The Webcomic Overlook #148: Guilded Age
So what am I playing on my Xbox these days? Most recently, I’ve been working my way through Dragon Age: Origins, BioWare’s spiritual follow-up to its Baldur’s Gate roots. Yeah, yeah, I know the game’s be out pretty much forever, but I’m sorta patient like that: wait for a game to be out for a year or two, then pick it up for cheap on eBay.
Anyway, the game’s got me incredibly hooked, reminding me much of my incredibly anti-social habits when I picked up CRPG’s in the first place. Going to bed late. Sneaking in a quick game before heading out for work. Hanging around message board forums to discuss the incredibly similarities between this game and Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. Actually finishing Eye of the World and finally getting past the prologue to The Great Hunt. Getting disappointed stares from my wife for wasting time on video games and/or bringing a reading light to bed so I can read a paperback.
In other words, great times. Great times.
So, while on this fantasy high, I sought out a fantasy comic steeped deep in the high fantasy of the Tolkien tradition. I’m talking elves, dwarves, epic quests, medieval castles, and the like with traditional comic-style artwork. Stick figures, a la Order of the Stick, and pixel art weren’t going to do it for me. Neither were manga/anime interpretation. I have nothing against them. It’s just that that style, the artwork, plots, mood, and mopey protagonists are almost always lifted from Final Fantasy. When you’re on a Dragon Age/Wheel of Time binge, that ain’t gonna feed my fantasy jones.
Fortunately, I ran into Guilded Age. The webcomic was written by veteran scribe T Campbell (who I interviewed here and who wrote, among many other things, Penny & Aggie, which I reviewed here) and Phil Kahn and illustrated by Erica Henderson and John Waltrip. I imagine that these creators — or T Campbell at least — were inspired by the very same Dragon Age game. After all, it follows a similar plot line: a group of individuals from several different backgrounds band together to form an alliance that will, in the end, save the kingdom.
That, and the fact that some of the characters collect XBox achievement points.
As you may have guessed, Guilded Age is not a serious take on high fantasy. The dialogue is peppered with “humorously anachronistic” modern references that have no place in a fantasy world, such as lyrics to a contemporary song or modern lingo (typically spoken by the foul-mouthed, feisty female warrior type who is surprisingly not named “Aggie”). One character even wields a weapon that is a combination battle axe and electric guitar. (A reference to the World of Warcraft April Fool’s Day joke, maybe?) And there’s a race of half-men, half-sharks that make it pretty impossible to take this comic with any modicum of seriousness.
This is probably going to be a dealbreaker for some people. Is it corny? You betcha. Are jokes oftentimes groanworthy, especially when they look like they’ll be outdated in about three months’ time? Yes they do. Yet, the way T Campbell writes, it’s so full of spirit and bonhomie that you sorta smile despite yourself.
The title comes from a portmanteau of both “The Gilded Age,” which was the post-Civil War era in US history, and guilds, those ubiquitous career-based country clubs in RPGs. Appropriately, while the fantasy trappings suggest the European Middle Ages, they also suggest the dawn of the Industrial Age and the American Wild West. You know, if China hadn’t been around to impart that awesome gunpowder technology. Hell, our main character carries around two axes like a couple of six shooters. There’s one major superpower in Gastonia, which isn’t your traditional monarchy but is rather a sort of libertarian society where the ones who make the rules are the ones who produce — a mirror of the US when the Trusts ruled the land. Meanwhile, new technologies, specifically flying machines, are emerging — shifting the balance of power and shaking up the ancient ways. The different races of Arkerra can no longer ignore each other.
Our group of explorers are the Expendables of their fantasy realm. Like pretty much every other fantasy group ever assembled, the team consists of a cross section of races and occupations available. There’s Byron the Berzerker, human berzerker, neutral good; Syr’Nj, wood elf field medic, lawful good; Frigg Akerfeldt, human crusader, chaotic neutral; Gravedust Deserthammer, dwarf mystic, true neutral; Payet Best, elf virtuoso, chaotic neutral; and Bandit Keynes, gnome thief, chaotic neutral. Eventually, one of these characters leaves the team midway through the webcomic, which I won’t spoil here.
Initially, the story is split into two different plotlines set in two different time periods. The first few pages of each chapter consist of vignettes that take place in “present time,” where the team has already come together and are fighting werewolves and holding negotiations and such. The juxtaposition of the two story lines don’t always work, by the way. I didn’t figure out what Team Guilded Age was going for until Chapter Three. Maybe a visual version of the Lost-style “Whooooossssssshhhhh”, perhaps. Fortunately, it’s not too difficult to catch on to the technique and properly sync up with the story proper.
