Callum Waterhouse ’18/ Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
Story By T Campbell and Phil Khan
Art By Erica Henderson and John Waltrip
It may surprise many of you to learn that we critics actually enjoy being surprised. Oh, we like to act like we always know whether a story is going to live up to our expectations but no one really knows for sure.
This is not to say we like bad surprises. Nothing hurts worse than going into something expecting a good experience and have it turn bad. Conversely, however, those rare moments where something exceeds all expectations often prove to be the most memorable.
The Guilded Age, a fantasy webcomic written By T Campbell and Phil Khan, was never bad to begin with. It starts out looking like a fairly well-done “sword and sorcery” series. The early action scenes are brief and well-drawn, the characters are funny, and there is an amusing undercurrent of mocking tropes associated with fantasy role-playing games. All in all, it does not look too dissimilar from several other popular, self-aware fantasy webcomics, such as The Order of the Stick.
But once you get a few chapters in, The Guilded Age proves that it has so much more going for it. Once you are done peeling back every layer of the story, you will probably find yourself going back to page one to check to see if you missed something.
If you are going to embark on this quest, a quick content warning should come first. While the creative team behind The Guilded Age has strived to keep this comic at “safe for work” levels, bear in mind that they only just miss the NSFW rating in nearly every category. There is cursing, partial nudity, implied sexual acts and, in some chapters, quite a bit of blood. None of this detracts from the story, but it is something to keep in mind if other people can see your screen.
If you are one of those people who hate any kind of spoilers, do not read anything else about this comic. Do not go read what other people have written about this comic. Do not even go look at the ‘about’ tab on the official website. Just go to chapter one and start reading. This is one series where the experience really changes when you go in cold, and The Guilded Age is one of the few comics good enough to simply say “start reading now” with no other caveats. For those still interested in the rest of this review, it will be devoid of spoilers, but some others who have written about this comic have been less careful. You have been warned.
As stated above, things start off simply enough. The Guilded Age is the story of a ragtag group of six unlikely friends who band together to go on adventures. The first six chapters intersperse flash forwards to the team’s various (mis)adventures with the story of how this particular fellowship came together. This style does a nice job of keeping the setup from dragging down the pace of the all too pedestrian origin story. Once the first proper myth-arc begins in chapter seven, the nonlinear style is abandoned entirely for something more straightforward.
Part of the reason the story is able to click along so comfortably is that it boasts one of the best casts in recent memory. Each of the various party members consists of the usual archetypes that should be immediately familiar to anyone who has played a fantasy role-playing game or read any of the works that inspired them. This includes heroes like the tomboyish human-tank Frigg, gnome thief and lovable rogue Bandit Keyes, and the grumpy dwarf cleric, Gravedust Desterthammer. However, like all other aspects of the comic, the cast often involves deliberate parodies and subversions of the same tropes it occasionally played straight. For example, the axe-welding human berserker, Byron Hackenslasher, is actually a brilliant strategist. The nature loving wood elf, Syr’Nj, is actually a genius inventor who fights using science. The most brilliant subversion of all, though, would have to be Payet Best, an elven bard who completely abuses his status as ‘the chosen one’ every chance he gets.
So, once chance brings our band of misfits together, they embark on the usual set of quests that you would expect from this type of setting; rescuing children, outsmarting evildoers, battling monsters, etcetera. Eventually, the plot starts to take on a grander scale, and our band of adventurers find themselves caught up in a war between the various non-human races and the ruling forces of this world. Blood is spilt, loyalties are tested and this team of outcasts and misfits soon realize that they are this world’s only hope for survival.
Except they aren’t, because no one is what they seem. Even when you think you know the full scope of this conflict there are still things happening on a layer no one is aware of. It may seem like we are being unnecessarily obtuse, but it is very difficult to talk about why the plot works so well without dropping any major spoilers. Needless to say, when the actual reveal arrives, the entire comic takes on a new meaning and you will find yourself searching through the previous pages to spot all of the clues that have been lying right in front of you.
With all of this talk of the writing and the story, it is easy to forget how much of this comic would not work without the art of Erica Henderson and John Waltrip. As stated before, this fantasy story occasionally treads some very familiar territory. Henderson and Waltrip’s art is what helps make these worlds feel unique. There is a strong sense of composure in many of the pages, which means that no matter how many characters or actions are happening at once, the reader always has a clear sense of where everything is in relation to one another. This is a difficult skill to master, but it is essential if one is attempting to do an action comic with a cast of this size.
The use of color in The Guilded Age is also quite brilliant. The artists use color to set mood and to create a sense of place. The choices of color also help distinguish characters and places in the moments where the reader may have gotten lost. Add this to the brilliant character design that gives each main character a unique silhouette and the end result is a feast for the eyes that is every bit the equal of the brilliant writing.
The way this comic can move you is an act of sorcery unto itself. What right does a little webcomic about elves and gnomes have to know more about war than most documentaries on the subject? How have these writers managed to work one of the most honest and believable romances in recent memory into a story about ghosts and magic? Is The Guilded Age a funny, genre comic about fantasy tropes, or a grand epic about mankind’s greatest strengths?
But that is just it. That is the magical part. It is both.