Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Entry 73: Alice Grove

Today we’re talking about a comic that merges the fantastical with the quaint. That in and of itself is nothing unusual… many works of fantasy take place in an approximation of a historical period, placing fantastical elements in a setting of pastoral bliss. Indeed, many of our commonly used fantasy tropes, the creatures and monsters with which we populate our stories, have been gestating in our collective minds for hundreds or thousands of years, and seem more appropriate in old-timey villages than modern cities.

In this case, though, the fantastical doesn’t have that classic feeling, that sense of tradition. It takes its strangeness more from the realm of science fiction than fantasy. Many characters seem right out of a history book, but things exist in their world that would rightfully come from the distant future. This odd juxtaposition gives us the initial point of intrigue to Alice Grove.

The titular Alice is called a witch by the people who know her. She’s not a witch in the traditional sense, but the title suits her. She’s wise, strong, and possesses abilities and powers beyond those that might be readily apparent. Indeed, given that I was raised Wiccan, surrounded by people who describe themselves as witches, Alice suits my personal vision of a witch better than just about any other fictional witch I’ve ever seen.

Alice Grove is the kind of story that throws the reader right into an unfamiliar setting without any preparation or upfront exposition. I love those kinds of stories. Discovering the background of the setting and the characters’ histories becomes a part of the plot, as the reader spends time coming to understand what normal means to the characters.

These kinds of stories are also very fragile in terms of spoilers, as even facts about the setting can give away major reveals. I’ll be careful not to give very much away, but if you’re very sensitive to spoilers, tread lightly. And if you decide to dive in, you definitely want to start at the very beginning.

One aspect of this comic that keeps buzzing around in my mind is the nature of Alice’s relationship to the villagers who make up most of the comic’s population. She lives apart from them, in a literal sense as her home is not part of the village proper, and a metaphorical sense as she interacts with them as a clear outsider, albeit one afforded great respect and even authority.

Alice appears assuredly benevolent, and I can definitely sympathize with her, but sometimes the way she treats the villagers seems unreasonably authoritarian. I keep going back and forth on this, because it’s clear that Alice has well-reasoned justification for behaving the way she does, and also that her actions have overwhelmingly positive impact. But it’s also clear that Alice does not readily tolerate disagreement. As a red-blooded American, I place high value upon the right to speak against, question, or outright defy the wishes of others, even those who serve as protectors and advisers to the entire population. And from that angle, some of the things Alice does really bother me.

Alice interacting with villagers provides a setting and context for the plot, but the meat of the story has to do with Ardent and Gavia, siblings who’ve arrived in the village to… well, to meet girls, in Ardent’s case, and to track down her brother, in Gavia’s.

Strange as it seems, those two characters are the closest thing the audience has to a point of identification. They are outsiders, new to the village, unfamiliar with Alice, and we discover the setting through their eyes. It’s very common for a story to begin with a stranger arriving in town, giving the audience an ‘in’ to get to know the other characters and what their deal is. What’s uncommon about this story is that the stranger is not a generic everyman meant to be easily relatable to everyone, but a pair of futuristic, heavily modified humans whose own home is at least as strange to us as the setting we’re actually getting to observe.

Much of the time, Ardent displays an enthusiasm that I find easy to get caught up in. To be sure, he’s artless and treats the locals somewhat rudely, viewing their culture and lifestyle as little but a source of entertainment. But… if I were in his situation I’d be acting much the same way. That quaint little town is just so charming, and so different to everything I’m used to, that I might have a hard time containing myself were I to travel there and meet its inhabitants.

However, I as a reader have the privilege of engaging with this setting at a distance. Therefore, I don’t have to fear for my safety when I encounter the marvelous and sometimes frightening things that can be found at night in the woods outside the village. We only get to see hints of the wider world that Alice Grove inhabits, but those hints are enough to let us know that there is a wider world out there, and that it possesses a logic and coherence all its own.

Mostly, though, it lets us see some friggin’ cool and borderline disturbing living things. I’m a sucker for these kinds of weird and wonderful visuals.

There’s a lot going on in Alice Grove. The setup for how the world came to be the way it is and why the characters are where they are and who they are all vie for the coveted position as ‘central intrigue’ of the story. Meanwhile, the plot progresses, tying backstory and overall motivation into the current moment in story time. I won’t give away the plot, but it’s at turns fun, tragic, humorous, and meaningful. We’re still in early days, and with every new installment I’m excited to learn what happens next.

Alice Grove is written and drawn by Jeph Jacques, known also for Questionable Content, which I wrote about here. If you like Questionable Content, then chances are you’ll enjoy the humor and style of Alice Grove. However, it has a different feel overall, and if Questionable Content isn’t your thing, but you like science fiction and prefer a more plot-oriented story than the slice-of-life kind of thing you get with Questionable Content, then maybe you should consider giving Alice Grove a try. Right now it’s pretty easy to read through everything and get caught up to the latest installment, so there’ll never be an easier time to discover what Alice Grove is all about.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Entry 72: Oh Joy, Sex Toy

Today we’re talking about Oh Joy, Sex Toy, which you can probably guess is Not Safe For Work. I’m putting the body of this post below a cut. If you’re interested in learning more about an awesome comic that has so many things to teach us about sex, click through and read on! If you’re a minor or a prude (or a prudish minor) then feel free to come back in two weeks, when I’ll have a post up about a comic that’s safe for everywhere.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Entry 71: Sufficiently Remarkable

One thing that people look for in fiction is the presence of characters they can identify with. Relatable characters in situations that people can recognize from their own lives. Writing specifically to keep characters as relatable as possible can, if done competently but without real vision, lead to a work with “lowest common denominator” appeal: It doesn’t do anything groundbreaking or provide new insights into the human condition, but most audiences can see themselves in the work at least a little bit.

