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A World of Fantasy

Fantasy webcomics this month, is it? A large topic.

And we can make it even bigger. I mean, depending on how technical you wanna get, all fiction is fantasy. It's stuff that never happened, at any rate, and that's as basic a definition of fantasy as I can think of.

The entirety of fiction, however, is a bit much to handle in an eleven hundred word essay on webcomics, so let's focus a bit.

First, let's exclude those comics that have only a minor fantasy element like, say, Jeph Jacques's Questionable Content -- I remember it had a little robot guy, but I've never read past the first few months of archives, so I don't know if he's still in the cast -- or Ryan Smith's Funny Farm -- Smith has said his talking animal characters aren't really animals, so it's his robots, too, that I'll call his fantasy element. Or I would call them that if I weren't excluding strips of this sort.

Of course, some might call robots a science-fictional element rather than a fantasy one, but science-fiction's just a subset of fantasy, really. Take our universe, alter a few of the physical laws, and bingo: you have blaster rifles, faster-than-light starships, the assorted aliens, artificial intelligences and genetically-modified animals you find in strips like Howard Tayler's Schlock Mercenary, Zortic by Mark Mekkes, Tara Tallen's Galaxion or John Stanley's Freefall, things that are at the least highly unlikely and at the most absolutely impossible. Which sounds like fantasy to me.

But SF really does have a separate set of processes and procedures, and besides, we did SF comics around here back in April...

And let's discard journal comics, too, even though the argument could be made that comics from John Campbell's stringent Hourly Comics through Jennie Breeden's largely-autobiographical The Devil's Panties to Raina Telgemeier recounting memories of her childhood in Smile are closer to fiction than non-fiction since the view of reality they present has been specially selected by the cartoonist.

After all, when I read a journal comic, what I want to see is a slice of life filtered through the author's mind and the artist's pen, not a dry report concerning the facts of the cartoonist's day to day existence. So an argumentative person could say that this filtering process -- ruminating, honing, maybe even reimagining a situation -- requires the tools of fiction. Which would make journal comics just another form of fantasy.

But that way lies madness, and besides, the world of fantasy on the web is big enough without us stuffing all these other kinds of comics into it. I mean, consider the traditional type with elves and fairies and wizards and the like lobbing spells and slinging swords at one another. Just letting my fingers type webcomic titles, I come up with Ian Jones-Quartey's RPG World -- nice to see pages there again recently! -- Sarah Ellerton's Inverloch, No Rest for the Wicked by Andrea Peterson, even Ralph Hayes Jr.'s Tales of the Questor, the comic I wrote about last month.

Throw in some well-known titles like Rich Burlew's Order of the Stick and Brian Clevinger's 8-Bit Theater and some not-so-well-known ones like Laura Wilson's Five Star and The Return of Dr. Dragonwagon by Marilyn Scott-Waters, and it emerges pretty clearly that, while each of these strips puts its own spin on the concept of traditional fantasy, the concept itself is popular enough to support more webcomics than any sane person could possibly read. Too many to deal with here, certainly.

Fantasy in a modern setting, then, like Eric Burns's late, lamented Gossamer Commons, or the city-dwelling dragon people in Casey Young's Altermeta? That might work, but, well, even with that, I wouldn't feel right without considering one of the largest fantasy tropes in webcomics: talking animal characters.

But where to start there? Just off the top of my head, I can list David Simpson's Ozy and Millie, Jonathan Sario's Fuzzy Things, Faux Pas by Robert & Margaret Carspecken, and Heather Riesen's A Fierce Bad Rabbit, all of them featuring talking animals in a modern-day setting but otherwise quite diverse. So we'll narrow it a bit more by requiring the talking animals characters to interact on equal terms with humans, and the webcomic I finally come up with for this month is Room for One More.

It's a four-panel, black and white serial that manages a punchline in nearly every strip while still advancing the overall storyline: a young woman arrives in a new town to attend college and moves into a rooming house filled with eccentric characters. The young woman, Fnaire Antbear, happens to be an anthropomorphic anteater, and the rooming house, a structure that looks three stories tall but is actually a bit more spacially complex than that, is run by Frye Opossum, who worked as a Closet Monster until she inherited the house and untold billions of dollars from an uncle she never knew she had.

The set-up allows for school humor and stories--Fnaire and some of the other female characters start a successful football team on campus--for roommate humor and stories -- Aroma the skunk manages to create a killer pot roast in the house's kitchen -- even for work and kid-based humor and stories -- Frye babysits for a lot of the neighborhood families. With so many species of talking animals and humans as well, the strip comments on multi-cultural societies a la Bill Holbrook's Kevin & Kell, and the dimension-bending house lets the characters wander into the Land of Puns, discover long-lost shopping malls, or visit the dinosaurs living in the attic.

Even when the author wants to explore his conservative political views and religious beliefs, he usually does a pretty good job of integrating them into the story and the characters. I haven't felt the Truncheon of Truth raining down upon me too heavily, at least, in the 4 or 5 years I've been reading the comic. The archives have a few bugs in them -- no anteater jokes, please -- but they're well worth the trip.

There is, however, one more level of fantasy that tipped the balance toward me writing about this strip: the credits on the main page read "by Oren Otter with Eala Dubh, created by Brittany Greatbear." All these names are pseudonyms--as I understand it, the strip was originally written and drawn by one guy, and he then brought in another guy to draw the new strips and re-draw the old ones. Still, I can't help but think of Peter Steiner's New Yorker cartoon about nobody on the internet knowing you're a dog. It's all one big fantasy world on the web, when you get right down to it...