Table Titans Book 1: First Encounters
Webcomic series by Scott Kurtz (writer, illustrator) and Steve Hamaker (colors)
Publisher: Toonhound Studios
Hardcover Release Date: January 5, 2016
Webcomic Run: January 28th, 2013 – Current
Website: Table Titans
I was really into webcomics in the early 2000's. I grew up with a passionate love of newspaper strips like Garfield, Peanuts, and Dunesbury, and to this day I still consider Foxtrot and Calvin and Hobbes formative and essential reading. As I got older, it was only natural that I started to gravitate towards the online comics that were sprouting up across the web like weeds. There were entire years where I would start each day selecting "Open all bookmarks" in my browser and sift through webcomics one by one, playing catch-up or doing an archive binge on a new series (link warning: TVTropes). Some of my favorites included Penny Arcade, Sinfest, Least I Could Do, xkcd, Dinosaur Comics, The Perry Bible Fellowship, and countless others. Some were incredibly well-drawn and well-written, with touching stories or gut-busting humor. Some were garbage that I would have been ashamed to read in public (but I read them anyway).
Webcomics' independence meant that they were not limited in their content, language, subject, formatting, or scheduling. A lot of the earlier webcartoonists wrote about video games, and fit in naturally with the growing gamer culture. Because of the Internet, traditional newspapers began to lose circulation, and the syndicated cartoonists that contributed to the funny pages felt the pinch just as acutely as the rest of the industry. But webcomics didn't have worry about getting dropped from a particular newspaper, or fight with merchandisers over the use of their characters (like Bill Watterson had to do with Calvin & Hobbes). They were available to anyone with an Internet connection. In a way, webcomics are one of the first examples of the Internet changing an entire industry. There have been countless success stories of cartoonists creating careers from their work: Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik of Penny Arcade were able to use their popularity and resources to create the PAX Conventions and the Child's Play charities.
This little spiel brings us to one of my all-time favorite webcomics, PvP. Written and illustrated by one of the first professional web-cartoonists Scott Kurtz, PvP (Player vs. Player) told the story of a struggling gaming magazine and the beleaguered staff that somehow kept it afloat. Spun off from that webcomic were the adventures of the Table Titans, three power-gamers that appeared in a couple of PvP storylines but quickly caught the attention of fans. Kurtz teamed up with Wizards of the Coast (publishers of Dungeons & Dragons) to use official modules and events that took place in the then-newly revamped 5th edition. In this new series, players Alan, Andrew, and Val are joined by newcomer Darby as they compete against other adventuring groups for the fabled Winotaur trophy at Cafe Mox. Their DM, Brendan takes them out of their comfort zones by assigning them characters outside of their usual play style.
Kurtz perfectly captures what a roleplaying game can feel like, while toying with the concepts of gamer cliches like the min-maxer, the roleplayer, the newbie, etc. Table Titans is part adventure story, part character development. Alan, Val, and the rest of the crew have their own hangups and problems, and there's a lot of subtext in certain scenes.. For example, there are hints of a larger story behind the animosity that Alan has with Kate, the leader of the rival "Dungeon Dogs" group. While real-life drama occurs, their D&D characters are embroiled in a mystery of their own, alongside traps, puzzles, and violent encounters. The result is a story that takes place in two different worlds: one where our protagonists are heroes, and the other where they are just everyday people.
I've watched Kurtz's art evolve and develop over the years, and his style fits in perfectly for this sort of tale. His characters are cartoony, based on the comic-strip world of the funnies that had inspired him. Even their D&D characters look like their real-world counterparts, albeit with various forms of facial hair, armor, and weaponry. The non-player characters they encounter as part of the story look far more realistic, reminding me of Jeff Smith's Bone series, which successfully combined realistic characters with "cartoony" ones. Steve Hamaker's excellent coloring elevates Kurtz's work, taking it from "drawn cartoon" to "illustrated art."
Table Titans is really something special. It's a story about a session of D&D, but it's also about the players. Sitting in on their lives is just as much of a treat as sitting in on their quests. The hardcover copy of Book 1 was successfully back on Kickstarter, and you should be able to pick it up online or at retailers. You can, of course, always read through the first book (and the subsequent two) online at tabletitans.com. Humorous, earnest, and exciting, Table Titans is a great time. If you're a fan of RPGs or tabletop gaming in general, then I can't recommend it highly enough.