Webcomics are a prime example of Sturgeon’s Law: 90 percent of everything is crap. When there’s an extremely low threshold for entry, everyone gets a voice. On the surface, that’s great, the only drawback being that everyone with only marginal ability has a platform, and it’s harder to get recognition. So perhaps more so than any other media, it’s important to recognize the good entries.
David Willis is a writer and artist that’s been in the game since before webcomics were even really a thing, with strips dating back to 1997, and consequently has produced a lot of content. At the moment, he’s producing two ongoing comics, Shortpacked! and Dumbing of Age. I’ll talk about Shortpacked! first, as it’s what got me into his works, though a new reader would probably be better off checking out Dumbing of Age.
Shortpacked! is about a decade old, and is technically a sequel to his other webcomics, Roomies! and It’s Walky! The links between them are mostly kept to a minimum, and I read Shortpacked! first, so there’s no real need to go back to his old ones, though they’re still up if you wish, and currently being reposted with commentary as Bring Back Roomies.
Shortpacked! is a full-page comic, and it has an almost sitcom-ish setup initially, in that it’s about a bunch of geeks and misfits who work in a toy store. At times it’s a gateway for him to make jokes about Batman and Transformers, two of his favorite things (the latter, admittedly, being what made me take notice). While the jokes may initially get you reading, what sucks you in are his characters, and how fleshed out and three dimensional they are. It’s genuinely liking them, and wanting to see where they go that made me a fan.
The initial protagonist, Ethan starts out as the everyman, and a bit of an author avatar, but as time goes on, the focus gradually shifts to more of an ensemble thing. A notable thing about him was that the author eventually had him actually come out of the closet later on, in a way that’s handled superbly, mostly because after the fact, it winds up making no difference to his character. He’s an awkward, maladjusted misfit who just happens to be gay.
Amber begins the story as a walking character trope, extremely stereotypical Shrinking Violet Shy Geek Girl, but, as with Ethan, they later take the idea apart, and reveal her as being somewhat less than good and pure underneath the shyness. However, for a double layer of refreshing, he also talks about how this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, either, and she isn’t considered less for it, or knocked down a peg when she shows her spiteful, angry, assertive side.
There’s plenty of other characters, all of whom I could rant about but that’s just a taste of the main draw of the thing. Come for the pop culture humor, stay for the characters and their storylines. There’s enough of the comic now it’ll take you some time to get through it, but not so much that it’s impossible. Right now, a large chunk of the original cast has exited the story, making way for a new generation of younger employees, making it the perfect time to get started, and meaning the archive ends itself nicely.
It’s his other, more recent work, Dumbing of Age, that’s gotten more acclaim, and is perhaps easier to get into, give its status as a new universe. The cast consists of characters from everything he’s written, and the plot, plainly and simply, puts them in college together. So yes, the Shortpacked! cast shows up, just Not As We Know Them, and indeed, you don’t have to know them. It being a new universe means you can start on it and not miss any backstory.
Like Shortpacked!, it’s got a great cast of characters. Most poignant is Joyce Brown, a hardcore fundamentalist christian who’s now being forced to cope with the fact that the world isn’t as black and white as she’s been taught, and that people who don’t mach her definition of morality aren’t all bad either. It’s particularly personal to the author, who’s a former fundamentalist himself, and makes for some interesting writing.
Moreso than Shortpacked!, Dumbing of Age focuses on taking apart character tropes, as well as dealing with issues like misogyny. Probably the best example would be a storyline about date rape that manages to a) feel progressive, b) defy stereotypes, and c) manage to be funny without being tasteless, that rarest of feats. And that’s where the comic succeeds, too, by not being doom and gloom. It knows how to insert levity without feeling like the jokes are at the expense of the characters, or out of place amongst serious matters.
So, while there’s a good deal of webcomic content out there, these two are a cut above, and definitely work at least a look.