Look into the eyes of a skeleton: an analysis of frenums’ skeleton comics

I’m very sorry. In this post I’m going to be doing a lot of “explaining the joke.” I hope I don’t ruin it for you. I think humour can survive me.

I want to talk to you about skeleton comics.

Tumblr user and cartoonist frenums‘ bio starts like this:

  • my name is alison

  • i’m 16

And I’m dead impressed about that. Not every sixteen year old has this kind of grasp on expressive simplification, panel composition or framing. Not every sixteen year old has such an apparently instinctive ability for visual comedic communication. Nice one, frenums. Nice one Alison.

Over the past couple of months I’ve come back to thinking about frenums’ Garlic Bread comic on at least four occasions. Specifically, the use of speech bubble placement as an integral atmospheric cue; why is it so funny that “Oh,” “Oh my God,” and “I’m so sorry,” cover up progressively more of Dracula’s poor face?

It’s funny because it’s real: when you make a blunder like that your attempts to dig yourself out of the hole so easily become everything. It’s funny because it’s awful: Dracula’s identity has already been callously forgotten and now even his presence–his face–is being erased by Skeleton’s spiralling self-interest. Skeleton’s rep literally takes centre-panel, as the character who should be in focus is eradicated. It’s real because it’s awful, and the awfulness is mitigated and isolated by the simple artwork and panelled delivery; abrasive action gently illustrated. It’s funny because this is an unusually sophisticated example of the comedy of embarrassment, or comedy of awkwardness–one that couldn’t be so well executed outside of a comic. How would this be performed on television? I don’t believe it could be superior. How do you privilege the words when they’re invisible? Picture: Mark Corrigan is Skeleton. David Brent is Skeleton. Is it this funny? Does the joke last so well?

In the second Skeleton and Dracula comic I’ve picked (above), the joke and the arrangement are both much simpler, but still satisfy. A bad pun and a basic zoom for emphasis. This one rests far more on the “Skeleton is a skeleton and Dracula is a muppety Dracula” metajoke (surrealism by way of fantastic hypernormativity, plus the obvious fact that skeletons are funny) and semi-kawaii facial builds of both characters–they’re automatically funny, and the bigger they get the funnier it is–but Alison’s confidence of action is admirable again in how far the zoom goes in the last panel–cutting chunks off both faces–and the “we would totally see the boom” composition of the second, or middle panel. Why is it funnier not to see Skeleton or Dracula’s chins as Skeleton launches his scrubby joke? Would it work if a modern audience (a modern creator?) wasn’t used to So Bad They’re Good film and television, mockumentary, B-movie parody, first-person shots and diegetic camera movement?

Above: Larry Blamire’s The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra–funny skeletons and purposefully dank camera work

Go home [x] you are drunk” is either a meme or a common phrase, I’m not sure at this point. But it’s funny in the same way that Skeleton is funny and it’s applicable to this second comic in particular. In the comic, the framing stumbles about and gets “too” intense (extreme close-up). The dialogue is clipped and precise but lacks normal punctuation. Both the subject and the narrator are off-kilter whilst one of them is achieving, and implicitly proud of, a toddler’s level of pompous, sober-as-a-judge verbal clarity. “Looking for your necks victim” is stupid and low-level and barely even a joke at all, and in a lesser comic that would be the joke. You can picture it, a Penny Arcade knockoff in orange and blue with four even panels, two dudes squinting at each other with their bottom eyelids all up like “not sure if serious”. That would be awful. I wouldn’t like it. Alison hurls her comic into the stupidness of the central joke, heaving her box of characters around to punish them for not working harder at this. Body language and physical humour can elicit a reaction… That is not news. And while skeleton has “no body”, the panel layout, composition and internal blocking of a comic ARE its body language. This comic is funny because an architecturally funny comic is pretending to be about puns. There’s a joy in realising that you’ve been tricked and, better, slipped a treat.

I don’t know much about the history of comedy but here’s an old joke to ponder:

I’ll tell you what I love doing more than anything – trying to pack myself in a small suitcase. I can hardly contain myself.

Today, almost certainly, a stage comedian would pause after “small suitcase”. The first joke would be, haha! A man surely can’t fit in there! And if he can, how unusual! It’s quite beyond sense! So funny. And the audience would laugh, with some ironic taint, because on the Mighty Boosh or whatever that would have been the WHOLE joke, and people would have loved it because it’s ~weird. In frenums’ case, a pun (“necks” for “next” re: a vampire) is an acceptable “whole joke”. You can run a webcomic, or a tumblr series, or a persona, on puns and puns alone. “I can hardly contain myself” completes the example joke above because it makes sense with both “what I love doing” and “myself in a small suitcase.” This joke has a true structure and a double reward. Skeleton comics are not directly comparable, because they work with visual and symbolic language as well as spoken or written English language, but they are equally as meaty. Look at the components: Skeleton is a square peg in a social circle: equivalent to “I’ll tell you what I love doing”. Skeleton makes a weak, weak pun or gets caught doing something that otherwise makes them guilty: equivalent to “pack myself into a small suitcase”. Our experience of Skeleton and of Skeleton’s mishaps are entirely via heaving panels of drifting focus and inappropriately dense framing: equivalent to “hardly contain myself”, the co-relevant bridging factor.

When you’re thinking about a comic, never forget that the “windows” you’re looking through (really, at) might be affecting your view on the scenes you’re observing. On these comics, frenums’ ramshackle simplicity as a linemaker reveals her high-level wielder’s ability with hidden-in-plain-sight cartoonist’s skills that I’m not sure we have names for. There’s layout, sure, but the rest? Can you quantify what she’s doing here? It’s not as basic as Neatorama’s summing up, that “[t]he jokes are so old they are desiccated, the puns could use some fleshing out, and the art is bare boned, but when you put them all together, it will tickle your funny bone.” That sentence isn’t comics. Frenums.tumblr.com is definitely very, very comics.

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Claire Napier

Claire Napier

Critic, ex-Editor in Chief at WWAC, independent comics editor; the rock that drops on your head. Find me at clairenapierclairenapier@gmail.com and give me lots of money