I’ve been putting off this review for months because this is my favorite story and I don’t want to sell it short. I want to be as charming and witty as this webcomic is and I just don’t have it in me since I’ve been constantly struggling just to keep up with the stuff I need to do, much less the stuff I want to do. I’ve written and deleted this post ten times over at this point because I can never come close to expressing how much I love this comic and how much Rob Balder, the writer and creator, inspires me. I feel like there’s some perfect version of this review inside me and I just keep failing to bring it out. Ultimately, though, a finished review that’s “alright” is better than the “perfect” review that never gets written. Anyway, as the protagonist of Erfworld–a man named Parson Gotti (just rearrange the letters a bit)–said, “We try things. Occasionally they even work.”
Erfworld is a comic about a man, the aforementioned Parson Gotti–aka Lord Hamster, who gets sucked into a different world by a spell created by people to be named later. The “side” of Gobwin Knob, ruled by Stanley the Tool (formerly Stanley the Plaid), paid a fortune for a spell to summon the perfect warlord, as defined by a handful of people who all had very different ideas of what that meant. Nevertheless, Parson arrives and sets to work with a will, slowly learning everything he doesn’t know he needs to know in order to take on what feels a lot like the whole world from the disadvantageous position of a long losing streak. Joining him is a memorable cast of detailed characters from a resigned necromancer, an illusionist with arguably too few marvels, a conjurer who hates violence, and a telepath whose moral ambiguity isn’t as much of an asset as she wants to think it is. Leading (debatably) them all is a man who just so happens to be incredibly short, incredibly short-tempered, and frustratingly short of common sense. Throw in some magic weapons with godly powers, a war for the very soul of Erfworld, a power dynamic that resists change, and you’re finally scratching the surface of this amazingly complex story.
While most of the world works according to some basic mechanics best compared to a miniatures game (units form “stacks”, move a certain number of terrain “hexes,” and have certain “specials” that modify their unit type such as “Flying” or “Archery”), the magic system is far more complex than most I’ve encountered and my descriptions of the various casters in the above paragraphs are vast over-simplifications for the sake of expediency. The necromancer is actually a “croakamancer,” which is a subset of the “naughtymancy” class of magic. I’d explain the others, but you’re honestly better off just reading the comic for yourself because the time it’d take to explain the magic system in a way I’d find satisfactory is greater than the time it’d take for you to read everything on the website. Not to mention that I’d have to revise it several times while writing it because we’re constantly learning more about magic in Erfworld and old assumptions and “facts” are constantly being set aside as we realized the fallacies of our assumptions. The one thing you do need to know is that the rules of the world are incredibly important, much more concrete than the rules of our world, and potentially exploitable. If you’re a gamer and you look at this story from the perspective of a power gamer looking for an exploit, you’ll find a lot of places for things to be used in a way the rule-writers likely didn’t intend. At the same time, Balder does an amazing job of breaking down what’s happening through text updates, character narration, and the detailed direction he gives the artists so that you don’t need to be a power gamer to understand or see what’s going on. All you really need is either a strong knowledge of pop-culture or strong Googling skills.
The plot itself is both pretty standard but also incredibly open-ended and unpredictable. Parson is summoned to serve his ruler and save the “side” of Gobwin Knob, but then what? The story carries on after plot wraps up and even the characters dealing with the fallout of how that concludes is only setting the stage for the appearance of even larger threats who all seem laser-focused on the fact that Parson is a player on the stage of Erfworld. Is Parson actually in a different universe, or did he have an aneurysm? Who are the bad guys in this story? What’s right and what’s wrong in a world where free will is a basically a special trait belonging only to a few units? What part does Fate play in the outcome of events and can it be circumvented or defeated? What does it mean to be the perfect warlord? All these questions and more are posed as the plot winds it way from one startling turn of events to another and, the further we go, the more we realize we’re not actually sure about the answers to those questions.
No one is the villain in their own story, but how do you tell a story about people who are trying to conquer the world through what seem like some pretty brutal means without making the readers dislike your protagonists? Is it enough to just give them someone worse to fight, and is that other someone actually worse or does it just seem like they are because we automatically sympathize with characters whose perspective we get to see? Only Balder has the answers to these questions, but it’s plain to see that he actually does have the answers to them. The way the story unfolds and the clever way he seeds foreshadowing into every major event is so detailed and complex that I can barely begin to comprehend the scope of his planning and work.
Behind the veneer of cutesy-sounding names and hilarious onomatopoeia is a harsh world full of difficult questions and the undeniable fact that only through death and war can any “side” survive. The often cute art of the comic hides an incredibly dark story of how far is “too far” and what’s justifiable in war, either as a defender or as an aggressor. Easily, the best part of this comic is the number of large and important questions it constantly raises and forces you to answer on your own. The characters in the comic find their own answers frequently, but that aren’t necessarily the answers we want since their answers are generally motivated by the desire for their side to win the war or come out on top. It can be difficult to keep track of what horrors each side has visited on each other because it feels like there’s a clear bad guy, but there are a few good guys who are only good because they’re willing to talk rather than fight. Peace isn’t really a permanent solution in Erfworld, but working for it seems like a better goal than just fighting all the time.
The art is amazing, even though it has changed rather frequently. The current artist team is by-far my favorite and I’m always excited for each new page because I can’t wait to pour over each page for all the hidden details they slip in. The often-changing artists are emblematic of the major struggle that has plagued Erfworld for a long time: an overabundance of tragedy. From the artist’s mother having cancer to the writer’s wife and one of the main employees of the website getting cancer, to stylistic differences with another artist, there’s a lot that has gone wrong for the comic as a whole and for Rob Balder in general. He’s been fairly open about everything since his fans are willing to stick by him throughout it all and have numerous times helped him come up with the money he needs to continue working on our favorite comic, but I still feel like most of those stories are his to tell, so I recommend checking out his news posts once you’ve read the whole thing. Regardless, his persistence and the way he’s always carried on with this story despite the hurdles he’s had to overcome has always inspired me to keep trying, even when I didn’t write for most of a year and considered giving up on it. I set the little statue of Parson I got from one of the Kickstarters next to my monitor and told myself “We try things. Occasionally they even work.” That is my all-time favorite quote from this comic (and that’s saying a lot because there are some real doozies here), and it has helped me not just get through the rough patches but stay focused when things were going well so I never took my good days for granted.
There aren’t a lot of stories I can say had a huge impact on my life and the number of writers I find truly inspiring is small enough that I can list them all on one hand, but Rob Balder and his wonderful story is at the top of both lists. If you want a story that will carry you along, with a cast of impeccable characters and a plot that will never leave you wanting, read Erfworld and bask in the glory that is one of the best stories I’ve ever read. Please, do us both a favor and start reading it now.