Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Entry 80: Molebashed

One of my favorite things about comics is the opportunity they provide for creators and readers to share and compare personal experiences. Granted, this is true of most media, but we’re focusing on comics here. Comics, along with other forms of artistic expression, allow people to articulate common experiences that others can relate to. They can also allow people to express their unique life experiences to people who don’t share them, allowing the reader to gain greater understanding of an author from a different background or worldview. Today I’m talking about a comic that I find does both those things for me: Molebashed.

I’ll note here that, though there is some continuity to Molebashed and some comics do follow others in forming storylines, this is not a narrative-driven comic and you don’t have to worry about spoilers or following it all from the very beginning in order to understand what’s going on. Feel free to jump in anywhere and read as much from different parts of the archive as you like.

Molebashed is an autobio, gag-a-day comic that shows us little scenes from the life of its author, Wes Molebash. The focus, particularly, is on his place in his family, as a father to his son, Parker, and a husband to his wife, Kari. Fatherhood especially takes center place in Molebashed, as the comic opens with Kari going into labor and, though not every installment deals directly with parenthood, that subject takes up the overwhelming majority of the run so far.

The way the author portrays his family sometimes feels quaint, in a way, like a relic from a less cynical time period. Very few families in contemporary popular media are as well-adjusted as the Molebashes appear from this representation. There are lots of reasons for that trend, but one can be attributed to lazy writing. As we all know, conflict drives stories, and in a dysfunctional family, conflict is all over the place, obvious and easy to insert into any given situation. Some people might even assume that a happy family full of people who love each other will contain no conflict at all. Those people, however, are not looking hard enough. Humans do not live lives free of conflict, regardless of how many things they do ‘right’ or what kind of cultural scripts they follow.

Often, Molebashed hits upon those little life experiences that tend to pass unnoticed and unremarked-upon, such that every individual who experiences it neglects to realize that there are other people experiencing the exact same thing. So far, many of those experiences that make it into this comic have to do with caring for babies, which is sensible given the subject matter. I’m not a parent, myself, but now that my siblings all have kids and I’ve spent time with my niece and my nephews as they grow up, I find that I relate to many of the jokes and stories that people tell about babies and young children. Before my first nephew was born, I could read those kinds of anecdotes and appreciate them. Now, I appreciate them in a slightly different way. It’s the difference between laughing at something that is amusing in an absurd way, and laughing at something because it’s amusingly familiar.

For those who are not parents and do not have any young children in your life, there are actually some installments of Molebashed that hit on common experiences that you don’t need to be around kids in order to relate to. For instance, take the following example of a comic distributed through the Internet, complaining about how these days media is distributed through the Internet.

Seriously though I feel this one pretty strongly.

The parts of Molebashed that I appreciate the most, though, are the ones I don’t directly relate to. At present I don’t have kids, and I may never have kids. I’m not married, and may never be. I’m not a religious or spiritually-oriented person. In other words, I’m a pretty different person from Wes Molebash, whose wife, son, and Christian faith are all clearly important to how he defines himself. And what makes him a notable cartoonist, to my mind, is the way he can articulate those aspects of himself in a manner that makes sense to me, someone with a pretty different personal history and identity than his.

Almost anyone can appeal to other people from their own and similar communities, can create artwork that sets those who come from your same world nodding their heads. It takes a great deal of insight, and a tremendous amount of skill in the act of communication, to reach out to someone from a totally disparate worldview and make them nod in agreement. And this is what Molebashed does to me… it shows me scenes and thoughts from a life I’ve never even considered to myself, and makes them seem perfectly sensible and accessible.

Now, I don’t like to describe comics in terms of negatives, because I find it far more useful and interesting to describe the traits a comic possesses than the ones it doesn’t possess. However, if someone described Molebashed to me there are a few assumptions I might make about it that would discourage me from checking it out, so I’ll list a couple of qualities that one might expect this sweet slice-of-life comic about a man and his family to have that it, thankfully, does not.

Molebashed doesn’t feel preachy or self-righteous. Though the author represents himself as the kind of person who genuinely tries to be a good person to the best of his ability, he doesn’t come off as if that makes him better than anybody else. There’s no arrogance, or any assumption that people who live their lives in different ways are doing something wrong.

Neither does Molebashed never get cloying or overly sappy. It’s sweet and optimistic, but not in a way that feels false or exaggerated. Rather, the whole comic rings of sincerity… this feels like an accurate representation of the author’s worldview, and that worldview is that life is pretty great, family is awesome, and being around loved ones is a fantastic way to spend one’s time.

