Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Entry 60: My So-Called Secret Identity

Today’s comic is what would happen if Strong Female Protagonist and Batman had a baby. It’s not halfway between the two, nor is it a mixture of qualities from each, exactly. Rather, it possesses resemblances to both works, while achieving something entirely different and unique on its own terms. Brace yourself for the unflinching look at a troubled and flamboyant world that is My So-Called Secret Identity.

I find it impossible not to compare My So-Called Secret Identity to Strong Female Protagonist as I read it, because so much of the impact, so many of the messages, are similar. Primarily, both take a serious look at the sociopolitical implications of comic-book-type superheroics. While Strong Female Protagonist focuses on no one inspiration in particular, My So-Called Secret Identity very clearly consistently pays homage and alludes to Batman.

Please note that My So-Called Secret Identity must be read in order from the beginning. I won’t get into specific plot revelations, but this is the type of story wherein even minor details could constitute noticeable spoilers, so, you know, caveat lector.

My So-Called Secret Identity takes place in Gloria, a city dominated by heroes and villains, playing out political struggles over their urban stage. Being part of the drama isn’t about superpowers… in laws-of-physics terms, this comic is very grounded. All it takes to be a costumed player is the intelligence, personality, and/or strength to jump in and force the other players to take you seriously.

The problems in Gloria seem perfectly real, the type of thing any one of us might read about browsing the morning’s news links. The difference is that when a terrorist network attacks subway stations in Gloria, the mayor threatens retribution not in a suit and tie surrounded by aging city council members, but in costume and accompanied by a sidekick.

Those in power have embraced this melodrama, using it to push their agendas and maintain their own status. In Gloria, capes and theatrics are treated with utmost gravity.

In context, none of the superheroics seem the least bit incongruous or silly. My So-Called Secret Identity takes its tone from the dark, gritty type of superhero comics, the ones wherein running around in capes and punching criminals is not fun, but deadly. The characters wholeheartedly embrace this aesthetic, the reality that wearing strange clothes and acting larger than life isn’t just a way to be noticed, but it’s the only way to be taken seriously.

This trend persists, and is accepted, because the participants buy into it so strongly. The heroes and the villains make themselves grand and impossible to ignore, but they pursue their work with such dedication that there’s no room for mockery. Perhaps an outsider could ridicule these theatrics, but those in charge have turned the city into something of a closed set. Any commentary from someone not involved with the performance isn’t given any attention, and breaking into the show is a prohibitively difficult task.

In addition to the serious consideration of superheroes and their sociopolitical implications, My So-Called Secret Identity has another similarity to Strong Female Protagonist in its feminist perspective. Both comics focus on a woman who struggles to contribute to her world despite her differences with the general superhero community. Each has her unique viewpoint; Cat, the protagonist in My So-Called Secret Identity, has mental, rather than physical strengths, and she’s trying to join in with the theatrics rather than separate herself from them.

Cat is intellectually gifted, making connections that elude others and sticking her nose where it doesn’t belong just because that’s the only way to satisfy her perpetual curiosity. Her disadvantages are that she’s young, she’s inexperienced, and, crucially, she’s female.

The theater that Cat is studying, investigating, and, ultimately, participating in, is dangerous. Especially so for women, not necessarily because women are likely to be physically weak or smaller than the others involved, but because women aren’t taken as seriously as men. A few female heroes have managed to make names for themselves, but they’re in the minority. More have disappeared, or never managed to make an impression in the first place.

Newcomers are treated with dismissal, at best, and contempt at worst. The people who’ve been running this play for decades don’t take kindly to those who’d like to take to the stage themselves. Cat has an uphill battle to fight if she’s going to earn recognition, or get any sort of results. Her gender will make that all the more challenging. But adversity makes for significant conflict, and conflict is what makes stories thrive. Whatever success Cat achieves will be all the more satisfying, from an audience perspective, for the added challenge she had in reaching it.

