Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Entry 66: Please Listen to Me

There are a few elements that I find usually make good comedy. Insight into common experiences. The ability to reframe those experiences into recognizable forms, manipulated into extreme or absurd versions of familiar events. A bit of social commentary. Just enough detachment from humanity to cut through artifice and provide an honest assessment of difficult topics without descending into vitriol or contempt. All of these elements come together, in skillful combination, to create Please Listen to Me.

Part of me regrets writing about Please Listen to Me so hot on the heels of my post about Robot Hugs, because the things I like about Please Listen to Me and the things I like about Robot Hugs overlap in so many areas. I don’t want this post to turn into a compare-and-contrast, though, so I’ll refrain from drawing direct parallels between the two comics and stick to describing Please Listen to Me and failing to acknowledge Robot Hugs’ existence, except in this here paragraph, which is ending… now.

Please Listen to Me is a grab-bag of pithy punchlines, bizarre images, and illuminating observations on the human condition. The author has a way of presenting circumstances and dialog I don’t think anyone else would be quite capable of putting together. For the reader, the result is a comic that is eminently relatable while also consistently surprising.

"I'm gonna remove my pants and also the pants I keep under my pants" makes me giggle every time I think about it.

I find Please Listen to Me almost entirely unpredictable, one of the rarest and most precious qualities for any work of art. Humor arises by manipulating expectations, after all; the simplest joke formula is simply leading the audience to expect one thing and then saying something different. Audiences these days are pretty familiar with how jokes work, so subverting their expectations is more challenging. A lot of jokes, even effective, funny ones, don’t really surprise most audience members anymore, because there are a few common ways to subvert expectations and a clever reader can usually figure out where any given comic installment is likely to go.

Please Listen to Me pretty much always goes somewhere I hadn’t even realized existed, let alone would have expected to end up for a punchline. Trying to form predictions or understand the path I’m being taken on before I get to the end of it is futile, so I have to just let go of my preconceived notions and enjoy the ride.

Subject matter is varied, ranging from events in the author’s life to generalities of human life to topical humor. Just as the reader can never predict where an individual installment will end up, one can never quite predict where any given installment will begin.

Please Listen to Me frequently covers themes of alienation or otherwise having a hard time getting along with others. I relate to those themes a lot, partly because I’m a specific person who specifically has trouble getting along with others and feels alienated in many circumstances. But, as I’ve said before in regards to other comics that hit upon similar ideas, I think some of those feelings are more universal than is typically acknowledged in public. Almost everyone has experienced social anxiety at some point. Most people, even if they consider themselves perfectly normal and have an easy time conversing with strangers, have some point of disagreement with the arbitrary rules that we set for human behavior.

I think the key to representing a universal truth about human experience is to simply represent one’s own experience as honestly as possible. A big part of getting along in social situations is filtering one’s thoughts so that the “socially acceptable” ones are the only ones expressed. A big part of creating impactful art is partially opening that filter and allowing some of those ideas to escape into the world, where other people can find them and go “Now why doesn’t anybody just come out and say this stuff?!”

Every so often, Please Listen to Me will deal with whatever matter is currently all over the news sites or flying around everybody’s Twitter feeds. These topical comics usually feel perfectly molded to the current news cycle, apt commentary that fits perfectly into the conversation surrounding a specific event. When I re-read Please Listen to Me, I see those installments and remember the precise moment I first read them, and the news issue of the day that has now slid out of the public consciousness. My instinct is then to pass them by, because in my mind they are inextricably tied to something that no longer feels relevant.

However, these topical comics do one very important thing: They strip the issue of all specifics, all the aspects of the story that make it part of today’s news instead of yesterday’s or tomorrows, and leave just the heart of the matter, the universal quirk of human behavior that expresses itself in periodic outrages or scandals. Please Listen to Me presents the part of the story that will always be relevant. Weeding out the specifics and speaking right to the heart of the matter makes Please Listen to Me timeless, as long as human nature sticks to a few basic tendencies.

Another advantage to reducing topical conversations to their eternal essences is that it allows for cleaner commentary. All celebrities, politicians, and public figures are human, and that means that all controversies are messy and complicated. Someone may be a bad person, but on the “right” side of an issue. Or they may be a good person who holds some unpopular opinions. Or, most likely, a mix of good and bad qualities, with political opinions that you personally agree with and some that you disagree with, who has done some good things but also done some bad things, and whose detractors are also complicated humans with a mixture of positive and negative qualities stewing in their biased and fallible minds.

