Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Webcomics Worth Wreading, Entry 46: Quantum Vibe

I may have mentioned previously that I am a sucker for science fiction. I love stories about the future, about robots and spaceships and offworld colonies. Even implausible, poorly realized visions of the future appeal to me, but I am all the more captivated when a speculative work is carefully thought out and self-consistent. Better still if it contains intricate plots and wonderfully imaginative concepts and is populated by complex, three-dimensional characters, the likes of which you’ll find in Quantum Vibe.

Quantum Vibe is an action-packed romp through the solar system, following the members of a scientific expedition as they find intrigue and danger at every corner. Many of the problems they encounter are directly related to their project, but our solar system is a dangerous place, and anyone traveling around to most of its major destinations on a tight schedule is bound to run into some complications.

This is a vibrant setting, inhabited by a cast of eccentric and fascinating personalities. As much of the drama is the result of personal interactions and relationship progression as comes from external conspiracies or obstacles to the characters’ goals. Much of the story is driven by friendships, both old and new. There are a lot of people in the solar system, but some characters have been alive long enough to meet a good portion of them. The interpersonal relationships in Quantum Vibe are every bit as fascinating as the tales of high-level corporate espionage.

Note: Quantum Vibe is definitely narrative-driven, and I highly recommend reading it all from the beginning.There is a recent recap covering the whole story up to that point, which starts here. If you feel like jumping in with the minimal amount of catching up, feel free to give that a read and get yourself current. I think that taking the time to go through the archive is a better reading experience, though. There’s a lot of nuance and character development that is as entertaining to read as it is relevant to later plot events, and I wouldn’t like to miss out on all of that. (The recap is advantageous even to those who’ve read through the archive, as it provides reminders of details that may have been forgotten, and even lays out some information that actually slipped me by while I was reading the comic the first time around.)

There’s also an About section, starting here, which gives an overview of the characters and setting, and which provides some information that hasn’t yet been stated explicitly in the comic itself.

It’s great to have that additional material, because the setting of Quantum Vibe contains such layers of detail that there’s no way the comic will ever cover everything I could want to know. That’s a good thing; as long as the story continues, I expect to keep discovering new and delightful information about the future being portrayed. As long as there is something else for me to discover, I will never be a bored reader.

In my last post I talked about Vattu and the significance of compelling worldbuilding. Quantum Vibe is another example of worldbuilding done extremely well. The reader can clearly see how the current cultural, political and technological landscape may have evolved into the one presented in the comic, yet there are still wondrous and bizarre surprises around every corner.

One matter that stories set in the future have to address is that of social change. Most people agree that social injustice is currently a problem that needs to be addressed (though there’s a tremendous amount of disagreement as to how it ought to be addressed). When looking to the future, most authors address the question “Will things get better? Or are they going to get worse?”

Depending on the answer, the work will often be set either in a utopia, wherein all sentient beings coexist peacefully and are treated with equality, or a dystopia, wherein the majority of sentient beings are downtrodden in one way or another.

The future presented in Quantum Vibe is not one where all social injustice has been resolved, nor is it one where matters have degraded to a degree that all hope seems lost. Rather than social and political systems being guided one way or the other, it’s clear that they’ve evolved organically, meeting needs as they arose, making adjustments as technology and populations changed, and causing benefit or harm to the population in different places at different times.

In some places life is pretty good for most people. In others, life is pretty fucked up for most people. And in lots of places, there’s a mixture of harmful policies put in place by well-meaning people or corrupt individuals finding ways to twist ostensibly fair systems. Life in Quantum Vibe is in some ways much like life on Earth today: Depending on where you live and what group you belong to, it may be free and easy or horrendously difficult.

While the political developments in Quantum Vibe sound quite familiar, the technological advances are marvelous. Sentient androids (called “artifolk” if you want to be politically correct) and genetically-engineered humans work alongside one another on terraforming projects. Holograms have practically replaced clothing in some locations, and body modification is practical on a scale that is extreme by current standards.

There’s even a reasonable extrapolation of the modern internet, as people communicate, call up information, and arrange purchases by using implants that allow them to access a network just with their thoughts. It’s rare to see the internet in representations of the future, partly because for a long time science fiction authors just didn’t realize that the internet was coming, and partly because a lot of people rely on cutting off communication channels between characters to facilitate drama. It’s a relief to see examples like Quantum Vibe, where the internet is not only present in the future, but it’s been plausibly adapted and updated to make use of ever-changing communications technologies.