This whole comic is full of details that fit together like a puzzle, elements that make sense only in the context of all the others. If you enjoy piecing together clues until you’ve uncovered every secret a story has to offer, then My So-Called Secret Identity is for you. There’s a wealth of information here, giving the reader insight into a full and complex world, even if we only ever get to experience a small portion of it. Even Cat’s insights can only go so far, can only reveal so much. So mount your own investigation, start reading the story, and see what’s available to be discovered.

My So-Called Secret Identity is written by Will Brooker and drawn by Suze Shore, with certain pages created by Sarah Zaidan. The easiest way to get to the comic from the homepage is by hovering over the word “comic” and clicking “archive,” then clicking on an issue and page from there. (I recommend starting at the cover or the first page of Issue One, for obvious reasons.)

At present the first four issues are available to read online. For now, the fifth issue is only available in a printed collection of Volume One, making My So-Called Secret Identity a strange hybrid of web and print distribution. The authors claim that more is coming, though whether the next volume will be put on the website or restricted to the printed page I cannot say.

Whatever the comic’s future may hold, I strongly recommend you check out My So-Called Secret Identity and give it a try. It’s a refreshing take on superheroics and definitely rewards the time a reader would put into it.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Entry 59: The Perry Bible Fellowship

Humor comes from the unexpected. We, the audience, anticipate one thing happening, and when a different thing happens, all that tension from anticipation and the disconnect between the expected outcome and the actual outcome turn into laughter. This phenomenon explains why both shock value and absurdism can be effective tools in humor. That which we have been trained not to expect, or that which we cannot expect, prompts exactly the sort of disconnect out of which humor arises.

Today I’ll be talking about a comic that presents usually simple ideas in a usually simple style. The comic is effective partly because the ideas are communicated so clearly, and partly because the ideas are so very unexpected. One of the things I value most in the comics I read is encountering ideas that would never have occurred to me on my own, and one of comics that introduces me to such ideas with extraordinary frequency is The Perry Bible Fellowship.

There is shock value, occasionally. There is absurdism, rarely. Mostly, though, the stuff one sees in Perry Bible Fellowship seems logical, once one takes a moment to consider the viewpoint that would allow these ideas to arise. It doesn’t require much adjustment to one’s way of thinking; the adjustment just happens to be so unusual that most people would never make it on their own.

Often, as in the above example, something apparently neutral or even benign turns out to be absolutely horrific. The author develops a dark and twisted worldview, stretching unsettling ideas and awful presumptions to their most extreme conclusions. Disturbing premises are applied to an absurd degree, producing a result that is as terrifying as it is hilarious. The horror feeds into the humor feeds into the horror. Perry Bible Fellowship is one of those comics that often makes me feel bad for finding it funny.

I believe I’ve mentioned before on this blog that I’m not a fan of shock value for its own sake. Perry Bible Fellowship is one of those few comics that can use shock value in a way that works for me. A large part of why I can enjoy the shock value in something like Perry Bible Fellowship is that there’s always something more going on. None of the payoffs rely entirely on gratuitous violence/sex/profanity, though any one of those may be a part of what makes the joke work.

One thing that separates Perry Bible Fellowship from lazy or unimaginative purveyors of shock humor is tact. Though typically irreverent, and often potentially offensive, Perry Bible Fellowship manages to treat difficult issues in a way that feels respectful to me. I think it helps that the humor typically “punches up,” targeting those who behave inappropriately rather than those who are harmed by the behavior.

Perry Bible Fellowship can even tackle issues that are typically big red flags to me without making me angry. There are certain subjects to which I tend to have intense reactions, because they carry emotional weight to me that they might not for most readers. When I encounter those subjects, I typically either decry the work presenting them (if it’s something I don’t like) or I ignore them as best I can and move on (if it’s something I like). The problem isn’t necessarily that I can’t handle those issues as artistic subjects, but that I typically find they’re not being portrayed accurately, or respectfully, or with the nuance that they require.

Suicide is one of those subjects that I have a hard time reading about. My own history makes me touchy about it, and almost all references to suicide in “humorous” works strike me as glib and inappropriate. Perry Bible Fellowship, though, can tackle even that most treacherous of subjects without bothering me in the slightest.

