The webcomics blog about webcomics

Warning: Words Ahead

If I may beg your indulgence, I’d like to do something rare and respond to a comment¹, in large part because it expresses something I’ve seen elsewhere in the past couple of days. To reduce the argument to its most basic form:

Strip Search’s first episode was boring, nothing happened.

Which I think is an unfair critique. True, over sixteen minutes there were no screaming matches, no competition, no disqualifications, and no overt drama. This is exactly what needed to happen, as we’re still in the scene-setting stage of the show. Yes, but reality shows have a well-established set of tropes that we’re all familiar with, so we can jump right into the meat in the first three minutes, right?

Well, not really. The shows that jump straight into competition are ones that have tens, dozens of seasons behind them, with a built-in audience that knows how things are going to go. But look back at those shows when were they new and trying to find that audience — you have to get people to care about the contestants before they can care about the competition, and that’s what Strip Search episode #1 did.

“But Strip Search has a built-in audience already” is the usual counterargument, but it doesn’t, not really. Robert Khoo, among other things, is an inveterate collector of data — he can tell you to two decimal places anything of significance about the statistically typical Penny Arcade reader. And one of the things that he’s alluded to over the years (and it’s borne out by how he’s led the company) is that Penny Arcade, despite outward appearances, isn’t really part of the webcomics sector of the entertainment industry. It’s part of videogames sector.

Khoo could tell you exactly what percentage of PA readers read webcomics widely, but I’m willing to be that the numbers are skewed towards those that read two or three other webcomics and only read Penny Arcade². Heck, I’m all about webcomics and I only knew three of the twelve Artists introduced in episode 1, which would give me little reason to care about 75% of the competition had the others not been introduced properly. Khoo’s also been open about hoping that people who don’t follow webcomics at all³ will hopefully find the competition intriguing.

“But why didn’t anything else happen?” is the other criticism I’m seeing. The answer to this one is even simpler: time. Having run many, many episodes of streaming video, one of the things that Khoo has hard numbers on is how long people will watch TV over the internet and those numbers are clear: fifteen minutes is pushing the outer limits of acceptable to their audience. Khoo’s been consistent in describing Strip Search as aiming for a 10-15 minute running time, which limits how much of a story you can tell without running out of time. Look at it this way: depending on whether the episodes run closer to 10 minutes or 15, that’s three or four episodes equaling the runtime of a broadcast show (once you take out commercials, you’ve got 44 – 46 minutes of content per hour).

We’re just now at the first commercial break; this is the exact time that the introductions should be wrapping up and setting up a sense of anticipation for what comes next4. We’re most likely going to see the show run a total of nine or so hours, broken up into approximately 36 episodes each in the vicinity of a quarter-hour. Eleven eliminations will take place across eleven competitions. Three episodes per elimination (setup — competition — judging/elimination/heartfelt goodbyes) gives us 33 epsiodes, with three left over for especially complex or story-rich bits to scatter throughout the season.

Not everything will happen in every episode, nor can it unless Khoo decides to broadcast in 45 minute chunks instead of 15 minute chunks. You aren’t watching episodes of a competition show as you’ve grown accustomed to watching them, you’ve watching segments between commercial breaks. On the one hand, that means there’s fewer commercial breaks per hour than you’d get on broadcast; on the other hand, the breaks are several days long. I’d advise viewers eager for big chunks of action to watch three or four episodes at a time and avoid the Spoilers section of the Strip Search site.

The show may ultimately turn out to be uninteresting, or the personalities of the Artists lacking5, or the mechanics of the challenges uncompelling (although given Khoo’s penchant for planning for every possible contingency, I’d bet against it). However, it is way too damn early to declare that Strip Search is not good. Oh, and to answer a specific point in the comment that prompted much more than I’d originally intended to write, if Erika Moen wins, that’s when you’ll see a blog-gasm.

  • If there’s any justice in the world, today’s blogging by Bad Machinery creator John Allison6 on the state of webcomics and the stressors that may construct post-webcomics will provoke many fertile discussions. I am particularly struck the the strain of human behavior that Allison identifies that seeks to enjoy the attention that comes from sharing creations with the world, but in the manner that is least likely to actually reflect back on the creator. Read it.
  • Well played, Rich Burlew, well played. Not only have you come roaring back with eight updates of Order of the Stick in the less than two weeks since we noted your big plot twist, you’ve managed to turn said twist around 180 degrees and make a big surprise into a BIGGER SUPRISINGER7 [uh, spoilers]. It’s true, I got ahead of myself in my earlier reading, not waiting for the eyes to turn to little Xs, but you’ve covered that base today. Oh, and the pale skintone that crept in during the strip? Bravo.

¹ Regular readers of this page will recall my oft-stated dictum to Never read the comments, but obviously I have to keep up on the conversation on my own site. Regular readers may also recall that it’s extremely unusual for me to respond to comments, so take this for what it is — a fleeting occurrence, like sighting an endangered bird in graceful, full-song flight, and treasure it. Or at least check off the box on your Internet Opinionmonger Bingo card.

² I’ve long since come to peace with the idea that I am not Penny Arcade’s target audience, and that they will rarely produce content that’s designed to appeal to me. I’ve never played an MMORPG. I haven’t owned a game console since I was a child and we had an original Atari deck. I buy maybe one game a year, and still haven’t gotten around to Portal 2.

³ There’s a reason that Khoo’s got people involved in Strip Search talking to The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal instead of just hack webcomics pseudojournalists, and you can bet at least part of the show’s structure is designed for the people that those stories will bring in.

