Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Entry 75: Wilde Life

“I’m not comfortable debating my sister’s ostensible hotness with a teenaged werewolf.”
— Oscar Wilde

Before we start, I’ll mention that this is one of those comics that it’s difficult to discuss without providing mild spoilers. I’m not going to give away stuff that doesn’t strike me as an obvious part of the fundamental fabric that makes up this comic, but the whole beginning of the comic constitutes a gradual process of revealment, so if you’d like to experience it without any (well, with very few) preconceptions, you can go ahead and start with my wholehearted recommendation. For those of you who are already familiar with the story or who need a little bit more encouragement to get to reading it, let us proceed to discuss Wilde Life.

Wilde Life contains supernatural elements of all kinds, every one presented in a very down-to-earth, human, relatable way. Hauntings, magic, adventures, all these things happen to people who still feel every bit like regular people. Often, in stories that contain so much of the supernatural, characters seem inherently built for that setting, as if these people exist only in the context of a mystical world, and wouldn’t make any sense removed from that context. In contrast, the characters from Wilde Life could show up in line behind you at the grocery store, and not seem even slightly out of place.

As well as the relatable characters, Wilde Life’s style is largely defined by its pervasive sense of humor. Sometimes this takes the form of characters being witty, sometimes it’s physical comedy, sometimes it’s just an amusing turn of phrase or an awkward interaction that plays out in a funny way. The author has a keen sense for finding the humor in an otherwise tense and dramatic situation, and the humor doesn’t always *undercut* the tension, but sometimes serves to *enhance* it. There’s absolutely no reason that the reader can’t both be bouncing on the edge of their seat to learn how this plays out, and feeling reassured by the latest amusing detail.

Almost all of the names in Wilde Life have a clear meaning. This is usually very surface-level, some obvious parallel or common meaning inherent in the name chosen. The comic takes place in a town called Podunk, the very archetype of a small, middle-of-nowhere, inconsequential community. The protagonist is a writer named Oscar Wilde, albeit not that writer named Oscar Wilde. There are more examples, but I don’t want to give too much away.

This tendency to name places and characters after concepts or people that have some superficial (and usually some deeper) connection to them has the effect of tying the whole comic together, giving it a sense of coherence. Even when the characters are very different, they seem to belong in the same set, by virtue of the way they were named.

Oscar rents a house in Podunk from a woman named Barbara Yaga, someone who strikes me as a hillbilly, and someone who is also, with a name like that, clearly a witch. Now, “hillbilly witch” is not a phrase that seems readily sensible. Witches are, according to tradition, wise and powerful. Hillbillies are, according to stereotype, dumb and feckless. Those traits wouldn’t easily mix.

And yet, as mentioned above, this character feels just… real. Like an ordinary person living in the middle of nowhere going about her life. She’s probably neither as stupid and ill-equipped as she might seem at first glance, nor is she likely as wicked and conniving as witches often are in fairy tales and the like. She’s just a person, probably magical, definitely an inhabitant of a small town, but not composed entirely from the expectations one might have of a person in either role. So far we’ve only seen glimpses of her, but those glimpses are enough to infer that there’s a lot going on below her surface, and that she’s unlikely to make it easy for anyone to see just what that is.

Further, being shown this woman, about whom we could assume so many disparate things based on the information presented about her, the audience's base assumptions and prejudices are challenged. There's a lot more about Barbara that we don't know than that we do, and the thought that we could judge her in any way based on her name, or based on her appearance, or based on her home, is clearly flawed, because those things are not at all in agreement about what kind of person she ought to be.

The hillbilly witch, the humor in tense moments, the down-to-earth characters in unearthly situations, they’re all examples of the fundamental tenet of Wilde Life as a comic, which is, in my view, a profound sense of incongruity. Things are not what you expect them to be. Two or more things that seem mutually incompatible can inhabit the same space, even the same person. Combinations that one would think fundamentally unstable can, sometimes, exist for long periods of time. Wilde Life explores those areas of life when one cannot quite accept the world as it is, without admitting that the world as it is must be in some way absurd.

At least at the beginning, Wilde Life impressed me as the story of one man who is perpetually friendly to everything strange and/or monstrous that he comes across. Now, for some slightly more significant spoilers than I’ve given you so far, you may read my summaries of the first two chapters.

Chapter 1: Oh, you’re a ghost? I’ll be your friend!

Chapter 2: Oh, you’re a werewolf? I’ll be your friend!

(As much as I would love to read a comic about Oscar methodically meeting one of every kind of supernatural creature and befriending them all, this comic does not continue down that path and is almost certainly the better for it.)

Oscar’s attitude toward the supernatural is admirably level-headed, and his willingness to engage with things he doesn’t understand in a cheerful and friendly manner makes the comic as a whole feel friendly and welcoming. And as it turns out, sometimes supernatural beings are just as friendly and helpful as average-joe human protagonists.

Wilde Life is written and drawn by Pascalle Lepas. If you’re looking for something a little spooky to get you pumped for Halloween (4 more days!), especially if you’re a little bit squeamish and don’t want to go for something gory or truly frightening, I strongly suggest you give Wilde Life a chance. Even if you’re reading this well past Halloween and that motivation no longer applies to you, I suggest you give Wilde Life a try anyway! It’s funny, it’s sometimes heartbreaking, and overall it gives me exactly the kind of supernatural-dramedy-character-piece I never knew was missing from my life until I found it.