Not every Perry Bible Fellowship installment is horrific. The tendency to present new and unexpected ideas does often veer into unsettling territory… after all, many ideas are new and unexpected precisely because they are unsettling, and people usually don’t spend their time pondering exciting new ways to unsettle themselves. However, Perry Bible Fellowship includes all sorts of new and unexpected ideas that are fun or happy, or merely strange and exciting without any upsetting elements whatsoever.

Be prepared to encounter gore and violence and other troublesome imagery, but don’t think you’ll have to slog through unpleasantness the whole way through. There’s plenty more to Perry Bible Fellowship than just the twisting of an innocent concept into something darker.

On the other hand, though, there are times when Perry Bible Fellowship can really disturb me. I don’t think that’s to its detriment… art that has a powerful effect on a person is remarkable, regardless of whether that effect is enjoyable or not. But I will admit that certain installments of Perry Bible Fellowship bother me enough that I don’t like dwelling on them. So if you find a few that really get to you, know that you’re not alone. (I have a feeling that the ones I can’t handle and the ones any other person can’t handle might be totally disparate sets, though, because typically no two people have the exact same soft spots in their psyches.)

Even when Perry Bible Fellowship goes too far for me, its merit is still clear. I know that some of the ones I don’t like remembering are often cited as other peoples’ favorites, and I can understand why. They’re still well-executed, they still present new and interesting ideas… they just happen to take me to places in my mind that I don’t like to visit.
No I will not include one of the ones that I try not to think about here. Instead, have a couple of rhinos.

Can Perry Bible Fellowship be distressing? Certainly. But for the most part, its lack of regard for the typical standards of society, for the assumptions and values that we all take for granted, is refreshing. Everything in this comic is carefully crafted to feed the joke that it needs to tell. Not a line or a word is wasted.

The new, the unusual, the strange, are what make Perry Bible Fellowship remarkable. Even so, each installment follows a clear sense of logic. The humor lies in the disconnect one experiences when forced to make that mental leap to see the logic in any particular scenario. And that mental leap is precisely the kind of exercise I think everybody’s mind needs every once in a while. Read Perry Bible Fellowship to remind yourself that there is more to life than the ordinary, comfortable reality that you assume you live in. So, so much more.

The Perry Bible Fellowship is written and drawn by Nicholas Gurewitch. New installments go up rarely, and in fact I can’t guarantee that there will ever be another one. (A recent spurt of updates has now concluded and looks like it will have to content us all for a long while.) Typically I only write about comics when I’m reasonably confident there will be more to them someday, but Perry Bible Fellowship is something special, even if all there is of it now is all there will ever be.

And hey, the first time I actually read Perry Bible Fellowship, all signs indicated that it was over and there would never be any more comics there, but since then roughly a score of new installments have gone up, so I won’t be convinced that this comic is finished any time soon. Go read everything that’s there now, and if there’s any more in the future, read that too. Your life will be better for it.

Previous Entry: Solo

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Entry 58: Solo

Sometimes, authors like to do something clever, and title the last chapter of a book “The Beginning.” Or a character at the end of a movie or a play might declare something like “This is where our story starts.” It’s used to imply to the audience a continuing narrative. Most stories never really end, and a natural conclusion to the plot doesn’t imply that the author has told everything that there is to tell. However, we rarely get to see those stories continue. It’s easier to tell the story of what leads up to a conclusion, than the story of what follows a conclusion.

Not everyone shies away from that challenge, though. There’ve been enough stories that end with beginnings, so today we’ll take a look at a story that does the opposite, and begins with an ending. That story is Solo.

Before we get into this, I’ll note that Solo is definitely the kind of comic that you have to read in order from the beginning. Feel free to jump over to it right now if you’d rather read with as few preconceived notions about it as possible. I won’t describe the plot in detail, but it will be impossible to discuss Solo without giving anything away about the story setup. Also, a note on navigation: You can read through each chapter by clicking “Next” (or on the comic image) to move to the next page, but at the end of each chapter you have to go up to the “Select a Chapter” dropdown to proceed. Don’t get confused and think you’ve finished the comic just because there’s no “Next” button on the last page of Chapter One!

