Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Entry 80: Molebashed

One of my favorite things about comics is the opportunity they provide for creators and readers to share and compare personal experiences. Granted, this is true of most media, but we’re focusing on comics here. Comics, along with other forms of artistic expression, allow people to articulate common experiences that others can relate to. They can also allow people to express their unique life experiences to people who don’t share them, allowing the reader to gain greater understanding of an author from a different background or worldview. Today I’m talking about a comic that I find does both those things for me: Molebashed.

I’ll note here that, though there is some continuity to Molebashed and some comics do follow others in forming storylines, this is not a narrative-driven comic and you don’t have to worry about spoilers or following it all from the very beginning in order to understand what’s going on. Feel free to jump in anywhere and read as much from different parts of the archive as you like.

Molebashed is an autobio, gag-a-day comic that shows us little scenes from the life of its author, Wes Molebash. The focus, particularly, is on his place in his family, as a father to his son, Parker, and a husband to his wife, Kari. Fatherhood especially takes center place in Molebashed, as the comic opens with Kari going into labor and, though not every installment deals directly with parenthood, that subject takes up the overwhelming majority of the run so far.

The way the author portrays his family sometimes feels quaint, in a way, like a relic from a less cynical time period. Very few families in contemporary popular media are as well-adjusted as the Molebashes appear from this representation. There are lots of reasons for that trend, but one can be attributed to lazy writing. As we all know, conflict drives stories, and in a dysfunctional family, conflict is all over the place, obvious and easy to insert into any given situation. Some people might even assume that a happy family full of people who love each other will contain no conflict at all. Those people, however, are not looking hard enough. Humans do not live lives free of conflict, regardless of how many things they do ‘right’ or what kind of cultural scripts they follow.

Often, Molebashed hits upon those little life experiences that tend to pass unnoticed and unremarked-upon, such that every individual who experiences it neglects to realize that there are other people experiencing the exact same thing. So far, many of those experiences that make it into this comic have to do with caring for babies, which is sensible given the subject matter. I’m not a parent, myself, but now that my siblings all have kids and I’ve spent time with my niece and my nephews as they grow up, I find that I relate to many of the jokes and stories that people tell about babies and young children. Before my first nephew was born, I could read those kinds of anecdotes and appreciate them. Now, I appreciate them in a slightly different way. It’s the difference between laughing at something that is amusing in an absurd way, and laughing at something because it’s amusingly familiar.

For those who are not parents and do not have any young children in your life, there are actually some installments of Molebashed that hit on common experiences that you don’t need to be around kids in order to relate to. For instance, take the following example of a comic distributed through the Internet, complaining about how these days media is distributed through the Internet.

Seriously though I feel this one pretty strongly.

The parts of Molebashed that I appreciate the most, though, are the ones I don’t directly relate to. At present I don’t have kids, and I may never have kids. I’m not married, and may never be. I’m not a religious or spiritually-oriented person. In other words, I’m a pretty different person from Wes Molebash, whose wife, son, and Christian faith are all clearly important to how he defines himself. And what makes him a notable cartoonist, to my mind, is the way he can articulate those aspects of himself in a manner that makes sense to me, someone with a pretty different personal history and identity than his.

Almost anyone can appeal to other people from their own and similar communities, can create artwork that sets those who come from your same world nodding their heads. It takes a great deal of insight, and a tremendous amount of skill in the act of communication, to reach out to someone from a totally disparate worldview and make them nod in agreement. And this is what Molebashed does to me… it shows me scenes and thoughts from a life I’ve never even considered to myself, and makes them seem perfectly sensible and accessible.

Now, I don’t like to describe comics in terms of negatives, because I find it far more useful and interesting to describe the traits a comic possesses than the ones it doesn’t possess. However, if someone described Molebashed to me there are a few assumptions I might make about it that would discourage me from checking it out, so I’ll list a couple of qualities that one might expect this sweet slice-of-life comic about a man and his family to have that it, thankfully, does not.

Molebashed doesn’t feel preachy or self-righteous. Though the author represents himself as the kind of person who genuinely tries to be a good person to the best of his ability, he doesn’t come off as if that makes him better than anybody else. There’s no arrogance, or any assumption that people who live their lives in different ways are doing something wrong.

Neither does Molebashed never get cloying or overly sappy. It’s sweet and optimistic, but not in a way that feels false or exaggerated. Rather, the whole comic rings of sincerity… this feels like an accurate representation of the author’s worldview, and that worldview is that life is pretty great, family is awesome, and being around loved ones is a fantastic way to spend one’s time.

Perhaps the reason Molebashed is great at presenting unfamiliar experiences to me in a way I can accept is that the author himself displays an open-minded willingness to accept unfamiliar experiences that might be presented to him. This goes along with that ‘life is pretty great’ viewpoint that I read in his work… there are a lot of diverse interests and experiences in life, and every one of them is deeply important to somebody.

A note on navigation: You have to click the buttons below the comic to move to earlier or later installments. Clicking the comic image itself just takes you to a page that displays the comic image, and only the comic image, with no navigation available aside from your browser’s Back button.

I love this comic not just because it’s sincere and optimistic and sweet, but because it brings a sense of self-awareness to those qualities. Molebashed represents life as a wonderful thing, and family as rewarding and fulfilling, but there’s an understanding of the negatives that come with life, as well. What’s more, there’s an understanding of the negative qualities present in the author himself. In fact, part of what stops Molebashed from feeling preachy is the way that it will lightheartedly poke fun at the author for getting into a preachy mode sometimes. The people represented in the comic feel humbler and more relatable because of the times they are represented as feeling self-righteous and better than those around them. Those are extremely human qualities… almost everyone has moments like that, and pointing them out and acknowledging them makes them seem far less significant, and certainly less harmful, than they would if they went unrecognized.

