Friday, 5 May 2017

Laptop Guy: Three Act Structure in a contemporary comedy tragi-comic book (part one)

Act One

Published as a trade paperback in 2015, BHP Comics' Laptop Guy is a collaboration between BHP's directors Jack Lothian (writer) and Sha Nazir (art, colours and lettering). Lothian had established himself as a successful writer for film and TV, while Nazir is best known as a publisher and artist, as well as his long involvement as the Festival Director for Glasgow Comic Convention

Laptop Guy follows the adventures of a fictionalised Sha Nazir, a frustrated artist working in the fast food industry. His ambitions to create a comic book are thwarted both by the pressures of his employment and his own anxieties, and the Laptop Guy manifests - either as a figment of his imagination or a spiritual totem animal - in response to his situation. Across three issues, the fictional Nazir grapples with various challenges, goaded and supported by Laptop Guy himself.

Inciting Incident
Although they have been friends and business partners for a considerable period of time, the decision to collaborate came after Nazir published a comic book collection of stories featuring the Laptop Guy character. Lothian expressed surprise at why anyone would want to create such a character, and responded by proposing that they explored the idea behind this creative process, rather than using Laptop Guy as the protagonist (private conversation with Lothian and Nazir).

This premise encourages a narrative that draws on multiple genres. The adventures of Nazir evoke the fashionable memoir style exemplified by Fun Home (Alison Blechdel, 2006) or Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi, 2007); the character of Laptop Guy is suggestive of science fiction comic book protagonists including DC's Cyborg, Marvel's Cable and others. While the meta-fictional elements are limited to meditations on Nazir's mental state and the creative process, the shifts in visual style recall the enthusiasm for allusions to 'retro' styles found in comic books like X-Static (Milligan and Allred, 2001) or The Sentry (Jenkins and Lee, 2000).

Second Thoughts
The division of the trade paperback into three 'episodes' was dictated by the initial publication of the comic as a serial: each episode represents one issue. For a self-contained mini-series, three issues is unusual: the comic book industry standard is four issues. However, this does allow an easy comparison of Laptop Guy against the 'three act structure'.  

Act Two

The three act structure is not an uncontroversial structure. Adopted by film-makers, it exists primarily as a 'teaching technique': John Truby condemns both its artificiality and foundations in the architecture of the theatre. Stephen J. Crane offers a succinct description of the format, which reduces it to an introduction, a crisis and a resolution. This appears to imitate the pattern of the comic strip, familiar from newspaper, which uses three panels to put across a joke.

The structure deals exclusively with the main narrative, making no assumptions about the genre of the work, the characterisation or even sub-plots. And as the graph at the top of the page illustrates, it does not presume an equality of length for each act: comic book issues, however, maintain a relatively consistent length. 

Nevertheless, it is possible to place the narrative of Laptop Guy within this schemata.

Act One/Issue One
Beginning:establishing the character of Nazir.
Inciting Incident: disrespect of Nazir by work environment and fellow workers
Second Thoughts: the introduction of subplot involving Raul and the first Laptop Guy comic book

Act Two/Issue two
Obstacle: Nazir meets with a comic book publisher and is told to change his content
Obstacle: Nazir retrieves Raul's arm from the hospital
Midpoint/Big Twist: Laptop Guy's identity as a 'domovoi' is explained
Obstacle: Nazir attends the engagement party and is caught out in a lie
Disaster: Nazir's nervous breakdown and attack on 'PC Planet'
Crisis: Laptop Guy talks directly to Nazir

Act Three/Issue Three
Descending Action/Climax
Laptop Guy and Nazir reconcile 
Wrap Up: Raul and Nazir tale revenge on comic book publisher
End: The wedding speech

Although the structure can be filled up with incidents, the synopsis that emerges is not coherent, and jumps between different subplots within the narrative arc. It also elides the obstacles faced by Nazir in the first act and condenses the obstacles in the third, which are given equal weight in terms of character development and plotting. 

Midpoint (a big twist)
Using the three act structure does illuminate the narrative techniques used by Lothian and Nazir. The interweaving of the three plots is exposed, and the relationships between the protagonists and two of his antagonists is revealed. And by recognising the final pages as an ending, the major theme of the comic book is made explicit. 

Laptop Guy begins and ends with the experiences of 'Sha Nazir', suggesting that the narrative is a 'hero's journey' for the anxious artist and fast food employee. He experiences the key twist - that his comic book character has attained a mysterious 'real' existence' and he drives the action forward. In his visit to a comic book publisher, he performs the traditional 'descent to hell': 'the road of trials' is depicted in the resistance to his artistic endeavours and his reconciliation with Laptop Guy is a form of the 'apotheosis'. 

However, there are two subplots that are entwined into Nazir's story. Raul - the failed novelist - operates as both an antagonist to Nazir while pursuing his own hero's journey while Steve, Sha's friend and manager, mirrors Sha's journey through a relationship failure and reconciliation. 

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