Solo opens with two endings, one of a marriage, and one of the musical act that formed out of that marriage. Our protagonist is Leah, who was part of both of those things. Now they’re gone. That story is over. And Leah clearly has no idea how to deal with that.

I don’t know the author well enough to have an idea how much of herself is represented in Leah, but goddamn does Solo feel biting and personal. I’m certain there’s been some catharsis involved in creating it, but I’m not going to focus on that aspect because I’d rather deal with the comic as it exists independently than delve into how it might reflect the author’s personal life. I just want to observe that the pain Leah’s going through feels like it’s drawn from experience, and that makes everything all the more poignant.

Leah is a highly nuanced character. It’s difficult to sum her up; she’s not a victim, though she’s been hurt; she’s not a hero, though she’s sympathetic; she’s not a villain, though she can be cruel. She’s full of pain and anger and uncertainty, and while

At one point reading Solo, I started to worry about Leah, because I thought her actions were on the irresponsible side. I told myself I was being unreasonable, and she probably had arrangements to take care of herself. The single strongest emotional reaction I’ve had to Solo was the realization, shortly thereafter, that she was being irresponsible and the kind of thing I’d been worrying about happened and Leah hadn’t been thinking ahead like I’d assumed she would.

Normally I’d expect myself not to foolishly assume that everything’s going to be fine and conflict-free, since any story without drama is bound to be dull and/or over very quickly, but Solo somehow lulled me into thinking things would go smoothly. Maybe Leah was just so gung-ho in her fake optimism and denial that I just couldn’t escape it.

Solo has a quiet, deliberate pacing that encourages the reader to slow down and pay attention. When I first started reading, I skimmed the first few pages. There’s not a lot of dialog there, and my first impression was that those pages were just establishing the setting and atmosphere. Reading through the comic again, knowing what comes later, I see that every detail in those first several pages is important. A wealth of information lies there, even if it’s not immediately obvious what all of it means.

Given that experience, I’ve become more careful in my reading of the comic. Characters and details that show up in the background or seem to serve a clear, minor purpose are all part of the tapestry of Solo. Any one of them could prove to be more significant than they first appear. Those details didn’t happen by chance, after all. The author made a choice to include them, and that choice was made for a reason. Subtle details may foreshadow future events, or even serve to illuminate the past.

Most of the backstory and the characters’ personal histories, the situation that led up to the point of the comic, is not explicitly laid out. It’s clearly communicated; I may not know the specifics, but I have a definite idea of how Leah’s relationship with her ex-husband progressed and how she got to be where she is now. The action never stops to get the reader up to speed. Rather, the events of the comic flow so directly from earlier events that there’s very little doubt as to what happened before.

The more I read of Solo, the stronger a shape it takes. I get the sense that there’s a larger design I just can’t see yet because there are so many pieces that have yet to be exposed to me. With every new development, the story becomes richer and more complex.

Before I leave you to explore Solo on your own, I want to share my appreciation for the visual language of the comic. While the setting is mundane and the art typically shows a literal representation of events, certain moments are presented in a more symbolic and metaphorical manner. Sometimes objects in the background even seem to comment on or reflect what’s happening in the story. Look carefully at everything you see in this comic, because not a detail is wasted.

Solo is written and drawn by Hope Larson. In some ways it’s a difficult comic to read, because if you’re an empathetic person you can’t help but feel the main character’s pain. I don’t think this is a comic about dwelling on pain, though. It’s a comic about moving through pain.

At some point before the beginning of Solo was another story, one which didn’t have a happy ending, though it may have been played as bittersweet. Because of the way that hypothetical story ended, Solo necessarily starts with an unhappy beginning. But stories are all about change. Though Solo is still in progress and it may be too early to draw conclusions about it as a whole, I strongly suspect that it will be a far more life-affirming story than it would have been if everything had been happy right from the start.

Previous Entry: Shadowbinders

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Not a Webcomic, but Definitely Worth Wreading: The Sculptor

I don’t normally write about print comics here, but this one deserves an exception. It’s not just that Scott McCloud’s The Sculptor is good, though it is. It’s that it feels close to me. I’m privileged enough to have Scott as a friend. In fact, if you enjoy this blog, you can thank Scott for its existence! No other person has had such an influence on the comics I read and the way that I read them, not because he pushed his ideas onto me, but because his enthusiasm for the medium is infectious.

