Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Entry 78: Junior Scientist Power Hour

If you have been devoutly following every recommendation I’ve ever made in this blog and reading every single comic I’ve ever written about… as is only fair and right, after all… then you are already a fan of Abby Howard’s The Last Halloween, because you jumped over and started reading it as soon as you read my post about it. If, however, you only ever follow my recommendations, and never click on links that you don’t find on this very blog, (because everyone besides me is untrustworthy and probably trying to lead you astray) then there is no possible way you would have known that Abby Howard creates another webcomic as well. Therefore, for the sake of all you people who read every comic I link you to and precisely nothing else, I will today do you the favor of telling you about Junior Scientist Power Hour.

I put this excerpt first because I cannot imagine anybody not relating to it.

Junior Scientist Power Hour is a little bit journal comic, a little bit gag-a-day humor, and a whole lot of fun stuff that comes from some unfathomable depths of the author’s mind. You can jump in anywhere in the archive, hit the Random button to jump around wherever it takes you, or dedicatedly read through every single installment if that’s the way you roll. (That is the way I roll. It is not necessarily any better or worse than other ways.) If you choose not to read the whole archive you may find yourself lacking in the full context for certain later installments, but not to the point that they become incomprehensible or inaccessible. This stuff can be absurd or slice-of-life-y by turns, and there’s no real pressure on the reader

For the most part, Junior Scientist Power Hour is lighthearted and silly, full of quick jokes or amusing concepts that make for a moment’s diversion before the reader moves on. This is true even when the subject matter is weighty.

When reading this type of comic, one gets a sense of what’s going on in the author’s mind, or at least, the part of her mind that she’s elected to share with us. Like keeping up with an old friend, I witness Howard’s triumphs and her challenges, her foibles, her strengths. I could almost interpret Junior Scientist Power Hour as a self-portrait, more accurate in some ways than external visions of her because Howard is no doubt more familiar with herself than anyone who is not her, less accurate in others because no one is more biased about a person than the person herself.

When reading something that way, getting a feel for the author and who she seems to be as a person, I of course find myself making comparisons, evaluating her as a person based mainly on how many things she seems to have in common with me.

Like me, Howard hates restarting her computer and loves cats. (This comic features kind of a lot of cats. This is generally speaking a good thing for any online piece of media, because the Internet also loves cats. However, what some people fail to realize is that the Internet loves cats because they are objectively the best animals and anybody who disagrees is flat-out wrong.) Unlike me, Howard also like cute butts, while I am a bizarre person who doesn’t even really understand what makes butts cute or the difference between a cute butt and an uncute one. I can’t even blame that one on my prosopagnosia, because even I can tell a face apart from a butt.


Though most of the comic consists of amusing anecdotes or funny ideas or nonsensical jokes or just drawing of cats because cats are the best, at times it does tackle more serious subject matter. It tends to do so in a manner consistent with the tone of the rest of the comic, juxtaposing real concerns and important insights with absurdity or comically exaggerated activities.

If you elect not to read through the whole Junior Scientist Power Hour archive (though you totally should because it’s what I would do and also it’s not too long you can totally get through it), I would still recommend you read this installment and its follow-up. Howard rightly puts some fat-shaming dudes in their place with completely sensible arguments and completely disproportionate physical violence. It’s pretty much the best.

Junior Scientist Power Hour is written and drawn by Abby Howard… as I mentioned in the first paragraph, but hey, maybe you have a problem with your short-term memory and need to be reminded. If you’re looking for a fun way to spend a couple of hours, or you just need a quick laugh, or want to feel a moment of empathy with someone who loves cats the way every right-thinking person should, I suggest you treat yourself and give it a read. Howard presents herself and her thoughts with a self-awareness and humility that makes me constantly want to be on her side, even when she does things that are genuinely super annoying and oh god just stop please now stop. In short, she has a rare gift, and you owe it to yourself to check it out.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Entry 77: Huérfanos (Orphans)

Today we’re taking a look at fantasy. Now fantasy storytelling has its roots in mythology and folklore… the kinds of tales that we once told because we had no other way of understanding and explaining our world to one another. Hundreds, thousands of years ago, the people telling those stories, and listening to them, would have understood them as fact. Legends and history intermingled, both of them part of the story of What Came Before. These days, though, people draw a pretty sharp line between reality and fiction, placing myths, fairy tales and so forth squarely in the “fiction” category. “Realistic” fantasy, therefore, inhabits a somewhat uneasy place. In the real world, mystical realms, otherworldly beings and so forth are commonly understood to be things that Do Not Exist. So if a fantasy story takes place ostensibly in our world, all of those elements must be conveyed in a manner that allows them to stay hidden from the general populace. Suspending one’s disbelief for the sake of the story therefore involves suspending disbelief in regards to those elements existing in reality, too… at least to an extent. It’s an uneasy balance that I’m really interested in exploring as I tell you about Huérfanos (Orphans).

Before we get into things, I’ll note that Huérfanos (Orphans) is a narrative-type comic that you definitely ought to read from the beginning. It’s also one of those comics that I can’t really discuss without spoiling some things. However, in this case I believe that the things I spoil will make for a better reading experience rather than a worse one, because going in with a certain idea of what’s coming can help the reader to appreciate some of what’s being set up early on.