Cultural developments are possibly even harder to predict than technological ones. A lot of authors solve this problem by assuming that current cultural touchstones will become well-regarded classics in the future. Quantum Vibe handles this issue with a sense of humor and realism. Characters clearly regard our own time as a part of their history; they know a few things about us and a few of our pop culture references have continued through the ages, but that stuff’s all in the distant past, and they relate to it differently than we do. Certain things may stand the test of time, but they will not pass through history unchanged.

I’ve spent a lot of time on the setting, because it’s brilliant, but what really makes Quantum Vibe work are the characters. Every one of them has such depth that they feel like real people, living in a real place. Nicole Oresme, the protagonist, goes through hell and high water over the course of the story. Like any action star, she’s strong enough to get through the difficult times and keep fighting, but what sets her and Quantum Vibe apart is that we can see how deeply the violence and hardships affect her. And knowing how much she’s been hurt, we can appreciate how strong she truly has to be.

While other characters don’t get the same amount of attention as Nicole, it’s clear that they have just as much activity going on beneath the surface. Others have also dealt with trauma and come through it, and their histories inform their current actions. The reader can’t make assumptions; people are strange and unpredictable, and there’s always more going on than is readily apparent. On occasion, someone shows up who seems to be completely unlikeable, but they turn out to be more sympathetic, or at least more helpful to our heroes, than they first appear.

Some of those characters are spaceships!

If you’re in the mood to escape into a speculative future, or just want to get to know some fascinating characters, or if you’re wondering why these people are risking life and limb all over the solar system, you should check out Quantum Vibe. There’s quite a tapestry here, one that I can’t do justice to with only a few paragraphs of text and some visual aids. I can only speak for myself, but Quantum Vibe gives me almost everything I could possibly want in a science fiction story. Hopefully it will be some of the things you want in a science fiction story, too.

Quantum Vibe is written and drawn by Scott Bieser and colored by Zeke Bieser. It updates on weekdays. Go forth and fall in love with this comic, as I have done. I think you’ll find it a truly rewarding experience.

Now, presented for your amusement: The confusion an individual may experience when encountering sales tax for the first time.

Next Entry: something

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Webcomics Worth Wreading, Entry 45: Vattu

Today is all about world-building. When we tell stories, those stories take place somewhere. They may take place pretty much right here and right now. They may take place long ago, or far in the future. The storyteller has to determine which aspects of the setting are familiar, and invent fitting concepts for those that are strange.  If a setting has little or no connection to reality, then the storyteller must invent everything that fills it, from ecosystems to cultures to technology. Sometimes a storyteller will only invent what is necessarily revealed by the plot. Sometimes a storyteller will get so caught up in the world they’ve invented that the story and characters in that world feel secondary. Rarely, a storyteller strikes the perfect balance, presenting a rich, lush world inhabited by compelling characters going on meaningful journeys. In these cases, you get stories like Vattu.

Vattu is the tale of a defiant young girl who consistently fights for her right to self-determination. That’s a familiar premise, the kind that is made or broken by its execution. In this case, the complexity and otherness of the setting are what make the story stand out. There’s clearly much more going on than what the reader ever gets to see. Just enough information is provided to demonstrate that there’s a larger, complete picture, and while the reader can make certain inferences, most of it remains a mystery. For instance, the people marked in white view the river as a god, while the Sahtans likely held a similar reverence for the river long ago, since their name for it is closely connected to the name for their god. (It’s entirely possible that I’m off the mark with this but the similarity totally stuck out to me.)

One of the major sources of conflict in this story is the clash of cultures, where dissimilar groups meet and have little means to understand one another. As Vattu is out of place in an unfamiliar city, center of an empire she hadn’t known existed until recently, she and the reader are at similar disadvantages, taking information about the city and those who live there as it comes. The reader has something of an edge on Vattu, since she comes from a nomadic tribe without a written language, and has little world experience nor education about anything outside her tribe’s experience. On the other hand, Vattu probably has a decent understanding of her tribe’s culture, at least, whereas the reader has all of that to learn or guess at, as well.

