Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Entry 68: The Fox Sister

I’m not very familiar with Korean mythology. Some of you may be surprised to learn this, having assumed me an expert in all things. Though it pains me to shatter your illusion by admitting to my ignorance, there are many spheres of human knowledge that, though fascinating and appealing, I have yet to explore. One reason I regret not knowing more about Korean mythology and folklore is that I feel a greater familiarity with those subjects would increase my appreciation of The Fox Sister.

I suppose there is a risk that learning more about the mythology and cultural background that gave rise to The Fox Sister could ruin it, if I start realizing that there are all sorts of inconsistencies and gross overuses of artistic license. I don’t think so, though. The influences in The Fox Sister feel like they’ve been driven by an appreciation for Korean traditions. I suspect that the anything inconsistent with the source mythology would come across as an expansion or an exploration rather than a crass divergence.

Oh, but here I am debating the merits of this comic’s adherence or divergence from established myth, and I haven’t even begun to describe the comic for you! Silly me. Ahem.

(Now is the time for the extremely spoiler-phobic to just go read the comic, though I’m not going to give away anything beyond what’s clear based on the title and the first few pages.)

The Fox Sister tells the story of a woman, Cho Yun-Hee, whose family was killed by a kumiho, a nine-tailed fox who feeds on human flesh and disguises itself as a woman. The specific woman as whom this kumiho has described itself is Yun’s late sister, Sun. Years later, Yun keeps searching for the kumiho who replaced her sister, dedicated to the purpose of ridding the world of that evil presence.

If you like fantasy stories, I don’t have to tell you anything more. That’s a compelling premise, the type of framework on which great things are laid. It offers a chance to explore a mythical element, either to begin learning about it at all if you’re like me, or to discover a new story about a familiar type of character, if you know a thing or two about kumiho to begin with.

Beyond that, there’s the personal drama, the story of a woman overcoming her grief and mourning her lost family. The inner turmoil of being confronted with the visage of a lost loved one, a monster turning that comfortable and familiar form into something evil.

When she’s not being the hero in an epic fantasy tale of the struggle between good and evil, Yun gets caught up in a romantic comedy. Those genres seem like they’d be pretty incongruous, but they fit together seamlessly. The comic’s tone stays consistent whether Yun is preparing to do battle with the kumiho that stole her sister’s appearance, or getting to know Alex, an American missionary who connects with her because he’s kind to her dog.

I think the key is curiosity and exploration. Yun’s response to the unfamiliar or unexpected is always a cautious approach to seek understanding and mastery. She doesn’t change her attitude depending on the particular challenge at hand, but remains resolutely true to herself whether faced with a clueless stranger or a dark mystery.

The two plots, that of the epic fantasy and the romantic comedy story, each progress according to well-trod structures, but they each feel fresh and engaging, because the characters involved feel so true to themselves. The standard belligerence-eventually-gives-way-to-affection narrative isn’t forced, but is a natural progression as each character becomes more familiar with the other. At the same time, the reader gets to know the characters as well, making the reader, in a sense, the third party to the romance.

One thing I like about The Fox Sister is that, though the comic is written in English, Korea is treated as the native location and Alex is treated as a cultural outsider. If you’re like me, you enjoy exploring unfamiliar cultures and abandoning the assumption that your own culture (in my case that of the good ol’ US of A) is necessarily the default, just because it’s what you’re used to. So works that originate from a different culture or that assume a different “default” worldview. On the other hand, approaching a work from a different culture can be challenging… there are often language barriers (translation being a wonderful but imperfect art) and certain cultural notions are difficult to understand if you’re not used to them. So finding a comic like The Fox Sister, that inhabits another culture while definitely created for consumption in this one, is a rare treat.

Alex and Yun’s divergent cultural backgrounds add an extra element to their romantic comedy routine, as they each get to know not only each other, but gain understanding of the other’s point of view. It adds to the comedic misunderstandings, and also occasionally highlights some of the comic’s deeper themes.

