(Don't) Take His Advice: Meyer on "Basic Instructions"

For anyone who has ever wondered about the proper way to display a baby, wash a cat, or avoid a pointless argument, Scott Meyer's web comic “Basic Instructions” provides a field guide on exactly what not to do. Meyer's four-panel strips, illustrated in a slightly awkward style one might expect from owner's manuals and self-help books, inject intense and sometimes savage humor into the small irksome situations of daily life. “Help is on the Way,” the first collection of “Basic Instructions” strips originally appearing online and in Seattle Weekly, was released in September from Dark Horse Books.

We caught up with Meyer to discuss the web comic, the book, and his comics-themed “Basic Instructions” strip appearing exclusively here on CBR.

“The fact that your site's readers are united by an interest in one specific subject gave me license to throw a couple of ideas out there that I find funny, but that a readership less focused on comic books might not enjoy,” Meyer said of offering CBR the exclusive “Basic Instructions” strip. “It's an advantage that some of the more subject-specific strips (like 'Penny Arcade') enjoy, and I've always sort of envied.”

While Meyer's website is regularly updated with new and useful advice, readers who prefer to consult a handy reference book in truly dire situations will enjoy the recently-published “Help is on the Way,” the first “Basic Instructions” collection from Dark Horse. “It feels amazing” to have a “dead-trees” edition of the popular web comic, the artist said. “I keep looking at the Amazon page just to remind myself that it's real. I seriously never entertained the idea that I'd put out a book with a real publisher, and if I fantasized about what publisher I would want if I got to pick, Dark Horse was the name I came up with.”

Meyer said “Help is on the Way” is selling well, though is struggling to reach a key demographic: the cartoonist's own social network. “Many people I know personally have no idea I do a comic, let alone have a book out,” he said. “I started the strip, got it off the ground, then moved to the other side of the country. I live in Florida, and all of the newspapers 'Basic Instructions' runs in are on the west coast.

“Many of my coworkers' first introduction to 'Basic Instructions' came from me bringing advance copies of the book in to work. Their reaction has been pretty consistent. They say the usual congratulatory things you say when someone hands you something they're proud of. Then they look puzzled because, well let's face it, 'Basic Instructions' looks kind of weird. Then they silently read for thirty seconds or so, then they usually laugh out loud, which I find encouraging.”

“Basic Instructions” began as a way to compliment Meyer’s other comedy endeavors. “In late 2003, I was making my living as a stand-up comic. I had a website, but almost no traffic,” he said. “I was eating at a Burger King and trying to think of something to put on my site to encourage readers to return. At the end of the meal I was refilling my drink, and I saw a sign that said 'no free refills.' It seemed to me that the free refill was the restaurant's way of paying me back for having to fill my own drink to begin with. I wondered how I could best share that opinion with the world. That led to the idea of writing illustrated instructions--I didn't think I could make the fountain drink idea work as stand-up material--which led to the idea of doing them on a weekly basis. I did the strip for a few months, then quit when I quit stand-up and got a 'real people job.' A dribbled out a few strip in the next year or two, but didn't really seriously relaunch 'Basic Instructions' until 2006.”

The stand-up experience proved valuable as Meyer continued developing “Basic Instructions.” “Stand-up taught me a lot about how to build a joke. It seems simple, and most (but not all) people are born able to make a competent joke,” he said, “but when you're trying to construct a joke for people who don't know you, don't share your background, and aren't there with you when they experience the joke, it becomes much more difficult.”

“Boiled down to its simplest form, there are two parts to a joke. The set-up, and the punchline,” Meyer explained. “As a comic, I was famous for having incredibly long set-ups. I couldn't write a short set-up to save my life. I eventually made the length of the set-ups part of the joke, but still every comic I respected who ever tried to give me advice said the same thing: 'SHORTEN YOUR *&%$ING SET-UPS!!!'

“The comic strip has limited space for words. It has forced me to finally shorten my set-ups. In fairness, I still write a really wordy comic strip.”

True to his concept of helping readers navigate daily tasks that may be simple or complex, common or unusual, hopeless or pointless, Meyer matches his visual style to the medium at the source of his parody. “The art style started as an attempt to emulate the look of bad instruction manuals,” he said. “I create the art by starting with photographs and drawing over the top of them. I am capable of drawing in a more traditional manner (I'm not the best comic artist, but there are worse whose work is syndicated--just sayin'), but this traced and recycled art style just feels right for 'Basic Instructions.' It gives the comic a deadpan quality that I think works.

“It's kind of a shame, because tracing a detailed figure actually takes more time than just drawing a comic strip character.”

Despite a warning label at the bottom of the website, and despite the sheer absurdity of Meyer's guide, one might think that somewhere, someone had followed the cartoon's instructions to his or her own peril. Meyer insists, though, that he has not received any angry emails from unfortunate viewers. “To my knowledge, nobody has ever been foolish enough to follow my advice,” he said.

“Help is on the Way: A Collection of Basic Instructions” is available now from Dark Horse Books.

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