Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Webcomics Worth Wreading, Entry 42: Monster Pulse

As a child, I devoured fantasy tales. You know the ones: tales of children transported to magical lands, or visited by strange beings, and obtaining or discovering rare and powerful abilities. I wanted to be one of those children, convinced as I was that whatever dangers or terrors I might encounter would not faze me, that I would be unflappable and capable of succeeding in whatever adventure I might encounter.

Children, though, are not typically equipped for such responsibilities. Neither are most adults. Many people fancy themselves heroes, but when faced with horrors, very few would respond with excitement. To consider the mental and emotional damage that fantastical adventures could entail, one need look no further than  Monster Pulse.

Note: Monster Pulse is definitely a narrative-based comic and as such must be read in order from the beginning. I’ll steer away from major spoilers, but as is often the case, there’s just not going to be any discussion of this comic without giving a little bit away. If I do my job right then I’ll give away just enough to tantalize and leave you wanting more, but if you’d rather go ahead and read the comic before continuing with this post I’ll understand. The Monster Pulse archive isn’t too intimidating, and my discussion of it should still be here when you get back.

Monster Pulse is in the proud tradition of stories about adolescents who encounter strange and terrible events beyond their ability to handle. In this case, the strange and terrible events involve the conversion of body parts into monsters. No one really understands what these monsters are or how they work, not the children who are affected or the shadowy organization that haunts them.

As a reader, I’m filled with curiosity about the monsters. I want to know what would happen in all sorts of hypothetical scenarios. I want to know what rules govern the body parts that can form them. I want to know why different monsters form out of different body parts.

But for the children in this story, curiosity would be a dangerous thing. Their immediate concerns are how to keep their monsters safe, how to keep themselves safe, and how to stay out of the hands of Shell, the aforementioned shadowy company. Shell wants to learn more about the monsters (and knows more than the reader does) but it’s hard to sympathize with people who would capture children and use them as unwilling test subjects, no matter how badly I want to learn the results of those tests.

These kids have enough problems without the added pressure of scientific analysis to deal with.

The aspect of Monster Pulse that I find most compelling is the way the comic handles relationships. The friendships between the kids, their interactions with family members, and the bonds they share with their monsters, are all wonderfully developed and complex and melancholy. This is a comic about people who need all the love and support they can get, and unfortunately it’s pretty difficult for a lot of them to get much at all. When only a handful of people have experienced anything like what you have, circumstances force you into a sort of friendship, even if those people otherwise share nothing in common with you.

In my post about Nimona, I discussed trust, the importance it plays in friendships, and the difficulty of earning and maintaining it. Those issues are a huge part of Monster Pulse as well. Honesty and openness are a huge part of trusting others, and these characters are in situations where they don’t feel able to be wholly open and honest. Certainly not with the world at large, and often not even with each other.

Family is often the refuge of a child in need, but the families in Monster Pulse are all imperfect refuges at best. Some parents know about their children’s condition while others are kept in the dark. Even reasonable adults working with the best knowledge available can handle this type of situation poorly. The parents we see are all people with their own faults, and they can’t always be who their children need them to be. Some of the scenes showing families in this comic honestly make me cry when I read them, because the pain depicted there is so damn believable.

Desmond can't eat because his stomach is a monster now. What are ya gonna do?

So if you can’t trust your friends, and you can’t trust your family, you’re on your own. The difficulty is, you may not even be able to trust yourself.

A group of adolescents finds that their very bodies have betrayed them by partially transforming into monsters sounds like a perfectly apt analogy for puberty, but I don’t find that interpretation to be very interesting in this case. The betrayal isn’t just one of the body; this is a betrayal of self. Coming of age is partly a process of realizing who you are as a person, and discovering that you may be a different person than you always assumed you were.

Notably, the “monsters” in this comic are beautiful, and possess extraordinary capabilities unique to each of them. The process of obtaining a monster is considered painful and unpleasant, but the creature that emerges is an asset as well as a burden. Depending on the nature of the transformed body part, a character may be more or less physically endangered by the transformation.

Internal conflict and resentment of parts of oneself are familiar problems, not just for adolescents but for anyone. Learning how to live with yourself is a continual process, and it is rarely easy.

Rarely is it quite as hard as having a tempestuous relationship with one’s literal heart, however. Most of us do get off easy in comparison.