I’ll warn you that the comic gets a little violent in parts… the kumiho is a vicious creature, and certain segments are pretty gruesome. I wouldn’t call any of it gratuitous, as it all serves to further the story and enhance the setting, and it all fits in with the comic’s general tone. If you’re particularly sensitive to blood and gore you’ll want to tread cautiously. Otherwise, jump right on in… everything in The Fox Sister exists to meet the demands of the story, and it’s a great story.

Ignore that “Updates on Tuesdays” banner at the top of the website… The Fox Sister has been on hiatus for a while now. I like to check in every so often and see if there’s anything new though, because we’ve been told that the story is nearing its end and with any luck we’ll get to see those last several pages any day now.

For me, what separates this comic from others really is the emphasis on Yun as a character. She drives the entire story, her dedication and commitment to her task giving rise to everything that happens. Yun is an example of how to make a character “mysterious” and have it work… she’s not withholding information about herself to be deliberately innocuous, but is simply the kind of person who mostly keeps to herself. It’s clear that she has a rich inner life (and a rich outer life) and that she doesn’t share it easily. Most importantly, I want to know more about her. My curiosity about Yun keeps me curious about the story, and keeps me reading as I’m constantly yearning to learn more.

The Fox Sister is written and colored by Christina Strain and drawn by Jayd Aït-Kaci. I want to describe it as fun, but it’s so heavy and dramatic that using the word “fun” seems inappropriate. It is fun though, especially if you like mythology and fantasy stories. Which I do! Therefore I can’t imagine that there is anyone in this world who does not. Therefore everyone in the world should love this comic. Case closed.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Entry 67: The Creepy Casefiles of Margo Maloo

Let’s suppose you want to delve into a story of intercultural conflict, highlighting the dangers of stereotyping and the misunderstandings that arise when groups of people who regard one another with mutual hostility come into contact. Let’s say you also want this story to be fun and light-hearted, full of small jokes and engaging characters. Let’s say that you mostly just want to see some kids go head-to-head with some monsters. Well, friend, all as luck would have it you can find all of those things in The Creepy Casefiles of Margo Maloo.

Please note that this post will contain mild spoilers for the setting of The Creepy Casefiles of Margo Maloo (hereafter referred to as Margo Maloo because c’mon, man). I won’t give away much that’s not obvious in the comic fairly quickly after starting, but if you’re looking for a completely fresh and untainted first experience of this comic world, why don’t you go ahead and start at the beginning. It’s a fairly quick read, so go ahead.

For those of you who are beyond such petty concerns as mild world-building spoilers, I’ll proceed with my summary. Margo Maloo takes place in something of a fantasy version of our world. Most things are mundane… there’s stuff like cities and cars and the Internet… but, living alongside humans, there’s an entire community of monsters. They mostly keep to themselves, not wanting humans involved in their affairs, but every so often, with such different populations living alongside one another, conflicts arise. That’s where the titular Margo comes in. She’s a monster mediator.

The key word is “mediator.” Usually kids call Margo because they’re having monster trouble and expect her to solve the problem, but most of the time she acts as a facilitator, getting the involved parties to talk and work things out amongst themselves.

Margo Maloo presents monsters as the ultimate cultural extreme. It’s hard enough to get humans of significantly different backgrounds to accept each other. Plenty of real-world people do things that I, who consider myself pretty open-minded, would consider irredeemably barbaric. So how much more difficult would it be, if I were living alongside people who weren’t just outside my culture of origin, but outside my entire species? It would be pretty difficult to accept a worldview as equally valid to my own if the source of that worldview is a group of beings that literally inspired my people’s definition of evil. The level of cultural tolerance demanded in Margo Maloo is beyond anything you’d find in the real world, where you can count on your neighbors not to eat you because it’s wrong, not just because eating people causes any number of practical difficulties.

