Animating Dumbing of Age
A while back, I attended the first-rate comic event that is the Small Press Expo (SPX) here in Maryland. It was a blast of a time even if I had to literally run around every single table and still manage to miss Alissa Harris in the process. Afterward, I wrote this blog post analysing why certain comics that I saw and/or read on the day and later were worthy of being animated. Here’s one I missed
Well, it isn’t fair to say I missed it entirely but suffice to say I regret not being able to delve further into it on the day. While it got an honourable mention in that original post, today, Dumbing of Age by David Willis gets a special upgrade. Not only does it deserve to be animated, but there are plenty of reasons why that is so too.
A college campus. The perfect setting for any kind of story really, but animation in general has shied away from campus life. The reasons could be debated all day but most likely come down to a combination of audience and style of humour. Anyone who’s seen the classic that is Animal House will agree that the antics that are usually prevalent on college campus’ aren’t, well, family friendly.
Dumbing of Age makes not pretence to family friendliness so that’s not a problem! A college campus provide plenty of prime story material, fodder for risque humour, and natural opportunities for character development. All of which the comic has in spades.
Creator David Willis’ style is spot on for translation to animation. It’s detailed, but not overly so; something to consider when planning production-scale levels of work. His style has evolved over the years and has improved in level of detail while retaining an aura of simplicity.
The use of backgrounds is another advantage and again, the setting of a college campus plays to the series’ benefit as backgrounds and sets are re-used multiple times. (Animation is, after all, famous for re-using backgrounds.)
Willis’ style would translate to animation so easily, it’s as if he were anticipating it. Plenty of animated series exist as proof that less really is more when it comes to detail; The Simpsons being by far the most obvious.
As mentioned above, Dumbing of Age makes no pretence at being aimed at kids. That’s fair enough; there’s a lack of good-quality adult animation and DoA could easily fill that void.
While the emphasis is on the characters (see below), the humour comes from the context and the scenarios that the characters are forced to interact with. While puns and jokes abound, we’re also treated to laughs through physical violence and plain old bad luck.
Dumbing of Age relies upon a brand of humour that is too high to be lowbrow and too low to be highbrow. It uses profanity sparingly but isn’t afraid to poke holes at weighty topics like religion, relationships or even alcoholism.
For that matter, love/sex plays a role in the comic, but is played for laughs as well as the complex character development it entails. Suffice to say that love and sex compliment the humour in Dumbing of Age in a way that many mainstream sitcoms can only dream of.
This is, for me, the meat and potatoes of what Dumbing of Age is about. While the setting of a university is a great setup, it’s nothing without characters to inhabit it! Willis has gathered numerous characters from his previous webcomics, Shortpacked! and Roomies, and has gifted them with a clean slate. The fun begins (as ever) on moving in day.
The cast themselves are a diverse group of characters and what makes DoA stand out a bit is that there isn’t a true protagonist. Joyce fills the role but only in a titular capacity. The core cast are given relatively equal amounts of story time for readers to follow along.
Appropriately enough for a diverse group, there are plenty of conflicting backgrounds and opinions which Willis explores (or exploits) to maximum effect. They’re all fundamentally flawed on some level too. Joyce is an eternally optimistc, home-schooled evangelical Christian undergoing the brutal exposure to college life and Billie is a former cheerleader but also an alcoholic.
The list goes on, but what’s great about DoA is all the friction the characters manage to cause for themselves and the hilarity that ensues. Willis keeps things fresh though so that even after Danny gets dumped and then almost beat up, a mysterious superheroine saves the day; thus leading to many more adventures.
Besides character traits, the cast themselves is relatively balanced. DoA is no Animal House so there are plenty of male and female characters in the main cast. Willis also deserves credit for including a true spectrum of characters in terms of religuous outlook, sexual orientation and ethnicity.
How Would It Work?
This is the tough question that appears easy at first sight. Any wag can say that Dumbing of Age is ready to be animated, but what form works best. A feature? Maybe, but none of the storylines are substantive enough for a self-contained feature.
A half hour show? Again, maybe, because the source material is capable of being used only as a base for an episodic show. In other words, a degree of effort would have to be made to make it more substantive. Think the addition of B plots, greater visual detail, and the necessary setups for each episode’s plot. Not to mention that a half hour show would require substantially more material than is available just to fill out a series.
A web series then? Absolutely! Web series’ such as Bravest Warriors have proven that short form content can provide both a continuity that’s followed by fans and a sustainable level of story that is much lower than that required for a half hour show.
Consider again my post about making and releasing a feature film one piece/scene at a time. Something like DoA would be a perfect sample/prototype for such a concept. Short scenes can be animated that:
- provide the necessary amount of entertainment
- move the over-arching story along at a decent pace
- can be made quickly, and therefore cheaply
- could eventually be edited together to create longer form content.
In addition, given that Dumbing of Age already has an audience, that means they are likely to watch an animated version too. I suspect that the existing audience also traverses demographic lines which is always helpful to being successful.
So there you have it. Do I regret not spending more time hanging around David Willis’ table at SPX? Sure I do, but thankfully the bookmark I picked up convinced me to seek this webcomic out, and I’m glad I did. It represents something that I would love to see get the animated treatment and in the right hands, it could be incredibly popular thanks to the combination of humour, story and a cracking cast of characters. Check it out for yourself!