Windows into Webcomics: Dumbing of Age

Windows into Webcomics: Dumbing of Age

I discovered webcomics back in middle school and fell into them quickly. Compared to comic books, I found that they were more accessible on a financial and storytelling level. I didn’t have to shell out $3 for every issue or keep track of a bumpy release schedule. Even if a webcomic dipped in updates, it was easy to come back to. Not everything I read was good, but it opened up a world of diverse storytelling for me, from sex comedies to fantasy melodramas. Not only that, but many people often marginalized by the comics industry, like people of color and women, were able to express themselves and find an audience on their own terms without as much gatekeeping. I’ve always wanted to talk about them because while now I read more comic books than before, I still find myself more comfortable and familiar with the world of webcomics. Despite the amount of money and attention they can draw, webcomics are still considered niche when we talk about comics (until they hit print).

So welcome to Windows into Webcomics, where I talk about specific pages from webcomics I follow and love. I want to dive into what works for me about a certain page or update, and then jump into what I love about the webcomic as a whole. I think more people should take notice of the amazing things webcomics have to offer and that we should analyze them just as much as anything published by Marvel or Dark Horse.

For my first entry, I’ll cover Dumbing of Age, a longtime favorite of mine.

Note: My posts will generally contain mild spoilers, in order to describe the context of pages. I’ll warn for each post.

Dumbing of Age by David M. Willis is a slice-of-life dramedy set in Indiana University. It mainly follows Joyce, an incoming freshman from a conservative Christian family, as she slowly learns about the world outside of her ignorant, fundamentalist bubble. However, there’s quite a strong ensemble cast that takes turns with the comic’s focus. If you’ve ever read Willis’s other works like Shortpacked!, It’s Walky!, and Roomies!, you’ll recognize the cast. However, Dumbing of Age is its own continuity (literally just a college AU), so there’s no requirement to know about his other webcomics. (I’ve only read a bit of of Shortpacked! personally.)

For this post, I’m discussing “Preparation,” a fairly recent update. There’s a lot of strips I could’ve chosen, so having one handed to me this week that I liked a lot was a treat.

DOA strip 8-21

Scene Recap

Amber’s hanging out on the rooftop when Walky drops by, a frequent habit for both of them by this point. He expresses his frustration with being anywhere else and around anyone else right now. Ambers commiserates with him. She then offers a burrito as a gesture of friendship that Walky derisively accepts (less about the gesture and more about Taco Bell), to which Amber snarks back (the actual punchline).

Thoughts

The opening panel establishes the time and atmosphere. The comic’s lighting tends to be moderately bright, so a scene set in cool, blue evening darkness with a slice of sharp light down below is a nice change of pace. A crisp, windy night is also a great setting for two people who are kind of depressed. Their shared comfort on the rooftop is mellow but bittersweet.

After the establishing shot, the panels switch between shared shots of Amber and Walky and individual closeups on each of them. The borderless panels either establish the setting (first) or a character’s mindset (third and fifth). Meanwhile the outlined panels show how they share the space with each other: Walky enters from behind, they both look over the rooftop’s edge, and then face each other. There’s a visual symmetry once they’re together. Even without the dialogue, you can get the gist of the scene: Walky comes up to join Amber and they bond in this moment.

There’s a similar rhythm to their dialogue, balanced between Walky and Amber individually expressing themselves and them sharing the rooftop. Despite their choice of mediated isolation, they’re both playful with each other, which comes out in their body language and dialogue. This back-and-forth cements their burgeoning bond.

Overall, clarity is prioritized. The speech bubbles are placed along the upper and lower thirds with a clear top to bottom order, leaving room in between for the characters. The only panel with potential uncertainty is the third one, particularly when reading order of the dialogue goes in a “Z” formation. Instead, the burrito in Amber’s hand is kept in sight and close to the speech bubbles, which transitions to Amber’s offer.

The general format of Dumbing of Age resembles a newspaper strip more than a graphic novel  page. Because of the restricted space, the amount of information conveyed here is fairly limited but efficiently done. As a webcomic, it juggles ongoing storylines, such as Becky’s fraught coming out, alongside daily jokes. After all, a random button would be more out of place in a solely long-form comic. Though lately it’s been leaning into more dramatic, serious material, resulting in melodramatic or somber strips that lack a comedic punchline or casual newcomer accessibility.

Still, this particular scene can work without much context. Two people are hanging out on a rooftop together. They want some controlled distance and isolation (except for each other). One of them offers food as a gesture of friendship, resulting in a dig at Taco Bell.

However, the scene is most effective with context: Walky feels like garbage over his recent breakup with his girlfriend. Amber has been coping for a while with her insecurities and trauma surrounding violence. The emotional weight of these two characters’ issues resonate best when you’ve followed the development of their respective arcs and struggles. Both of them find solace on the rooftop and in each other for feeling like, well, garbage and the sweet unlikeliness of their bond stands out greater when you know the nuances of their respective personalities. Walky is laid-back, sheltered, and childish. Amber is reclusive and anxious, with a streak of vengeful justice. They both have very different histories when it comes to facing their shortcomings. It makes the thrust of this scene, Amber offering a gesture of friendship (even if it’s humorously responded to), mean more.

Still, experiencing the full context means starting from the very beginning. Even if the strips are easy to read and blast through, for a series that’s been running on almost daily updates since late 2010, that’s asking a lot.

The best argument I can make for spending that amount of time and energy is that Dumbing of Age is a truly strong character-driven story. There are plot arcs, but as a slice-of-life webcomic, there’s no overarching plot beyond following its characters and what they do. Thankfully, Willis is pretty good at not only writing characters with thoughtful personalities, but also characters that do things that actually affect other characters. This is key. While there’s nothing wrong with light-hearted slice-of-life where nothing of consequence really happens, you have to really strike gold to keep that running for long.

Even though there’s an emphasis on ending punchlines, Willis tackles some heavy themes including sexual assault, mental illness, addiction, bigotry, and so on. Some of this comes from Willis drawing from his own past as someone raised in a fundamentalist Christian household for Joyce. This is not to paint Dumbing of Age as a downer, but rather that slice-of-life in this case means covering all aspects of life, including ugly, unpleasant, and complicated things. There’s also a masked student vigilante on campus who can do parkour pretty well.

Ultimately, I find that Dumbing of Age strikes the balance between the dramatic and humorous, as well as the political and personal. Sometimes the events can be theatrical and the webcomic enthusiastically wears its politics on its sleeve, but the foundation is in how it matters (or doesn’t) to the characters, who are so human in their triumphs and failures.

Fast Stats

  • Content Rating: For adults, though likely appropriate for anyone 16 and up. Along with the many mature topics already mentioned, there’s also (non-graphic) sexual and violent content.
  • Update Schedule: Daily.
  • Physical Copies: Available online through Big Cartel, or Willis’s scheduled convention appearances and Kickstarter campaigns.
  • LGBTQ+:  Several of the main cast are bisexual, gay, and lesbian. There are multiple same-gender relationships and crushes. A couple of supporting characters are trans women (one out and one closeted).
  • POC: There are multiple people of color in the main and supporting cast. A few of them are mixed.
  • Disability: One supporting character is mute and uses ASL to communicate.
  • Religion: Several characters are Christian and openly discuss it. One character is Jewish though isn’t observant. Some background characters are hjabi.
  • Malia’s Favorite Character: Joyce.

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