Though Margo’s name is in the title and the comic focuses on her exploits, she is not our protagonist. That would be Charles, newly moved to Echo City from a small town with few dangers and no monster population to speak of. Charles is an aspiring journalist, and his investigations into the monster community provide an ideal focal point for the audience. As Charles learns about monsters, what they’re like and how to get along living in the same city with them, so do we.

Margo already knows too much about monsters for the reader to be there in the moment with her. We need a newcomer to all this in order to fill that role, to learn another exciting snippet along with us at every turn. And though Charles is far from a generic stand-in for the audience (in fact, he often espouses opinions or desires that I’m not sympathetic to at all) he gets to ask the questions that are on the reader’s mind, to serve as a recipient of exposition so that we know what’s going on, and he perfectly represents the bold curiosity that spurs a reader onward to discover more of this world, to uncover the next development in the story.

The story begins with Charles’ family moving to Echo City, and even before finding evidence of monsters, Charles is convinced that the dangers of living in a big city must certainly outweigh the benefits. What Margo Maloo does is take the idea of someone struggling to adjust to city life and push it to its extreme conclusion. Charles has to get used to this new place, to being in proximity with a much more diverse variety of people than he’s ever encountered before. He has to learn to be comfortable in a place that, yes, does include dangerous elements that his hometown does not, but which also contains a variety of exciting and mind-expanding things to find and experience that he couldn’t have encountered before.

Take out the monster element, and Margo Maloo is a story about finding one’s place in a new community, overcoming fears and prejudices in order to open one’s mind to the good things that a large and diverse environment has to offer.

As would only be right in a quality story that teaches tolerance, the monsters are as suspicious of humans as the humans are of them, and they have just as much reason to feel that way. Whether out of fear, ignorance, or malice, humans can do just as many terrible things to monsters as monsters have to humans. The assumption of barbarism goes both ways: While monsters don’t follow any of the rules that keep human society functional, humans don’t follow any of the rules that make monster society functional. Just as we find them to be unpredictable and dangerous because they live outside our social constraints, they have precisely those same concerns about us.

Almost all characters are pretty firmly entrenched in their own side, viewing either monsters or humans as rogue elements beyond the capability of reason. The only one who’s any different is Margo. She approaches all conflicts from a balanced, unbiased viewpoint, open to hearing both sides and finding a way to make things right, whether the aggrieved party is human or monster.

While I’ve been harping on regarding the heavy and consequential themes of Margo Maloo, the comic doesn’t get bogged down in explicit diatribes regarding ethics/morality/tolerance. Most of the content takes the form of an adventure story, as our heroes try to protect the innocent and right wrongs. The characters all have their amusing and endearing quirks, and the dialog and situations lean far more toward the silly than the melodramatic. There’s real danger and real drama, but it’s all in the course of a good old-fashioned story about kids investigating monsters.

Overall, Margo Maloo is precisely the kind of fun and substantial tale that I like to lose myself in, and I’d love for a whole host of other people to discover and get lost in it as well.

The Creepy Casefiles of Margo Maloo is written and drawn by Drew Weing, and updates on Tuesdays and Thursdays. It features monsters and some scary situations, but not to an extent that I’d actually call it a scary comic, so I’d gladly recommend it to people looking for stuff to share with their kids. Very young or sensitive children may find it frightening, but that’s something I’d leave to the discretion of the parent. (My attitude toward giving stuff to kids used to be a more cavalier, they-can-handle-more-than-you-might-think kind of approach, but then I learned what it’s like having a nephew who sometimes requires a lot of emotional reassurance while watching Wonder Pets, so now I’m more sympathetic to those who are particularly careful about what media they allow into their children’s lives.)

So whether you’re in need of a good age-appropriate monster story for your kids, or just looking for a worthwhile distraction on a tedious day, give Margo Maloo a try. I only hope you’ll find it half as engaging as I have.