Just an allusion
This week marks the 150th story page of Zombie Ranch. That would mark another milestone of sorts, but one thing I’ve found in the process of writing this comic is that such events don’t necessarily line up with the opportunity to celebrate or even draw attention to them. I mean, if the whole Mayan Calendar kerfluffle is accurate, it will be our last page prior to the End of the World, but I have trouble buying into the idea of a calendar being able to mark The End when it happens to be printed on a circle.
Thus, the most significant thing about the page is a shout out referencing a memorable exchange of dialogue from O Brother, Where Art Thou? I must admit, I wrestled with this a bit. On the one hand, I like paying homage to our inspirations. On the other, Zombie Ranch possesses elements of parody but has its serious tones as well, which could be undercut if we end up on the wrong side of the reference vs. original content equation. Ideally I want them to flavor (or at least not get in the way of) the tale, making anyone who “gets it” smile, while not breaking the flow for anyone who doesn’t. No one should feel stupid for not catching the reference, because whether you do or not shouldn’t actually impact the story. Otherwise, the fault, as far as I’m concerned, rests squarely on my shoulders.
The fact that many of my shout outs so far have gone unremarked upon hopefully means this is the case. It probably helps that many of them are from properties that aren’t particularly in the limelight at the moment, or are well known but not necessarily in terms of line-by-line specifics. I think the biggest blip on the radar that readers have noticed without any prompting was “Parasol Pharmaceuticals“, which some enterprising soul went and took the time to add to our TV Tropes page, though as a Stealth Pun rather than a Shout Out. Is that because Resident Evil is still very much in the pop culture mindset, whereas a thinly paraphrased speech from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly might not trigger memories as readily?
Then there’s the accidents, such as people thinking I meant Suzie calling out “Popcorn” as a reference to Grosse Pointe Blank. I’ve seen the movie, but had actually completely forgotten about Dan Akroyd’s character saying that— for us it was just Suzie calling out her horse’s name, which happened to also be a random enough word to give Muriel pause. But there we’re talking a side detail from a 15 year old film, which sort of sinks the theory that it has to be something near the top of the current radar in order to register… unless GPB somehow occupies that same Internet nostalgia spot references to stuff like Super Mario, Sonic, and Legend of Zelda do.
It would be interesting to hear how many references people have picked up on since the comic started, even in terms of ones that weren’t intentional on our part. But again, whether they register or not shouldn’t have any bearing on the narrative. This isn’t a gag-a-day strip where Frank can turn to the audience and say “I’m glad zombies are green, because if they were blue, that would suck. Because Avatar sucks.” First off, whether you like Avatar or not, that’s not even funny. But secondly, it’s even worse when a comic purporting to be telling its own story suddenly derails itself to indulge in something like that. It’s like if Bilbo Baggins stopped in the middle of his riddle contest with Gollum to wink at you and say “Eggs, eh? Khloe Kardashian could probably use a few less of those!” Bonus points if he follows up by explaining, “‘Cause she’s fat!”
See, now, if you’ve been keeping up with current pop culture trends you probably got all those references… but meanwhile you just lost all sense of drama and immersion in what Bilbo and Gollum were doing in their story. Even “random comedy” shows like South Park or The Family Guy whose entire existence seems to revolve around making allusions to pop culture can ride a fine line between doing so and keeping some sort of identity of their own.
So far Zombie Ranch seems to have avoided falling on the wrong side of that line, at least for any of you still reading. I think the trick is to make it so that any shout out is either a background element, or at least something that isn’t a punchline in of itself. Where the audience doesn’t feel like the creator is elbowing them and waggling their eyebrows, waiting for some validation before moving on. Allusions can sometimes be elusive, but it’s best to let them stay that way.