Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Entry 53: Paranatural

Let me introduce you to the quaint little town of Mayview. This seemingly normal, quiet community… well, really, as soon as I described it as a “quaint little town,” you knew it would be harboring some bizarre and dangerous secret, right? Happy and unassuming settings exist for the express purpose of containing something incongruous. No one wants to read a story about a family who owns a little store in a little town and nothing unusual ever happens to them. And to be honest, you should have a pretty good idea what kind of secrets we’re dealing with as soon as you learn that the comic’s title is Paranatural.

Right up front, a note about spoilers: Paranatural is the type of story that has a lot of mysteries. As a new reader, even the premise is something of a mystery for a good chunk of time. I’ll avoid mentioning plot details from later in the story, but in order to discuss the comic in any depth I’m going to have to mention a little bit about the setting and how things work. If you’d rather not have that given away, go ahead and dive in at the beginning to experience the reveals as they were meant to be read.

If you still need convincing, or you don’t mind being spoiled on some things, then feel free to press on, and I’ll tell you about a group of probably well-meaning kids and their magical abilities, and the probably well-meaning forces that guide them.

We got rid of the spoiler-phobes, right? Okay, so the deal with Mayview is that it’s full of spirits. Some of them are ghosts, but some are other things. Some are malevolent, but many just float around doin’ their thing. Possibly the rest of the world is equally full of spirits; I haven’t gathered whether Mayview contains particularly many of them or if it’s just where the protagonist happens to be when he sees them for the first time.

Said protagonist is a boy named Max. His mom is dead, his dad is a goofball, and he just moved to a new town and discovered that he’s a special kind of person who can see and interact with spectral energy. Max serves as the reader’s viewpoint character; for the most part, we see what he sees and we usually only know as much as he knows. He’s the kind of kid many of us were, or wanted to be: somewhat snarky, sure of himself, and usually kind to others. Most of his interactions seem to take place with good faith on his part, as if he continually trusts that other people mean well, even when they say or do things that are patently ridiculous.

Minor ridiculousness is met with an appropriate level of snark.

And these people do a lot of ridiculous things! Paranatural is populated with larger-than-life characters, people who act out of accordance with all sense. Some of them are spectrals, but many are just people in Max’s life who have no connection with spirits (such as his aforementioned goofball dad).

I don’t think this is a case where “normal” means something different in the comic’s setting. Most of the minor characters seem to be various degrees of ordinary, not in a bland way but in a way where they’d probably fit into any given middle school environment without raising eyebrows. Those characters who are bombastic or otherwise off-kilter are met with skepticism and befuddlement on behalf of those around them. I get the impression that most people in the world of Paranatural have regular old lives just like people in the real world. Our story focuses on the unusual folks, because that’s a more interesting story to tell, and they do have a tendency to stand out from the crowd.

These people are weird, and everyone knows that they’re weird, but lots of them are also pretty loveable so it works out.

When I was a kid, I read a lot of fantasy stories, and the moral dilemmas were usually pretty simple. “Can I be sure this is a good person, or am I inadvertently helping the villain?” “Is it okay to help a villain in order to stop a worse villain?” “How can I be sure this good thing I’m doing isn’t going to cause more bad things to happen later on?” The issues were usually black and white, with only minor shades of grey thrown in.

Sometime in the past decade or so, I think the standard in fantasy has adjusted. It’s not so easy to tell who the “good guys” are anymore, and the hero usually has to think carefully about what information they give to whom and how to avoid being manipulated to an unjust end.

Part of me resents that change… mostly, I’ll admit, because I’m full of nostalgia for the stories that I breezed through as a kid, that never challenged my worldview or dared me to think from other moral angles, but which showed me wondrous and inviting worlds nonetheless. But there’s also the trouble that, when handled poorly, stories about moral codes and shifting loyalties are boring. A lot of the time I’m not interested in pledges of service or fealty or whatever, I just want to get to the part with the monsters.

