From long-running soap operas to comedy-drama slices of life to daily gag strips, the digital comics scene has exploded over the last decade and readers have never had more options. Feeling overwhelmed? Christina Harrington and Joe Stando are here to take you on an expedition through the webcomics wilderness and show you the best specimens in our monthly Deadshirt Webcomics Field Guide.
Dumbing of Age by David Willis
To me, most “soap opera” comic strips live and die based on characters being relatable and engaging. You don’t have to like the cast of a comic all the time, and you can even root against them, but it’s paramount that the audience is connected enough to keep coming back, day in and day out. It’s an issue I’ve had with various newspaper comics, because after a while events seem to settle into a repetitive status quo, or else try to top themselves so hard and so regularly that it turns me off.
Dumbing of Age, the college life comedy-drama series by David Willis, almost systematically avoids these pitfalls. It’s ever-changing, but doesn’t feel gimmicky. The cast is huge and varied, with characters embodying every possible personality, good or bad. Its four-year run has shaken up the cast a lot, in terms of friendships and relationships, but it’s still briskly paced and accessible enough to catch up on over the course of a couple of days.
Dumbing of Age is a kind of a reboot of Willis’ previous comics oeuvre, reimagining characters from his college newspaper strip-turned-webcomic in a new context. You don’t have to be familiar with the previous series (Roomies!, It’s Walky! and Shortpacked!) but it’s a fun bonus for longtime fans. The series focuses on the freshman class at Indiana University. The cast is large and varied, but the major viewpoint characters are Joyce, a sweet, well-meaning but sheltered fundamentalist Christian girl, and Dorothy, her nerdy, driven atheist best friend. The rest of the cast is a complex web spinning outwards, involving classmates, boyfriends, roommates, and local vigilantes and roller derby girls. Among the highlights are Dorothy’s slacker boyfriend Walky, Walky’s delinquent (badass, awesome) twin sister Sal, and washed-up former cheerleader Billie. The cast is extremely diverse, not only in background and ethnicity, but in senses of humor, style, and outlook. The level of design work and foresight that goes into each character is impressive, and pays dividends as the storylines progress.Indeed, the intense level of research and preparation shows through in almost every strip. Backgrounds are lush without being busy, and often drawn from photo reference. Characters have realized wardrobes and styles, rather than a single signature outfit, but they still wear recognizable and consistent cuts and colors. There’s a good degree of stylization to everyone, but it doesn’t suffer from the sameness of face or figures that a lot of webcomics fall into. The comic keeps to a pretty strict four-panel layout, which allows it to be read quickly and clearly. Willis has learned a lot about everything from writing to composition to color palettes through his previous works, and Dumbing of Age is a synthesis of his best qualities.
The strip’s pacing is one of the highlights, and sort of a paradox. On the one hand, the time is very decompressed, with only a few weeks having passed in-universe over the four years of comics thus far. At the same time, this first month of school has been so packed with meetings, fights, hookups, and many sundry plot points that it rarely drags. With the comic updating every day for the foreseeable future, even plots that don’t fire on all cylinders are brief, and Willis deftly moves between scenes and interactions to keep things funny, tense, or engaging.Dumbing of Age also has a subtle but powerful approach to social issues. The series deals with racism, religion vs. secularity, abuse and PTSD, but generally not in an obvious, moralistic way. Willis avoids overt villainous characters, and likable characters often contain less than desirable traits and attitudes. In refusing to write racism, homophobia and the like as cartoon villain traits, Willis challenges the audience to confront their own preconceptions and attitudes. This isn’t always received particularly well (the comments threads on each strip have a tendency to get a little… heated, at times) but it’s one of the most distinguishing elements of the strip, and it sets it apart from other slice of life strips. Willis is constantly pushing his own limits, writing and developing characters who reflect wider and wider cross-sections of his audience, and the comic is better for it. He’s extremely fair, even when writing narrow-minded or wrong-headed characters.
Dumbing of Age updates seven days a week, based on a stretch goal of a previous Kickstarter. The update schedule may change, pending future Kickstarters, but between the rabid fanbase and Willis’ legendary work ethic, I anticipate pretty steady updates. The entire archive is also posted, so catching up on Dumbing of Age is a good way to spend a rainy afternoon or two.