Since July 2011, almost like clockwork, Portland illustrator Ben Dewey produced three comics a week for his hysterical web comic Tragedy Series. Over the last three years he has cultivated a modest, loyal following. With the publication of these comics into a book in March 2015, his audience could become a lot larger.
A book deal is something most artists use as a platform to produce on a new, bigger stage. Not Dewey. This summer when he completes the 500th tragedy in the series, he is done. He will never produce another tragedy again.
The Tragedy Series takes place in a Victorian universe. The comics are full of clever word play, surrealism and absurdity. Almost every illustration is sad. Unless it’s a reprieve from sadness; then it’s happy. But many of the seemingly innocuous jokes pack a deeper, cosmic tragedy.
“Tragedy #81” is one part a comment on communal living. But it’s also a look into the sad existence of unclean dishes.
“I’m trying to make things for people to extrapolate, even at the most superficial reading. I pack a lot of information into each drawing,” says Dewey.
If you spend time with any of his drawings, there are deeper meanings to be found.
“The expressive details he brings to the page, most artists work their entire career to achieve,” says David Harper, associate editor of the online publication Multiversity Comics.
“What Ben’s doing is telling these delicious ironies and oddities in one-and-done formats,” says Harper. “It’s perfect for today … singular images you can share anywhere.”
The comics lend themselves to social media, although the overall morose tone may seem daunting for a binge read. But if you ask Dewey why he creates tragedies, he will answer they are not that different from comedies.
“Carl Sagan is a hero of mine. His perspective on the universe makes it possible to look at things that are both finite but beautiful. You can’t really have one without the other. You need both. The experience of joy and optimism is balanced against the face of real loss, real sadness and tragedy,” explains Dewey.
“It’s the nature of human experience. It’s finite and fraught with tragedy. But it’s also a unique talent we have. Not just to blunder through a brutal world until it’s over. But to observe along the way — ‘What’s funny, what’s beautiful?’”
Ben Dewey sat down with OPB’s State of Wonder to talk about the end of the series, and his most effective tools:
Dewey loosely follows four rules for creating a successful tragedy.
First, “no genuine tragedies,” says Dewey. “It’s not funny if it’s just like ‘your dog died.’ That’s horrible and nobody likes that.”
Second, “Nothing after 1900. The reason behind that is removal from a situation — comedy is tragedy plus time. You have 100 years between living memory and the experiences happening to people,” says Dewey.
“Also, everybody in that era regardless of whether they’re a fingerless onion peddler or the King of Spain all have some costuming element that makes them seem like a straight man. If everyone is Dean Martin to fate’s Jerry Lewis, you can subvert constantly.”
Third, try not to be longer than 12 words. “I want that bounce between the image and caption to be like pingpong paddles. I want it to happen in a way where you see the picture you connect to the text. You go back, go back, go back.”
Fourth, try to avoid repeats. “Up until “Tragedy #400,” I was like, I don’t want to repeat words. I don’t want to repeat concepts. I don’t want to repeat animals. No repeats.”
When talking about comics it’s easy to draw comparisons to television or sequential movies. They’re both serialized storytelling. If that’s the case, Dewey is ending the Tragedy Series to avoid jumping the shark.
“Why is Breaking Bad so good? Because it’s a great arc from start to finish,” says Dewey.
“Why is Star Wars increasingly problematic? Because they have taken this thing that has a finite quality and the wheels started coming off with “Return of the Jedi.” It barely holds together. That’s heartbreaking for me to say, because I loved it so much as a kid. But now as a 33-year-old watching it I think, ‘Man, those Ewoks were a weird choice.’”
Dewey is killing the series while it’s still fresh and inventive. He wants it to have integrity. He understands that he’s taking a risk ending the series before it’s published on the mass market. That’s the point.
“Steve Jobs creates the iPhone and it’s not 20 minutes until someone asks him: ‘What’s next?’ I think that’s kind of a good place to be. If you’re the same person who’s just making Twinkies, that’s great you’re the Twinkie guy. But you’re not taking risks, real leaps.”
Benjamin Dewey’s complete Tragedy Series will be released March 2015 through Thomas Dunne Books.