I’m making Monster Pulse sound pretty heavy and dramatic. And, well, there is a lot of darkness, a lot of drama, a lot of difficult feelings to work through. But there’s also a lot of fun. This is a story about kids with their own pet monsters, and while the monsters and their origins are pretty horrific, the concept is just begging to be played with. And don’t worry; Monster Pulse definitely delivers the Wacky Monster Hi-jinks.

The characterization in Monster Pulse is magnificent. All of the kids feel like kids, still learning and growing and being forced to grow up too fast and struggling with the reality of their new existence. More significantly, though, they all feel like individuals, with diverse backgrounds and personalities that shape the way each of them would approach the same situation. Probably my favorite chapter is “Phantom Limbs,” in which the protagonists all go through a day at school. Four kids in the same setting each have radically different experiences, highlighting the differences between them as well as their dependence on one another.

That chapter also introduces Violet, who is my favorite character in the whole comic.

Excellent characterization doesn’t just extend to the kids, or even to those on the kids’ side. I mentioned earlier that it’s hard to feel sympathy for Shell, given their unethical practices, but… the people who work for Shell are every bit as well-rounded and believable as the kids. Many of them struggle with the morality of their practices, and whenever the story focuses on Shell, it’s clear how each of the people there has a particular life history that has led them to this point. Just as the kids have had to deal with horrors, and learn to live with their own actions, Shell employees also witness terrible things, and have to process their own involvement with them.

It’s not the kind of story where you can just write someone off as an awful person. I like it that way, both because real people are rarely so simple, and because I find it comforting to think that the villains are every bit as conflicted as the heroes. This way, the possibility exists to find common ground. It’s not necessarily a very likely possibility, considering how difficult it can be to find common ground even among one’s allies, but still, the possibility is there, and I think that’s enough reason to be optimistic.

Every single person in this cute birthday photo is a bad guy.

Monster Pulse is written and drawn by Magnolia Porter and updates on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. It’s a great read if you’re the kind of person who’s ever had a fight with a friend and wondered if you would ever be able to patch things up. (I like to believe that most of the time you can.) It’s got a lot of great interpersonal dynamics, a bunch of coming-of-age stories going on all at once, and there’s mystical energy turning body parts into monsters left and right.

I’d recommend Monster Pulse to teenagers, but I’d hesitate to give it to people much younger than the main characters (who are 13) because it can be pretty intense and violent at times. It’s never gratuitous or gory, but there’s a lot of messed-up stuff going on here, so be cautious. If exploring the ramifications of that kind of messed-up stuff appeals to you, though, you’ll definitely find Monster Pulse a rewarding read.

Seriously you guys Violet is the best.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Webcomics Worth Wreading, Entry 41: Drive

I dream of interstellar travel. To journey through the cosmos, encounter alien life, and experience the excitement that a galaxy - or even a universe - full of diverse environments can provide. Current technology does not permit such explorations. By the time human travelers could reach even the nearest star, they would be dead. As for the nearest inhabited planet… we’re not certain there is one.

Practical transportation between solar systems may never be within human grasp. If such a thing is ever developed, though, it will change everything. And the one who develops it will be in an unprecedented position to influence human life. The consequences of such a development, and the discoveries that may follow, are thoroughly explored in Drive.

Drive is a comic about the ragtag crew aboard a dingy little spaceship and the adventures they have. The main group of characters serve as a focus through which the audience can witness momentous events, the machinations of an empire on an interstellar scale. This particular crew is right in the thick of things, either by coincidence or design. (I mean, really they’re in the thick of things because otherwise the story wouldn’t be about them, but you know what I mean.) For the most part, the assemblage of this particular group of people seems accidental, but I wouldn’t be surprised to discover an organizing principle at work that hasn’t yet been revealed at this point.

Regardless of how they got this way, the crew of the Machito stand at the lynchpin of great happenings, regardless of whether they are qualified to occupy that position.

Note: Drive is a heavily narrative-based comic and must be read in order from the beginning. I won’t be able to get through this review without spoiling anything, but I’ll keep away from major plot points and make sure I don’t give big stuff away that’s not revealed at the beginning of the comic. This is one of those stories where information is revealed slowly over time, and I don’t want to disrupt that process for new readers.

The plot is intricate, with storylines interweaving across vast distances and time spans. While one group of characters definitely receives more attention than any others, I’d say only about half of the story is spent on them. There are just so many other things going on, whether in flashbacks or just a view to what’s going on in another part of the galaxy while our heroes are busy drinking milkshakes.