For a cartoonist with a specific message, tying that message to specific people/arguments/movements, with all the baggage that goes along with a real-world context, can bury the meaning in a pile of unrelated, but inescapable, implications. Please Listen to Me consistently finds ways to express a clear opinion without bogging it down in movements and personalities.

I like Please Listen to Me because it expresses clear and nuanced views on complex issues in wonderfully brief and simple comics. I like it because it constantly surprises me. I like it because I still can’t stop giggling about “my pants and also the pants I keep under my pants.”

Each installment stands on its own, and there’s no continuing plot to worry about, so don’t worry about catching up on the archive if that’s not your thing. If it is your thing, though, you’re in for a treat, because Please Listen to Me contains far too many gems for me to point them all out to you. It’s possible to read through the archive pretty quickly, but I actually recommend stretching it out a bit, because once you’re through then you have to wait around for your next dose of Please Listen to Me with the rest of us chumps.

Please Listen to Me is written and drawn by Matt Lubchansky. It’s fun and thoughtful and everything that I want when I’m looking for something to take my mind off the bad things that pervade our world. Even when Please Listen to Me expresses sadness or outrage, the emotion that I take away from it is almost always positive. Sometimes that’s a sense of relief because someone is finally pointing out some terrible thing and bringing it to life. Sometimes it’s just a feeling of camaraderie that someone else is bothered by the same things that bother me. Either way, I usually feel better after reading Please Listen to Me than I did before, and for a comic that expresses as much discontent with the world at large as it does, that’s quite an achievement.

"You know, skeleton food" is second only to "My pants and also the pants I keep under my pants" in my heart.

Previous Entry: Robot Hugs

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Entry 65: Robot Hugs

I’m someone who likes going against the norm. I like taking a careful look at the assumptions that underlie our society. I like defying social expectations just for the sake of defying them, and also because I want to create a freer and more accepting world for those of us who wouldn’t be able to meet those social expectations if they tried (and also because there are certain social expectations I couldn’t meet if I tried). So, when I find a comic that takes thoughtful and nuanced looks at seemingly arbitrary social constrictions, that presents meaningful discussions of the harm that unfounded assumptions cause and actively takes a stand against them, I want to share it with everybody. In that vein, allow me to describe the many things I appreciate about Robot Hugs.

I'm like this except fill in the 2014 answer for 2005, as well.

Robot Hugs achieves all sorts of things in different ways at different times. On occasion it’s something an autobio comic, while at other times it’s more of a gag strip, or a space for eloquent sociopolitical rants. The author, also called Robot Hugs (whom I will differentiate from the comic by consistently italicising the comic title and not the author’s name, unless I make some mistakes and just wind up confusing everybody) consistently finds ways to clearly discuss complex and difficult topics in a manner that’s easily understood and feels as nonjudgmental as possible.

Robot Hugs is greatly skilled at expressing concepts that I’ve thought of before, and tried to explain to people, but been unable to clearly articulate. When certain arguments come up in groups that I’m involved with, I’ve taken to just sending a link to a relevant Robot Hugs installment instead of explaining my viewpoint in my own words, because Robot Hugs does it more quickly, efficiently, and entertainingly than I would manage by typing, deleting, retyping, and pulling on my hair for half an hour while I craft a couple of paragraphs that may or may not get across whatever I’m trying to say.

There isn’t yet a Robot Hugs installment for every argument in which I might participate, but I say we give it a few years, and maybe I won’t have to express my own opinions on my behalf ever again.

Like many comics, Robot Hugs has evolved over the course of its life. The earliest comics are, as a rule, brief and facetious. Over time, particularly the past couple of years, they’ve become more complex and tackled far more serious issues, though there are still plenty of brief, silly installments. Pretty much every Robot Hugs installment stands perfectly well on its own, so if you’re a new reader, there’s no need to worry about catching up or reading through the entire archive just to know what’s going on. You can start from the most recent comic and work your way back if you like, or just read a few of them here and there. If you don’t feel like reading through each and every comic on the site, I’d recommend this as a good jumping-in point, where Robot Hugs had mostly settled into the kind of comic it is today.

If you’re like me, and want to read all of a comic as long as you read any of a comic, then feel free to go back to the very start and work your way through. There’s some fun stuff if you’re a fan of one-off gags, visual puns, or absurd humor.

Robot Hugs draws heavily from their life for comic material. That means we get to see a variety of topics, from cute stuff their cats do, to frustrating interactions with the willfully ignorant, to heartfelt essays on intersectional feminism. (Though I don’t think the phrase “intersectional feminism” has ever appeared in Robot Hugs, it contains some of the best examples of intersectional feminism I’ve ever seen.) Even when the subject at hand is very general and wide-reaching, Robot Hugs feels completely personal.