Perhaps the reason Molebashed is great at presenting unfamiliar experiences to me in a way I can accept is that the author himself displays an open-minded willingness to accept unfamiliar experiences that might be presented to him. This goes along with that ‘life is pretty great’ viewpoint that I read in his work… there are a lot of diverse interests and experiences in life, and every one of them is deeply important to somebody.

A note on navigation: You have to click the buttons below the comic to move to earlier or later installments. Clicking the comic image itself just takes you to a page that displays the comic image, and only the comic image, with no navigation available aside from your browser’s Back button.

I love this comic not just because it’s sincere and optimistic and sweet, but because it brings a sense of self-awareness to those qualities. Molebashed represents life as a wonderful thing, and family as rewarding and fulfilling, but there’s an understanding of the negatives that come with life, as well. What’s more, there’s an understanding of the negative qualities present in the author himself. In fact, part of what stops Molebashed from feeling preachy is the way that it will lightheartedly poke fun at the author for getting into a preachy mode sometimes. The people represented in the comic feel humbler and more relatable because of the times they are represented as feeling self-righteous and better than those around them. Those are extremely human qualities… almost everyone has moments like that, and pointing them out and acknowledging them makes them seem far less significant, and certainly less harmful, than they would if they went unrecognized.

This isn’t just a comic that represents some of the best parts of being alive…. it’s a comic that does so while acknowledging and examining its own biases, and is all the better for it.

Molebashed is written and drawn by Wes Molebash, and it updates on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Parents will likely find a lot to love about it, but I think people like me who are not parents, including that subset of us who are dead set against ever becoming parents, will find a lot to love in it as well. This is really a comic about what it’s like to be a human… and since there is no one general human story that encompasses all our many stories and backgrounds and opinions, the way to reach that general story is through many smaller, specific stories. Molebashed happens to be the story of one man in particular, and he happens to be a father… and for that reason, Molebashed is about what it’s like to be a father. If you’re at all interested in people, consider giving it a read.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Entry 79: The White Snake

Today we’re talking about a comic that, to me, is all about journeys of discovery. We’re all learning things all the time, of course, and many standard types of stories… detective stories, coming-of-age tales, stories of ordinary humans coming into contact with the supernatural… are all based on people going from a state of not knowing something, to a state of not only knowing, but understanding. Today’s comic may or may not contain all of those story types. You’ll have to read it and/or read this post about it to find out. So come along and allow me to facilitate your journey to discovering The White Snake.

Okay, before we begin: This post is gonna contain some spoilers. The White Snake is one of those stories that hints at its premise before making that premise explicitly clear, and it is not one of those stories that I can talk about without letting you readers in on what I’m describing. If you want to read the comic real quick before you finish this blog post go ahead and get started. There are only two chapters so far, so you should be able to get through it pretty fast.

All right, everyone has either read the comic or doesn’t care about spoilers now, right? Because I’m going to start with the spoilers… any... second.

The White Snake is a comic in which a snake turns into a woman and escapes from her enclosure. Or, rather, I suppose she escapes her enclosure and then turns into a woman. The comic follows twin storylines, as the snake, going by the name Lily, tries to adjust to being a human, while a detective tries to track down the person or people responsible for what he can only assume is a theft for the purpose of illegal animal trading.

As one might imagine, adjusting from living as a snake for one’s entire life to living as a human comes with a fair number of difficulties. Lily doesn’t have any experience interacting with other people or holding down a job, or even, given her life in captivity, a sense of how to be the master of her own fate, making her own decisions about what to do and when, being responsible for her own actions.

There are three main things that I love about Lily coming to terms with her new situation. One thing I love is attention to mental health problems being well represented in fiction. In this case the mental health problems aren’t to do with mental illness, but rather the traumas and anxieties that come about just from adjusting to life. Coming from such an unusual background, Lily is understandably maladjusted to life as a human.

The second thing I love is that she’s so damn relatable. I’ve long maintained that the stigma against talking about mental illness, as well as many other social ills, scares people away from discussing experiences that are actually extremely common. That when people really start admitting what’s going on with them, they reveal aspects of the human experience that almost everyone shares, but that almost no one realizes happens to other people too. Now, maybe I’m just revealing how deeply messed up my own mental state is, but when a snake starts talking about the difficulties of living a human life and I find myself agreeing with almost everything she says, I have to think that the author is tapping into something deep that connects us all.

