Every online comics reader encounters college webcomics sooner or later. They’re so common you might start to feel like every third comic you encounter is college-based. But, despite the history and nature of college comics in print, it seems the most popular "college" strips are scarcely about college life at all, building instead on elements not found in the real world at all, much less college.
As anyone who’s been there could tell you, it wouldn’t be college if the campus newspaper didn’t feature a comic strip written by a college student telling the story of fictional college students at that self-same college. Even Doonesbury started this way. It should come as no surprise, then, that some webcomic creators would explore the same subject matter.
Of course, the audiences are different: successful college newspaper strips are aimed at students at the university, whereas successful college webcomics tend to be aimed at a web-wide audience. Where college newspaper strips often reference the contemporary goings-on at the university, such as critiquing a recent decision by the school administration, college webcomics instead tend to universalize – they aren’t set at any specific school or are set at a fictional one.
Very few comics appear to have successfully made the transition from college newspaper strips to college webcomics, perhaps due to this shift in audience. Typically, the author moves on to an entirely new strip after switching from the campus newspaper to the web. Even in the cases where the comic retains its identity, some changes are needed to make it accessible to a new audience; for example, in Kevin Pease’s strip Absurd Notions, the characters graduated from college at the same time the comic did, and the webcomic’s archive only extends back to the first online comic – the college-newspaper-era strips are kept in a separate online archive, complete with commentary explaining all the references the original audience would have known.
A college comic designed from the beginning as a webcomic typically avoids these "local" references, and instead draws on some of the many common experiences of students regardless of school. And many webcomics draw on the exact same elements. They often begin with freshmen moving into college for the first time. The primary locale is the dorm where they live – what other element could be more archetypical of the college experience? Roommates as buddies and protagonists, as in the original Roomies strips of David Willis’ It’s Walky series, likewise seems the norm; even when the roommates are College Roomies From Hell, they’re still more likely to be mutual protagonists rather than antagonists (much less literally from hell). Hallmates offer an extended cast, supply supporting characters or antagonists. Perhaps the RA makes an appearance, offering conflict as the sole authority figure outside of class.
In most college webcomics, like Maritza Campos’ CRFH, the focus is on interpersonal relationships and character development – at least at first. Freshmen are often away from home for the first time and exploring a whole new way of living and relating to other people, and the webcomics reflect that. Romances occur, terminate; the characters shuffle about in new combinations; each year the characters move up in their world while a bit of fresh meat arrives. Sure, there are romance or soap opera comics that aren’t set at college, but in college there’s often a novelty to the experience, and, for some, a "devil-may-care" attitude in the first few years which we see reflected in the comics. For example, the relationship aspects of Mike Rosenzweig’s Everything Jake are dominated, early on, by a "let’s get laid" mentality that is stereotypically collegiate–even if some people still have it later in life.
Of course, college is about more than simply living in a dorm and romancing the appropriate sex, and webcomics do feature college-related humor and plotlines, as well. College students have to register for classes; college students have to pick a major and then, naturally,
make fun of other majors. Theoretically, college students also have to attend classes. In practice, they don’t do so "on camera" very often. When they do, it’s usually to take a test for which they’re poorly prepared or to fall asleep while an instructor babbles meaningless gibberish. (Although we didn’t count just how rare classroom scenes are, you can get an idea by looking at this chart of character appearances from pnes. The most times any one character has been seen in class is in 15 out of 768 comics. Then again, pnes focuses on graduate students, not undergrads.)
But, rather curiously, the most common plot aspect to the comics discussed above is the introduction of fantasy elements unrelated to college life entirely. It’s as if the creators wanted to start introducing more interesting plots to their character-driven strips, and found the college environment too limiting. In Roomies, aliens show up quite early (a month in), but it’s basically a one-off joke until they return a year later. Early on in CRFH, Roger’s hand gets a life of its own, and there are several different supernatural occurrences. Four months into Everything Jake, things take a turn to the weird.
What’s more interesting is how all three of these comics eventually ended up with protagonists with super-hero-like powers: Roomies became It’s Walky, centered around the alien-fighting organization S.E.M.M.E.; the strangeness of Everything Jake eventually resolves into what appears to be the story of a character with psychic powers (as cloaked in mystery as it is, though, it’s hard to be sure); and CRFH‘s primary characters go on the now-famous Misery Journey, and come out the other side different than before. It’s tempting to write these outcomes off as simple power fantasies, no different from superhero comics, but there’s something more going on (especially since only one of the three CRFH characters, Dave, gets anything resembling a traditional superpower). College is a time of transition – of people preparing for the real world, learning to take responsibility for themselves and their own actions, of being independent. Not only do these themes show up time and time again in all of these comics throughout their run, but the whole "superpowers" aspect to the characters amplifies the themes by giving the characters more significant actions to take responsibility for and more significant choices to make as a consequence of their independence.
It’s worth mentioning T Campbell’s Fans!, a webcomic that is a college comic only in the loosest sense. In theory, the college setting is there, understood through the setting of the Science Fiction and Fandom club which serves as the glue that holds the entire series together; in practice, however, the ‘college life’ aspect is entirely ignored in favor of the wild action plots and intricate character development. In many ways, Fans!, with its sci-fi action story elements and the struggling interpersonal relationships, resembles the above three comics in their later stages. Fans! started out with the focus on fantasy storytelling that the other comics took some time to grow into.
It’s really no surprise that so many college webcomics begin with the students’ first day in the dorm or the first day of classes. It’s a natural starting point; the first day of the beginning of a new life for the students. But, just as real students will have to graduate into the "real world" and begin an entirely new life – one devoid of RAs and frat parties and instructors with thick accents – so too must college webcomics, or at least those that achieve long-term success, graduate from the confines of school life, moving on to a new world – often one with aliens, alternate dimensions, or just the same non-college "real world".
Sean Barrett is a contributor at large for the Comixpedia.