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.