*Please note that I’m not an expert neither in comedy nor in psychology so all my opinions are purely personal.
Relatable hasn’t always been a thing.
I’ve been wondering about ‘relatable’ for a while.
As a comic artist and a comic reader since more than 20 years I have seen a lot of shifts in what is considered to be funny, but nothing like what is happening today with the ‘relatable’ imperative.
Did I relate to Andy Capp and his being drunk and his fishing for money all the time when I was, let’s say, 10 years old? Did I relate to Garfield, Mafalda, Mordillo’s strips (often very sexual) or Popeye? What about Scrooge McDuck? Was I greedy or something for appreciating it that much?
I don’t think so.
Take this for exemple (I’m a big fan of the Beethoven series in the Peanuts universe).
Few will argue that this comic sequence ain’t relatable at ANY LEVEL. Unless you’re a 8 yo who plays exclusively Beethoven from dusk till dawn and have a dog who loves it and can stand on its head. In that case good for you!
And yet even if it’s not relatable it’s funny, endearing and wanna make you see more.
So far, we already understood that ‘relatable’ wasn’t a thing in comics until not so long ago.
Wiping off the cultural references to inact a universal humor.
Some comic artists make the effort of talking about things they don’t know about.
They go exploring new areas just following their intuition that there could be something interesting to tell behind the closed doors of an uncharted territory.
It’s the case for many manga artists. Editors play a heavy role in their creative process and sometimes they find themselves becoming true experts in some discipline only to be able to tell a story with the most scientific approach possible.
Set apart artists that work this way, most comic artists would stick to something they know well, even when they create fantasy stories.
This becomes clearer when we go down to strip comics.
And even more evident when we look at today’s comedy comics. It’s almost like these people didn’t even ever took a step out their doors or if they did, they only did it online.
It might be a reaction to globalization and to the internet.
You know your audience is not gonna get all your cultural references, so you just avoid them.
Or you use them as a sort of touristic attraction and you romanticize them.
So if we can’t talk about our environment neither use cultural references to make jokes, what is that we can still use?
This avoidance of cultural references brought us to rediscover our inner selves.
This has got us to a more introspective narration, to dissect our soul and name our emotions one by one. To what makes us human, to what it’s the same for everyone.
Yes, the internet also brought us a terrible amount of emulation.
You are constantly subject to other people’s work and ideas and at one point you can’t avoid being influenced by that.
Also, some people might wanna aim straight to popularity and pick their subject consequently.
Relatable is universal (doesn’t need cultural references), the general public wants it and it sells good.
Let’s go #relatable then.
An alarming rise in relatability level.
The first relatable comics were interesting. It was new. We wanted more.
Never in our ‘slightly different’ (read ‘outside mainstream’) kid’s lives we were exposed to so many people like us. Those were the friends that we never had and we always wanted.
Take Shen (http://owlturd.com/) or Sarah Andersen (http://sarahcandersen.com/).
These creators are not only the friends you always wanted, but they are amazing artists and they are deep.
They went for a search of the universality where the human side hits harder: inside of them.
It’s almost like a therapeutic comic style, for the creator and for the reader.
It’s relatable and funny.
That’s not the case for most of the relatable comics today. They are indeed relatable, they just aren’t funny.
There isn’t any content elaboration, there isn’t any point of view, there isn’t any storytelling, there isn’t any punch line. It’s a mere narcissistic exercise that isn’t based on human’s introspection, but on a mere social media’s observation.
Even when it’s unintended.
Is relatable a compliment?
Please don’t get me wrong.
I’m not saying we don’t need relatable in comics or that relatable is not good.
I think that as long as people need it, it’s good to have it. It’s a way out of loneliness, especially for people who are in need to belong somewhere.
I’m not saying that relatable doesn’t go well with comedy neither. I’m just saying that it shouldn’t be the only thing comedy is based on.
Relatable can be the outcome of a funny sketch. At the same time it shouldn’t be its only component.
Humor is way more complex than that.
It’s a mix that varies according to each person’s feelings and experience. For some people it’s in between heartwarming and silly, for some between bitter and sweet, for some it’s gruesome and cynical.
What makes you laugh says a lot about you and the complexity of your soul.
Make people laugh it’s one of the most complicated exercise you can imagine. Ask standup comedians. And they have the privilege of using their voice to convey a particular nuance in the conversation, a priviledge that a comic artist will never have.
Readers will interpret a dialogue the way they prefer, sometimes spoiling it or sometimes even improving it.
