Working Ahead

In Eric Burns’ generously complimentary Best Practices Websnark, he comments on how maintaining a buffer and working ahead is a best practice. (He also names me “king of Best Practices,” rendering my adverb-adjective combination “generously complimentary” an understatement fit for the Papacy of understatements, but let’s not mince words)

In the commentary below the blog some very legitimate questions are raised about working ahead. Can cartoonists who work ahead be spontaneous? Can they interact with their audiences? Can they be as off-the-cuff funny as JIT (Just In Time) cartoonists? Is the Best Practice of maintaining a buffer at fault for making syndicate comics so uniformly stale?

I don’t seek to answer those questions here — I’m just pointing out that they get raised, and they’re valid. I’ve been woolgathering on the subject ever since the snark aired.

This morning I realized why, for me at least, the buffer is so important for the QUALITY of the strip, as opposed to the sheer QUANTITY required for unbroken daily updates over the course of four years.

Yesterday sucked, buffer-wise. I got two strips pencilled and inked, and I WANTED to get seven. I got stuck on what should have been an easy row, but the pencilling just wouldn’t flow. I mean, I could have scratched some faces out and inked them, and had the deadline been a critical one I would have. Depressed about my failure to deliver the goods (to me, not to you… you GOT your goods last night) I went to bed hoping the morning would bring a fresh look at things.

Well, it did. I sat down this morning and a fresh look at the script resulted in pencil work that was funnier and better story-wise than anything I could have forced out yesterday. Sure, I still WISH I’d been able to do this yesterday, and I’ve got my work cut out for me TODAY if I’m going to meet my goal for buffer-building this week, but I haven’t allowed that goal to compromise the quality of the strip.

If I were pencilling, inking, coloring, and uploading one strip per day, every day, then on the days when I’m uninspired, unfunny, and non-productive, you’d get crap instead of Schlock (an ironic turn of phrase, I know). And now, I’ve got stuff to get back to. A stack of scripts awaits my freshly-perspectificated (no, it’s not a word. Sue me) pencils.


10 thoughts on “Working Ahead”

  1. You know, I prefer quality over quantity anyday. But it occurs to me that sometimes it might just be a touch different to include something that’s relevant to current events…

    I dunno, maybe you could throw in the odd extra quickie sketch, something that’s delibratly sketch-pad quality, that you can just toss off as a commentary on something relevent.

    Still, it’s your balliwack, so dealers choice.

    1. Well, Schlock was never ABOUT current events in the first place. I can’t recall it ever making a reference to a recent event; the closest it’s come are “the more things change, the more they stay the same” gag stories about things like the inefficiency of bureaucracy, the artificial nature of superstars, etc., and those would work whether he wrote them today, yesterday, or a year from now. And he doesn’t even do THOSE anymore, really. So I don’t think Schlock is hurt at all by its inability to respond off the cuff to anything happening in the real world.

      As for inability to respond to the readers, yes, we can spot things Taylor missed, but if he’s done a good job planning his plots (and let someone check it for glaring plot holes), there shouldn’t be any problems cropping up that he can’t fix in a hurry. Certainly I’ve never noticed an error. And it gives him a good excuse not to back down to pressure when he whacks someone popular.

      1. Dr. Bunnigus made a “new york city firefighter” reference in October 2001. Looking for a cryokit for brad during the Schlocktoberfest with the diamond beetles, I think.


      2. There are plenty of references, usually very subtle, and usually making me chuckle. However, they usually are a bit after the fact (sometimes a fait bit after it). But that doesn’t matter, since as you say, Schlock isn’t *about* them at all, and there is plenty of interaction with the audience in other media and the letters.

  2. Yeah, that’s exactly it. The freedom to be able to say “This isn’t going well. I’ll try again tomorrow.”

    I honestly don’t think it’s that awful if reactions to audience/news/electric stimulus/whatever hit the medium, say, a week after the fact. Sometimes it’s personally annoying (like when I got a new email address that didn’t appear in my podcast’s closer for a week after I got it) but generally seems to be less of a deal than the importance of, well, what you said.


  3. Topical (JIT) and planned (ee, take thoi toime) comedy….
    It might be worth looking at two examples of topical comedy….
    “Not the Nine O’Clock News” is still funny and some of the sketches (especially relating to Hedgehog roadkill) can get a laugh. The musical parodies get a laugh. But anything that requires a knowledge of the news of the day (beyond “Thatcher sucks”) takes a little thought.
    Now consider the king of topical radio comedies (one of my hobby horses) ITMA. Despite the fantastic delivery of Tommy Handley (who could make a script…a MoI blue pencilled script at that…sound totally spontaneous) and the catchphrases (some of which like TTFN and I don’t mind if I do are still around today) to get the bulk of the jokes you need a GCSE in History or have as your specialised subject “The Course of the War 1940-1945”. In 1948 even Ted Kavanagh admitted he no longer got a joke he himself had written in 1943 anymore.

    mmm. I’ve lost my plot, here.
    Suffice to say that the buffer is clearly beneficial, since the quality of Schlock is … beyond praise. Certainly better than most of the topicals.
    Thank you and apologies for rambling….

  4. on the gripping hand…

    There are political cartoonists who consistently produce next-day comics that are fairly humorous. Though, politics are inherently funny, so it’s easier.

  5. “relevant” strips

    I’ll agree with the above that Schlock isn’t “about” current events and that’s why it doesn’t need to worry about any buffer induced lag when referencing them. However, I think there’s a more basic point to be made.

    The complaints (concerns? worries?) about using a substantial buffer all seem to be based on the concept that having the buffer “locks you in” to posting what’s next in the buffer. Comp Sci heads will recognize this as a queue formation. Whatever goes in first, comes out first and there’s no messing with it.

    However, this isn’t how the buffer works at all. At any time an artist can say “You know, there’s something else I wanted to say today” and put that in. Now, with a serial like Schlock that’s not something you’d always want to do, but as I noted above, Schlock’s not generally about that kind of art so it doesn’t even come up.

    Also, we’ve seen in this very Live Journal several one panel cartoons featuring “business humor”. Now, these aren’t on the main site, and they’re not being done because Howard felt like it (if I remember correctly, both were commissioned) but the point stands that at any time Howard can easily toss off a more “relevant” strip without having to worry about any perceived limitations in the buffer.

    To boil it down, buffer == good. I haven’t yet really seen an objection to having one that holds up unless the idea of having a safety net works directly against the creative tendencies of the artist in question. Even then, I personally believe they’re kidding themselves.

  6. It really depends on the kind of comic, I think. Schlock is a fairly plot-heavy comic, so the funny part has to balance with the story part. And while he can do parodies (like the CSI homage) he’s limited in what he can improvise – because he doesn’t want break the flow of the narrative to do a comic about how Livejournal went down, or about the latest news in Iraq. With a joke-a-day type comic, I think it does benefit from that topicality – like the monologue on Leno or Letterman.

    I recall a few South Park episodes that benefited from the topical humor – they prepare the episodes ahead of time, of course, but they are able to make changes fairly late in the process. This is how they got the Jar-Jar Binks joke into their movie, which was released the same summer as Episode 1.

    Different people use different methods – use what works for you, I say.

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