If I tried to count the hours I’ve spent reading webcomics, who knows how many days, months, or years it would find I’ve expended? From cats playing video games to the life and struggles of a former magical girl, there are so many comics that people have spent countless time and immeasurable effort working on, only to make them available for the world to see for free. So today we’re going to look at some of my favorites, and what makes them work.
Webcomics are an interesting beast when compared to the comic industry. The creators are free to set their own release schedules, which they may or may not stick to. Rather than monthly issues, we get a few pages or panels at a time, depending on the length, which may be able to stand on their own or be a part of an ongoing narrative. There are times when I’ve waited weeks for an update, only for it to be a single page-sized panel of a reaction shot – and that’s just fine.
Similarly, webcomic creators have no guarantee they’ll earn anything when they start out – it’s a gamble with the world, and some are lucky enough to win. If a webcomic makes it big, they can sell physical issues, merchandise, and commissions; these days, Patreon is a great revenue maker for popular artists, rather than relying on advertiser content. Personally, I’ve spent a fair share on tabletop miniatures based off “Order of the Stick” and “Looking For Group” (which I’ll discuss in this article), while I’ve seen more than a few friends wearing the t-shirts from “Questionable Content.”
That’s not even getting into webcomics that have become something of a cultural phenomenon, like “Homestuck,” which is known by even those who haven’t read it for overrunning conventions with grey-painted cosplayers.
With this brief overview of the world of webcomics out of the way, it’s time to take a look at some worthwhile webcomics, see what makes them work, what makes them different, and why I like them.
Order of the Stick
By Rich Burlew
Even before I started playing Dungeons & Dragons, I was reading “Order of the Stick,” at the recommendation of a college roommate. In fact, it’s this comic that spurred my interest in the game, thanks to its humor and great story that anyone can enjoy. It surpassed 1000 pages not too long ago, but archive binging through it is a surprisingly easy task, given how well the story flows and how great the comedy is.
At first glance, it has something of a simplistic look. The characters are stick figures as far as limbs go, with more or less distinct heads and torsos. The art is bright but lacking in detail, but the simplicity is intentional and to the comic’s benefit, making it easy to read and the characters easy to identify, while allowing more of the focus to fall on the characters and the jokes.
Initially, the comic mostly exists to make fun of typical D&D tropes. The characters exist in a world that runs by the game’s mechanics (but it isn’t within a game itself), so skill points, leveling up, taking feats, and so on, are all as natural to them as breathing is to us; what we’d call a lucky break is one of them rolling a natural 20. Sometimes it uses that just for a little joke (like how rivals automatically maintain similar levels for maximum dramatic effect), other times it actually uses them to analyze characters and life, such as the moment when Roy reflects on how people would value life more if they didn’t have clerics capable of casting Raise Dead.
At the same time, much of the humor is character-driven, and in doing so, it gives us great character development. For a great example, look no further than Belkar Bitterleaf: a chaotic evil Halfling ranger who caused no small amount of humor from his eagerness to stab anyone or anything he didn’t like, but has a clear character arc that helped him grow without compromising that humor.Continued below
In fact, Belkar himself even noted it best: “People don’t just change who they are inside in an instant. It doesn’t work like that. It takes time, so you don’t even know you’re changing. Until one day, you’re just a little bit different than you used to be and you can’t even tell what the hell happened.”
The fourth wall? Virtually nonexistent. They hang a lampshade on so many tropes they even make a joke about that. You haven’t seen fourth wall humor until you’ve seen a character steal a diamond from her own character intro page elsewhere on the website. Continuity? The story continues from arc to arc smoothly, building on the overarching story and even bringing back old characters and jokes at the perfect moment.
In short, whether or not you’re familiar with Dungeons & Dragons or any tabletop game, “Order of the Stick” is a fantastic webcomic, or even a great one to get physical copies of.
by Alina Pete
There are plenty of comics out there about games, geeks, and the nerd life, but none capture the essence of being a geek more than “Weregeek.” As the comic explores the main character’s entry into the world of nerdiness, represented by his werewolf-style transformation into a “weregeek,” it dips into so many aspects of what it means to be a nerd.
It touches on all sorts of roleplaying games, including LARPs, tabletop and card games, by turning the comic into a tale from the game’s perspective – sometimes even pulling clever little tricks with reader expectations, or juxtaposing what the players imagine inside the game to the reality around them.
The characters go to conventions, talk about the latest in nerd culture, and even have to deal with scheduling their game nights around work and family. We get to know the characters as the individuals they are, through relationship drama, job woes, and the changes in their lives.
My personal favorite character is Abbie, the hyper fangirl character; her unbridled passion for her hobbies is all well and good, but since she’s also a cosplayer, there are many strips that I can relate to on a spiritual level. We’ve all suffered hot glue burns the night before the con. And the way the comic always has her in a different costume during each strip set at a convention is a nice little touch, I say as someone whose personal record is 13 costumes for a single convention.