This post will be atypical, in several ways. Obviously I’m discussing a print comic rather than a webcomic. I’m writing about a finished work in its entirety, while I usually favor ongoing works in this blog. I don’t have access to a copy of The Sculptor at the moment, so I’ll be writing this post from memory… and I also won’t be able to include as many excerpts as I usually do. (Even if I did have a copy available, I’d have to go through the trouble of scanning it, unless I’d bought an ebook, though I expect the ebook reader might not allow me to copy images. I suppose I could ask Scott to send me the panels I’d want, but I’d rather not bug him when he’s busy going to New York to do book signings and stuff.) And, perhaps most significantly, I’m going to write just as much, if not more, about my relationship to the comic as I’m going to write about the comic itself.

Over the past several years, I’ve witnessed the creation of The Sculptor. I’ve listened to Scott describe the progress he was making on layouts, the deadlines he was working towards, the deadline extensions he’d received. He would redo entire sections that weren’t working the way he wanted them to, add a page or thirty here and there, take reference photos of friends and family members and buildings.

For most of that time, I didn’t have any real idea of what the book was about. I knew it was about a sculptor named David Smith, but not the famous sculptor David Smith, another David Smith.

I did not know, until I heard Scott talking about his book, that there was a famous sculptor named David Smith. I am so unfamiliar with the art world that I don’t even know how embarrassed I should be about that fact. Most of the art references in The Sculptor pass me by, to be honest. I’m sure there are nuances that would be apparent to those more familiar with art and sculpture than I, but if, like me, you’re not very educated about artistic matters, don’t worry. The Sculptor never feels insular or inaccessible, even to troglodytes like us who wouldn’t know a Brâncuși from a barbell.

I would learn new tidbits about the book here and there, about David playing chess with his uncle or the character who is based on Scott’s wife, Ivy. Most of the time, I didn’t know how secret these tidbits were, which things were kept closely guarded, which things might change before the book was finished. Certain things were relatively public knowledge… After all, a buttload of people stood around in a circle for Scott to get reference photos for this part of the book, even if none of us really knew the context for what we were doing.

I remember this day! I was one of those people way in the back of the crowd. Scott's daughter Winter was standing where David is because Matt wasn't around. (Matthew Mercer served as the reference model for David. You may have heard his voice if you saw the new Thundercats, as well as a bunch of other stuff.) Afterwards everybody got gelato.

About a year ago, Scott finished the book. I think he actually finished the book about ten times. He would finish the book, except for some parts that he wanted to redraw. He would finish the book, except that he had to rework the first 20 pages. He would finish the book, except the font had to be painstakingly changed in every single word balloon on hundreds of pages.

Scott spent a very long time working on The Sculptor. He made a lot of minuscule changes, and some much larger ones, when most reasonable people would have raised their hands and declared “good enough.” No matter how much effort it required, no matter how much time it took, if it made the book better, Scott would do it.

When I’m in a teasing mood, I might suggest that Scott acted that way because he’s a control freak who can’t leave well enough alone, and that no one would have ever noticed most of the “problems” that stood out to him. (I would be particularly tempted to say this about the proof he received in which the printed pages had come out “too blue.”) None of those things really reflect the dedication he showed throughout the process of creating this book, though, nor do they reflect the respect I have for that dedication.

The Sculptor is a labor of love. The attention that Scott McCloud has given to every little detail is obvious. I’ve seen it in action, but you don’t need to spend any time with Scott to tell how much care he put into this book. All you have to do is pick it up, and you’ll know.

Eventually, I was allowed to read it. And after all that anticipation, all the buildup and the hints and random details I’d picked up on, The Sculptor was totally worth it. It is a heartrending comic, one of those stories that felt life-affirming even as it made me cry. I immediately wanted to share it with everyone.