There’s an awful lot of information to keep track of. Every time I reread the comic I feel like I have a better understanding of what’s going on, both because more information has been revealed to me and because I get better at processing what I’ve already seen with repeated exposure.

Receiving information is only a small part of understanding. Putting that information into the correct context is trickier, and also more rewarding.

Don’t feel intimidated by the heavy plot stuff, though. Drive is a rewarding experience even for a casual reader. The story itself may be dense with conspiracies and uncertain loyalties, but on the level of individual installments, Drive is one of the funniest things out there. A fascinating array of alien species shows up, with unique evolutionary paths that led to some spectacular abilities. The resulting physical attributes and cultural systems are often comically exaggerated and even downright silly. (I don’t want to give much away, but I basically love everything about Fillipods.)

And though the characters are neck-deep in imperial intrigue, they aren’t the least bit decorous. Some characters are humorous by their nature and wouldn’t know serious drama if it hit them on the head, while others just seem to prefer a more laid-back, snarky attitude despite the serious happenings around them.

One major recurring theme in Drive has to do with the differences between cultures, and their coexistence and/or synthesis. Humans and aliens interact in a variety of ways, finding common languages and points of reference, and dealing with the stereotypes and misunderstandings that inevitably arise.

Even within the human empire, cultural differences are prevalent. This is particularly notable because so often in science fiction, a single planet is treated as a single cultural entity, and with American-created science fiction, that usually means an entire Earth that’s just like the US.

In Drive, the human empire is based in Spain, and the standard imperial language is a hybrid of English and Spanish. I have to wonder whether the English is only in there because that’s the native language of the comic’s creator and primary audience, and if the comic were written for a Spanish-speaking audience the presence of English words would be minimal or nonexistent. (Practically speaking, most of the comic is in English, which I appreciate because I would have a hard time reading it otherwise.) But regardless of why the creator chose to hybridize two languages, the choice has the effect of reinforcing the idea that all large cultures are the result of smaller ones joining together, and that this diversity continues to have repercussions throughout the lifetime of the larger culture.

One of the main characters is an alien with a ridiculous accent, not because his species talks that way, but because he spent time in Moscow. The lesson: don’t go around stereotyping Veetans. You should stereotype Russians instead. (I mean, we can’t be expected not to stereotype people at all. That would be ridiculous.)

Along the same lines as general cultural understanding, communication is key to the drama in this comic. After all, the biggest obstacle to cultural understanding is often just getting the two cultures to talk to each other, and, more importantly, to listen. At least one important message is misunderstood to disastrous effect, and the cases where species don’t attempt communication have a tendency to go badly.

Communication is definitely worthwhile, but it’s not always easy. Furthermore, political power often requires secrets, which just make communication more difficult and fraught with opportunities for trouble.

The difficulty of effective communication is reinforced by the fact that Nosh, that alien with the silly Russian accent, is a science advisor, tasked with “translat[ing] tricky sciences talk into the plain Englishes.” Nuance is key to so much of communication, and so difficult to translate effectively, that it’s almost surprising that anyone manages to work around the barriers at all.

Sometimes you’ll come across a page that is entirely text, with no pictures whatsoever. It’s easy to be intimidated when you see all those words, but don’t be! The text pages are wonderfully entertaining, written with the same style and sense of humor as the comic dialog. They provide important exposition and background information, really fleshing out the setting and making the story come alive. These are all in-universe documents: letters, historical texts and such, and if you’re interested in the story at all, there’s a lot in these documents that will draw you in. This is information that couldn’t easily be communicated in other ways, so it’s presented as succinctly as possible. Also, the way that these documents are arranged provides scads of insight into the way that the empire handles information specifically and day-to-day operations generally.

Remember when I said I love everything about Fillipods? I love everything about Fillipods.

I recommend Drive to anyone who is curious about the future, who worries about traversing language barriers, or who just enjoys some good-natured silliness now and then. The intricate plot is what I remember and think about the most, but the basic humor is what draws me in. Drive is one of a very small number of works that I think strikes the perfect balance between short-term, self-contained entertainment and long-term payoff. An individual installment is often plenty entertaining on its own, but only when you take them all together do you truly appreciate what’s going on. Feel free to approach with as casual or as serious an attitude as you like, and Drive will accommodate you.

Drive is written and drawn by Dave Kellett, and has been updating weekly as of late. (Mr. Kellett spent quite a lot of time putting a documentary together, but has now resumed comicking with a gusto.) If you like laughing and/or caring about fictional political developments, do yourself a favor and check it out.