When readers tell me that my comics are relatable I always have mixed feelings.
I feel relieved about the fact that ‘I’m not the only one’ at something, but at the same time I begin to wonder if I’m not making it too easy. If I didn’t get lost in the search of a clear message. Especially when my aim wasn’t being relatable in the first place.
I ask myself at what point people lost the sight of the message I was trying to convey to focus only on the décor of the situation (aka the relatable details I have used in order to build the scene).
Is relatable something I was searching to begin with? Is it completely unintended? Should I avoid it at all? In what measure should I keep using it?
In any case when people tell me I’m relatable I’m puzzled and I can’t shake off some uncomfortable feelings about having sacrificed some elements to the altar of universality.
I still follow and appreciate many relatable comics only because they’re relatable.
Many authors have started acknowledging the phenomenon and have been outspoken about it.
Instead of judging it or criticize it I prefer being aware and investigate it. I’m really interested to see where this is going. I’m pretty confident it will open new perspectives and it’s a useful point of view to witness the cultural shift we’re all being part of.
I leave you with an anecdote to think about.
In a Reddit’s article that unfortunately I can’t find anymore (if I do I’ll post the link), author Alex Norris (http://dorrismccomics.com/) made a list of the most common type of jokes we recurrently witness today online. It provided a bunch of strips to demonstrate how redundant and oversimplified this type of comedy based solely on relatable is. The famous ‘Oh no.’ series.
The fact is that Norris is such an amazing artist that even these little strips, born exclusively as a parody of clichés relatable comics, made a name for themselves at the point that Norris gained an enormous visibility with them.
Despite Norris being already a well known comic artist for quite a while and produced a large amount of awsome material, these are the comics that made him broadly famous on the web.
So what did he do?
He jumped on it. He kept on doing more and more ‘Oh no’ sketches and became more and more famous.
Hypocrisy at its best?
Nop. Norris nails it every single time thanks to a very complex writing process. His work looks simple but it’s not.
It’s the perfect way to kill it. With complexity.
Killing oversimplification with complexity but making it look simple. Mind twisting.
Enough to say that Norris took humor AND relatable to the next level.
Let’s hope more authors join the challenge in the future. In the meanwhile, enjoy your comics about people eaeting pizza on their couch on a sunny day while binge-watching Netflix and avoid human contact.
Enjoy ’cause you never know how long they’re gonna last before the next mainstream comic comes in.
Wow! You HAVE had some time to ponder, haven’t you? This is quite the deep dive into art, the audience and the creative process! Have you taken up philosophy as a new hobby? That’s cool. I don’t mind thinking and I certainly respect those other folks who do. Heaven knows France, Germany and Italy are all famous for “les philosophes.” I just pray you don’t have an existential crisis. I hear they’re the next big thing these days! Of course they’ve only been a big deal over here since Inauguration Day, when we got a President who couldn’t tell Albert Camus from Jean-Paul Sartre if they wore numbered jerseys. There! Can you relate to THAT??? . All best wishes, Jay!
Hi Jay! Ahah I haven’t thought of this article as a philosophical one but if you read it this way why not 🙂 I’m following very close all the great deal of trouble your administration is causing and I wish you good, cause you need it -_-
I think there’ll be more comics on the subject later on. Cause you know, what happens in the States doesn’t really concern only the States so we all have to take an interest on it.
Here in France is going to be election time soon, so please cross your fingers for us too!
I actually stumbled across your blog because I personally have become increasingly weary of these “relatable” comics and I wanted to see if I’m the only person who feels this way (apparently not) and I want to thank you for this interesting read. I for one dislike these comics for various reasons:
1) Every time I’m browsing the social media, preferably Instagram, I constantly see a stream of these “relatable” comics and they all have the same tiresome joke: being in a partnership and/or showing how quirky they are. The idea was fun for the first few times, but it has become oversaturated and stale.
2) I get the feeling that a majority of these comics are extremely uncreative. The artist just takes a mundane situation and ridicules it for the sake of a cheap joke. We could argue that it’s in a certain way creative, but I highly doubt that.
3) I like to explore interesting stories or a premise that ends with a good joke. I especially adore the ones where the outcome is something I wouldn’t expect (The Perry Bible Fellowship or It’s The Tie do a great job in such outcomes). These “relatable” comics are just quickly told and leave neither any satisfaction nor a slight smirk.
I guess this is the type of humor that has become popular these days. But I for one don’t want to follow this trend and rather discover other creative possibilities. Again, thanks for this entry.