Another way to tackle characters and situations, one that requires far more skill and insight, is to construct characters that are extremely specific, whose backgrounds and current dreams and current challenges are all clearly defined and which make them unique among the billions of people on this planet… and to represent their struggles and challenges so well that readers can still find some universal constant of the human condition represented therein, some reflection of themselves that arrives out of clear definition rather than vague generalities. That kind of characterization is what I love most about Sufficiently Remarkable.

The main character in Sufficiently Remarkable is Riti Mirabilay (however you think that name is pronounced you probably got it wrong), an artist working a dead-end retail job and living with her slovenly best friend, Meg Ramsey. There’s a lot of tension between Riti and Meg, and as the comic tends to be focalized through Riti and show us her perspective on things, it’s easy to think of Riti as the sensible, relatable one and Meg as the one who’s got it all wrong. That does a disservice to each character though, because each one has her flaws and her virtues, and their conflict clearly arises at least as much from poor communication and being too exhausted from their own problems to practice compassion for whatever the other one might be going through.

Meg and Riti are two extremely different people, and neither one of them has a life story that matches mine. However, I can see myself in both of them.

I can see just as much of myself in Riti’s lack of patience for crowds and her steadfast reliability as I can in Meg’s laissez-faire attitude and disregard for social norms. (Why, yes I did just call myself both laissez-faire and reliable. That wouldn’t seem as much of a contradiction if you could compare the way I organize things at work to the winding path through the junk piles in my bedroom.) I am not Riti, nor am I Meg, but in a way I am both of them. This is one of those examples of my conviction that most people have at least some experiences in common and can relate to one another given enough insight. There are people who seem as if they could not be more different, but deep within, there’s almost always something that they share.

Without a lot of deep, introspective communication, though, it can be extremely difficult to find.

Communication is one aspect to maintaining a healthy friendship. Another is trust. When you don’t communicate, trust suffers, and when one doesn’t trust someone, one tends not to be open to honest communication. So if either trust or communication go out the window, the other tends to follow and bring the friendship along with it. The primary friendship in Sufficiently Remarkable is on the brink of falling apart, because Riti and Meg aren’t giving each other the benefit of communication or of trust.

I’ve written about the importance of trust, and the difficulty and earning it and keeping it, in regards to two other comics: Nimona and Monster Pulse. Sufficiently Remarkable deals with many of the same issues, though it approaches them with an entirely distinct sensibility. Whereas those other two comics are fantastical and deal with themes of family and coming of age, Sufficiently Remarkable is resolutely grounded in the reality of adulthood. Trust is just as difficult to give, to earn, and to keep, but the consequences for losing that trust are not death and destruction… this comic doesn’t operate on that high-stakes level of drama. Rather, the consequences for betraying a friend are to lose that friend’s trust in you, to face uncomfortable social situations, and to wind up in difficult and upsetting conversations.

Riti’s relationship with Meg is the driving force of the comic, but her relationship with her father is almost as important to the narrative. He doesn’t show up in her life (or at least, he hasn’t yet over the course of the story), but Sufficiently Remarkable explores their relationship through her memories and dreams. It’s clear that much of Riti’s personal development can be traced back to discussions she had with her father as she grew up. He made a point to teach her certain things about the way the world works, and it’s evident that she took those lessons to heart.

A significant portion of the comic takes place in Riti’s dream space, giving us insight into her fears, resentments, and hopes. She’s not the kind of person who expresses those innermost feelings in ways that are clear to observers, so those dreamscapes are necessary to let the reader know what’s bouncing around inside her head.

I stated above that Sufficiently Remarkable is resolutely grounded in reality. Beyond that, it is resolutely grounded in rational, scientific reasoning. Even the title implies an absolutely empirical approach to life’s circumstances, however extraordinary they may be. I don’t think I’ve ever read a slice-of-life comic like this that was so concerned with scientific accuracy. Often, emotions and logic are presented as opposite qualities, with any given work of fiction typically favoring one over the other. Sufficiently Remarkable marries the two, giving us a work that feels as sensible as it does sensitive.

Emotional depth and objective reason don’t have to live in opposition. Take the central source of conflict in this comic: A lack of communication. The suggestion given? “Try talking to her.” That is the very same advice that a person of logic would provide, or that an emotionally well-adjusted person would provide.

Science uses evidence and experimentation to draw conclusions. When applied to our personal lives, science doesn’t prevent us from finding emotional fulfillment; it enables us to find emotional fulfillment.

Or to resent our lots in life all the more effectively.

Before I leave you, I’ll point out that Sufficiently Remarkable does progress along a narrative arc and is best read in order from the beginning. I haven’t been too fussy about spoilers so far because it’s one of those comics in which the events portrayed therein feel less significant than the things we learn about the characters along the way, and those kinds of developments are much harder to effectively spoil than plot twists and other simple surprises. You have to get to know the characters, and that happens gradually rather than in big chunks of backstory or sudden, dramatic events.

I find that the comic reads best in large sequences. I caught a bunch of things when re-reading it for this post that I never caught before, because reading a page whenever there’s an update doesn’t keep relevant details in my mind as much as reading through a whole lot of the story in one go. What’s up so far is pretty quick to get through, so I encourage frequent re-reads to keep abreast of the more subtle and long-term story developments.

Sufficiently Remarkable is written and drawn by Maki Naro. I recommend it to people who are curious by nature, and/or people whose lives have been hampered by the practicalities of living. There’s humor, there’s pathos, there’s connection and betrayal and reconciliation. Get involved in these characters’ lives, start to care about them, and then feel that characteristic pang when they get themselves into trouble. That’s what we all read stories for, right? To feel things. Go ahead and let Sufficiently Remarkable exercise your empathy muscles for a little while.