Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Entry 64: Stand Still. Stay Silent

It’s a zombie story, but unlike any zombie story you’ve ever before encountered.

You know how it starts. In the midst of a terrible storm, a few people turn up with a mysterious and highly infectious illness, which rapidly spreads throughout the population. More and more people succumb to this disease until eventually the human race, and a few other species, are reduced to a fraction of their previous numbers. The illness doesn’t just kill those it affects, though… it changes them, leaving monstrous creatures in their place.

This all happened 90 years ago, at the beginning of history.

The story picks up with a ragtag band of misfits venturing out into the Silent World, those places that have yet to be reclaimed by civilization, in the interests of discovering something useful or valuable. Genres are mixing a little here, but adventure and horror make easy bedfellows. The premise is familiar, comfortable. An experienced reader has an idea of the types of conflicts to expect, the challenges that the mission will present and the interpersonal strife that may arise. That experienced reader may even suspect that nothing about this comic could be surprising at all, but to think so would be to gravely underestimate the wondrous setting of Stand Still. Stay Silent.

Before we get into things, I want to note that Stand Still. Stay Silent is the kind of comic you really must read in order from the beginning. Furthermore, much of the drama comes from or is contributed to by the masterful pacing of the exposition, which makes it just about impossible to discuss anything in depth without a certain level of spoilers. Facts about the setting are hinted at, but strategically withheld, forcing the reader to speculate, to infer details before they’re stated outright. Even the description I gave above gives away certain information, but nothing that is not revealed early on, or that an astute reader would not realize straight away. I will of course refrain from describing the entire plot in detail, but if you’re as spoiler-phobic as I am, I’d advise you to consider reading the comic before reading the rest of this post. (It’s not the longest of reads as of yet, so the suggestion isn’t terribly impractical.) For those of you who don’t care about spoilers or who’ve already read the comic, press on!

Two things make Stand Still. Stay Silent stand out among zombie stories and the action/horror genre as a whole. Thing one is the tone, which is overwhelmingly lighthearted. Our cast of characters are each varying degrees of clueless and/or incompetent, a fact that they all treat with cheery disregard. They don’t behave like characters in an adventure/horror story. They act like characters in a heartwarming dramedy about a plucky band of unlikely heroes who save their school from foreclosure. There’s a refreshing lack of genre awareness on the part of  the characters, who meander through story events as if they were just people going about their own lives. Which of course, from their perspective, they are.

Humor suffuses this comic, from silly individual moments to amusing misunderstandings between characters to absurd administrative errors. Stand Still. Stay Silent doesn’t feel like a horror comic. Though horrific things happen, though the characters face nightmarish threats unknown to those of us in the real world, though at times I am terrified, on behalf of the characters or just in general at the events unfolding in these panels, Stand Still. Stay Silent just doesn’t feel like a horror comic. It’s too fun and too carefree to live in that horror genre place in my brain. It just doesn’t fit there. Rather, it demands an entire category of its own, one created just for Stand Still. Stay Silent and which may one day contain other works if I can ever find anything that feels like it fills that same unselfaware horror meets effortless comedy niche.

Oh, speaking of misunderstandings between characters, there are a lot of those. That’s a natural consequence of filling your cast with an international group of people, most of whom don’t share a language with more than one or two of other the main characters. All communications have to go through at least one translator in order for everyone to understand what was said, and not one of these people is actually trained in translation, leaving most of the job in the hands of one young and inexperienced scholar who can just about manage to get across what was said most of the time. And when you throw in sarcasm and other jokes that just don’t translate well, along with personal hubris and a general lack of awareness… most of the time, not one of the main characters has a clear idea of what all the others are doing.

The author helpfully includes flags in many of the speech bubbles to signify which language a character is speaking in at that moment. That way the reader can keep track of all the languages, with the help of a handy cheat sheet at the bottom of each page on the website.

