The Webcomic Overlook #222: Dumbing of Age
Ah, the alternate universe. Those of us who are familiar with print comics may have heard of Marvel’s Ultimate Line in which all the Marvel characters were re-introduced with new origins set in modern times with none of the prior canon that could scare new readers away. It was a new universe with an established starting point that new readers could enjoy without any prior knowledge of the original continuity. And that’s what we have here today.
Before Scott Kurtz was paving the way for cartoonists to work online, David Willis was a college student with a strip in the paper called Roomies! The strip was enjoyable, and is currently being re-uploaded on a new site, which was part of celebrating its 15th anniversary. The art was blocky, the story telling weak and the tone schizophrenic. Eventually Roomies ended and a sequel series, It’s Walky, came around, a bizarre drama/comedy/action series with even weirder problems with consistent tone. It was an improvement, but oh dear God is it hard to pitch the strip to an outsider without it sounding stupid. “Just trust me, it’s good” tends to be how I go. And the that ended and Shortpacked was launched, which was reviewed here, and also a direct sequel called Joyce and Walky, which was subscription based. Both again were marked improvements although Shortpacked had a slow start but did get much better.
However, it’s hard to get people to read four different webcomics and thousands of strips, especially when the creator was still learning his craft. So, Willis decided to take his 10,000 hours of experience and return to where it all started, college, with the characters everyone loved in a new world. The goal was to make a comic old readers could enjoy but new readers could get into.
And he did a very good job at it.
Dumbing of Age is set at Indiana University with most of the core cast being the freshman class. The over the top theatrics are gone, the premise is much more down to earth, the drama and comedy are much more evenly balanced, characters have more depth and the main villain only exists as a comic book and cartoon character. And we have a comedy about that awkward period of life where you’re trying to figure out what being an adult means.
The story is mostly focussed on Joyce Brown, a home-schooled, sheltered Christian girl who is attending college to make friends and find her true love, who she will marry. Unfortunately she doesn’t have much patience in regards to finding her future husband and gets annoyed if she finds out she’s wasted her time on a guy (Possibly why she snapped at Walky?). But she does manage to make friends and worm a place into the hearts of everyone around her. She’s heavily based on Willis’ own past as a sheltered Christian.
However the comic is not solely focussed on her. Everyone in the cast has managed to grab a substantial amount of screen time and have their own stories. To the point where the unlikeable can become sympathetic in an instant and a fan favourite can come from nowhere. Although I did lie, there is one fantastical element, one of the characters is a superhero. Though it’s played in a much more realistic fashion.
One of the most enjoyable parts of the comic is that there are a lot of subtle call backs to the original series that you can pick up on if you’re familiar with it, but they don’t alienate new readers who don’t get the reference. Mike and Walky are roommates, just like they were while at SEMME. Danny has a conversation with his mother that mimics the first ever strip. You also get subversions of things that happened in the original universe, like canon couples looking like they’ll happen, only for things to go in a different direction. (On Willis’ tumblr, he said he’s heavily considering keeping Danny and Billie apart so as not to just have everything turn out the same as the old universe). But if that’s not your thing, you can also enjoy the comments section, and the memes they latch onto.
Artistically the comic is also a marked improvement over the old universe. Backgrounds are detailed, thanks to photo references of the real life college itself, and the camera angles are played. Also, most of the character designs are varied enough so that even in Black and White, you’d be able to tell who is who.
Also, while the old universe aged at a real world rate, here Willis engages in Webcomic Time, out of a desire to let the story run for as long as it needs to. As such, we’re only up to the third week in terms of time passing, but since time jumps have been shown it’s unlikely the current pace of one week per year is always going to be the norm. But it also means that while the characters do evolve, it can take a while otherwise you’d have people changing their personalities every couple of days. However the number of various stories and characters mean if you get bored of one person, you won’t have to wait long until someone else gets screen time.
All in all, it’s an easy recommendation. If you like slice of life comedies with some solid character development, go check this one out.
Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)