The remainder, which form a more continuous narrative, takes place in the past. We start with the origin stories of each individual member, the day they met each other, and their first mission together. They each have their own reasons for adventuring. Gravedigger, for example, is the last of the dwarven mystics, and he’s on a personal quest to heal bridges between his dwarven folks and humans despite his own prejudices. Syr’Nj, a master of steampunk devices, in naturally curious about the new technologies in this brave new world and doesn’t feel at ease with her own people and their xenophobic attitudes toward other races. Bandit, meanwhile, seems to have an as-yet-revealed ulterior motive for sticking around. As fate would have it, the characters are drawn together by a crazy set of coincidences, and before you know it they’re one their way to rescue some kidnapped children.
Eventually, their activities catch the eye of the high muckety-mucks in Gastonia, the Parliament of Nine Houses which is our aforementioned collection of Trusts. They need diplomats who can convey not only the country’s willingness to negotiate but also its awesome military might. (Gastonia … F**k YEAH!) Eventually, our humble group of adventurer find their mayhem to be government sanctioned as they are christened the Gastonian Peacemakers.
There’s also a little romance in there, consisting mainly of shy glances and adorable blushing which I’m not really a fan of. Now admittedly I was sorta rooting for these two to get together at the beginning. (I mean, who doesn’t pair the nerdy girl with the goodhearted guy type? It is shipper law!) However, they seem out of character when they get together. Plus, both look to be too old for these schoolyard games. But I’ll go ahead and chalk that up to me being a cynical hipster.
Erica Hendersen’s art, by the way, is charming, distinctive, and full of character. Half the fun of Guilded Age are the lovingly rendered reaction shots. I just love how expressive their faces are. Ms. Hendersen depicts a cornucopia of emotions and visual humor from her depictions of big bug eyes and thin lips.
I love the character designs, too. You know how some artists can fall into a trap of having all women look the same except for the hair style? (i.e., the Betty and Veronica Syndrome.) Definitely not the case with Guilded Age. The individuality extends from the unique facial ticks to the different body types. One one hand, you have Syr’Nj: as an elf, she is tall, wiry, and sometimes graceful. And on the other hand, there’s Frigg: she’s the team’s tank, is drawn with a rounded face and a stocky body, suggesting raw power and routine physical training. The style doesn’t sacrifice her femininity, though: when called to put on a dress, she cleans up nice … yet artistic touches representing their character remain. (In Frigg’s case, her ever present sneer.)
So, given that I appreciate Hendersen’s artwork so much, I was more than a little apprehensive that she’s no longer the regular artist. John Waltrip took over as of November 2010. T Campbell, though, is pretty lucky when scoring replacement artists. Granted, Waltrip’s art tends to be less … malleable. By that I mean that the faces lose some of the fantastic emotional range present Hendersen’s illustrations.
However, I did notice big improvement in the action sequences, which I thought weren’t one of Ms. Hendersen’s strong points. When Byron finally unleashes his berzerker rage, there’s a palpable sense of power and danger. When his attacks connect, I almost felt like wincing instinctively. Despite my high regard of Ms. Hendersen’s art, I think Guided Age is in good hands.
The coloring deserves a huge shout out as well. (EDITOR’S NOTE: A previous version of this review incorrectly attributed the coloring to Phil Kahn. This was an error on my part and has since been rectified.) Coloring is one of those things that often gets ignored in webcomics, given the lackluster (oftentimes Flash-based) efforts of the founding fathers in the genre’s early days. But, in Gilded Age, the colors are absolutely essential in setting the mood. Ms. Hendersen’s colors resembled the appearance of inks on parchment paper. As a result, the colors suggest warmth, mysticism, sometimes solitude. Mr. Waltrip, on the other hand, comes with a color field that appears more solidified and visceral. He sticks to a yellow, red, and orange palette for the latter half of Chapter 8, and, as a result, the comic feels more urgent, sickly.
Overall, though, the comic is fairly light on plot and cruises on the likability of its characters. So while the comic is not necessarily the antidote to feed the Dragon Age/Wheel of Time void in my life, it is pretty fun. It’s got a lot of action, silly characters, great art, and a solid creative team. I’ll probably check in on this comic from time to time. Meanwhile, I’ll be over here, trying to plow my way through the really stilted dialogue of Robert Jordan’s The Great Hunt and pretending that books 3 through 14 don’t exist yet.
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Posted on January 21, 2011, in 4 Stars, action webcomic, adventure webcomic, fantasy webcomic, The Webcomic Overlook, WCO Big Review, webcomics and tagged Guilded Age, T. Campbell. Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.