Toon Musings: Mixing it up for April Fool’s


Comic Credit: Neal Call / CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

I don’t like April Fool’s day. I don’t play pranks, I don’t like being personally pranked, and I don’t like watching others being personally pranked. It should be called International Trust Betrayal Day or World Goodwill Squandering Day. I’m no damn fun at all.

However, I get a huge kick when an institution attempts an April Fool’s joke on the public at large. For example, when some representative of the news media drops a bogus bulletin, it stimulates a certain skepticism, which these days can be salubrious. It also becomes not only a window on society’s fears, hopes and neuroses, but also a potential source of trenchant satire. In the case of the funny pages, it also shines a spotlight on how the landscape has changed in the past few years.

The Great Comic Strip Switcheroo, a. k. a. The Great Comic Strip Switcheroonie, occurred in 1997. Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott, the creators of the syndicated comic strip Baby Blues, managed to wrangle their cartoonist friends and acquaintances to, unbeknownst to their respective syndicates, Mix Things Up. Check it out.

In some cases, cartoonists just traded strips for a day. In others, they arranged character guest appearances (known in comic book parlance as a “crossover”). A couple of strips appear to have been collaborative efforts of the creators involved, where each creator drew part of each strip (known in cartooning circles as a “jam”).  Most cartoonists tried to copy the characters as drawn by the artist of the strips they were hijacking, or else just drew the strips as they thought they should look, in their own style. The stylistic differences did not end with visual aspects of the strips either, but extended to the writing as well. Some attempted a weird melding of their own styles with those of the host strip. Those chimera strips are the ones I find most interesting. In one instance, the creator of a sleepy suburban strip taking over for a strip that generally featured satire — with peculiar results.

The coordination required for such a stunt is impressive, and since most papers carried the same core group of popular comic strips, the effect was quite jarring as the reader gazed at a whole page of familiar strips with the characters all mixed up. The prank has attained an exalted status over the years. By early 2014, it was listed at #32 out of the Top 100 April Fool’s Day Hoaxes of All Time, according to the Museum of Hoaxes.  As of this writing, it stands at #22; apparently, its legend is still ascendant.

With newspapers’ recent decline in popularity, the syndicated funny pages have seen a similar diminution in relevance. Concurrent with this trend is the upswing in popularity of creator-owned webcomics. Without syndication, webcomics as an industry has a more fractured creator community than traditional newspaper strips. Community, when it exists, is among the readers of a given strip. As such, April Fool’s gags tend to involve far less coordination among strips. What seemed a radical change when one syndicated cartoonist draft ox traded yokes for a day with another syndicated cartoonist draft ox is, in fact, pretty commonplace in webcomics, where it’s fairly routine for artists to sub for other artists to help out a colleague. So how to Mix Things Up?

One of the most popular webcomics around is xkcd by Randall Munroe. Its fan base mostly consists of scientists, statisticians, programmers, techies, arch-nerds and other folks from the smarter (or in my case, smugger) end of the gene pool. The art is primitive (think “stick figures”); but the humor is quite sophisticated. The strip makes frequent use of its internet canvas to expand the format.

For example, all strips contain a bonus joke or comment, accessed by hovering the cursor over the drawing to activate the metatext. While most xkcd installments are the traditional panels of characters doing and saying stuff, sometimes the strip will be a single gigantic panel that the reader can scroll through, both horizontally and vertically, to reveal what is in fact a vast landscape of tiny little details to explore. Just last November, Munroe chose to commemorate the encounter of the Rosetta probe with the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko by covering the event live. He posted a new comic every five minutes, depicting the progress of the probe as it approached and eventually landed on the comet, for a total of 143 comics. That’s a helluva day’s work.

On April 1st, 2012, Munroe posted a comic entitled Umwelt. This was the metatext that accompanied the strip:

“Umwelt is the idea that because their senses pick up on different things, different animals in the same ecosystem actually live in very different worlds. Everything about you shapes the world you inhabit — from your ideology to your glasses prescription to your web browser.”

The strip that appeared was different for different readers, for reasons never explained in the comic or on its website. Fans were baffled. Over the course of time, readers solicited information from other readers and gradually pieced together the factors that determined which comic appeared under what circumstances. In some cases, it was the geographic location of the reader. In others, it was what browser was used, or whether the reader was using a computer or a mobile device. Being referred to the comic from a third site yielded another comic, which differed depending on what site did the referring. Readers browsing from military domains  got their own comic, as did readers with certain browser plug-ins disabled. The user’s operating system also was a factor.

During the weeks that followed, fans of the strip congregated virtually on message boards and forums and compared notes. Eventually a comprehensive list of the different strips and the factors that apparently contributed to their display were compiled. Here’s one of them.

It’s a changing landscape in the funnies today. Traditional sources of revenue seem to be drying up, and the entire nature  of the relationship between creator and fan is in flux. Webcomics lack the revenue stream that syndicated comics enjoy, and thus need to compensate by developing devoted fan communities to whom they then sell stuff. The bigger the community, and the more fervent the devotion, the larger the group of core fans who are willing to fund the strip. By supplying his fans with a mystery they need to solve as a community, Munroe not only had a nice, memorable April Fool’s jape, but also encouraged and nurtured the very group of people that make it possible to draw silly pictures for Big Bux. The guy really is brilliant.

By the way: My wife bought me Munroe’s new book What If? for my birthday recently. Maybe I’ll review it someday.

Phil Maish author bio photo, smallPhil Maish is a freelance cartoonist of no repute. His modest efforts may be viewed at He has worked for the Government, the Press, the Opera, and a Soulless Corporation. Self-taught and beholden only to his formidable wife and amazing son, he spends his free time gadding about in his vintage autogyro and, with his faithful manservant Nicopol, exploring untrammeled wildernesses, discovering hitherto unknown animal species, smashing spy rings, and regaling fellow members of the League of Intrepid Adventurers with tales of his intrepid adventures. He resides in Heartland America.

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