The Exquisite Corpse as Applied To Comics

Image by PhineasX via Flickr

I’ve long been intrigued/interested by Dada and Surrealism. When the TODCRA comic strip, Film Funnies, was being created, we’d often do a comic based on the idea of The Exquisite Corpse. The Corpse is a dada/surrealist parlor game, where a narrative is constructed by several people, one sentence at a time. One person writes a sentence on a paper, folds it over, so the next person can only see a small portion of it. The next person then sees that small portion of the sentence (say, maybe the last couple words) and then writes the next sentence of the story, based on what bit of the previous sentence they see. They then fold that bit of the paper over and pass it along to the next person who does the same thing. This continues until everyone decides to end it. The result is a nonsensical story that still has a sense of flow to it.


The TODCRA/Film Funnies version of this is basically the same thing. The starting TODCRA member would draw a panel of a comic book, and send that panel to the next person in the line, who’d make another panel, and send it to the next person, and so on. No one actually gets to see the panels immediately before, although since there’s only usually 3 or 4 TODCRA members doing this, they can see about every other panel. Other rules include not being able to ask the previous artist to clarify anything in the panel you’ve received, and not allowing the artist to look back at other panels that they’ve already received (though this is, of course, unenforceable).

Like an original sentence-based Corpse, a narrative has developed, but it’s very disjointed and doesn‘t necessarily make a whole lot of sense. The disjointedness of it, in fact, often leads to as many different narratives as there are participants of the Corpse, with each separate narrative is linked to each other in odd ways.

To keep it fresh, we’d occasionally throw in restrictions. For the last one, f’rinstance, the idea was to pick a word at the beginning that every panel had to somehow illustrate or incorporate in addition to forwarding the “narrative”. This was also the first and only corpse to feature a non-TODCRA member included in the loop, providing panels. Additionally, the words were never revealed to the audience, though in some cases it was probably obvious.

Another idea, though one we never tried, was a two person corpse. Of course, a two person corpse would sort of defeat the purpose of the creators never knowing the complete narrative (which is why it was never actually attempted). Although, the two participants would be not allowed to talk to each other about upcoming plot twists or even asking what any particular poorly-drawn object is supposed to actually be, the narrative would probably end up being relatively obvious since the two artists would have the complete story available to them.

The most interesting and involved idea that we had, and also never tried, involved combining the classic version of the Exquisite Corpse with our comic-book version.

The plan was for the first person in the corpse to write the first 15 words of a story. It wouldn’t matter how sentences would break down; they could be something like “John went up the stairs. He went to the landing, turned and set fire to”, for example. That person emails those 15 words to a free, anonymous email account (which would be established just for this purpose). After sending their 15 words to the email account, they’d send the last 5 to the next person in the chain. This person, based on those five words, would write another 15. Those 15 words would be sent to the central account, and then they’d send the last five of their bit to the next person. This stage is just like one of the original Exquisite Corpses.

Once this stage is done, the maintainer of the email account (who was not involved in the writing of the first stage of the corpse, or perhaps wrote the first 15 words) will assemble the story, and send it to all members. In the completed version of the story, the maintainer would also cut the story up into 12 word chunks, and number these sets. Each member of the corpse would be assigned a series of numbers (probably based on the number of people in the corpse; i.e. with 5 corpsers, the first would do 12-word-chunks numbers 1, 6, 11?, the second would do 2, 7, 12?, the third 3, 8, 13? and so on. ). The members of the corpse would then draw panels with their 12 words as the caption. Sort of like in old children’s books where there’ll be a picture of Pooh Bear eating some honey, and you’ll see the caption saying “Pooh Bear Eats Some Honey.” This way, people can read the narrative.

There might even be a case made that each person should only get their list of 12-word-chunks initially, and only gets to see the complete story at the end when everything is illustrated. I’m not sure if this would be essential though, as the pictures themselves wouldn’t be driving the narrative, only the actual text would. It could be interesting to see.

The only problem with this sort of corpse is that it involves a lot of setup and also a person who would be willing to stay out of the corpse and do all the drudge work of stitching together sentences and then cutting them up again in different sized chunks so people would get different sets of words than they had originally.

Sadly, as TODCRA itself is more or less dead, so is Film Funnies, so we won’t be doing any more corpses. But since it’s a fun idea, I’m hereby turning it over to everyone — despite the fact that I didn’t invent the idea of the Exquisite Corpse, nor was the first one to apply it to comics. (Comic Jam Strips often seem to be Exquisite Corpses minus the name.) But ideally, this might jog someone’s curiosity to get themselves a Comic Genesis account, get some friends together, and try it out. If you do — be sure to post the link as a comment here! That’d be great.

If you’re so inclined, here’re a couple tips that I found helped keep everything together. When doing our corpses, TODCRA found that the best way to do one was to sit in an IRC channel, churn out panels and DCC them to each other. This way, the project wouldn’t stagnate, and would end up getting finished. It usually took about a week or two to do a complete corpse. They would end when the members were sick of doing that particular corpse, and rounded out to end on the next multiple-of-five (as all the file names were the number of the panel in sequence; i.e. 1.jpg, 2.png, 3.gif, etc.); the multiple-of-five reason was so that way the corpse would begin on a Monday and end on a Friday when it ran at Film Funnies. (Feel free to use another divisor when deciding on your schedule, of course!) Email could work as well, though email tends to cut down on the need to get a panel finished and sent-off. Email lends itself to letting messages sit in an inbox for a while, where if someone’s in an IRC channel waiting, you’ve got more of an impetus to finish your panel off and pass it along so they can do the same. We also found with the corpses that it was usually best to not worry about the panel or artwork too much and get down the first idea we had ? partially so the narrative was stranger, and also because it could add some strange things to the corpse if the next artist couldn’t figure out just what in hell something was supposed to be, and would have to guess since they couldn’t ask, as per the rules.

Film Funnies also worked with a very long lead-time, so often by the time a Corpse had hit the site, all the creators of it had long finished with it and were already working on another corpse (or something else entirely). This lead-time is essential as to not spoil the creation. If you’re only working a week ahead, the corpsers can all look at the website and suss out the story, making it relatively straight-forward. Of course — now that I mention it — this could lead to interesting results as well, sort of along the lines of the two-person corpse mentioned above. So if this version strikes your fancy, who am I to say not to do it?

In fact, that’s the best thing with corpses — they’re experimental by nature, so put any restrictions or lack thereof on them that you want. It’s your strip, do it however you feel like. No one can tell you you’re not doing it right.

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