The third thing I love is that she’s seeing a therapist, and he seems to be doing a pretty good job. If having mental health issues at all are stigmatized, seeing a therapist to deal with them is even more so. Personally, I think just about everyone could benefit from therapy, but my perception is admittedly skewed because without it I probably would not be alive anymore. Regardless, our culture has something of an aversion to showing effective therapy in our fictional stories, to the extent that TVTropes lists “There Are No Therapists” as a common trope in works that include characters dealing with trauma or mental illness and yet never approaching a therapist for help. I am glad to see a work of fiction representing a character who receives appropriate help, even if her situation is at first glance beyond the purview of most therapists to handle. However extraordinary or mundane your struggles, a sympathetic ear and some assistance with introspection can be a fantastic step toward overcoming them.

Okay, I’ll get off my soap box now.

Besides our protagonist, Lily the adorable and sympathetic snake woman, The White Snake gives us a deuteragonist (that is an awesome word that I learned recently and am going to use all the time now) in Detective Tate. He’s not quite as adorable as Lily, but he’s definitely sympathetic, and it’s fascinating to watch him grapple with this case that doesn’t make much sense on the surface, because sensible detectives do not assume that missing snakes have turned into young women and integrated into the workforce.

Despite being ill-equipped for investigating a mystery of this nature, Detective Tate maintains an open mind and doesn’t seem perturbed or discouraged when the evidence he’s presented with fails to make immediate sense. He’s perfectly willing to include mystical beliefs about snakes in his research, suspecting that, even though he’s certain all that stuff is false, he might be dealing with a perpetrator who believes in some of it.

While Detective Tate is bound on a journey of discovering that which is outside himself, a world full of strange and mystical things he’s not yet ready to acknowledge, Lily’s journey of discovery is all based upon her inner life. These two characters contrast and complement each other wonderfully, approaching the world with different methods and different goals, but each learning and exploring new possibilities along the way.

One of my favorite parts of this comic is seeing Lily’s inner life visualized, the way she relates to the world and develops mnemonics to navigate the world. Not all human things make intuitive sense to her, so she turns them into snake things in her head.

The White Snake is written and drawn by Jen Wang. New chapters will go up all at once, so it may take quite some time before there’s more story to read, but when there is, there will be a lot of it. I encourage you to check it out and discover what kind of connection you can form with these characters. Lily as a character is extraordinarily likeable, and I find myself wanting to read more… not to learn more about where she came from or how she is able to transform like she does, or even to find out how Detective Tate’s investigation shapes up, but just to find out how she gets along as a person. I want to know how she deals with work, how she comes to terms with her feelings, how she settles into living a human life. She feels like a real person, and I’m rooting for her.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Entry 78: Junior Scientist Power Hour

If you have been devoutly following every recommendation I’ve ever made in this blog and reading every single comic I’ve ever written about… as is only fair and right, after all… then you are already a fan of Abby Howard’s The Last Halloween, because you jumped over and started reading it as soon as you read my post about it. If, however, you only ever follow my recommendations, and never click on links that you don’t find on this very blog, (because everyone besides me is untrustworthy and probably trying to lead you astray) then there is no possible way you would have known that Abby Howard creates another webcomic as well. Therefore, for the sake of all you people who read every comic I link you to and precisely nothing else, I will today do you the favor of telling you about Junior Scientist Power Hour.

I put this excerpt first because I cannot imagine anybody not relating to it.

Junior Scientist Power Hour is a little bit journal comic, a little bit gag-a-day humor, and a whole lot of fun stuff that comes from some unfathomable depths of the author’s mind. You can jump in anywhere in the archive, hit the Random button to jump around wherever it takes you, or dedicatedly read through every single installment if that’s the way you roll. (That is the way I roll. It is not necessarily any better or worse than other ways.) If you choose not to read the whole archive you may find yourself lacking in the full context for certain later installments, but not to the point that they become incomprehensible or inaccessible. This stuff can be absurd or slice-of-life-y by turns, and there’s no real pressure on the reader

For the most part, Junior Scientist Power Hour is lighthearted and silly, full of quick jokes or amusing concepts that make for a moment’s diversion before the reader moves on. This is true even when the subject matter is weighty.