Of course, I still couldn’t talk freely about The Sculptor with everybody. Though much of the secrecy around the book had faded as it approached completion and the publication date loomed ever nearer, it had yet to be released to the wild. And even at that time, when Scott had finished the book, oh, maybe twice, he was still working on it. I still couldn’t be certain exactly what the final version would look like.

To be honest, I still haven’t seen the very final version of The Sculptor, so I’m writing this post with incomplete knowledge. I look forward to picking up a copy, in all of its hardbound, carefully crafted glory, when I get the chance.

Within the past couple of months, review copies have gone out, and people have started reviewing The Sculptor online. The experience of seeing public articles about this subject, freely giving away details that have been secret information for so long, was surreal. I was shocked at first… I kept thinking, “Wait, we’re allowed to talk about it now?!”

I guess, clearly, we were allowed to talk about it. But it was hard to break that long-kept silence, hard to convince myself that it was okay. But The Sculptor is officially available for sale to the public as of today. Now anybody can read it (and everybody should) so there is no reason whatsoever for me not to talk about it!

Nonetheless, I’m not going to tell you The Sculptor’s premise. (If you really want to know that before you read the comic, feel free to read any of numerous reviews that are scattered around this here Internet.) I think it’s the type of book that’s more enjoyable the less you know about it when you first start reading. I will tell you that it’s a book about mortality, and about art, and about the relationship between the two. It’s got a contemporary setting with one major fantastical element, and it makes a compelling, easy read, though an awful lot of the story is emotionally difficult.

The characters in The Sculptor all feel incredibly real, complex and human. Some come off better than others, but none of them are perfect… everyone in this comic, just like everyone in real life, is flawed and layered. My favorite character, Ollie, makes at least one decision of which I strongly disapprove, but that doesn’t actually make me like him any less. He’s not a bad person. He just isn’t perfect. No one is.

Meg, the character based on Ivy, feels entirely as complex as her real-world counterpart. I actually had to look up the name of the character, because I’ve been calling her “Ivy” in my head all these months. And even she doesn’t come off as perfect… she can sometimes be reckless, sometimes flighty, and can sometimes go past the “endearingly quirky” line into more unsettling behavior. Yet throughout the book, every bit of her is represented with complete love. Meg is the kind of character you can only create by understanding and accepting another person so completely that a totally honest representation of them shows nothing but affection.

One of my absolute favorite things in The Sculptor is seeing all the works that David creates over the course of the book. These are truly impressive works of art, at least to my uneducated perspective. What makes them more impressive, in my opinion, is that they are works of one medium represented through another — three-dimensional sculpture portrayed as two-dimensional drawings, but that still feel like sculptures.

The Sculptor is a beautiful comic, full of life and feeling and desire. It’s a magical tale, but very grounded, created with an unflinching awareness of life’s certainties. I highly recommend that you pick up a copy. As of today you can buy it on Amazon, or from any number of other online retailers, or probably at your local comic shop or bookstore. It will not disappoint you.

Come back in another couple of weeks for a return to webcomics. Not too surprisingly, my old computer is beyond repair, and creating a Frankenstein hybrid using parts of it and parts of another laptop proved unrealistic because none of the hardware was in great shape anyway. But now I have a shiny new computer, and as of just a few days ago it’s even running the operating system of my choice, because I am stubborn as an ox. Thank you all for bearing with me.

In Memoriam
Lester Ratafia

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Technical Difficulties

Apologies. I won't be able to bring you a new entry for Webcomics Worth Wreading today. I do the vast majority of the work for this blog on the laptop pictured below.

 I think it's pretty clear why I'm not able to do work on that laptop currently.

It still functions, as you can see, but there's definitely a limit to the amount of time I'll be able to spend using it before it falls apart entirely, and I don't want to push my luck. Thankfully, I was able to back everything up to an external hard drive, so I don't have to worry about losing anything. I just have to worry about finding a new laptop. (Or possibly repairing this one, but I'm doubtful about the viability of that option.)

That wallpaper, if you're curious, is by Pascalle Lepas. Check out Wilde Life; I've been enjoying it and may well write about it on this blog at a later date.

Hopefully I'll get my computer situation sorted out soon and will be back with lots to say about webcomics in another couple of weeks. See you then.