Note: Vattu is a story-driven comic that must be read in order from the beginning. So much of reading Vattu is about the pacing and the atmosphere that I’m not so concerned about spoilers. This is a journey-over-destination type story; even if you know where it’s going, you should be more interested in how it gets there.

I cannot stress enough the appeal in glimpsing different cultures that show up in Vattu and drawing comparisons. I already mentioned the river being treated as a god, which parallels certain aspects of human development in lands fed by river water. There’s also the use of marks on one’s forehead to indicate name or accomplishment. And then there are the aspects of cultures in Vattu that come from interactions with a phenomenon unique to that setting. What’s amazing is that these cultural developments still have parallels in human behavior, despite emerging from something totally alien.

Unweight is fascinating. Cultures aside, unweight is probably my favorite thing in Vattu. It exhibits some sort of extraordinary gravity-defying property. I’d call it buoyancy except *engineer hat on* buoyancy has to do with displacement, meaning you can only lift up the same mass as the air that would fill the volume you’re inhabiting. Unweight clearly lifts far greater mass than the volume of air it displaces, so its lift must come from something else. *engineer hat off*

Lifting force aside, unweight is apparently an intoxicant, used as a holy sacrament by the Surin, who extract it, and as a pricey street drug by the Sahtan. Surin chemists study unweight and learn how to extract it, but they treat this practice as religion, not science. Students must treat High Chemists with appropriate deference, and questioning is strongly discouraged. They seek not to gain greater understanding of unweight, but to maintain the practices and methods that were already established long ago.

Vattu is a beautiful comic, one that makes excellent use of visual storytelling. Sometimes long passages will go by without any spoken dialog, letting the reader in on quiet moments, the process of traveling or practicing a skill, where words would be redundant at best or a distraction at worst.

A particular race, the war-men, are mute, meaning that everything we see of them and their history is communicated through pictures. Their communication with other characters is done entirely through gesture, and it’s wonderful seeing how expressive they are, even lacking the ability that humans most often associate with self-expression.

I alluded to pacing earlier, but I didn’t go into detail. Vattu is a story that takes its time, lingering on details when introducing new places or characters, letting the reader take in everything that’s happening. Even so (at least in my case), there are details that escape notice, simply because there’s so much to pay attention to. This is one of those comics that rewards rereading. It’s hard to pay attention to the details when you’re still trying to get a grasp on the big picture. Going back once you already have an idea of how these cultures fits together provides room to notice smaller things, and to gain appreciation for the depth of the story’s setting.

Conversations often make ample use of what my high school drama teacher referred to as filled silence. Characters take their time in speaking or reacting, important revelations take place over multiple pages, and dialog is given time to sink in. Finding examples to include in this post has been challenging, because in order to get a good feel for Vattu you kind of need to read at least a few pages in succession. For the most part, a single page is a bad unit by which to judge this comic; the individual pages are but necessary subdivisions of a sprawling tapestry of storytelling.

That’s not to suggest that Vattu is slow-paced. There’s plenty of action and excitement, and a few key events have gone by so quickly that initially I found it hard to believe they’d actually happened. It’s also a quick read. At this point, I can get through the archive in a couple of hours. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend reading it that fast, because then you miss a chance to linger on details, but you don’t need to be worried about getting bogged down in a long, intractable story.

Vattu is the third long-form work set in the world of Overside. You don’t need to worry about reading those first; they’re all independent stories set in different regions and eras in the same larger world. I read Vattu before I’d read anything else on that website, and I was no worse off for it. If you enjoy Vattu and you’re looking for more, then feel free to check out Rice Boy and Order of Tales. Much of what I’ve said about Vattu applies to these other works, particularly the depth and intricacy of the world-building. These different stories have different tones, and certainly feel like different reading experiences, but they’re all beautiful and strange and compelling.

Read Vattu, and you will be rewarded with action, adventure, friendship, exploration, mystery, all those keywords that make for a good fantasy tale. Read the story of a girl who just refuses to accept a bad situation without doing something to fight it, and while those around her all find their own ways to deal with changes to their world.

