If you enjoy Dungeons and Dragons comics but are not reading Goblins by Ellipsis Stephens, I honestly don’t really know what to say to you other than “you need to go read this amazing webcomic” repeatedly, until you actually go read it. I’m totally willing to make an attempt at figuring out how to explain why, but I what I really wanted was to give you the chance to bail out now so you can experience the entire saga without my interpretations, analysis, and commentary in the way of an unbiased first read-through. I suggest you go do that because people who enjoy stories and/or Dungeons and Dragons will find something to love.
The first thing you’ll see when you start the comic is a disclaimer explaining the art progression. This comic has been decades in the making, from initial conception and first pages to now it has slowly progressed through a complex and layered story with an end I can’t even fathom. Each page in the story is rife with potential and you’ve never sure when something is foreshadowing or just significant in the moment. As time passes and the story progresses, so much of what came before shows up again as a reference or as the comfortable repetition of a story slowly winding its way toward the climax. Where most stories are depicted as line graphs, straight upward movement through the beats of a story until it reaches its apogee, “THunt’s” Goblins is best thought of in three dimensions. while it shares the same upward climb of all good stories, the path is more circular. Each of the plots, the smaller stories taking place involving different characters, in the comic covers similar ground as they wind their way up a mountain, passing by each other as they go, sometimes without even realizing that their journey is overlapping with someone else’s. In the beginning, you’re not even sure they’re climbing the same mountain. Only by piecing together the various elements of the stories or finding the right bits of foreshadowing can you tell that they are. Or, you know, if you’ve already read it. Then it gets pretty clear.
As far the plot goes, it starts simply enough. There is a village of goblins preparing to be attacked by a party of adventurers. The Goblins are the initial focus and we get a peek into their daily lives that does more to humanize them, so to speak, than we get of the adventuring party when we meet them. While both groups are set up somewhat neutrally, the Goblins get the benefit of more jokes and more attention early on, so they wind up as the sympathetic party initially. It doesn’t hurt that they comic is named after them, either. When we see the adventurers finally get to the village who is ready and waiting for them, it becomes clear that the Goblins are just defending themselves. There’s even a moment where the survivors of the battle call it off because they realize just how horrible this fight is.
From there, as both groups deal with loss and the residual anger of their conflict, they go their separate ways and we begin to see the shape of the larger story being told. All we get is a series of paths unfolding in front of us and hints at the detail of the journey ahead of us. The story slowly builds a cast of characters with their own motivations, alliances, and beliefs about the world, sending them all in separate directions to grow and pursue their parts of the narrative. While the pace is rather slow for a story of this size, an unavoidable result of creating it in comic form, the actual beats of the story are incredibly well placed when you go through the archives. Stephens is an incredible storyteller and her comic is a testament to it.
In addition to her storytelling prowess, she’s also one of the most inventive world creators I’ve seen, given the amount of concrete detail and mechanics you can find in the parts of her world that don’t come from Dungeons and Dragons. She has mixed stuff brought straight from Dungeons and Dragons with stuff she’s adapted from various fantasy settings, and it all fits in seamlessly with what she’s created from scratch. The most impressive part of the story, in my eyes, is how smoothly she’s fitted every piece of her world together. There are no bumps, no cracks in the road that cause you stumble or doubt as you read. You can clearly see how the world works as a result of fourth wall humor and what we’d call “out of character” comments in a Dungeons and Dragons campaign. All of the characters seem to know they’re in a world that obeys a bunch of mechanics you can study and manipulate using numbers or simple declarations. While no one talks about the numerical results of their rolls like they do in some D&D comics and they don’t strictly adhere to the basic rules you’d find in a D&D book, you can easily tell that they’re still in what we’d call a game world. Still, it amazes me constantly how well that knowledge fits in with the world, even when they’re arguing about what skill they’d use to cross a river because they’re making different skill checks to get the same result (as a result of their different attribute scores).
Aside from the petty arguments about how they crossed a river and why someone has such a huge attack bonus despite being at a lower level, they also cover a range of difficult topics. Stephens doesn’t shy away from the horrific when she details what some of the less-than-savory (and downright fucking awful, goddamn that was a sadistic bastard of a shitstick) characters, but she draws clear lines between what is good and what is evil that are much clearer to the reader than they seem to be to the people in story. At least, to some of them. One of the big themes of the story is the nature of Good and Evil. Like in our world, most of Stephens’ characters believe themselves to be the good guys. Unfortunately for us, they’re often not actually Good. It takes a long time for Stephens to give us her idea of what makes someone Good or Evil, but it’s worth the wait. We’ve been given enough time to see the true natures of tons of characters across the spectrum and we even get to see some characters change alignment. So, when she finally gives us the definition, we can see how all of the characters fit into it and we won’t have to struggle with how Good people can sometimes come into deadly and often angry conflict. In a truly great moment that’s relatively recent in the comic, Stephens also shows us the struggle to define Good and Evil in a way we can consistently rely on and how difficult it can be to actually live up to that definition without abandoning what we’d all call sensible precaution.
Honestly, I started the comic for fantasy battles and Goblin Adventurers, but I’ve stuck with it through the years because of the complex storytelling and the way it covers difficult issues. I don’t have a problem waiting however long it takes for this comic to finish because I know it’s going to be amazing. I hope you enjoy reading it and I hope you get as much out of it as I have. There’s so much it has to give, I can’t imagine anyone coming away from it without something to think about.