Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Entry 63: Templar, Arizona

Think about the elements that make up a story. Characters, definitely. Plot, almost certainly. Maybe dialog, hopefully conflict, frequently some sort of lesson or moral. And, often taken for granted, almost unnoticed, but absolutely always present, is the setting. Characters need a location to inhabit. Events require a context in which to unfold. The setting is the fabric that holds all the other elements of a story together.

Today we’re looking at a comic with a lurid and intriguing setting, that of a city filled with vibrant groups and eccentric people. Though the story focuses on just a handful of characters, their exploits give the reader a sense of a larger community, the multitudes that shape the world around them. And through this small lens, a picture of the setting as a whole develops, guiding the reader through the streets of Templar, Arizona.

(Somehow in being posted here the comic images have come out grainy. You can always click on the images here to see the original page, with better coloration, on the comic website.)

It takes a while to get used to Templar. The city has its own unique culture, and dozens of disparate yet interrelated subcultures. Presidential statues line one of the nicer streets, while in another part of town decrepit brothels are repurposed as low-cost housing. One might get the impression that Templar is a particularly strange place, but I think it’s actually one of the most honest representations I’ve ever seen of the actual diversity (of people, of ideas, of architecture) that you can find in big cities in the real world. Cities with their own identities, with names that evoke particular reactions from people thousands of miles away who’ve never even been there, are shaped by their millions of inhabitants, working together in some ways and at cross-purposes in others. Think of San Francisco, or of Rome. I’m sure you have some concept of what those cities are like. And I’m equally sure that that concept doesn’t even begin to cover the whole picture of how that city works and how the people in it live their lives.

Templar feels particularly strange because it exists in a world that, though mundane, doesn’t quite match up to our own. It’s mostly similar; people speak English in the US; technology seems to be about on part with what we’ve got currently. People will, however, mention political developments in other parts of the world that don’t exactly match up to real-life events. And while technological innovation seems to run at about the same pace as the real world, it’s definitely taken a different direction in a few places. We’re moving more and more to a content-on-demand culture, but in Templar, Arizona broadcast TV is already treated as an ancient relic.

Centering the comic around a fictional town in a fictionalized world allows for a more realistic feeling than would be possible otherwise. If Templar were replaced by a real city, then readers would constantly be comparing the comic’s depiction with their own impressions, looking for confirmation of their own views or nitpicking inaccuracies. Since everyone’s experience of a city is going to be different, the comic would never be able to satisfy all readers. Even if dozens of viewpoints were represented, the author would never be able to convey every aspect of life in a real city in a manner that rings true both to those who live in that culture and to those who observe from the outside.

Because the author has the freedom to determine the entire histories and outlooks of every group and every character, a high level of detail and consistency is possible without relying on conjecture or public perception. The author clearly understands the perspectives of all these disparate people, their motivations for partaking in various movements and the way that individuals have shaped and been shaped by their subcultures.

With this understanding comes a lack of judgement. Though some of the subcultures in Templar, Arizona can be read as having real-world political counterparts, the comic doesn’t push any of their agendas or come across as promoting a particular message. At different times I find myself agreeing with different groups to one extent or another, but with all the conflicts and polemics flying around, no one is clearly shown to be in the right. Everyone has their reasons for believing what they believe or going along with whatever groups they’re associated with, and the reader can sympathize to whatever extent seems appropriate for each case.

In addition to the vibrant subcultures, there’s the culture and sense of belonging of Templar’s population as a whole. Templar has its own sense of identity, formed by its history and the intersections of the movements and subcultures that inhabit it presently — again, this is like any big city. Certain words and place names take on connotations that they don’t have elsewhere, giving Templar residents a shared vocabulary and cementing their cultural sense of belonging. Saying “The Sorrows” or “Churchyard” to someone will bring up a very particular meaning, one that most of the people involved in the conversation will assume is obvious.

Local trends develop based on local culture and history. Most young women on King Street wouldn’t be caught dead without a prostitution license. I’m not actually sure whether “prostitution license” is the correct term to use; on King Street they call it an “escort license,” while in the Oarlock they’d call it a “whoring license.” Whether either of those is the official name on the document I can’t say. I don’t want to impose my own concept of correct language onto those who are more familiar with the subject than I’ll ever be, but I’m not personally comfortable with a euphemism like “escort” or with the negative connotations of “whore.” Even though it’s used as a self-descriptor, that doesn’t mean I can just assume it’s acceptable to use that word when I’m not a member of the group it’s describing. And the fact that I worry about marginalizing or appropriating the language of a group of people who doesn’t even exist just shows how intricate and convincing the world of Templar really is.

Probably my favorite cultural phenomenon in Templar is the proliferation of copy books, written by independent authors and published by means of photocopiers. Zines would be the real-world analogue, but I love the way copy book culture is shown to have developed into its own minor industry. At least one store exists solely to sell copy books, meaning that there’s an infrastructure in place to facilitate people as they write and distribute their own independent publications, and I just think that is so cool and I want to move to Templar and spend all my free time reading copy books and writing my own.

