Diana Goes Digital #4: Natural Twenties

One of the most widespread genres in webcomics is fantasy, specifically that swords-and-sorcery sub-genre usually associated with RPGs (ie: DUNGEONS & DRAGONS). Interestingly enough, many of those webcomics (including all the series we'll be looking at today) have a decidedly subversive tone to them: they poke fun at conventions, they turn basic tropes on their heads, they break the fourth wall with a wink and a nudge. It's probably a reaction to the prominence of fantasy in the mainstream, particularly "serious" fantasy like LORD OF THE RINGS and HARRY POTTER (you have to wonder what Mel Brooks would've done had he picked Tolkien's trilogy to parody rather than STAR WARS or ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES) - but that reaction leads to a whole multitude of stories that work with, and against, the formula.

LOOKING FOR GROUP by Ryan Sohmer and Lar Desouza is a basic "inversion" scenario - Cale'anon, the only good member of a wholly evil race, falls in with a trio of amoral killers on some sort of ill-defined quest. Despite his heroic intentions, Cale keeps stumbling into situations where he does more harm than good. It's comedy, of course, playing on the protagonist's continual mortification at the slaughter and mayhem, whereas his allies are decidedly less troubled. It starts out rather well, though Sohmer and Desouza lost me mid-second issue, when the story takes a more serious turn at depicting an internal Elvish conflict. The quips keep on coming, but the transition didn't really work for me.

Tarol Hunt's GOBLINS takes a different approach. Rather than deal with alignments (good, evil, lawful, chaotic, etc.), what's inverted here is the racial subtext built into the generic RPG world. Our protagonists are, as the title suggests, goblins - typically cast as the cannon fodder of the fantasy realm. Ironically, this doesn't change just because the story is about goblins: they're totally out of their league, clearly outmatched by "proper" adventurers. And I think that's a big part of why they're so sympathetic: they're the underdogs fighting the good fight, and despite their "monstrosity", their heroism is never questioned. The series does have one rather major flaw: unlike LOOKING FOR GROUP, which made a (hasty) shift from humor to serious adventuring, GOBLINS vacillates erratically between the two. One moment, we're all having a good laugh at stupid barbarians, the next we have to watch as a childlike protagonist is tortured horribly. It can be difficult to reconcile these extremes, all the moreso because there's no real transition between sequences: you're just snapped back and forth. The end result is somewhat paradoxical, because the world Hunt constructs is full of wonder (especially since you're viewing it through goblin eyes), but it's also a world where very bad things can happen to weak and defenseless people, without any mitigating effect.

If you're looking for consistency, I highly recommend Rich Burlew's ORDER OF THE STICK, one of the best examples of fantasy subversion - but beyond that, it's also an excellent webcomic in itself. Because there's more to this series than the jokes and the play on RPG rules and "mystical artifacts" - ORDER OF THE STICK is a true epic, offering a wide array of story elements such as romance, action, humor even during heroic confrontations, and a war worthy of Peter Jackson. Burlew should also be commended for his tight story structure: each phase of the Order's adventures reads like a novel in a series of novels, and elements from an earlier "book" (ie: the Linear Guild) recur in later stages to have real impact on the storyline. And while some might find the stick-figure-esque artwork simplistic, I actually think it's all the more effective given the story Burlew's telling - and, of course, there can be intricacy even in simplicity, which is precisely what I find here. ORDER OF THE STICK is one of my favorite webcomics, and with good reason.

I only recently discovered YET ANOTHER FANTASY GAMER COMIC by Rich Morris, and despite the title, this strip has some unique qualities when lined up with the other webcomics featured here. For example, in contrast to the other series, YET ANOTHER FANTASY GAMER COMIC has no central character(s): it's an ensemble piece styled on an Arabian Nights pattern where every storyline leads to the next tale, which may be set in a different place with a completely different protagonist. So what starts out as the romance of Bob and Gren smoothly transitions to Arachne and Drow politics, then we get Mrs. Bloodhand's story segueing directly into her son's tale. The overall narrative is always in motion, maneuvering very deftly between these "character clusters". As with ORDER OF THE STICK, I should make a note of the artwork - YET ANOTHER FANTASY GAMER COMIC relies primarily on pencil-based art, so if you're put off by that sort of thing, you might want to skip it over... though you'd be missing out on a great series.

From its very first page, Rob Balder's and Jamie Noguchi's ERFWORLD stood out as something... different. I can honestly say I've never seen a creation myth attributed to a trio of giant Elvii before, or a Tome of AOL. It's an adorable series, reductive in that it infantilizes RPG conventions - necromancy is referred to as Croakamancy, the local warlord calls himself Stanley the Tool after the divine hammer he wields (which just happens to look like a child's toy), dragons are referred to as Dwagons, and the artwork reminds me of chibi (well, minus the enormous eyes). Aside from being so damned cute, ERFWORLD has more than a touch of the surreal to it, which is actually unusual in that most fantasy webcomics I've seen take a very realistic approach to the worlds they create. So this is a fun, refreshing deviation from the norm.

Tom Siddell's GUNNERKRIGG COURT uses surreality much along the same lines, both in the artwork and the story: the titular Court is a boarding school that, in terms of visual design, serves as the anti-Hogwarts (which may explain, in part, my affinity for it) - it's dark, it's huge, there are subtly threatening mysteries around every corner. But the surreal feeling derives from the fact that no one, not even newcomer Antimony Carver, seems bothered by things like minotaurs, demons and robots. Also atypical is the setting: where other fantasy writers would put a great deal of effort into constructing an entire world to accomodate their protagonists, GUNNERKRIGG COURT is very centralized - the various chapters all take place either on the grounds or in the immediate vicinity (though, as it turns out, there's no shortage of nooks and crannies to explore within the Court itself. I also appreciated the subdued tone here, as opposed to the pomp and noise surrounding the world of HARRY POTTER - it feels more genuine, somehow, in the absence of people shrieking about Quidditch and magic beans.

And finally, technical notes:

* LOOKING FOR GROUP is ongoing, in color, currently at 125 pages. It updates every Monday and Thursday and its archive is organized by issues, each of which numbers around 30 pages.

* GOBLINS is ongoing, starting in black and white for two months before moving to full color. The series began in June of 2005 and updates erratically. Its archive divides the series into three books (so far), with additional divisions highlighting various "chapters" in the story.

* ORDER OF THE STICK is ongoing, in color, currently at 533 pages. The archive contains only a list of strips without any specific division, but the printed editions separate the series thus far into three books: strips 1-121, 122-300 and 301-484. It updates three times a week, more or less at random.

* YET ANOTHER FANTASY GAMER COMIC is ongoing, in black and white (with the occasional color strip). The series began in May 2006 and updates on a daily basis. The earliest strips in the archive are organized according to the featured characters, but this eventually gives way to individual titles per strip.

* ERFWORLD is ongoing, in color, currently at 96 pages. It updates Tuesdays and Saturdays. Like ORDER OF THE STICK, the archive doesn't divide the strips by story, though in this case it's probably because Balder and Noguchi are still on their first "book".

* GUNNERKRIGG COURT is ongoing, in color, currently at 17 chapters. It updates Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. The archive features chapter and page division; additionally, each chapter ends with a bonus page or two featuring less-discussed aspects of the Court's world.