Comic: Dumbing of Age
Creator: David Willis
Coming-of-age stories are a popular breed, focusing primarily on trials people face as they grow up. This form of character development is the soul of these stories, and not only requires not only consistency, but also believability. The difficulty of this is magnified the more other characters are incorporated, but the college-themed webcomic Dumbing of Age takes on this challenge rather ambitiously, knitting together a narrative that connects over a dozen distinct characters.
To those unfamiliar with the author of this series, they may not realize that this is a spin-off from his other webcomics, which include Shortpacked!, Roomies!, and Joyce and Walky!, all of which are loosely connected to each other. Dumbing of Age takes the characters from the others, reinterprets them, and focuses on their college years together. While it’s not necessary to know this in order to enjoy Dumbing of Age, it’s still an interesting sidenote and those who like this comic may be interested in seeing the source material. However, for the sake of simplicity, this review will focus exclusively on Dumbing of Age with no direct reference to the other webcomics.
The website is pretty easy to navigate, but has the occasional loading error with the images. Clicking refresh can solve the problem, but for those who like to read in large chunks at once, this may become tedious. As for the layout, it’s a bit overwhelmed with ads that tend to crowd the page. There’s a neat banner that changes every time the page loads, but with so much advertisement overtaking the page, it’s easy to overlook as just another ad. The archives are arranged by story arc, making it a little easier to search for a specific page by narrowing things down. The archives even offer a small thumbprint of the page in the search, which is a nice feature.
Artistically, this comic isn’t among the most impressive. Arguably, its best quality is the easily-recognizable character designs. Most characters look distinct and those who do look alike are either related or look similar intentionally. Another positive aspect to the art is the posing and gestures. The characters tend to have a good sense of weight to them and their poses, even in this simplified form, look natural. Where the art falls flat is mostly with the lines and backgrounds, but for very different reasons. The lines are loose and a bit sloppy, sometimes leading to limbs or hands and feet looking awkward when a little more care might have made a big difference in quality. Backgrounds, on the other hand, are an awkward mix of loose lines that look hand-drawn and very sharp digital lines. Some images, like posters, seem to have been pasted right onto the background and simply don’t look like they belong. Visually, it’s a little underwhelming, but considering the creator updates every single day, it’s understandable that the art looks rushed and there is some slight improvement in line weight and shading over time.
What is most remarkable about the writing is certainly the characters. True to the average college setting, the cast is very diverse in appearance, creed, and personality. The central character is Joyce, a conservative Christian from a homeschooling family. She’s presented as something of a naïve outsider, friendly and genuine but very out of touch with other kinds of people and their cues. Even with her socially awkward nature, tendency to annoy others, and lack of real-world experience, she still has good qualities and is a likeable protagonist. If there is one thing this webcomic succeeds at, it’s being fair to its characters. Nobody is set up as a strawman for Joyce to defeat, nor is she a caricature made to be mocked. Instead of judging the characters, the narrative offers a candid, intimate view of their lives. While the story always comes back to Joyce, it spends a lot of time with the rest of the cast and their interactions. Typical fare like classes, relationships, and shared interests are presented alongside very serious topics such as alcohol and drug abuse, identity disorders, and attempted rape. Throughout it all, even in the most serious moments, the writing is tied together with a sense of clever irony. Most of the jokes rely on the oddities of these people and the contrast between them. Even when things get tense or dangerous, the narrative never loses its wry observation of the characters and who they are.
One possible writing flaw is the pacing. It seems very odd to say that, since the story updates about as often as any webcomic possibly could, but the timeline created for it is very rushed. While the comic has updated regularly since 2010, in-story, it’s been only a couple weeks at most. Clearly, the author wants to focus on character growth, but in this case, perhaps it would be to the story’s benefit to keep the exact timeline vague. With characters forging serious relationships, hashing out major emotional issues, and going through traumatic experiences in such a short amount of time, it seems like there just isn’t enough breathing room.
In spite of its shortcomings, Dumbing of Age is a good example of how to handle a large, diverse cast. It juggles several storylines, nearly all of them intersecting in some way, and still manages to be not only fairly easy to follow, but interesting. Drama and humor are balanced just right, never getting too bogged down but not overlooking the big issues. Readers who enjoy character-driven works are almost guaranteed to find one or two people in this story they can relate to and watch them grow.