Keep an eye out for mouseover text… it first shows up here, though it’s not consistently present until later on. The quote at the top of the page is directly taken from mouseover text on one installment, though most of that is just quoting comic dialog directly. Still, in a comic that regularly makes me giggle, the mouseover text often makes me giggle more, so if you like the sense of humor that Lepas puts into her work (and who doesn’t?!) be sure not to cut yourself off from discovering every bit of it that’s possible to find.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Entry 74: Starbunny, Inc.

Today we’re talking about people finding their place in the world. Well, I say ‘people,’ but I mean ‘bunnies.’ And I say ‘the world,’ but this comic is set on multiple planets, so maybe ‘the universe’ would be better. And I say ‘we’re talking,’ but obviously I am writing, and posting to a blog, and by the time you read this I will of course be finished and not actively writing these words any longer. What I’m trying to say is that this post contains a lot of analogies because those are what stand out to me the most about Starbunny, Inc.

Before we begin, I want to let you know that Starbunny, Inc. is a narrative comic that is best read in order from the beginning, and that this post will contain certain spoilers. The setting takes a little bit of establishment, so discussing the comic would be difficult without giving away certain important details. If you care about such things, feel free to start reading and then tab back on over here to see what I have to say. It’s a quick and easy read, so don’t worry about getting all bogged down and taking a lot of time and effort to see if it’s something you can get into.

Starbunny, Inc. tells the story of Blue Hoppowitz, a bunny with a big problem. He’s lactose intolerant… which means he doesn’t drink milkshakes. And bunnies are all about milkshakes. Everyone knows that all bunnies love making and drinking milkshakes above all else. The Hoppowitz family, in particular, has built a fortune, an industrial empire, even, based upon milkshakes.

Blue could take charge of his family’s legacy. He’s the eldest, the heir to the role of Hoppowitz Shakes CEO, but he’s not suitable for that job. Not just because of his lactose intolerance, but because he doesn’t fight for it. He doesn’t particularly want to run the company, doesn’t have a drive to keep himself in charge. It’s clear that, overall, his heart wouldn’t be in it. He’s not a bunny of industry, or cutthroat business practices. It’s clear that he is very strongly at odds with the basic principles of the setting in which he finds himself.

So he takes off, in search of a place where he can belong. As it happens, he’s far from the first bunny to do so… Grandma Hoppowitz herself led the Great Bunny Migration generations earlier, leading bunnies to the Milky Way where the majority now consider themselves quite at home.

In leaving his home because he doesn’t fit in among the other bunnies, Blue is in fact following in something of a bunny tradition, reenacting on an individual level the journey that his grandmother started long ago.

Starbunny, Inc. is a very child-friendly comic. It tackles issues of identity and sense of belonging in a simple and easy-to-understand style. And, of course, it’s about talking bunnies whose entire culture is centered around milkshakes and who travel through space by holding stars in nets.

Like all the best children’s stories, it combines lessons and introspection with the fantasy. As simple and unassuming as Starbunny, Inc. can seem, there’s true depth to it. Sometimes it surprises me in very clever ways, and sometimes its cleverness shines through without surprising me at all, because the whole universe of the story feels so coherent that I can’t imagine things going any other way.

Blue’s speech there encapsulates what, to me, is the entirety of Starbunny, Inc. A complete picture of the comic, its message, and its appeal, are summarized in that one panel.

On one level, Blue’s concern is silly, simple, and funny. His whole sense of self is thrown off because he can’t digest milk! What a foolish bunny, there are far more important just as silly, but different reasons in my life to doubt my sense of identity and how I fit into my community.

But of course, that kind of concern rises in many people, for many reasons. People doubt themselves because of who they’re attracted to, or physical disabilities, or religious disagreements with their families. None of those things make a personal fundamentally inhuman, or disqualify them from belonging to whatever group they came out of… but the concern is still there. One of the most fundamental and painful parts of the human condition, perfectly illustrated in the form of a bunny who can’t drink milkshakes.

What I love about Starbunny, Inc. is its ability to raise these concerns, deal with these profoundly painful personal experiences, while still being fun-for-all-ages, lighthearted entertainment. The comic never loses its distinctive tone, one in which ridiculous things are commonplace and treated as perfectly serious and matter-of-fact by the characters, while the audience gets to sit back and follow everything with a level of detachment that is elegantly aided by the sheer absurdity of this setting.

The space storm, the rivers of milk, the use of milkshakes as a culturally defining feature, even the choke berries seen below, they’re all elements that make Starbunny, Inc. seem especially fantastical and wondrous. I love the choke berries especially, because they indicate that all the wondrous elements of this universe are not necessarily benign or even neutral. Just like the real world, some things are beneficial, others harmful. Starbunny, Inc. makes it clear that the harmful things exist in the very same realm of simplistic absurdity as everything else in this setting.

Starbunny, Inc. is written and drawn by Dave Roman, and updates on Wednesdays. We’re definitely still toward the beginning of this story, and I’m as excited as you should all be to find out where it will take us. Read it to your kids, if you have kids. Read it to yourself, if you have none. The quest to find one’s place is an important one, and I don’t think it ever really ends. If you’re ever feeling a little bit like you don’t know exactly who you are or where you belong, then I’d say it’s a good time to sit down and read or reread Starbunny, Inc. and see what lessons you might find there.