Any time the comic touches on big issues, concerns such as gender identity, mental health treatment, or modeling healthy relationships, you can tell that the author is highly invested in the subject matter. These kinds of comics don’t come about just because a cause is on the “right” side of the political spectrum, or because an author occasionally ponders an issue. These kinds of comics emerge from a desire to contribute meaningfully and constructively to an important cultural discourse.

When I wrote about I Do Not Have an Eating Disorder some time ago, one of the things that made me want to discuss that comic was the importance of openly discussing mental health issues. Doing so chips away at social stigma and makes the world a more accepting place, both allowing better access to mental health treatment and reducing the shame around such treatment, which will help people who suffer from mental illness become more likely to admit to themselves that something is wrong and seek help. Robot Hugs deals with some mental health problems, and presents them in the comics with what I can best describe as fearless tact.

It’s hard to find representations of depression that feel accurate and constructive. Someone in the midst of depression is unlikely to be capable of producing meaningful work in that moment, and once they’re out of that space they’re unlikely to want to think about it.

When someone is both able and willing to represent their experiences of depression, I’m always grateful. Creating a world full of resources to help others understand that experience enriches our ability to relate to one another. Some people might find new and helpful ways to interpret their own experiences, or learn how to better empathise with loved ones, or simply gain some exercise in the art of compassion.

I relate so very strongly to this.

I believe that most people can relate at least partially to at least some experiences of depression and anxiety. Most people have bad days sometimes, or have that one thing they just can’t do without freaking out over it. Finding that nugget of shared experience can be the first step to a true attempt at understanding another person’s struggle and supporting them.

That shared experience can be a double-edged sword, though, as it can blind someone to those aspects of someone else’s experience that don’t match up. Many people have gone through brief periods of depression that ended after a while, possibly after they found some motivating factor to pull themselves through. People who’ve been able to “snap out” of depression may not understand that other people can’t do that. It’s easy to lose sight of compassion and fall into the easy narrative trap that people with depression just aren’t trying hard enough to get better.

That’s just one example of a way that people can allow their own experience to overwhelm their understanding of what other people are going through. Many others exist, and it’s important to be careful when discussing shared experiences, avoiding broad generalizations and clarifying that one can only speak from one’s own experience and understanding.

I suffer from mental health problems, including depression, myself, and I love seeing some of my own experiences reflected in Robot Hugs. However, what I appreciate even more is seeing experiences that differ from my own. They help build my understanding of myself in relation to those around me, letting me sort my own thoughts into those that I share with many other people and those that are more particular to me. And I get to practice empathy for those experiences that other people have but which don’t affect me all that strongly. For instance, the inner monologue in the following excerpt is extremely familiar to me… except for the part about always being alone. Because that particular sentiment, for me, would bring comfort rather than distress.

The characters who show up in Robot Hugs are diverse, racially, culturally, and in terms of gender and sexuality. Robot Hugs is one of the most aggressively inclusive comics I’ve ever read, and just about the only place where I’ve seen asexuality represented consistently and nonjudgmentally in any discussion where it holds relevance.

The art style is usually simplistic and cartoony. Every character has basically the same body type, differentiated from other characters by things like hair style, skin tone, and the presence or absence of glasses. The result is that the reader can’t make any assumptions about the characters’ genders or levels of conventional attractiveness. We have to wait for characters to identify themselves before we can assign them pronouns. If a character complains of harassment, there’s no room to say “well they were asking for it” because that character is dressed and shaped just like every other character. Basically, the stylization of the characters is just one more aspect of Robot Hugs that consistently trains its readers to become better human beings.

Robot Hugs is written and drawn by Robot Hugs, and it does a pretty good job of communicating some pretty important, complex, and potentially controversial ideas. I’m particularly impressed with the way every issue, from gender policing to mental illness, is treated with an appropriate amount of gravity while still being entertaining. Robot Hugs isn’t always funny, but even at its most serious it’s never dour. Many serious issues are presented in ways that are funny, using silly humor to combat misinformation and bigotry.

If I could show Robot Hugs to everyone on Earth, I think it would become a nicer planet to live on. For the meantime, I’ll just settle for sharing it with everyone in my own limited sphere of influence, and hope the effect will keep rippling outward and have a positive influence, not just on people who know me or who read this blog, but on people who are entirely unaware that I exist.

Also on people who think holding a cat's tail down could possibly be a good idea.
Previous Entry: Stand Still, Stay Silent