Graduation Day: College Comics Cum Webcomics by Sean Barrett

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.


  1. I’m surprised you didn’t mention, a strip primarily centered on dorm life. The characters had a stylistic break through awhile ago so you can say they’ve grown up a little in that respect. Makes you wonder what’s supposed to happen when the characters graduate, though.

    I created my strip in reaction to the school newspaper’s comic. I only brought it online after getting turned down sight unseen by an editor (The one I later learned to be the sister of the regular cartoonist.) because they didn’t have room for a comics page. We’ll see how that goes when I get back from my year at the art institute. Anyway, my characters are based a little on myself, and about half of them came from a story I wrote freshman year about high school kids. I’m not sure how things will work out with them in the future, but I’d just like to keep them in college, kinda like the Peanuts gang staying in elementary school forever. But then again, I don’t usually stick with college-only humor, anyway. I usually go for all-around humor about different subjects.

  2. Ooo, am I supposed to take offense to that? Ya know, just because something’s on Keenspace does NOT make it lame. (Capitals for emphasis are a good thing.) RPGWorld started on ‘space and moved up to Keenspot. Reslife has a pretty decent fan base, and it’s specifically about college, so it’s relevant to the article. I only mentioned my strip because of the college tie in. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to be pestered by people who can’t type well on message boards now. Haranged Man AWAY!

  3. It might seem like I chose comics to support the thesis I had and omitted ones that didn’t serve it, but in truth the list of comics came first and the thesis came after I looked at them.

    I considered two sets of comics for this: those I was already familiar with (since I wouldn’t need to read the entire archives), or those I could find online that seemed like they had a reasonable readership. Unfortunately, there’s no accurate way of knowing the readership of an arbitrary webcomic, and given a list of thousands of comics, no way to be sure whether any given one involves college.

    So the research phase involved asking friends about comics they’d heard of, and going through “best of” sorts of lists (both personal and internet-voting-based) that in theory reflected readership. I also clicked on every Keenspot comic that looked from the tiny image like it might possibly involve college-age characters. Googling found bunches, but the ones I tried all turned out to consist of only ten or fifteen strips.

    For whatever reason, Residence Life didn’t make it onto my radar (in fact, I’d never heard of it, I think, until I saw it on the intro to the David M. Willis interview here–which was after I’d written the article). I’m curious what I would have done with it given that it doesn’t fit my thesis, but there are all sorts of ways to interpret it–all sorts of distinctions one could make. (Not every comic I did mention fits the thesis, either.)

  4. Um, what exactly was the thesis, anyway? That strips about college life usually only last for a short period of time and go from there? That’s reasonable, considering many of the people who produce said comics are in college themselves and simply write about their suroundings. But that doesn’t seem to fit to any strips by adults that take place in elementary school or even before that. Really, you could say that most comic creators pull influences from their own surroundings for their strips. Peanuts, as I said before, continually kept it’s characters young. This provided an interesting contrast from the adult speech and situtations the kids went through. Calvin and Hobbes also did this, and it’s an interesting effect to see adult troubles mirrored through the eyes of a kid.

    Most artists are just looking for something to feel comfortable around. I guess that also explains why so many high school comics are written by high school kids and so many work place strips are written by people who’ve actually held a job or two. Can anybody really picture Penny Arcade being set from an old folks’ home (a la Crankshaft) or from a simple child’s mind like in Family Circus? It’d be a hoot, I’m sure, but it probably wouldn’t last more than a few strips. There’s no telling where it may go as it’s creators get older themselves, though.

  5. Building 12 can be good too, if you’re talking about College strips. Probably the most stereotypical college strip I’ve seen, but I get a good laugh out of it.

  6. Can anybody really picture Penny Arcade being set from an old folks’ home

    Actually, my friends and I have frequently joked about what old folk’s homes will be like in the future. I know I wouldn’t want to be in one that didn’t have a high-speed LAN for gaming, for crissakes! I can easily picture the posted announcement of “Retro Day” (I was going to say “Nite” but, hey, we’d be retired… why wait until night to start?) with a big co-op multi session of Doom 4 as the featured event… 😉

  7. gee whiz.





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