(From Goblins. Click for full-sized perceived insults.)
This is a review that I was trying to avoid for a long time.
Oh, I’d heard of Goblins. I’d seen it hover near the top of webcomic ranking sites like Buzzcomix and TopWebComics in late 2008 and early 2009, and I’d seen the effusive praise given it elsewhere. Goblins was one of three comics constantly in the top three spots on Buzzcomix when I was trying to push my own comic Sandsday on there, before the site went belly up for good. Two of them, Girl Genius and Fey Winds, got reviews on this here site. Sure, I reviewed Fey Winds because its Buzzcomix description made it sound like a poor man’s Order of the Stick, but isn’t that a fairly apt description of Goblins as well? All I knew about Goblins was that it turned the traditional “they’re-evil-and-that’s-that” portrayal of D&D goblins on its head by portraying a campaign from their perspective, and that’s a minor aspect of OOTS‘ exploration of the genre.
No, something led me to actively avoid reading the comic, something that made me actively ignore this comic that gave every sign of being but a shadow of OOTS‘ greatness. Had I continued doing webcomic reviews, it would have been a long, long time before I even considered taking on Goblins. But no. Goblins ended up being the runner up in the semi-recent “Webcomic March Madness” tournament. Oh, I hadn’t reviewed either of the winners from either year Comicmix held the tournament, but I already had plans to review Gunnerkrigg Court and Erfworld, and the runner-up the year before was some super-obscure comic called Gronk that more than anything else probably shows how far the tournament came along this year, and I was determined to add at least one comic to my review pile from the tournament.
Let’s hope this doesn’t mean I find myself reviewing Misfile in a year’s time.
The big difference this year, of course, was that the tournament attracted the attention of big-time webcomic creators, and few pushed their comic harder in the tournament than Goblins‘ creator. I’m fairly certain that’s the only reason the comic made it so far. Certainly that’s the only reason Goblins would knock off OOTS in the semifinals, because Goblins was plugging itself in the tournament while Rich Burlew wasn’t even acknowledging its existence and OOTS‘ own fans were ambivalent about pushing it in a tournament with a cash prize (which the top two creators ended up donating to Child’s Play anyway) so soon after the comic’s Kickstarter success. (Yeah, when the other half of the final four is Homestuck and Gunnerkrigg Court, it’s a little late to start worrying about taking away a spot from a comic that needs the exposure more.)
Oh, I gave it time. I sat through years and years and years of comics holding out hope that by late 2008 the comic would improve to the point it would deserve the praise heaped on it. I sat through every excruciating “joke” from the comic’s early storylines. I sat through the incomprehensible fight scene that didn’t have anything to do with the rest of the comic (and still doesn’t have much to do with it). I sat through the flying deus ex machina. I sat through all the contrived, out-of-nowhere discussions of D&D racism. The fair-warning page at the start of the archives says that the very earliest Goblins pages date to 2001, but it reads like someone just discovered OOTS (or hell, even DM of the Rings) and wanted to jump on the bandwagon with their own comic mocking D&D. At this point we’re looking at the homeless man’s Order of the Stick.
Maybe, I thought, it’s unfair for me to try to assess this comic fairly when I’ve already been exposed to and become a fan of OOTS. Maybe all I see is the stuff I’m already familiar with from OOTS and I just dismiss it because of that. Hell, maybe if I had read Goblins first, I wouldn’t find OOTS all that impressive because I’d find everything to be a retread of stuff I’d already read in Goblins. Or maybe not. Considering a good chunk of the point of this comic could be distilled into a single scene of OOTS‘ Start of Darkness prequel, I doubt reading Goblins first would ruin my enjoyment of OOTS. (Seriously. Read pages 9-12, maybe 9-15. 4-7 pages of a print-only OOTS book encapsulates everything you could get out of early Goblins.)
