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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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!