Vattu is written and drawn by Evan Dahm and updates Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Do you like stories that toss you into a strange and unfamiliar setting and let you get acclimated at your own pace? I love it when stories do that. It’s like teaching you a language by dropping you off in a foreign country, except with far fewer chances of getting robbed or ending up hopelessly lost. Let the characters put themselves in danger for your amusement while you stay safe at home, and watch history unfold before your eyes.

Previous Entry: The Bright Side
Next Entry: Quantum Vibe

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Webcomics Worth Wreading, Entry 44: The Bright Side

One thing that humans like to think is special about us is the ability to contemplate our own mortality. And while I can’t say for certain that cats or dogs or ostriches aren’t walking around thinking “Oh god I’m gonna die someday,” it certainly seems that humans do, quite a lot. In fiction, humans often represent death not just as an event or an abstract concept, but as a person, a character who not only oversees the end of life, but who sometimes interacts with the living.

As frequently as people have told stories about Death, I never get tired of them. The representations are varied and reveal fascinating insights about the time, place, culture and mindset of the author. Death can be sympathetic, cruel, impassive, or anything else. Today we’re going to talk about what happens when death befriends an antisocial teenage girl. That relationship is the cornerstone of The Bright Side.

I honestly have a hard time believing The Bright Side is an actual comic that somebody else created, because so much of it runs exactly parallel to the kinds of things I think about. Emily and Dee (as she calls him) discuss the philosophical ramifications of his existence, navigate the treacherous emotional landscape of such an uneven friendship, and even do experiments to try to figure out just what the hell is going on when Dee interacts with the physical world.

Dee can even travel through time, which is pretty much my Number One Favorite ability for a fictional character.

Note: The Bright Side is a narrative comic that must be read in order from the beginning to be properly understood. This is one of those cases where I’m not too worried about spoilers, though. There are a few plot points that I’ll avoid mentioning, but for the most part this is a comic about a girl hanging out with Death, and I’ve already given that much away in the intro to this post.

Emily faces the problems that many teenagers do when they don’t fit in. Her peers ridicule her, but she claims not to mind; she doesn’t desire their acceptance anyway. A confluence of external factors influence her personality, and it’s difficult to tell what’s genuinely Emily and what’s Emily reacting to social pressures. Being besties with Death complicates matters. Since Emily already has a friend, she doesn’t feel any need to make new ones. Her interactions with her friend catch others’ attention and highlight her strangeness. Then when others judge her for her unusual behavior, she loses more respect for them and becomes more determined to do things her own way without regard for the way she appears to those around her.

It’s not that Emily couldn’t fit in or at least mitigate others’ opinion of her; it’s that Emily prefers to be apart and accepts every opportunity to reinforce the divide between her and her peers.

Paradoxically, while Emily and Dee’s friendship helps her feel complacent in her isolation, Dee himself consistently tries to get Emily to forge bonds with other humans, or at least to treat them politely. Considering how close their friendship is, it’s surprising how different their attitudes are toward other people. Not quite as surprising as a human being friends with Death at all, but still, surprising.

The two characters bring entirely different experiences to their arguments: Emily is young, rash as most teenagers are, and determined not to accept a solution that requires her to compromise what she sees as her identity. Dee is ancient, wise in terms of accumulated knowledge but naive in terms of life skills, and determined to help his friend live the most fulfilling life she can have.

Frankly, it’s extraordinary that the two of them manage to get along as well as they do. Given their respective personal histories, either one managing to see the other’s viewpoint must take a great deal of empathy. They clearly have some difficulties, but somehow, they always manage to work it out.

That's what Death looks like under the hood, by the way.
My favorite parts of the comic are the times when Dee and Emily apply the scientific method to Dee’s nature. He raises all sorts of questions just by existing, so they settle down to making a list and seeing which questions they can answer. Most people don’t notice him, Emily being a rare exception. They set up tests to see what it takes for people to notice his presence. There are still questions, of course. They don’t know why Dee can’t be seen by most people, or what makes Emily different, but they do learn some stuff about the limits of Dee’s selective invisibility and the kinds of effects he has on the people and objects around him.

The Bright Side doesn’t just deal with the fun, easily stomached parts of having a supernatural character to play with. The comic addresses all sorts of painful, polarizing issues regarding death, and handles them with tact and grace. While Dee is comfortable with who he is and regards dying as a necessary consequence of life, he is deeply disturbed by murder and intentional violence. Through Emily, he starts understanding the human perspective more clearly, and much of what he finds troubles him.

