Joyce is beginning her freshman year at Indiana University after being homeschooled her entire life. She promises her best friend that she won’t let the secular school change her, but as she meets the members of her co-ed dorm – bitter roommate Sarah, academic achiever atheist Dorothy, dinosaur obsessed Dina, self-destructive cheerleader Billie, juvenile delinquent Sal, literal superhero Amber and many more – how can she not.
Dumbing of Age, as the title suggests is a coming of age webcomic written and drawn by David Willis. While Joyce is the lynchpin of the comic, the comic is really an ensemble piece jumping between the interconnected lives of these freshmen.
Dumbing of Age and its creator have an interesting history. If you’ve been reading comics on the internet for any amount of time, you’ve probably head of David Willis before. His first webcomic, Roomies, started in 1997. 1997! That’s practically prehistoric by internet standards. Roomies was also about college roommates and went on to spawn three spinoffs: It’s Walky, Joyce and Walky, and Shortpacked. These comics feature Joyce, Sal, Amber and other characters found in Dumbing of Age, because Dumbing of Age is a sort of Marvel-Style Ultimate universe for all of Willis’s characters. While it’s fascinating to see a creator strip down the characters (some he created almost 20 years ago), re-contextualize them, and approach their relationships with more maturity, Dumbing of Age works perfectly as a stand alone piece. (NB: I’ve personally only read It’s Walky and I enjoyed it greatly, and it shines light on some meta jokes and ironies in DoA, but it is an epic archive crawl, so be prepared).
It would be impossible (or at least deeply ill-advised) to summarize every plot thread in Dumbing of Age. Each chapter of the comic revolves around one day and jumps between different characters’ adjacent plot lines. These stories range in tone and subject matter but all feel a part of the same universe. Even the most out-there story line, in which shy computer geek Amber runs around as literal-superhero Amazigirl works out her aggression and past trauma – still feels plausible when next door Sarah is struggling to be personable again after a bad roommate experience in her first year turned her into a misanthrope. There are also a ton of interconnected romance plots for you love-dodecahedron fans. These romances range from causal to committed, healthy to poisonous, straight to gay – but they’re all about showing kids growing up due to the influence of others, which is really what Dumbing of Age is about.
Willis is very upfront about how autobiographical Dumbing of Age is. He grew up in a religious household similar to Joyce’s and a lot of her beliefs and experiences are ripped from his life. Because of this, Joyce is a rare character in liberal fiction: a sympathetic evangelical. Many of Joyce’s ideas about gender, sexuality and science are seen as wrong headed, she’s never a monster, and her faith is tied into her many good qualities – her kindness, compassion and optimism. So many stories portray intolerance as an on/off switch, but Joyce is someone who’s still learning. Coming of age stories are all about a person finding out how to change without loosing yourself. This is reflected in all the characters stories, for example Billie is a character who thought she was had it all figured out, but when she’s put in a new environment without her social position, her self confidence dissolves dangerously and she has to regain her sense of self without becoming the selfish person she was in highschool. Joyce’s story is the most dramatic variation on this theme, because of how extreme her upbringing was. She presented with situations daily that test all her previously held ideas, and has to adapt without loosing her convictions. I don’t want to paint Dumbing of Age as an uber-serious drama. There’s a bunch of silliness and humor with some flamboyant side characters and good gags. It’s in strip format, which lends itself to punch line or a gut punch as the last panel.
Dumbing of Age isn’t a comic about making the right decisions, but about changing, slowly and painfully, so you can make the right and smart decisions later. It updates every day, which is crazy.