The comic went through Cerebus Syndrome before the encounter set up on its opening pages was even finished. When that happened to OOTS, it remained a humor comic that happened to advance a plot at the same time for quite some time, and even when the plot moved to the fore it continued to use humor to add levity to a situation. With Goblins, what humor remains seems horribly out of place, the vestiges of the early jokes (like a goblin named “Dies Horribly” in nonstop panic mode after being named by the clan’s fortune teller) clashing oddly with the serious plotlines. Remember how I was worried about being able to get through Gunnerkrigg Court‘s drama after its first few chapters? With Goblins, that feeling never went away. I dreaded every time I went to continue my archive binge. Part of it was the drama I had to deal with, part of it was that I was guaranteed to run into something that made me facepalm.
Oh, the comic did improve, becoming simply the poor man’s OOTS, but that’s not saying much. The main characters, who end up forming an adventuring party of their own, became much more fleshed out, and from some of the early jokes the comic picked up themes of predestination and what makes a leader. But it still didn’t improve enough to overcome its early issues, and those issues sometimes threaten to bring down the whole enterprise.
It’s 2008 and Thunt still can’t draw a comprehensible fight scene. And he’s not afraid to drop massive infodumps. And the bad guys are almost cartoonishly evil (though Goblinslayer does seem to subscribe to the Tarquin school of fame). And the comic runs into the same pacing problems afflicting most comics releasing a single page regardless of content density with every update, somewhat more self-awarely than, say, the Court but compounded by Thunt’s propensity to jump between somewhat loosely connected plot threads, which itself is compounded by those pacing problems. Even updating twice a week, I bet the comic advances its plotlines at most as much as Fey Winds does/did in the same time span. The comic takes a year and a half to play out a single battle, admittedly the rough equivalent of OOTS‘ Battle of Azure City, but that played out in substantially less time.
And then… there’s a moment where the paladin-goblin Big Ears is cornered by this big goon with this huge weapon that apparently is incredibly evil. So the goon brings down the weapon on him, and he starts to get up, and the weapon’s glow gets brighter and brighter until it becomes this complete wall of text explaining the history of the weapon. Thunt literally pulled an entire page of pure exposition out of his ass to save this character.
Do you see why I was dreading every time I went back to the archive binge?
I do begrudgingly admit that Goblins has some reason to exist, but that’s not saying much. At this point, Goblins‘ biggest issue has to do with its update schedule and how slow its plot advances, especially since a lot of its other issues ultimately tie back to that one. For example, Thunt tries to juggle three or more plotlines at a time (as many of two of which are only barely connected with the main plot and have been dragging out their promise of a resolution and tie back to the main plot for a long, LONG time now), and the update schedule already means one group is going to be in the spotlight for an extended period while the others fade to the background and wait their turn, and none of them are going to advance very much.
Yet the comic just finished six uninterrupted months with one of them, the adventuring party that attacked the goblin camp at the start of the comic, to the point that Thunt had to put up a blog post reminding people of the plot he was returning to, the one immediately preceding that uninterrupted stretch. That group has itself been in a dungeon crawl with its own alternate universe doppelgangers since February of last year, which you really just want to get to the end of while it’s happening. It doesn’t help that the adventurers are the comic’s least interesting protagonists, not because of their origin as joke antagonists, but because of the way their characters have evolved, especially Minmax, who started out as a buffoonish parody of overly-“optimized” characters (like a poor man’s Pete from Darths and Droids), but has since become merely a well-meaning dimwit, and it just doesn’t mesh well, especially his weird pseudo-romantic subplot with the yuan-ti travelling with them. (Not that the other group is much better; after all, Saves a Fox practically verges on Mary Sue territory.) Meanwhile, we’ve barely seen the alleged main cast at all in the two and a half years since that aforementioned protracted battle ended.
Hell, just last week Thunt posted some filler and announced he would be doing more of it next week and at the end of each month, while admitting his update schedule is already too slow to advance the story at any reasonable speed, suggesting he’s running into the same problem that afflicted Dresden Codak: his art takes too long for his own good. The fact that at least he’s updating twice a week instead of only once only means that his artwork isn’t as good as that of Fey Winds or Dresden Codak, or as detailed as the latter. In effect, he’s getting the worst of both worlds.
So in the end, while Goblins does have some redeeming qualities, ultimately it’s the sort of comic I wouldn’t have been surprised to see John Solomon target, and it’s certainly a far cry from the greatness that is OOTS. It has been an utter chore to get through, and when all is said and done I’m just glad to be done with it.