For the first time, Death starts studying history, learning about the atrocities that humans commit. He’d witnessed them first-hand, of course, but all he’d known was that people were dying, not why others were killing them.

Death’s unique perspective on and appreciation for life make him the ultimate pacifist. While that viewpoint is certainly respected, he carries it to lengths that humans would not. When a person faces a choice between personal safety and taking a stand, Dee would always want them to choose personal safety. Emily disagrees with a lot of Dee’s positions, and his point of view isn’t represented as the right one, necessarily, but it’s easy to see how someone with his experiences would have a particular bias navigating a landscape of morality and personal risk assessment.

This comic touches on some tough issues, and it manages to acknowledge their gravity without letting them weigh down the whole story.

My one caveat regarding The Bright Side is that sometimes the lettering is difficult to read. I’ve always been able to figure out what the words are, just on occasion it takes a while. But the comic is well worth the effort.

Taken as a whole, this comic touches on pretty much every aspect of its premise that I would think to wonder about. All the questions I have about Death interacting with a teenage girl are addressed, if not always answered, and the difficult aspects of that relationship are given fair representation. It’s lighthearted without being disrespectful, and sombre without being dour. A lot of The Bright Side is fun, some is tear-inducing, and most is thought-provoking.

And I just have to respect a comic wherein a fictional personification of death starts examining fictional personifications of death. I mean, seriously.

The Bright Side is written and drawn by Amber Francis. Watch out for mouseover text from this page forward. You should read The Bright Side if you’re going to die someday and sometimes you wonder just what that means and how the universe manages to make life and death work.

Not that The Bright Side will answer those questions, mind you. But it will certainly give you something to contemplate in the meantime.

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Webcomics Worth Wreading Archive
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Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Webcomics Worth Wreading Entry 43: Wizard School

The magical community is in trouble. They’ve long lived in secret alongside ordinary humans, but there are dark forces at work that seek to destroy both the magical and non-magical communities. The task of defeating those dark forces falls to the Chosen One, known by the mark on his forehead. Though he has lived all his life without knowledge of the wizards and witches sharing his world, he is now expected to master wizardry and defeat the forces of evil.
I did not just describe Harry Potter. Well, okay, maybe I did, but that’s purely incidental. The piece of fiction we’re going to discuss today is Wizard School.

Russell Graham is just about the last person you would ever want to rely on to save the world, deliberately so. The villains chose him specifically so that the Chosen One would have neither the skill nor the inclination to damage their plans. If you’ve read Harry Potter you may remember that Harry wasn’t the only one who could have stopped Voldemort… until Voldemort attacked him. Voldemort’s actions turned Harry into the only one who could defeat him. Well, Wizard School gives us an idea of how things might have gone if Voldemort knew what the hell he was doing.

Note: Wizard School is a narrative comic and should be read in order from the beginning if you want to understand and enjoy it as much as possible. This is a case where I don’t think the things I say on the blog will spoil the comic much, at least not in a way that will damage a reader’s enjoyment of the story. This comic’s appeal is primarily in the tone and the details, and there is plenty to discover besides what I’ve outlined below.

Every character and plot development in Wizard School is a deconstruction of the fantasy genre in general and Harry Potter specifically. The choice of Harry Potter as inspiration is integral to the comic’s success as a message. Harry Potter has become embroiled in the public consciousness to the extent that any fantasy work invites comparison to it, regardless of whether that comparison is useful or how much influence that work had on the fantasy genre before Harry Potter was even written.

While I’m not fond of tossing the phrase Harry Potter out there every time a kid goes to a magical boarding school, Wizard School invites and revels in the comparison. While not every aspect of Wizard School runs parallel to its equivalent in Harry Potter (or even necessarily has such an equivalent) it’s clear that this world and its inhabitants were crafted in a twisted imitation of Harry’s home and companions.

The plot devices that are skewered in Wizard School may be primarily associated with Harry Potter, but they have been part the fantasy genre for a long time. In a way, Harry Potter has become the ultimate incarnation of a particular kind of fantasy tale. By commenting on Harry Potter, one inevitably winds up commenting on modern culture, showing us precisely how we are using fantasy stories to process the real world.

