This webcomic reminds us that high fantasy can be both smart and silly

Well written high fantasy can sometimes be a bit on the grim side. It can be hard not to look at Game of Thrones and think that serious worldbuilding comes with a seriously high body count. And there is certainly death in Phil Kahn and T Campbell's webcomic Guilded Age, along with racism, existential crises, and a looming war. But that doesn't mean these adventurers don't frequently find themselves greave-deep in a ridiculous adventure or ride baby dinosaurs for the hell of it.

Like so many RPG-flavored fantasy stories, Guilded Age revolves around a party of unlikely allies: Byron the Berserker, whose rabid nature is unleashed at the most inconvenient times; Frigg, a foul-mouthed warrior whose lust for violence is only matched by...nothing (sex and booze are cool, but she's pretty much about the violence); Syr'Nj, a wood elf who has decided to travel the human world armed only with her sense of decorum and her seemingly bottomless knowledge of potions; Gravedust, a dwarven mystic with certain powers over life and death; Payet Best, a bard whose belief in his own world-altering destiny has rendered him insufferable; and Bandit Keynes, a gnomish thief who is somehow trustworthy despite her untrustworthy nature. They are a competent bunch, down to the last woman, and they take on numerous quests in the human country of Gastonia, and are eventually tapped as valuable assets in the coming war against the so-called "Savage Races."

The world of Guilded Age feels fully realized in its races, its mythology, its history, the way that various groups interact, even in its racism. (If you're going to be a vaudeville elf in Gastonia, you better have some damn good elf jokes.) But the stories and the humor are largely character-driven. Our adventurers are imperfect, but they are thoroughly likable, and there's a familial quality to their relationships that allows them to tease and mock each other like team members in the best superhero comics. Kahn and Campbell clearly know their tropes (after following Campbell's earlier webcomic Fans! for years, I'd expect no less), but rather than focusing on tropes, they focus on personalities. After just a few chapters, the characters in Guilded Age feel like old friends, so we readily smile when Frigg solves a diplomatic problem with her competitive nature or Syr'Nj stops being proper for a few hours in order to get rip-roaring drunk. And the illustrators—largely John Waltrip, but at various times Erica Henderson and Jason Waltrip—clearly have a similar affection for the characters, filling them with distinct movements and expressions.

And while the looming war is treated as a very serious matter, our heroes go on some particularly oddball adventures. They find themselves on floating pirate ships and playing games of chess with gnomes. They encounter vicious nuns (armed with rulers, of course) and horny cephalopods. And they can't seem to shake that one kid who preferred his life after he was kidnapped.

That would be enough, but Campbell and Kahn manage to push Guilded Age a tad further. I won't spoil exactly how it happens, but they eventually venture into the realm of metafiction, exploring the relationship between creator and creation. Within the world of Guilded Age, our party may include more than your standard working heroes, and Gastonia may be more than an imaginary world.

Currently, the creators are running a Kickstarter campaign to fund the printing of their second volume, and you can pick up copies of the first volume through the campaign as well. They're also looking to fund a series of short animations, and I must say, the comic does seem to lend itself particularly well to animation. You can see a proof of concept below:

[Guilded Age]