When reading this type of comic, one gets a sense of what’s going on in the author’s mind, or at least, the part of her mind that she’s elected to share with us. Like keeping up with an old friend, I witness Howard’s triumphs and her challenges, her foibles, her strengths. I could almost interpret Junior Scientist Power Hour as a self-portrait, more accurate in some ways than external visions of her because Howard is no doubt more familiar with herself than anyone who is not her, less accurate in others because no one is more biased about a person than the person herself.

When reading something that way, getting a feel for the author and who she seems to be as a person, I of course find myself making comparisons, evaluating her as a person based mainly on how many things she seems to have in common with me.

Like me, Howard hates restarting her computer and loves cats. (This comic features kind of a lot of cats. This is generally speaking a good thing for any online piece of media, because the Internet also loves cats. However, what some people fail to realize is that the Internet loves cats because they are objectively the best animals and anybody who disagrees is flat-out wrong.) Unlike me, Howard also like cute butts, while I am a bizarre person who doesn’t even really understand what makes butts cute or the difference between a cute butt and an uncute one. I can’t even blame that one on my prosopagnosia, because even I can tell a face apart from a butt.


Though most of the comic consists of amusing anecdotes or funny ideas or nonsensical jokes or just drawing of cats because cats are the best, at times it does tackle more serious subject matter. It tends to do so in a manner consistent with the tone of the rest of the comic, juxtaposing real concerns and important insights with absurdity or comically exaggerated activities.

If you elect not to read through the whole Junior Scientist Power Hour archive (though you totally should because it’s what I would do and also it’s not too long you can totally get through it), I would still recommend you read this installment and its follow-up. Howard rightly puts some fat-shaming dudes in their place with completely sensible arguments and completely disproportionate physical violence. It’s pretty much the best.

Junior Scientist Power Hour is written and drawn by Abby Howard… as I mentioned in the first paragraph, but hey, maybe you have a problem with your short-term memory and need to be reminded. If you’re looking for a fun way to spend a couple of hours, or you just need a quick laugh, or want to feel a moment of empathy with someone who loves cats the way every right-thinking person should, I suggest you treat yourself and give it a read. Howard presents herself and her thoughts with a self-awareness and humility that makes me constantly want to be on her side, even when she does things that are genuinely super annoying and oh god just stop please now stop. In short, she has a rare gift, and you owe it to yourself to check it out.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Entry 77: Huérfanos (Orphans)

Today we’re taking a look at fantasy. Now fantasy storytelling has its roots in mythology and folklore… the kinds of tales that we once told because we had no other way of understanding and explaining our world to one another. Hundreds, thousands of years ago, the people telling those stories, and listening to them, would have understood them as fact. Legends and history intermingled, both of them part of the story of What Came Before. These days, though, people draw a pretty sharp line between reality and fiction, placing myths, fairy tales and so forth squarely in the “fiction” category. “Realistic” fantasy, therefore, inhabits a somewhat uneasy place. In the real world, mystical realms, otherworldly beings and so forth are commonly understood to be things that Do Not Exist. So if a fantasy story takes place ostensibly in our world, all of those elements must be conveyed in a manner that allows them to stay hidden from the general populace. Suspending one’s disbelief for the sake of the story therefore involves suspending disbelief in regards to those elements existing in reality, too… at least to an extent. It’s an uneasy balance that I’m really interested in exploring as I tell you about Huérfanos (Orphans).

Before we get into things, I’ll note that Huérfanos (Orphans) is a narrative-type comic that you definitely ought to read from the beginning. It’s also one of those comics that I can’t really discuss without spoiling some things. However, in this case I believe that the things I spoil will make for a better reading experience rather than a worse one, because going in with a certain idea of what’s coming can help the reader to appreciate some of what’s being set up early on.

If you’re very very spoilerphobic I can’t blame you for wanting to skip the blog post for now and go read the comic before I can give too much away. (Hey, I get it, I’m that way about a lot of things, too.) However, if you’d like to keep with this blog post and read what I have to say, rest assured that I won’t describe specific plot points in detail and that there are plenty of twists and developments in the comic that I won’t even hint at here.

Huérfanos (Orphans) tells the story of a ragtag bunch of misfits who are brought together under the instruction of a wizard who intends to hone their magical abilities. Basically, it’s exactly the kind of thing that I’ve spent much of my life wishing would happen to me.

Remember that whole spiel I made in that first paragraph about fantasy stories and the belief in the truth of them? Well, I’ve always been one of those people who secretly hopes that all my favorite fantasy stories are true. I was one of those kids who was sorely disappointed that I never got my invitation to Hogwarts, who was constantly keeping an eye out for the strange medallion, or hidden door, or secret message that would transport me to another place, one far more exciting and dangerous than the world I’ve always known.

