One of my favorite webcomics is El Goonish Shive, by Dan Shive. (No, the title does not mean anything, other than including the cartoonist’s last name. He jut couldn’t think of a better title.) El Goonish Shive is the ongoing story of a loosely affiliated group of teens in a small modern-day city who, for various reasons, get wrapped up in all sorts of shenanigans, often involving magic. Particularly, body-transformation magic plays a big role in this comic, often with gendered elements. It’s funny, dramatic, sometimes thrilling, and occasionally sad, and the characters are impressively well-rounded, likable, and compelling. Here are the 8 core characters.
Elliot Dunkel is the de facto protagonist of EGS. A formidable martial artist, but too good-hearted to ever hurt anyone who didn’t deserve it. Elliot is a big old Boy Scout, and has something of a hero complex—if a friend is in danger, it’s almost impossible to stop him from putting himself in the line of fire, regardless of how good of a plan it is. Due to complex magical reasons, all his spells involve him shapeshifting into various female forms, which Elliot has learned to be more comfortable with over time.
Tedd Verres is Elliot’s best friend, my favorite character, and possibly the most important character in the comic. Tedd is genderfluid (if you’re ignorant of the term, it means Tedd’s gender identity oscillates—sometimes feeling male, sometimes feeling female). Tedd is a prodigious scientist who has created numerous magic-related gadgets for the other characters, and though he can’t cast spells, he has rather special magical talents of his own. He has something of a crass sense of humor, though this has waned over time as Tedd has matured. Tedd’s dad is a renowned government agent who’s dealt with magic all his life, and they often clash over how magical problems should be dealt with. (I’m using he/him pronouns for Tedd because in-comic he’s never specified a desire to be called by any other pronouns, but Tedd does, in fact, sometimes identify as female.)
Grace Sciuridae, Tedd’s girlfriend, is a human/alien/squirrel hybrid with unbelievably potent shapeshifting abilities, as well as limited telekinesis and levitation. Though she’s pathologically nonviolent, Grace is the most potentially powerful character on the main cast. She was raised under abhorrent conditions in a scary laboratory, but ever since Tedd’s father took her in, she’s been making the best of things, keeping a Kimmy-Schmidt-like sunny outlook and finding where she fits into the world.
Ellen Dunkel is Grace’s best friend and Elliot’s twin sister. Well, they consider one another siblings, but Ellen’s situation is a bit more complicated than typical biological relation. Ellen was created as essentially a female clone of Elliot from a magical diamond, and shares many of his personality traits. She’s just as heroic and protective as her brother, but a bit more adventurous and less of a stick-in-the-mud. She has various spells based around an energy beam that could originally only turn people into women, but that can now achieve all sorts of other effects, including allowing Ellen to scan other people’s bodies and transform into them herself.
Nanase Kitsune is Ellen’s girlfriend, Tedd’s cousin, and the most powerful spellcaster on the main cast. (Grace’s powers are technically not spellcasting, as they’re essentially biological.) Her spells include flight, summoning a “decoy” copy of herself, communicating through animated fairy dolls, clothing and hair disguises, and an incredibly anime “guardian angel” form that manifests when someone needs to be saved. She’s a martial artist who can match Elliot, and she’s also something of a genius, the biggest scholastic overachiever among the 8 leads. She often clashes with her conservative, restrictive mother.
Justin Tolkiberry is Nanase’s best friend, and also good friend of Elliot’s. He is a martial arrtist, though not as accomplished as Elliot and Nanase. Likely the nerdiest of the main characters, he works at a comic book store and maintains an encyclopedic knowledge of Star Wars, Star Trek, and Lord of the Rings. He’s not as much of an adventure-seeker as some of the other protagonists, but he won’t hesitate to help out someone in need. He has the magical ability to summon superhuman strength. (He’s also gay, which I apologize for not bringing up more organically, but I didn’t want to leave it out.)
Sarah Brown is Elliot’s ex (on good terms) and Tedd’s lab assistant. She’s perhaps the most “normal” of the cast, and was the last to obtain magic (the nature of which is too complex to describe here). She loves to draw, and is into anime and manga. She’s also something of a pervert, though entirely within the bounds of ethics.
Susan Pompoms (her real first name is Tiffany but she hates it) is Sarah’s best friend, and a good friend of Elliot and Justin. She’s stoic, intensely rational, intimidating, and a staunch feminist. She also hates being touched, and has several emotional weak spots that pierce her carefully-maintained barriers. Susan is the only bigger Star Trek fan than Justin, and is a big nerd in many other ways. She has the ability to summon magical weapons and other objects, which makes her deadly to vampires. Susan is my second-favorite character.
There are other important characters, but these eight have been the core through most of the comic’s 17-year run. A few warnings if you want to start reading it (though, don’t be mistaken, you still absolutely should):
- The art, and some aspects of the writing, are not that good at all early on. Like many webcomics, it evolves with the cartoonist.
- The plot tends to move pretty glacially. A recent story arc took two years to complete, and it took place, I believe, over a single day. This is a result both of the comic often having many threads going at once and of the cartoonist’s tendency to explain everything that happens in precise, meticulous detail. The upside to this is that having so much dialogue really helps your sense of the characters—not having to keep up with constant events means that the characters have time to unfurl as complex, living people.
I hope some of you decide to check out El Goonish Shive, and not just because I want people to talk about it with!