An ode to video game webcomics
Let us pause for a moment to sing the praises of videogame webcomics.
You think me mad?
Think me foolish for reflecting on comics that fall back on cheap gags, like funny drawings of a fat Italian stereotype in a red jumpsuit? I reassure you, my fellows, no merry jest-maker am I!
Think back, if you will, of the decade long ago fondly called the aughts. Back in 2005, something rather incredible happened. People dared to call video games by the “a” word: “art.” It started, as most things do, with a review of the movie Doom. Roger Ebert, the doyen of movie critics, answered a follow-up question about why he didn’t consider video games to be art.
That led to some back and forth whining and the kernel for an entire philosophical inquiry: what are the parameters of art? And do video games fall within those parameters? A simple remark grew into the modern version of the Dadaist movement. All of the sudden, gamers demanded that their hobby be place on the same pedestal as Andy Warhol and Dave Brubeck.
In the aftermath, video games, perhaps, became art … but not exactly how either party imagined what form that evolution would take. Now, I’m not here to settle the debate. Nor do I think that the average gamer particularly cares if Final Fantasy VII is enshrined in a museum at some point with an accompanying plaque written by a stuffy curator. However, when an entire industry is on the cusp of respectability, why aren’t video games portrayed in mass media beyond the obvious, superficial digs?
Despite the lofty aspirations, video games remain the spat-upon, low society, brain damaged, overstimulated, illiterate, friendless, forever adolescent, redheaded stepchild of the multimedia world. It’s a world forever drenched in the sweet Clearasil aroma of male adolescence. When the most prominent game these days features a scene where you can bash Hercules’ face into a bloody mess… well, make your own conclusions as to who that was aimed for.
At the same time, video games are more ubiquitous than ever before. There have been incredible strides to attract women and the elderly (traditional bastions of non-gamers). The average age of video gamers is a nice hale 35 years old and 68 percent of American households have video games. Oh, sure, a lot of that is probably skewed by the Wii and grandma playing nothing more than Wii bowling… but it still counts.
Yet who speaks the language of the gamers? Niche magazines like EGM and online sites like IGN, the G4 Network before it became a series of Cops re-runs and Extenze commercials…
… and yes, webcomics, which embraced the video game culture whole-heartedly and without judgment. In a way, video games and webcomics are like-minded kin. The world of digital comics, back then, was the ignored, ugly kid brother of the world of comic books (itself the ignored, ugly kid brother of the publishing world). No one in their right mind could imagine a videogame-themed comic succeeding either under the umbrella of a print publisher. Even a video game-themed indie comic sounds way too niche.
But on the web? Anything’s possible.
So, in a way, webcomics were perfect for gamers. Gamers were already among the top percentile of proficiency with the world wide web. Game forums were perfect for sharing favorite strips. Gamers are already geared toward the visual medium.
And these webcomics spoke their language: cultivating their own pop culture library of first-person shooters and MMORPGs; tapping into the new nostalgia of Bioshock, Baldur’s Gate II, and Banjo Kazooie; playing up the console wars while cultivating the forbidden allure of the girl gamer.
These webcomics are filled to the brim with in-jokes, some absolute head-scratchers to anyone unfamiliar with the content. Ultimately, they’re about socially-inept losers… But they’re our losers, goddammit. Self-aware losers who laugh off the quirks of there obsessions because, ultimately, they know what they like… and what they like is a good challenge, fabulous controls, and the thrill of victory.
While the rest of the world were telling them that they were pale-skinned shut-ins for playing video games so much, webcomics were there to assure you that, hey, playing games is fun, complaining about games is fun, talking about old games is fun … and, hey, you’re not alone.
Part of the reason why superheroes became the popular comic genre is because comics were the only place where one could find superheroes. I imagine the same is true for fans of video game humor. Outside of the rare WoW-themed South Park episode, Attack of the Show skit, or crude Flash webtoons, webcomics are the only place in the world where you could find video game humor. The format fits.
It’s true: a lot of video game webcomics are downright awful. A huge downside is that these webcomics, by nature, are as awkwardly adolescent as the industry that spawned them. More often than not, the “heroes” of these webcomics are misanthropic man-children. Despite being written by 30-somethings, the characters still swear as if they just discovered bad words. The creators rail with impotent and petulant range at those who would deny them video games, inflating tiny issues into an attack on their civil liberties.
But, really, are they any worse than the worst that any other webcomic genre can give you?
And for many, video game webcomics are a gateway. You come in looking for the videogame humor, but you come out with a new appreciation toward the webcomic format. I have seen forums devoted to sharing video game webcomics (often to laugh at them in the ways the creators never intended) evolve into general webcomic discussions where fans begin to share higher quality works. Video game webcomics transform gamers into webcomic fans.
Now, webcomic creators aren’t Archie Andrews. Eventually, they grow out of their adolescence. As they grow up, so do their webcomics. PvP dropped video games some time ago to turn into an office drama/Garfield hybrid. Ctrl+Alt+Del became more a comic about sensitive family issues. 8-Bit Theater is in the process of wrapping up, its creator more interested in working on far more critically acclaimed projects. Penny Arcade may be one of last of the old guard left following its original mission statement. They have to: it’s central as that is to Gabe and Tycho’s emergent media fiefdom.
But even without them, there are still plenty to take their place: Virtual Shackles, Brawl in the Family, Awkward Zombie, Nerf Now!!, Crazy Buffet, Another Videogame Webcomic, Of Noobs and Men, Digital Unrest, 2P Start… just to name a few.
As long as there are video games, there will be video game webcomics.
Long live video game webcomics.
NOTE: Yeah, I know that was not, technically, an ode. That’s what I get for having “Ode to a Grecian Urn” stuck in my mind while writing this. Curse you, Jeopardy! If you feel so inclined to compose an actual ode, though… well, I won’t stop you.