Wednesday, July 19, 2023

John Kovalic is the Charles Schulz of gamer comics

Bundle of Holding (not to be confused with Humble Bundle lol) recently had a Dork Tower bundle. Which, of course, encourages me to contemplate John Kovalic’s Dork Tower. Because I am nothing if not predictable lol

Man, Dork Tower got started back into 1997. The world of gaming and the world of geek culture and the world in general were a different place back then.
Yes, I feel old.

(When did Knights of the Dinner Table get started? 1990? Now I feel really old)

As you probably know just as well as me, Dork Tower is a comic strip about a group of gamers and their friends. That describes a frightening number of comic strips due to the ‘write what you know’ philosophy. That said, between longevity and overall quality, Dork Tower stands out.

In fact, while there was a gap between me falling away from gaming magazines (and gaming magazines even existing) and discovering Dork Tower’s presence as a web comic, I’ve actually been steadily reading it for a big chunk of its existence. Which hasn’t been the case for Knights of the Dinner Table.

And I think the reason I have stuck with Dork Tower, sometimes without even realizing it, is that it is fundamentally sweet and charming. Knights of the Dinner Table reminds me of gamers I have known. I don’t think I’ve met anyone as nice as as the Dork Tower cast, although I have shared some of Igor’s bad habits. (It must be mine!)

That said, I have always found Dork Tower’s earlier portrayal of gamers and such as a marginalized group uncomfortable, even as an obvious satire. There’s too many actually marginalized groups out there for that to work as an ongoing joke. But Dork Tower seems to be moving away from that. In fact, my favorite character has become Stell, whose gaming life is her source of affirmation and acceptance.

While Dork Tower does feature power gaming and players completely detailing campaigns (I think that’s required in gamer comics), I will argue it isn’t as cynical as many gamer comics. I think there is more of a sense of hope and escapism in it. The characters’ angst doesn’t come from not getting what they want but wanting the world to be better.

Kovalic has frequently sited Charles Schulz as an important influence and it shows. Peanuts may a bleak world of suffering but Charlie Brown never stops hoping and striving. Matt is clearly a tribute to Charlie Brown but all of the characters reflect the aesthetic of Peanuts.

Dork Tower isn’t perfect. Not every joke lands and sometimes it can be schmaltzy. But its strengths outweighs its flaws.

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