4 The alternative — jumping straight to eliminating people without getting to know them — is certainly possible, but would require a different show. Think about it for a moment: to jump directly into competition without getting to know the contestants, you’ve got no emotional involvement. Why bother getting to know contestant #7 if he’s going to be gone in the first 15 minutes, just give him the loser’s edit and bring on the screaming could work, except for the part where Khoo’s stated clearly that he didn’t staff the show with damaged people that could only bring drama, and the part where he states his clear desire to want to do right by the Artists.

5 Although I cannot imagine any circumstances so dire that I won’t stick around long enough to see the context in which Hurricane Erika decided to talk about butt virginity.

6 And goodness, are we really just weeks away from the release of Allison’s first proper Bad Machinery collection? I say “proper” because while you can have my copy of A Feral Flag Will Fly when you pry it from my cold, dead hands, I do long for a gloriously colorful presentation of The Case of the Team Spirit.

Also, I should note that March and April are going to be webcomicsarrific at Oni Press, as we will also see the next Penny Arcade collection and two (two!) collections of Double Fine Action Comics.

7 Shut up, it is too a word.

My problem with the first episode of Strip Search is NOT that it had no “drama”, it’s that it had no COMICS. Not even half-second samples of the art that earned each of the contestants their places there, no scenes of comics getting drawn, nothing indicating that these are even artists (and no, Erica Moen’s hair doesn’t count). In fact, it looked to me like a very good opening for a Generic Reality Competition Show, which could have involved a search for “The Next Top Database Manager” as much as a Cartoonist. The production company will certainly be able to use it to get gigs doing Network Reality TV shows. Anyone but the final winner may end up with nothing much to promote their future cartooning careers with. Which would be awful.

And yes, it has long been obvious to me that “Penny Arcade… isn’t really part of the webcomics sector of the entertainment industry”. I’ve referred to it as the “Garfield” of webcomics, creatively run on autopilot while branching out into a dozen other (often better done) enterprises. The impression that “Strip Search” is uncomfortable with even being about Webcomics probably is based upon that.

I second the issue being lack of comic. You raise the valid point that this was an introductory episode. I then ask, what is the best way to introduce a large number of artists? Instead of just filming the contestants talking, start with them talking, then move their voice over montages of their work.

Their art style will become as important for the audience to identify someone as their face, voice, or actions. Yet, instead of devoting time to that, they presented a long “blindfold secret location” sequence that didn’t add anything.

I have high hopes for the show and have been eagerly awaiting it. But it’s a show about comic and cartoonists, and the first episode featured neither.

I find it amusing that Strip Search has a very webcomics problem: the shallow archive. There are precious few artists* who can count on a following with a single strip in a new genre, so generally to get started on a new work, you need to drop the first storyline before you start doing incremental updates. So, yeah, your defense of the episode is accurate, but it doesn’t address their problem, which is that one episode isn’t really enough to start with for anyone outside their built in audience (which is, as you point out, pretty much you and me). If they had released 3 episodes last week, we wouldn’t be talking about this, because everyone would have a feel for their story arcs. As it is, it won’t be an issue after Friday, and it’s really only a mistep for them because their media push was last week.

*Pretty much just Straub, I think. And maybe not even him, I don’t know how much of Broodhollow’s readership has carried over from his other stuff.

While I love all the contestants and had no issues with the first episode, I’m kind of saddened that this batch of contestants consist of more slice of life/gag/journal comic authors than anything else and there is a severe lacking in story comic authors (Lexxy has one in DEVELOPMENT and that’s about it). If a season 2 ever gets to happen for Strip Search, I hope a more varied selection of contestants get chosen.

I think it’s interesting that no one just looks into the contestants comics yourselves. I did, and I found some better than others, I am now cheering on some over others. It would be convenient to have something to show us, but we wouldn’t get to know the comic, we’d only get to know the art. So go check out each persons sites and read some of their strips.

Also, in regard to not having much happen… lol.. it was 16 min. No reality show I know accomplishes much in the first 20 min of any show. It’s all about seeing who each person is and what they hope to accomplish.

Great piece, Gary! I agree, in many ways we’re all in this together, and the ride has just begun.

On the subject of contestant genres, I was actually surprised at how varied everybody’s comics were. To grab 12 illustrators and get work ranging from slice of life to science journalism is kind of awesome.

The first two episodes are short and boring. It’s one thing to have a fifteen minute episode if the second one is immediately available. That’s not the case here, there’s a multiple day break between episodes. You can’t compare a multi day break to a commercial. There was so little going on in the first episode that I completely forgot about the show until I saw a new one posted in the PA rss feed.

While Robert has lots of analytics about how much streaming video people will watch he’s not got analytics about how much content it takes to draw a viewer into a reality show. The other content on PA TV isn’t very high quality, or particularly good. It’s not surprising that 15 minutes is the maximum time a viewer will stick around. A reality show needs to have enough going on to grab the viewers attention and bring them back for future episodes.

Strip Search may be able to ride on the coat tails of PA and the front page showcase it’s getting but as a show I think it would have already failed if it had to stand on its own.

I guess I feel like 16 minutes is a significant amount of time, and not much is really gained by spending that time on tedious introductions of the characters introducing themselves to each other. It’s true that many reality television programs start slow, in their first sixteen minutes, but it’s not like there was more available after that first sixteen minutes. I like the idea of looking at their work–even though it is available online, I would have liked that to be part of the presentation. I think, for the internet, they have a duty to move things along a little bit faster–or to at least make it feel faster. Efficiency! Efficiency! Rah-rah-rah!

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