since burned down, presumably unrelatedly. My other favorite diner was in a bowling alley, which was then bought by a BOWLING CONGLOMERATE whose heartless suit-wearing executives made the elderly owner forcibly retire after 44 years. It was very sad.
We tried to propose a BMX race to save the diner but we were distracted by the BOWLING CONGLOMERATE buying and shuttering my NEXT favorite diner at the NEXT closest bowling alley!
I'm losing diners on the daily, fam. Pray for the continued health of the comic.
POSSIBLE FUTURE ARTICLES IN THE ARCHIVE DIVE SERIES:
• Five Wondermarks that can Better the World
• Five Wondermarks that Aged Poorly
• Five Wondermarks that I Can Admit were Misguided
• Five Wondermarks that Foresaw the Future
I've got examples lined up for all of those. Or, suggest your own in the comments! Make up a title, and see if I can find five comics that fit the description!
Thanks for reading, friends, and as always, thanks for being part of Team Wondermark! You are all wonderful in my book, which is a 1979 edition of the Guinness Book of World Records. (I assign one record to each of you, as a mnemonic.)
- Malki !