Dumbing of Age (2010-present; updates daily)
Written and drawn by David Willis
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The first year of college is an important, transitional, and often angst-ridden time of one’s life. Veteran web cartoonist David Willis uses characters from his previous webcomics Shortpacked, It’s Walky, and Roomies to tell the story of large ensemble cast of students (mostly freshmen) at Indiana University, which happens to be Willis’ alma mater. The protagonist is Joyce Brown, a fundamentalist Christian (loosely based on Willis around that age) who is starting to find out that not everyone is like her. Willis avoids making her a straw woman by giving her a cheery personality that matches her wide, blue eyes and having her grow and develop throughout the series, especially recently when her best friend from home is kicked out of her Christian college for being a lesbian. She begins to overcome her homophobia and realize their friendship is more important.
The strength of Dumbing of Age is its large cast of characters, which Willis can showcase or flesh out their backstories at the drop of a hat. Some of the most memorable characters, include Walky, the surprisingly intelligent and attractive manchild who loves cartoons and fast food; Billie, a former head cheerleader who is coming to terms with her alcoholism and bisexuality while still getting the snarkiest of lines; Amber, an adorable computer nerd with some very dark secrets, and Dina, the resident dinosaur lover and ensemble dark horse. Willis depicts his character in a unique style that matches their personality starting with their eyes. Some characters like Walky, his sister Sal, and roommate Mike have black eyes while bespectacled characters like Dorothy or Amber have eyes like Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics. This similarity and difference in eye types adds subtle depth to relationships, like Danny initially falling for Amber because she has glasses like Dorothy, or Walky and Billie having different eye shapes, which hints at their antagonistic relationship despite knowing each other as children. I might be reading into this a little too much, but Willis’ iconic drawing style allows for readers to empathize and identify with characters from early on in the comic.
Unlike some other works of fiction (mainly on network television), Dumbing of Age isn’t afraid to explore the awkward, messy, and occasionally tragic realities of college. Sure, it’s peppered with silly jokes beginning with a bathroom gag on the first strip, but Willis also delves into problems that college students face from things like eating alone or social anxiety to even more serious things like Joyce being drugged at a party or a character assaulting “bad” people to come to grips with the pain in her life. Willis truly gets readers to laugh with characters during the good times and weep with them during the tough times, which comes from the depth he imbues them with. Over the course of thousands of strips centered around various themes and events, like getting a “family values” politician to speak at a gender studies class, the mystery of Amazi-Girl’s secret identity, or a character coming out of the closet, one gets to know these characters, who in a less empathetic creator’s hands, could be simply punchlines or a mean-spirited parody of millenials or college students of the 2010s.
In its world-building and expansive cast of characters, Dumbing of Age resembles the good ol’ days of The Simpsons, but with more serialization. David Willis gives each member of Dumbing of Age‘s ensemble unique interests and sense of humor along with their own hopes, fears, and flaws. His plotting is pretty decompressed, but with a daily schedule, that usually isn’t a problem, and the addition of superhero elements gives a little kick to the comic’s slice of life format. Dumbing of Age is a great comic for anyone who is currently a college student or remembers how hard (and fun) it was to be one.