Of course, I live in a world that doesn’t contain any of those things… at least, as far as I’m aware. But in so many fantasy stories, including this one, magical and mystical things are going on without the awareness of the public at large all the time. One of the best things about fantasy is getting to explore a reality very different than the one we live in. But one of the other best things about fantasy is getting to pretend that it’s real. A well-told fantasy story can convince the reader that everything in the story is true, that all the mystical beings and magic spells are hidden just out of sight.

The trouble with believing all that is that, if I genuinely spent my time working under the assumption that it’s all true, especially if I started searching for clues, stitching together coincidences into “evidence” that my fantasy world is real… that would be indicative of mental illness. In this rational world, a world in which the scientific method allows only falsifiable theories to be granted credence, a wishy-washy ad hoc justification for belief in fantasy is, if harmless, subject to ridicule. If harmful, it is subject to much worse.

However… Those people who are convinced of something going on beyond that which the rest of us can perceive? For all I know they could be right. They may very well speak to beings that seem to the rest of us to be air, or see things that the rest of us find invisible. If there were people who could see into magical realms, and there were also people who merely believed that they could see those things due to a mental illness… how would the rest of us be able to tell the difference?

That conundrum finds better representation in Huérfanos (Orphans) than I’ve seen almost anywhere else. Most of the characters appear in at least some way to be mentally ill… whether because they bother other characters with apparently erratic behavior, or whether they behave in ways that the reader can clearly identify as unhealthy.

I have a little bit of experience dealing with others’ mental illness, mostly with my late aunt, who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. And when I read this comic, I can see her in it. That adds a layer of heartbreak to many of the scenes depicted therein. When a character describes being treated like their experiences are not real, that they themselves can’t be trusted because others believe them to be insane, I think of my aunt. I think of the way she lived her life, always knowing that no one else believed many of the things she said, that we all thought her experiences were invalid, false, even though they were real to her… and I can understand and sympathize with the characters who treat our protagonists the same way. Because it’s the only sensible thing to do, and there’s absolutely no way to prove that, in this case, it’s actually the wrong course of action.

On the same thematic bent, I’d like you to consider the nature of of magic, mysticism, and the people who engage in it. Many people are willing to sell their magical services, promising various outcomes in exchange for money. The vast majority of these people are charlatans.

That is true in any world, whether magic is real or not. What changes are the nature of the charlatans. In the truest sense of the word, a charlatan is someone who sells something even though they themselves know it doesn’t work. In a broader sense, one might consider a charlatan to be anyone who sells something that hasn’t been proven to work, even if they themselves believe it does. The real world contains plenty of people in both those categories.

However, a fantasy world can easily incorporate a third category of magical salespeople, ones who aren’t necessarily charlatans at all. If magic is indeed real, a wizard could go into business selling spells, potions and the like, all of which work exactly as intended. Or, a wizard could use magic to appear to sell effective remedies and so forth, in order to more effectively scam people out of their money.

The trouble, again, is telling which is which. This applies across the whole category of supernatural and occult practitioners. Some are legitimate, some are misguided, and some are outright untrustworthy. But when myths and legends are so unreliable, when so much of this type of knowledge is kept hidden or known only to a few… telling apart the different categories, picking apart the misleading from the malicious from the accurate, is an inhumanly difficult task.

Huérfanos (Orphans) is written by Enric Pujadas and drawn by M. A. Garcías. Dive in and explore a world similar to our own but with the clear-cut certainty that magic is real and ghosts (as well as other beings) go about among us. Get to know a group of distinct characters, each with their own special abilities… think Midnight’s Children if you’re highbrow or Heroes if you’re more pop-culture, but on a much smaller scale. In particular, get excited to meet Hipólita. I adore her.. she’s an artist who is able to depict the creatures she sees by drawing them, and even better, she’s a legit otherworldly princess. People do what she says and everything because, hey, she’s a princess, and that kind of authority commands respect and deference, even from people who should have no idea who the hell she is.

Obviously, these characters have to team up to fight some great evil, and possibly even save the world. I, for one, can’t wait to learn more about what threat they’re going to face and how they’ll overcome it. Along the way, maybe they’ll even discover that they’ve become a kind of unorthodox family. I’m looking forward to seeing how all of that develops.