Aging video game webcomics are fascinating, as tastes and opinions change as the creator gets older. Perhaps with the pressures of work and family, he or she doesn’t have the luxury of investing so much time into playing all the latest releases. The writer, then, needs to find a new angle to keep things interesting. For instance, Tim Buckley of Ctrl+Alt+Del made waves some time ago by eliminating his main cast and focusing on color-coded players who’d only appeared in gag strips.
Debuting in 2006, Scott DeWitt’s Fanboys is one of the many webcomics that seemed to appear in the wake of the explosive popularity of Penny Arcade. The setup is familiar: two guys and a girl sitting on a couch with controllers clutched in their hands. Each character was even a hardcore fan of a specific console; the childlike Lemmy played Nintendo, the grouchy Paul played Playstation, and the cheerful (yet aggressively competitive) Sylvia preferred Xbox. The three even exclusively wore clothes of their gaming system … which was the chief defining point of their characterizations. This was a Penny Arcade clone, after all, which means random humor, violence and a rude disrespect for authority.
Flash forward to today: The updates are more sparse, as if DeWitt knows that the glory of being the next Penny Arcade has passed him by, and the characters are now wearing relatively normal outfits, as the days of gamer loyalty have passed them by (with some exceptions). Jokes are now about what to call bouncy castles. Serioustalk, y’all — Fanboys has gotten all dads up. (DeWitt himself would likely be the first person to admit this.)
That extends to the storytelling, which has moved beyond dudes comically getting their heads blown up to characters struggling with midlife crises. Seriously! 2012’s “Red Letter Day” finds Sylvia, the hardcore Xbox advocate, dissatisfied with her day job. Her anxieties fuel a dream journey that’s inked, colored and composed like a Spümcø cartoon. There’s some violence here, but compared to early Fanboys it’s almost zenlike: When Paul suddenly stomps on the brakes, Sylvia smashes her head on the dash. Her nose bleeds; blood stains her face and her palms. Paul smugly dismisses it, saying, “Lemmy, tell her she’s beautiful.”
Sylvia has reached a mental breaking point. After quitting her job in a fit of fury, she gets a break when the boys decide to buy her a toy store that she has fond memories of as a kid. She uses the building to follow her dreams by turning it into a video game store.
It’s similar to a Ctrl+Alt+Del development that ran before Buckley rebooted the series: Ethan takes ownership of a video game store after a typically wacky deus ex machina where the owner simply hands over the deed. Perhaps Fanboys is simply mimicking other gaming comics again? If it is, I’d like to think Fanboys is the one that’s doing the story right.
What sets Fanboys apart is the story’s tone. It’s not about being a child forever, but about the pains of growing up. “Red Letter Day” is melancholy and reflective … with an almost Lynchian flavor. In her dreams, Sylvia’s boyfriend is a shirtless, musclebound hunk, and Paul is killed repeatedly. Then, in the real world, the first customer inexplicably is a giant with bloodstained money. Is it a video game reference? Maybe it is! But I prefer being a little in the dark and imagining this scene as a strange nonsequitur that confidently strides the line between creepiness and comedy.
If you’re not a big gamer, the big reason to be reading Fanboys is DeWitt’s emphasis on rendering silly faces. He succeeds in silent moments that are a study in conveying a story through contorted facial expressions: bulgy eyes, curled lips, flared nostrils. The same image gets repeated so we can see one face’s slow motion transformation. It’s a conscious statement that seems to say, “This may be a comic about video games, but I care about the art of cartooning, too.”