Wizard School is Harry Potter viewed through the most cynical lens possible. Archetypical characters are subjected to reductio ad absurdum, whittled down to one dimension. They become clowns, lacking any layers or subtlety. They are still recognizable as the archetypes that populate Harry Potter and other fantasy works going back for ages, but they are stripped of their humanity, the complexity that gives them a life beyond the role they play in a story.

These archetypes show up so often in fiction because they work, because they communicate something to us about ourselves and our journeys. Simply being an archetype isn’t enough, though. Wizard School demonstrates the shallowness of allowing a role to define a character. It is possible to craft a fantasy story as mere formula, with characters falling into the jobs assigned to them and going through the motions of self-discovery. However, that approach to storytelling creates a mere framework, lacking substance. And that framework lends itself to support all manner of unsavory furnishings if you’re not careful.

The basic conceit of Wizard School is to take your basic child-saves-the-world fantasy story and twist each element of it, bringing the depraved in juxtaposition with the innocent and marvelous. The most stark example of this conceit is in the age (and attitude) of the protagonist.

The task of defeating evil in stories like Harry Potter almost always falls to a child. That way the story can serve as a coming of age allegory, or can establish a theme of innocence triumphing over corruption, or can include a moral about underestimating the small and meek. Everyone in Wizard School is expecting the Chosen One to be a child, as children have always been the ones to bear the mark in the past. When an adult shows up, they’re surprised, but they accept what they see as fate’s choice, and provide him the same treatment that they would if he were younger.

Russell Graham is not just any adult, though. He is an adult who has embraced all the most vile aspects of adulthood. His primary concerns are money, sex, and drugs, and he has no intention of behaving himself differently simply because he’s surrounded by kids. Any reasonable man in his situation would ease off a little, employ a little discretion in his speech and behavior, but Graham does none of that. He treats the children who surround him with no more care than he would other adults, and in fact revels in the power he can hold over the other students.

Another stark juxtaposition comes from Wizard School’s setting. Fantasy stories can, of course, take place anywhere. Many are set in fantastical realms beyond our world, or long in the past during the time of legends and fairy tales. There is of course a strong history of British authors writing fantasy set in the UK or a place very like it, and for a time any American’s first thought upon hearing someone mention England was inevitably “Oh, like in Harry Potter!”

One can even find fantasy set in the US, if one looks for it.

To Americans, though, our own country does not feel fantastical. We are used to seeing magic happen in other places, and we don’t expect to find it at home. America is mundane; it’s what we see every day and we don’t expect to find anything out of the ordinary here.

Furthermore, America is crass. To the mind of an American, Britain is full of sophisticated, intelligent people. They know how to comport themselves, and they view us with judgement for our ill-mannered ways. A magical school to train wizards would just about have to be British, because Americans could never run such an institution properly.

So in Wizard School, where the beautiful and innocent meet the horrific and depraved, one finds a wholly American take on a story that is so heavily associated with Britain. For most of the story, the setting is not entirely clear or relevant, but this magical world contains trappings that are definitely influenced by the lowest of American culture. Wizard School is nearly as much a commentary on American self-image as it is a deconstruction of fantasy.

Even the ragged edges of the panels reinforce the idea that this is a messy world, where easy, clear-cut attributes like purity or goodness are elusive.

On the surface, Wizard School appears to be a pretty direct parody, but I’ve been reading it for years now because it lives and breathes with its own life. I highly recommend you check it out for yourself and see what it says to you.

“Oh, but what if I’ve never read Harry Potter?” You might ask. To which I say… I honestly don’t know how to put myself in the mindset of someone who’s never read Harry Potter. Those books have become so ingrained in our culture, and were such a significant part of my childhood, that it’s difficult for me to imagine being unfamiliar with their contents. I’m tempted to say Wizard School would still be enjoyable to you, though. After all, Shaun of the Dead is beloved even by viewers who lack familiarity with zombie movies. So I say give it a shot and see for yourself.

Wizard School is written by Kevin Kneupper and drawn by Robert Rath. It updates on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Please note that, despite being heavily influenced by a children’s book series, Wizard School is not an appropriate comic for children. I wasn’t kidding about the sex and drugs. But if you’re intrigued by what you’ve seen and read here, go ahead and dive in!