Paranatural takes that sort of ethical hemming and hawing that can so often lose my interest and turns it into something compelling. The default assumption in this comic seems to be that people try to do good. Conflicts arise not because some people want to do evil, but because different people have different ideas about what doing good entails. As a result, characters often fall to distrust as a default state. A lot of the mysteries in the story are mostly the result of individuals carefully controlling information in an attempt to protect themselves or their goals. As a result, the reader, and many characters, are kept in the dark and have to rely on guesswork and patience to determine just what might be going on.

Paranatural is a comic that really uses being a comic to tell its story more effectively. Most of the time this is invisible… an effective panel or a well-composed page might not grab the reader’s attention while it communicates important information, heightens tension, or enforces the intended tone. But there are instances of using comics tools in novel ways, communicating information in a manner that wouldn’t be possible in another medium, or making jokes about the medium that these fictional characters inhabit.

One thing I want to be sure to mention is humor. Paranatural cracks me up on a regular basis, and the comedy really sells the story to me. Sure, the fantasy and intrigue are compelling on their own, but I wouldn’t come back to the story as eagerly as I do if it wasn’t so funny.

I deal with severe depression, and yesterday was a bad day for me. To the extent that it was hard to make myself get up and start re-reading Paranatural so that I’d be able to write this post. But once I started reading, I found myself laughing, and laughing, and by the time I’d read the whole thing I was actually in a really good mood. So apparently Paranatural is a pretty good treatment for depression, at least on a short-term basis. Use that information wisely.

Some things in Paranatural are humorous when I’m not even certain they’re intended to be. The spectral teacher is named Mr. Spender, and I don’t know whether that’s intended to be a silly name, but it really is a very silly name. It sounds like a user handle on a forum for shopaholics, not a real name that a person actually has. At one point he’s called Mr. Splendid as a joke, but to be terribly honest Splendid is not any less plausible a name than Spender. They’re both absurd!

Mostly, though, the funny things are clearly intended as jokes. Like the uniforms that some spectrals wear. They’re pajamas made to look like suits! Or suits shaped like pajamas, possibly. I’m not really sure where to draw that line.

so incongruous

There’s a lot of heavy plot and mystery here, but as a reader you don’t need to worry about following the minutia or figuring out what happens next. (Of course, you are welcome to do so if that’s something you enjoy!) On a page-to-page basis, the story is pretty easy to follow, though it does reward careful reading and re-reading. I absolutely notice new things when I go back and read the comic with an understanding of the setting and various character motivations. I expect that it will all seem that much richer as the story grows and I learn more about what’s going on with everyone. I clearly still know much less than what I don’t know.

The longer Paranatural goes on, the more complex and rewarding it feels. Whether you’re looking for a quick fun read, or want something you can ponder in depth, it’s got some fantastical good times in store for you.

Paranatural is written and drawn by Zack Morrison. Watch for mouseover text starting at this point, and wavering for a while before it becomes a more permanent fixture. On the chapter title pages (even for Chapter One) the mouseover text tells you what’s going to happen in that chapter! You know, how like old books would have chapter titles like “In which Max and his father order pizza and meet a burglar.” I’ll leave discovering whether that chapter description actually occurs in Paranatural as an exercise for the reader.

I can't stop giggling every time I look at this.


  1. I immediately thought of "Spender" as an X-Files reference, because of "Agent Jeffrey Spender", a character from the 5th season who it is later learned is the son of the show's infamous "Cigarette Smoking Man", whose maybe-real name is then revealed as "C.G.B. Spender". So I got vibes of "ruh roh", rather than "that's a silly name".

    Otherwise, another excellent review of an excellent comic.

    1. Oh wow, I had no idea there was a character on X-Files with that name. An episode of that show scared me out of my skull (and left me terrified of bathrooms for some time) when I was about three, and I pretty much haven't watched it since. So then I miss potential references like this one.

      Thanks for pointing that out to me; I don't think I ever would have caught it on my own.