Initially, the comic had an antagonistic organization of “geek hunters,” and the “Weregeek” aspect of the comic had a larger focus. After a while, though, that was resolved, and honestly the story was stronger for it. It had moved on past that little arc, and we as readers had grown attached to the characters enough that, once resolved, we could move on without the mystery lurking in the background.
“Weregeek” is also one of those comics that has a very noticeable improvement in the art style over time. At first, the style rather basic, albeit still decent, but as each arc goes by you can see it begin to improve and take on its own distinct style. Sometimes they’re just short three-panel comics with little jokes or snippets of the characters’ lives, other times they’re larger pages that build onto the moment.
Sometimes the art will shift based on the game they’re playing; not to an extreme degree, but just enough to set the tone for the game it’s in. Other times, for games like “Shadowrun,” the shift is somewhat more noticeable, as it tries to emulate a film noir sort of feel.
Above all else, though, “Weregeek” is a love letter to being a geek. The characters embrace their nerdiness – even those that have to learn about it at first – and they’re fully-fleshed out individuals with all their quirks, flaws, and likable points. It’s the best representation of the geek life that I’ve seen in this or any medium.
Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal
By Zach Weinersmith
“Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal,” or “SMBC” for short, is unlike the other comics I’ll be listing on here. It doesn’t have a recurring cast of characters, or an ongoing storyline – it’s just a daily series of very clever, very funny comics.
Every day (with very few exceptions) there’s a new comic, anywhere from one panel to a dozen. Each one touches on a different subject, sometimes poking fun at superheroes, other times having humorously dark philosophical discussions, or sometimes sex, or science, or whatever Zach Weinersmith feels like writing about that day. Each one is also topped off with a hover-text and a red button with an extra panel, adding even more humor onto the already hilarious comic.
There’s a distinct look to Zach’s style, a sort of clean line-art style that adds just enough details and color to make it pop. It’s simple but effective, and makes nice use of color and varying angles of the characters to add flavor to it.
However, Zach has mentioned before that he views himself as a writer before an artist, and it is in the wit of the comics that the true appeal of “SMBC” comes through. The humor can be juvenile when it wants, only to delve into complex topics the next day, and both are completely within the spirit of the comic. Zach and his team are also behind a series of videos on YouTube called “SMBC Theater,” BAHfest (Bad Ad-Hoc Hypothesis festival), and a short movie called “Starpocalypse,” all of which are well worth your while, as well as an upcoming book “Soonish: Ten Emerging Technologies That’ll Improve and/or Ruin Everything,” which I have to assume will be as well.
Looking For Group
Written by Ryan Sohmer
Illustrated by Lar DeSouza
One day, my friend showed me an animated video of an undead warlock singing to the tune of “Part of Your World” from “The Little Mermaid.” In it, the character was singing about burning villages, maiming toddlers and teens, and generally slaughtering the world. And that was my first introduction to Richard, one of the central characters of “Looking For Group.”
The first page of the comic set the tone just as well as the video, featuring Richard lighting a bunny on fire just to demonstrate what “evil” means. From there, the comic starts as a hilarious parody of fantasy tropes and stories, and ends up building its own mythos and epic storyline.
Ryan Sohmer creates a wide range of fantastic characters. Richard may be the most hilarious, but he’s just one of many members of the party; Cale’anon the elf ranger, Benny the half-breed cleric, Pella the dwarf who charges into battle while singing, and so many more entertaining and endearing characters.
While many of the pages end with a joke (often times involving Richard killing someone), it can turn serious when it needs to. They deal with loss, make mistakes, do some soul searching, and undergo some wonderful character development. Yes, even Richard has a character arc.
Accompanying it is the artwork by Lar DeSouza, who brings the characters to life. Each of the character designs are distinct and creative, from the tiniest imp (named “Elttil Hctib”) to the largest of dragons. The illustrations use a great blend of color and shading to set the mood for each scene, and the team knows what they’re doing.
In fact, there’s even one scene where Richard and Cale discuss the emotions invoked by the different colors of flames. The powerful, consuming glow of red flames, or the hopeful, empowering blue flames – or perhaps “fwoosh” versus “bloosh,” as the characters describe it.
Even more impressively, the creators work overtime to provide new content five days a week. There are two new pages to “LFG” itself each week, along with the ongoing “NPC” comic on Tuesdays and Fridays, while Wednesdays feature a three-panel comic with a pint-sized Richard making humorous quips about today’s world, called “Tiny Dick Adventures.” Occasionally there’s even animated videos to go along with it, along with the occasional Disney song parody.
“LFG” is also one of the rare comics to make it from the web to print, as several comics were made available as a monthly release in comic shops. When compiled in such a way, the flow from page to page felt a little disjointed, but seeing it go from online to a physical paper form was a nice treat for longtime fans.
These are just a few of the webcomics I read each day, as they’re just a few of my favorites. There are many more out there worth looking at, in even more detail. For now, let me know some of your favorites, and take a moment to thank the creators of the webcomics you read for all the work they do.