Characters in Templar, Arizona exist on either extreme of a spectrum, with overexuberant excitability on one end and unflappable calm on the other. Conflicts run the gamut from minor issues like incorrect food orders to full-on violent assault, but the characters’ reactions to these issues depend far more on the person’s temperament than on the problem at hand. The more volatile characters will respond to any given situation by shouting and doing whatever they can to impose their will on those around them. The more easygoing characters will go along with whatever is happening, doing their best not to irritate those around them (which in and of itself often irritates those on the other end of the excitability spectrum).

The more relaxed characters aren’t necessarily dispassionate — they just tend to react to outrageous or shocking events by staying back and evaluating the situation, rather than jumping to conclusions or taking drastic and immediate action. For the most part it's clear that they feel anger and surprise and jubilance, and all of them hold certain issues or people very dear. It is possible to get a normally unflappable character to scream at you, but you have to push one of them very far in a very specific direction before that will happen. More often, an excitable character will scream at one or more of the unflappable ones, who doesn’t even budge in the direction of a breakdown.

Though Templar, Arizona doesn’t focus too much on any one person or group, the closest thing to a main character is Ben, a newcomer to Templar. Particularly in early parts of the comic, Ben is the focal point through which the audience comes to know Templar and the other characters. Since he’s unfamiliar with Templar geography and culture, the reader has someone to relate to, who will ask questions and express bewilderment in order to get explanations from characters who know what Templar is like, but who would normally have no reason to expostulate on the subject. This is another advantage to setting the comic in a fictional city — the author can control the rate at which a reader encounters information, and control the picture of Templar that forms in the reader’s mind, without having to work around whatever preconceived notions any given audience member might have.

I also like Ben because he’s short, naive, inexperienced, and constantly looking for validation that he is or at least can be a competent adult. That is to say, he’s just like me! I relate to Ben so strongly that I keep thinking of what good friends we’d be if he were, y’know, a real person and not just some lines and shapes on my computer screen.

It can take a while to get into Templar, Arizona, because there’s a lot to adjust to while getting to know this city and the people who inhabit it. But if you’re willing to put in the effort and stick with the comic until the world starts to make sense to you, it’s a highly rewarding experience. These people, these subcultures, and this city, could each provide enough material for a lifetime of study. The glimpses we get to see in this comic hint at an intricate and extensive whole, in parts appealing and repulsive, but always a fascinating subject of examination. Jump in as the story begins and familiarize yourself with Templar, its culture, and its inhabitants.

Templar, Arizona is written and drawn by Spike. If you’re interested in cultural movements, if you’re part of one or more subcultures yourself, or if you think of yourself as firmly in the mainstream and enjoy reading about groups of freaks, consider checking it out. (I admit the odds that anyone reading my blog considers themselves mainstream, but I like to be as inclusive as possible.) It’s like an anthropological lesson about ourselves, only with the details altered enough that we can get the big picture instead of focusing on the tiny stuff that we’ve already decided to care about.

Once you’ve read the main archive, you can also check out the bonus comics. They’re not necessary to keep track of the story, but they offer a few fun tidbits and flesh out the world a little bit more.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Entry 62: The Young Protectors

I usually don’t like romance as a genre very much. Sure, I can enjoy romance, if it’s handled well, but the usual will they/won’t they or who will he/she choose?-type plots tend to bore me to pieces. For me to embrace any kind of romance story there’s got to be something else going on, either a depth of storytelling that I can get into, or some non-romance elements that can provide balance and make the story fun. A little bit of both those qualities are what drew me into The Young Protectors.

Technically this comic has a subtitle and is properly known as The Young Protectors: Engaging the Enemy, but that’s a bit long and cumbersome. As of this writing there aren’t any other comics under The Young Protectors title that I need to distinguish from the one I’m writing about, so rather than insisting on writing the full title every time, I’m just going to go with the title that I use in my head, so The Young Protectors it is. (Even though Engaging the Enemy might possibly be more accurate, if I take the time to sort through a bunch of pedantic rules that I don’t actually care about.)

At the risk of sounding monotonous by repeatedly bringing things back to Strong Female Protagonist, I’m going to draw a parallel between that comic and The Young Protectors. Both comics take place in a world that had comic book superheroes before there were real ones, and I would say that both comics try to provide a “realistic” depiction of what a world full of superpowered individuals might look like. However, while Strong Female Protagonist deals with the sociopolitical ramifications of superpowers, The Young Protectors gets more personal, getting into superpowers’ emotional and interpersonal ramifications.

In order to talk about The Young Protectors I’m going to have away some parts of the story. As usual I’ll do my best to avoid describing specific plot points, but if you want to go into the comic with as few preconceived notions as possible, it might be a good idea to just go read it right now. The archive’s not too cumbersome, and this pos will still be here waiting for you when you get back. If you need a little more convincing, then proceed here at your own risk.

Our main character is Kyle, a young gay superhero who has multiple reasons to feel ashamed of and hide his sexuality. The comic introduces him as he begins a relationship with Duncan, a charming older supervillain known as the Annihilator. Here’s where I get into the realm of spoilers, though if you’re an insightful reader I’m not telling you anything you wouldn’t suspect from the get-go: When a suave villain seeks out a naive, inexperienced and emotionally vulnerable hero, it’s foolish not to think that the villain has some sort of ulterior motive.

