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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  1. Hi! I'm the author of The Bright Side, thank you so much for this lovely review! Someone happened to link it to me. I'm so pleased and flattered! :D Glad you like my comic!

    Yes - I really do need to fix my lettering. I haven't decided what to do about it, and all the options just seem too daunting, so I keep sitting and not doing anything about it. But I really need to get onto that.

    Thank you so much! *flails excitedly*

    1. Hi Amber! Thank you for commenting; it's good to hear from you. I love your comic (which is evidenced by what I've written above)! I'm glad you saw this post.

      Lettering can be a challenge. Some artists work with a dedicated letterer, while others decry this practice as a way of giving up control over the final page. And then there's the world of digital lettering, with all its preexisting fonts and even fonts created specifically for certain artists/works. I'm sure you'll find something that works for you. :)

      Normally when I post about a comic here, I mention the creator on Twitter as a way of letting them know about it, but when I put this one up I didn't find a Twitter account for you. Looking now though, I see that you do have one! I don't know why I didn't see it listed before. I'll go rectify not mentioning it earlier now!