Besides the tone, the second thing that makes Stand Still. Stay Silent different from other stories of its genre is the setting, including the particular nature of the zombie apocalypse that has befallen mankind. Humans and other animals who’ve fallen to the disease don’t resemble zombies in the traditional sense, and indeed are never referred to as zombies by the characters. No, they’re called things like beasts or trolls. And I don’t want to give it away here, but when we finally get to see one of these creatures in the story? It’s far more terrifying than any zombie I’ve ever seen. And by “terrifying” I mean “visually spectacular.” And also “terrifying.”

And then there’s the magic. After the illness ravaged humanity, those who survived put a lot of faith into superstition, as people in trying circumstances often do. Many attributed their continued existence to the protection of gods, and considered any stroke of good fortune to be a sign of blessing. Any given person may come to those conclusions based on nothing more than a tumultuous combination of fear and gratitude, but, in this particular circumstance, at least some of those beliefs are correct.

Mages can cast spells and perform other magical feats with verifiable effects, and often they do so through prayers or incantations to specific gods. Cats are considered blessed because they don’t fall to the illness and can be trained to help keep humans safe. Perhaps cats truly do possess magical properties, and perhaps gods really do intercede on behalf of mages. From a readers’ perspective, all we know is that cats are somehow unharmed and extremely useful, and regardless of how magic works, exactly, some people can clearly do it.

Human civilization in Stand Still. Stay Silent is all built atop the one that collapsed. The base level of technology seems roughly contemporary, but there’ve been changes in the 90 years that people have been living with this plague. Necessity, as always, breeds invention, so certain adaptations have been made to allow for travel and protection to settlements. Most of what we see is stuff that humans reasonably could build presently, but which we haven’t had cause to.

And on the other hand, a massive decline in the population means that there aren’t enough people to keep most of the old infrastructure running. Cell phone towers, the Internet, hell, even consistent sources of electricity just aren’t priorities in a crisis-ridden world. Luxuries of the past have been largely forgotten. Characters regard those who lived in the old world with a mixture of wonderment and arrogant disdain. It’s hardly the only type of arrogance on display; those who’ve lived beyond the plague (or, at this point, those whose ancestors lived beyond the plague) think themselves superior to those who succumbed. Early on (literally at the beginning of the new calendar) Iceland closed its borders to limit the spread of the illness and as a result is now the most in-tact nation in the known world. In-world documents show a clear Icelandic bias, indicating a pervading belief that Iceland is genuinely superior to other nations and that the gods look on Iceland with particular favor. All because, generations ago, someone made a decision that turned out to have unanticipatable importance.

In terms of attitudes toward the old world, though, well, every generation considers itself superior to the one that came before it, and that trend changes not at all when the previous generation is one that mostly died and/or turned into monsters. At the same time, many of the people in this future are sheltered, cut off from dangers and also from irrelevant or useless knowledge of old world culture and technology. As a result, many of the characters come off as adorably ignorant, which plays along just swimmingly with their general arrogance.

Stand Still. Stay Silent goes to some fantastic and unexpected places, but it doesn’t just toss the reader out there with no warning. It takes the reader by the hand, leading them along every step of the way, treading familiar ground until it slowly, gradually, transitions to a strange new path. Much of the comic utilizes classic horror tropes, and the reader can anticipate many story beats before they occur. Looking solely at that aspect, the comic is competently put together, and it delivers on its promises.

And that stability, those trusty ol’ plot patterns, are needed. This world is so peculiar, so much about it left hidden or merely unstated, that the reader is at risk of becoming lost entirely if there isn’t something known and reliable to grasp onto. Given a setting full of new and exciting and unusual things, it’s good to be able to spot a little piece of dramatic irony and know that, though you might not be able to predict exactly what will happen next, you can have a pretty good idea of the shape the next few pages are going to take.

Earlier I mentioned that Stand Still. Stay Silent doesn’t feel like a horror comic. Well, at this point I’ll admit that, while it doesn’t feel like a horror comic, it certainly looks like one. The author uses a limited color palette for each scene, deliberately controlling the visual tone from page to page. Though the colors scream “horror, terror, run for your lives!” while the dialog casually asserts “hey this stuff is pretty funny, doop dee doo,” I don’t really feel comfortable saying that they contrast. I’d be more tempted to say that the characters, and by extension the dialog and the plot, are perfectly at ease with their setting. This is where they belong. It’s where they evolved. They don’t act like they’re in a horror story because that’s how people from our world would act if placed in a horror setting. When horror setting natives find themselves in a horror story, they just act like ordinary people, because they’re right at home.