It’s clear that Duncan is manipulating Kyle throughout their time together, though his purpose is kept obscure for quite a while. Thus, the reader is placed in a similar position to Kyle, unsure to what extent Duncan can be taken at his word, how far he’s stretching the truth, and whether he cares about Kyle at all or is merely putting on a convincing act.

Though the comic focuses on Kyle, Duncan is the more interesting character. As is true in many superhero stories, the villain is the one who drives the plot, the one who receives the most complex development and who has the greatest potential for change and personal growth. Wondering just what is going on in Duncan’s head is probably my favorite part of reading The Young Protectors, and I feel that some of the comic’s best moments are those when it’s clear Duncan is trying to figure himself out just as much as we are.

The Young Protectors inhabits a realm of moral ambiguity. Villainous actions may have noble motivations, but they’re mixed with selfish ones. No one is pure; most of the characters, whether heroes or villains, are in some ways altruistic and in some ways self-serving. Which side a character falls on seems to depend as much on how they want to present themselves and be seen by others as it depends on their actions or purposes.

In the context of a grand conflict between good and evil, wherein the characters possess supernatural qualities that lift them beyond the realm of ordinary humans, what The Young Protectors does best is bring that heightened conflict, those huge issues, down to an individual level. This comic really explores the impact that superpowers, and all that they imply, would have on people’s personal lives. The isolation that comes from being different, the shame and self-hatred that arise when powers are misused, whether deliberately or unintentionally, and the camaraderie that forms when hurt and isolated people find and support one another, all make themselves clear.

Though the relationship between Kyle and Duncan is what drives the story, for me the heart of The Young Protectors is really Kyle’s friendship with his other teammates. For much of the beginning, it’s easy to assume they all connect on a fairly shallow level… the conversations and interactions we see tend toward the banal, which doesn’t necessarily preclude the possibility of a deeper connection, but neither does it indicate that there necessarily is one. It’s not until Kyle truly needs their support that the strength of his connection with them becomes clear. When it does, though, it’s in a series of reassurances that are so sincere I actually teared up while reading. The unconditional love and acceptance depicted among these kids is first-rate.

One thing I appreciate in The Young Protectors is the diversity of superheroes represented. Fully have of the team Kyle belongs to consists of people of color. Now, The Young Protectors isn’t perfect in this regard. The main characters are two white dudes, and the cast is overwhelmingly male, but then I’m one of those people who will not be satisfied until non-white, non-male protagonists have become utterly commonplace. So I won’t let The Young Protectors slide just because it’s more diverse than it could be, but I will acknowledge that it’s significantly more inclusive than most of your run-of-the-mill comics. If you went to see a superhero movie and only half of the main cast was white, that would be pretty remarkable.

In this respect, The Young Protectors is representative of its time period. Though many cultural forces are driving for more inclusive representation, white and male is still the “default setting” in much of media. I don’t mean to vilify The Young Protectors for not being diverse enough for my ideals (an action which would be especially silly since I probably wouldn’t even mention it if the comic made less effort at diversity). I simply want to acknowledge the gap between the way things are now and the way I hope things will become.

The Young Protectors can get a bit melodramatic at times, with dialog that’s just a little too direct and unselfaware for my tastes, but it comes from a place of sincerity. The occasional cringe-inducing exchange is the price you pay for a comic that so embraces the artless emotional honesty of its young protagonist. I’m too cynical to read strictly for the sake of enjoying the romance, but I also find it a little too easy to get caught up in the romance for me to maintain emotional distance from the characters. Part of me really wants the villain to redeem himself, but another part of me would much rather see him suffer consequences for his cruel and manipulative actions.

The tone of this comic is such that I’m anticipating an eventual happy ending, albeit with some sacrifices and major character development along the way. My hope is that the journey to get there will convince me that a happy ending is a good idea. Being surprised by a story is one of my absolute favorite things, so if something shows up in The Young Protectors that I’m not already anticipating, I’ll be delighted to let it change my opinion of the direction the comic could take.

For the meantime, I’m just going to keep reading and keep enjoying what I already know I like: heroes being friends and looking out for each other, and villains playing mind games of obscure purpose and uncertain moral rationale.

The Young Protectors is written by Alex Woolfson, with art by Adam DeKraker (pencils) and Veronica Gandini (color). Navigating the website can be a tad bit annoying if you’re already caught up, since there’s no home page that shows the latest installment. What I do is get to the beginning of the comic and then click “last” to see the page that’s been posted most recently. Scratch that. This is a link you can use to get to the most recent installment. You can also subscribe by RSS or some other means, thus bypassing the need to navigate through the archive altogether.

I know that, upon hearing “gay superhero romance,” some people will immediately want to check it out and others will want to avoid it at all costs. This post, though, is for everyone else, the people who wouldn’t necessarily be drawn to a gay superhero romance comic, but might read one if it’s good enough or has other elements that they might enjoy. I know I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me personally, The Young Protectors offers enough excitement on a variety of levels that I’ll always be glad I gave myself a chance to try it out.

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