If you’re very very spoilerphobic I can’t blame you for wanting to skip the blog post for now and go read the comic before I can give too much away. (Hey, I get it, I’m that way about a lot of things, too.) However, if you’d like to keep with this blog post and read what I have to say, rest assured that I won’t describe specific plot points in detail and that there are plenty of twists and developments in the comic that I won’t even hint at here.

Huérfanos (Orphans) tells the story of a ragtag bunch of misfits who are brought together under the instruction of a wizard who intends to hone their magical abilities. Basically, it’s exactly the kind of thing that I’ve spent much of my life wishing would happen to me.

Remember that whole spiel I made in that first paragraph about fantasy stories and the belief in the truth of them? Well, I’ve always been one of those people who secretly hopes that all my favorite fantasy stories are true. I was one of those kids who was sorely disappointed that I never got my invitation to Hogwarts, who was constantly keeping an eye out for the strange medallion, or hidden door, or secret message that would transport me to another place, one far more exciting and dangerous than the world I’ve always known.

Of course, I live in a world that doesn’t contain any of those things… at least, as far as I’m aware. But in so many fantasy stories, including this one, magical and mystical things are going on without the awareness of the public at large all the time. One of the best things about fantasy is getting to explore a reality very different than the one we live in. But one of the other best things about fantasy is getting to pretend that it’s real. A well-told fantasy story can convince the reader that everything in the story is true, that all the mystical beings and magic spells are hidden just out of sight.

The trouble with believing all that is that, if I genuinely spent my time working under the assumption that it’s all true, especially if I started searching for clues, stitching together coincidences into “evidence” that my fantasy world is real… that would be indicative of mental illness. In this rational world, a world in which the scientific method allows only falsifiable theories to be granted credence, a wishy-washy ad hoc justification for belief in fantasy is, if harmless, subject to ridicule. If harmful, it is subject to much worse.

However… Those people who are convinced of something going on beyond that which the rest of us can perceive? For all I know they could be right. They may very well speak to beings that seem to the rest of us to be air, or see things that the rest of us find invisible. If there were people who could see into magical realms, and there were also people who merely believed that they could see those things due to a mental illness… how would the rest of us be able to tell the difference?

That conundrum finds better representation in Huérfanos (Orphans) than I’ve seen almost anywhere else. Most of the characters appear in at least some way to be mentally ill… whether because they bother other characters with apparently erratic behavior, or whether they behave in ways that the reader can clearly identify as unhealthy.

I have a little bit of experience dealing with others’ mental illness, mostly with my late aunt, who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. And when I read this comic, I can see her in it. That adds a layer of heartbreak to many of the scenes depicted therein. When a character describes being treated like their experiences are not real, that they themselves can’t be trusted because others believe them to be insane, I think of my aunt. I think of the way she lived her life, always knowing that no one else believed many of the things she said, that we all thought her experiences were invalid, false, even though they were real to her… and I can understand and sympathize with the characters who treat our protagonists the same way. Because it’s the only sensible thing to do, and there’s absolutely no way to prove that, in this case, it’s actually the wrong course of action.

On the same thematic bent, I’d like you to consider the nature of of magic, mysticism, and the people who engage in it. Many people are willing to sell their magical services, promising various outcomes in exchange for money. The vast majority of these people are charlatans.

That is true in any world, whether magic is real or not. What changes are the nature of the charlatans. In the truest sense of the word, a charlatan is someone who sells something even though they themselves know it doesn’t work. In a broader sense, one might consider a charlatan to be anyone who sells something that hasn’t been proven to work, even if they themselves believe it does. The real world contains plenty of people in both those categories.

However, a fantasy world can easily incorporate a third category of magical salespeople, ones who aren’t necessarily charlatans at all. If magic is indeed real, a wizard could go into business selling spells, potions and the like, all of which work exactly as intended. Or, a wizard could use magic to appear to sell effective remedies and so forth, in order to more effectively scam people out of their money.

The trouble, again, is telling which is which. This applies across the whole category of supernatural and occult practitioners. Some are legitimate, some are misguided, and some are outright untrustworthy. But when myths and legends are so unreliable, when so much of this type of knowledge is kept hidden or known only to a few… telling apart the different categories, picking apart the misleading from the malicious from the accurate, is an inhumanly difficult task.

Huérfanos (Orphans) is written by Enric Pujadas and drawn by M. A. Garcías. Dive in and explore a world similar to our own but with the clear-cut certainty that magic is real and ghosts (as well as other beings) go about among us. Get to know a group of distinct characters, each with their own special abilities… think Midnight’s Children if you’re highbrow or Heroes if you’re more pop-culture, but on a much smaller scale. In particular, get excited to meet Hipólita. I adore her.. she’s an artist who is able to depict the creatures she sees by drawing them, and even better, she’s a legit otherworldly princess. People do what she says and everything because, hey, she’s a princess, and that kind of authority commands respect and deference, even from people who should have no idea who the hell she is.

Obviously, these characters have to team up to fight some great evil, and possibly even save the world. I, for one, can’t wait to learn more about what threat they’re going to face and how they’ll overcome it. Along the way, maybe they’ll even discover that they’ve become a kind of unorthodox family. I’m looking forward to seeing how all of that develops.