So none of the characters bat an eyelid at the dismal lighting or muted colors that aren’t really visible to them anyway because they act primarily as visual cues for the reader. No, it’s left up to the audience to sit back and appreciate the sinister implications of the pitch-black ocean and whatever dreadful tidings it must carry. The visuals, like the adherence to classic horror story structure, let the reader know what kind of story this is even as the gory details are withheld until the moment of maximum possible emotional impact.

Stand Still. Stay Silent is written and drawn by Minna Sundberg, and it updates on weekdays. I find that, as the story takes its time to develop over many pages, it works best as a binge read, but I still read the new pages as soon as they come out because I can’t wait to see what happens next. I also find that re-reading is a valuable experience with this comic. Lots of details gain new significance when I go back with knowledge gained from later pages, and there’s so much going on that I almost always miss something the first time, unless I’m reading very, very carefully right from the start.

At this point, it’s clear that there’s lots of story in Stand Still. Stay Silent yet to come. I suggest jumping in now, while the archive is pretty easy to wade through and there’s just enough information available to give you an idea of what kind of story this is going to be, though not enough to definitively say exactly what shape it’s going to take. I’m excited to see where this thing goes, and I hope you will be, too.

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  1. It should be noted that Minna Sundberg had previously done the highly acclaimed "Finnish Fantasy" webcomic story "A Redtail's Dream" http://www.minnasundberg.fi/artd.php which she considered her 'training' project while in school but grew from 100 pages to over 500, with thousands of regular online readers and people who bought it in book form (I'm one).

    It should also be noted that last weekend at the National Cartoonists Society "Reubens" Awards, "Stand Still, Stay Silent" won the award for Best Online Comic (Long Form), beating Mike Norton's "Battlepug" http://battlepug.com/ (IMO,one of the better Classic Fantasy story comics, but with more violence and nudity - especially right now - and large pugs!) and Vince Dorse's "Untold Tales of Bigfoot" http://untoldtalesofbigfoot.com/ (which won the award 2 years ago and just wrapped up its first tale so it's currently on hiatus while Vince puts together THE BOOK). I'm semi-surprised you haven't featured either of them before. Also, the winner for Best Online Comic (Short Form) was the recently retired and past-WWW-featured "Girls With Slingshots", beating two hosted-at-gocomics strips I don't really consider WWW-worthy.

    Speaking of WWW-worthy, the story/longform comic "The Last Mechanical Monster" has just been finished by Brian Feis http://lastmechanicalmonster.blogspot.com/ who had previously done the award-winning (Eisner & Harvey but not Reuben) "Mom's Cancer" which is currently being 're-published' at GoComics http://www.gocomics.com/moms-cancer . The "Monster" comic is a unique current-day sci-fi tale about the decades later aftermath of the story in one of the first Superman cartoons from 1940 (but without Superman, to avoid copyright trouble). A surprisingly heartwarming story about a would-be supervillain who never really reformed, but still ended up doing good.

    1. I was pleased to hear of Sundberg's win at the Ruebens (as well as Corsetto's!), though I neglected to mention it in the post for... a variety of reasons, but I'd be lying if I said absentmindedness wasn't one of them. And Sundberg is a damn impressive creator, who has held herself to standards beyond what might seem reasonable, resulting in work (both in Redtail's Dream and Stand Still Stay Silent) that clearly benefits from her constant determination to meet those standards.

      As for other comics you mention, I may well feature them in the future, but I make no guarantees. My method for determining what to write about and when is arcane, capricious and based on many considerations that would make no sense to anyone but me, so I'm hesitant to share insight into my system lest it all collapses around me. But if there are any readers out there who feel inclined to follow urls from other readers' comments, I'd be happy to know that people are finding new and exciting comics to share with each other, regardless of whether they're comics that I ever get around to writing about myself.