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Media You Should Consume #2: The Works of David Willis

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.

Dreams, Pragmatism, and the Media: An Unintended Trap

I’d intended to lighten things up for a time, but something’s come to my attention that I feel the need to discuss. If you recall from my last post, I discussed the life path a lot of people my age chose, and how it unintentionally cause major problems down the road, getting a “higher education” leaving us without job skills, holding the first to be more important than the second, not giving a thought to how things will work out. Bear in mind the following is all opinion. I may be entirely wrong. Maybe in a few years, I’ll recant this position.

The problem is that we didn’t make this post-secondary decision on our own. We were taught that, and now we’re reaping the consequences. Take a look at this comic, an animated form of a lecture by Alan Watts. it’s what triggered this rant:

2013-01-08-alanwatts

Sounds pretty good, right? It should also sound familiar to you. It’s the same sort of theme we saw in a lot of media aimed at kids. I’m pretty sure a lot of the Disney canon consists of this same message. We all know the familiar story. You don’t want to follow in the footsteps of your family, or your social class. You have ideals, you have dreams, and those are important. Anyone that says otherwise is a soulless oppressor, or possibly horribly misguided, and is trying to make you give up your dreams, and your special unique talents. Perhaps, if the young dreamer sticks to their guns, they can show their oppressors the error of their ways. Either way, all they have to do is chase that dragon, things will work out, one way or another. The thing is, it’s entirely wrong, possibly damaging, and the opposite viewpoint is one we now reflexively dislike, as we associate it with those misguided antagonists in that fiction we loved.

I think the big problem is that fundamental assumption that we’re supposed to follow these dreams of ours, do these things we enjoy, and forget the money. What are we, soulless? Draw your art, ride your horses, write your articles, make your videos, and damn anyone that says you’re wasting your time. The problem lies in the whole “ignore the money” part. “What if money was no object?” that cartoon asks. Well, it sort of is. It is, and pretending it isn’t, turning a blind eye to it, not worrying about those bills you’re going to have to pay one day, that’s a ruinous mantra.

We’re told time and time again, money doesn’t buy happiness, it’s not about the money, money is the root of all evil, et cetera, et cetera. It’s true money doesn’t buy happiness. What it does buy is security, stability, and life. Knowing what you like, and pursuing your dreams is good and all, but you need to be able to function in society as a grown person at the same time. And that doesn’t necessarily mean abandoning those interests that some would scoff at (I talked about that at length here,) it means being able to live unassisted on your own. It’s hard to follow your dreams if you can’t feed, clothe, and shelter yourself. These things will not magically appear. You need to make them happen, and to make them happen, you need cash. We need to step back and accept the fact that some sort of income is necessary in order to live, and it’s not going to come to us automatically. And if you’re not making it appear, then someone else is, and you’re living off the dimes that they’re earning.

The reason the philosophy preached in that cartoon potentially damaging is because it ignores this basic fact. That, and it leaves out the fact that we like do not always equal things we can do for money, that one won’t automatically lead into the other. Maybe you’ll become the best at what you do through slavish dedication, and get money that way. But to count on it is to ignore the present, and ignore some other, very real, non-optional needs.

Take a look at that dream. Can you realistically expect to make money off it soon, as in in the next few years, instead of some hazy future where you’ve mastered that skill? If not, then that doesn’t mean you have to abandon it. It merely means that you’ll need to do something else to earn income, and work on that dream of yours when you’re not out earning your living. I suppose that’s the other false dichotomy that the media presented us: That the two are mutually exclusive, that deciding earning a living is important means your interests and dreams have to die. They really don’t.

So, here’s my own philosophy, what I’d wish modern media would teach a new generation: Follow your interests, but get paid. If your interest won’t pay you, find something, anything that will, and work on that interest in your spare time. Maybe, if you stick with it, and if you have and/or grow the talent, you can leave that other career and take your interest on full-time. If not, you’ve got a roof under your head, food under the table, and something you like to fill your spare time. If that seems a bit unfair, consider that a realistic perspective won’t turn you into a starving artist, merely a really busy one.

Epilogue: And if you are in one of those situation where you can’t support yourself, that’s hardly uncommon for modern youth, thanks to the world we inherited. The best thing, I think, is to simply recognize this fact, and try to worm your way out of it, and not simply be content to freeload for all eternity.