A Brief(?) Write-Up of Re-Tail

Scott Adams posits six dimensions of humor. People find something humorous if it is:

  • Clever (e.g. a pun or wordplay)
  • Cute
  • Bizarre
  • Familiar
  • Naughty
  • Cruel

Not everyone finds all six dimensions funny. In fact, most people are only amused by one or two of the dimensions, and some people have no sense of humor at all, relying instead on social cues to know when to laugh (which is why laugh tracks on sitcoms are a thing).

A professional joke tries to hit at least two dimensions. To be cute and bizarre, or naughty and clever, or familiar and cruel. The more the better. A superb example:

Image may contain: text that says 'Death flashed before my eyes WTF CS'

Clever (a pun), Bizarre, and Naughty. Arguably, it is also Cruel.

A professional humorist tries to hit all six over the course of several jokes, and accepts that most of his jokes won’t hit with most of his audience, but everyone in the audience will remember one or two that cater to his tastes.

Naturally, a comic strip is well advised to bake in as many of these factors as possible.

I’m going to show you how the pros do it, and then you’ll be set to understand the concept of Re-Tail.

The most common bake-in, and a highly effective one, is “Familiar”. Dilbert bakes in the life of office workers. Baby Blues bakes in parenthood. Zits bakes in teen life. And so on.

Pearls Before Swine, by Stephan Pastis, was actually made with Adams’s Hypothesis of humor in mind, as opposed to most comics, which merely conform to it. Let’s break down a strip:

This is a standard Pearls format. You have a huge complicated setup for a reference/pun. The last panel is Rat threatening or committing violence against Stephan Pastis, the cartoonist, as revenge for the pun.

  • Cuteness is baked in because the characters are animals.
  • Bizarreness is baked in beause they are animals acting like humans. The setup for the punchline also gets increasingly bizarre.
  • The format also lends itself to Familiarity, as the animals go about day to day lives. However, that is not on display in this particular strip.
  • There are two jokes. One is Clever, the pun/reference, the other is Cruel, the violence against Pastis.

Now, to boil Pastis down to aping Scott Adams does the man a disservice. He’s been studying the art of comics for a long time, with a lot of inspiration from Charles Schultz, especially. But deeper nuance would not add anything to the thrust of this blog post, and Pastis does exemplify the Adams Hypothesis. The strip is designed to get two dimensions of humor baked in before the design of a given joke is concerned. Pastis then typically involves at least two more dimensions, making most of his strips at least four-dimensional, and extremely likely to hit home with someone.

And I believe that the Adams Hypothesis, while not the last word on humor, is a least a functional word on humor. There is more there, and deeper, but the Hypothesis produces jokes that are actually funny.

But! I am in a better position to engineer a comic strip than Stephan Pastis for two reasons:

  1. I am a much better artist.
  2. I grew up working class, and thus experienced in situations more people can relate to.

Specifically, more people have worked retail (or retail-related) jobs than have lived in the ‘burbs in California (Pearls) or gotten white-collar desk jobs (Dilbert). An engineered strip of cute animals (Cute!) working retail (Bizarre!) would automatically be more Familiar than Pearls and Dilbert have the ability to be.


So I gave it a go. I made some comics. I was trying to build up a month in advance, but I wanted to release my Black Friday comics in time for Black Friday, so I did those, and then began building up additional material.

I put them in a 2×2 grid because it’s better for social media in general and reading on a phone in particular. As Newspapers continue to die, I’m leery about my prospects for syndication, even if my political and religious views didn’t make me toxic to the current media industry.

My process used 3D models, which I then printed and drew over. It had some benefits and problems. I was able to do dramatic angles and put a lot of personality into the shapes of objects, but I was never happy with how the characters looked. Here’s the concepts I collected before I stopped work on Re-Tail.

There were three ongoing considerations that deeply affected the design.

  1. Re-Tail was designed to be a perfect newspaper comic. But I no longer have confidence that the newspapers will do business with me, or that their business is worth having. Thus, I laid the panels out in a square, the better to view on a phone or tablet. To bring the comic to life, I decided I basically needed to invent a new business model. One that, given the largely unviable nature of web comics, hasn’t been seen yet.
    I’m still not sure what that is, although the fractal gag-a-day storytelling concept I just came up with may play into it.
  2. Re-Tail was designed during a weird period in my life. For about 20 years, I’d been suffering from depression caused by medications I’d been prescribed as a child. I came up with Re-Tail right after I had ditched those medications and suffered through a hellish withdrawal period. The withdrawal was over. I was emotionally stable for the first time since childhood. But I wasn’t used to being emotionally stable, and was unsure whether it would last. This resulted in my re-evaluating all of my assumptions about art, design, vocation, and the appropriate use of my time while in the middle of working on Re-Tail..
  3. There are two ideas about making art as a working artist. One is that you need the blessing of the muses. That you should look for inspiration, and be true to it. The second view is that a working artist is a craftsman, and it is simply a matter of designing a product that will sell and executing on the design. In novel-writing, an exemplar of the first view would be C.S. Lewis, and of the second, Edgar Rice Burroughs. In comic-strip making, an exemplar of the first view would be Calvin & Hobbes artist Bill Watterson, and an exemplar of the second, Garfield artist Jim Davis. I have historically taken the second view: art is work, and you should just do the work. But I would rather make Calvin & Hobbes than Garfield. So I have increasingly become of the opinion that both views have something meaningful to say about art, and balance or nuance is needed. And Re-Tail is designed according to the second view. It has value. It is good. But as is, there’s no soul in the game.

As I pondered these ideas, it came to me that I needed to redesign the characters, maximize cuteness. I considered making vector graphics of the redesigns so that I could make Re-Tail into an occasional bit where I poked fun at my job, instead of trying to turn it into a proper business.

I have not decided. Re-Tail may well belong in the dustbin of paste attempts. I can (and do) harvest its parts for worldbuilding in Hat Trick or Alphabeasts.

But since I am considering telling stories in a Gag-A-Day format, I decided to do a quick drawing of the characters of Re-Tail with the Maximum Cuteness Overload redesign.

I am probably not going to pursue the matter further. This is the likely end of the trail. But the trail was not entirely without merit, and so I leave it here for posterity. Rest In Peace, Re-Tail. You were a great idea. But probably the wrong great idea.


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