This isn’t just a comic that represents some of the best parts of being alive…. it’s a comic that does so while acknowledging and examining its own biases, and is all the better for it.

Molebashed is written and drawn by Wes Molebash, and it updates on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Parents will likely find a lot to love about it, but I think people like me who are not parents, including that subset of us who are dead set against ever becoming parents, will find a lot to love in it as well. This is really a comic about what it’s like to be a human… and since there is no one general human story that encompasses all our many stories and backgrounds and opinions, the way to reach that general story is through many smaller, specific stories. Molebashed happens to be the story of one man in particular, and he happens to be a father… and for that reason, Molebashed is about what it’s like to be a father. If you’re at all interested in people, consider giving it a read.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Entry 79: The White Snake

Today we’re talking about a comic that, to me, is all about journeys of discovery. We’re all learning things all the time, of course, and many standard types of stories… detective stories, coming-of-age tales, stories of ordinary humans coming into contact with the supernatural… are all based on people going from a state of not knowing something, to a state of not only knowing, but understanding. Today’s comic may or may not contain all of those story types. You’ll have to read it and/or read this post about it to find out. So come along and allow me to facilitate your journey to discovering The White Snake.

Okay, before we begin: This post is gonna contain some spoilers. The White Snake is one of those stories that hints at its premise before making that premise explicitly clear, and it is not one of those stories that I can talk about without letting you readers in on what I’m describing. If you want to read the comic real quick before you finish this blog post go ahead and get started. There are only two chapters so far, so you should be able to get through it pretty fast.

All right, everyone has either read the comic or doesn’t care about spoilers now, right? Because I’m going to start with the spoilers… any... second.

The White Snake is a comic in which a snake turns into a woman and escapes from her enclosure. Or, rather, I suppose she escapes her enclosure and then turns into a woman. The comic follows twin storylines, as the snake, going by the name Lily, tries to adjust to being a human, while a detective tries to track down the person or people responsible for what he can only assume is a theft for the purpose of illegal animal trading.

As one might imagine, adjusting from living as a snake for one’s entire life to living as a human comes with a fair number of difficulties. Lily doesn’t have any experience interacting with other people or holding down a job, or even, given her life in captivity, a sense of how to be the master of her own fate, making her own decisions about what to do and when, being responsible for her own actions.

There are three main things that I love about Lily coming to terms with her new situation. One thing I love is attention to mental health problems being well represented in fiction. In this case the mental health problems aren’t to do with mental illness, but rather the traumas and anxieties that come about just from adjusting to life. Coming from such an unusual background, Lily is understandably maladjusted to life as a human.

The second thing I love is that she’s so damn relatable. I’ve long maintained that the stigma against talking about mental illness, as well as many other social ills, scares people away from discussing experiences that are actually extremely common. That when people really start admitting what’s going on with them, they reveal aspects of the human experience that almost everyone shares, but that almost no one realizes happens to other people too. Now, maybe I’m just revealing how deeply messed up my own mental state is, but when a snake starts talking about the difficulties of living a human life and I find myself agreeing with almost everything she says, I have to think that the author is tapping into something deep that connects us all.

The third thing I love is that she’s seeing a therapist, and he seems to be doing a pretty good job. If having mental health issues at all are stigmatized, seeing a therapist to deal with them is even more so. Personally, I think just about everyone could benefit from therapy, but my perception is admittedly skewed because without it I probably would not be alive anymore. Regardless, our culture has something of an aversion to showing effective therapy in our fictional stories, to the extent that TVTropes lists “There Are No Therapists” as a common trope in works that include characters dealing with trauma or mental illness and yet never approaching a therapist for help. I am glad to see a work of fiction representing a character who receives appropriate help, even if her situation is at first glance beyond the purview of most therapists to handle. However extraordinary or mundane your struggles, a sympathetic ear and some assistance with introspection can be a fantastic step toward overcoming them.

Okay, I’ll get off my soap box now.

Besides our protagonist, Lily the adorable and sympathetic snake woman, The White Snake gives us a deuteragonist (that is an awesome word that I learned recently and am going to use all the time now) in Detective Tate. He’s not quite as adorable as Lily, but he’s definitely sympathetic, and it’s fascinating to watch him grapple with this case that doesn’t make much sense on the surface, because sensible detectives do not assume that missing snakes have turned into young women and integrated into the workforce.

Despite being ill-equipped for investigating a mystery of this nature, Detective Tate maintains an open mind and doesn’t seem perturbed or discouraged when the evidence he’s presented with fails to make immediate sense. He’s perfectly willing to include mystical beliefs about snakes in his research, suspecting that, even though he’s certain all that stuff is false, he might be dealing with a perpetrator who believes in some of it.

While Detective Tate is bound on a journey of discovering that which is outside himself, a world full of strange and mystical things he’s not yet ready to acknowledge, Lily’s journey of discovery is all based upon her inner life. These two characters contrast and complement each other wonderfully, approaching the world with different methods and different goals, but each learning and exploring new possibilities along the way.

One of my favorite parts of this comic is seeing Lily’s inner life visualized, the way she relates to the world and develops mnemonics to navigate the world. Not all human things make intuitive sense to her, so she turns them into snake things in her head.

The White Snake is written and drawn by Jen Wang. New chapters will go up all at once, so it may take quite some time before there’s more story to read, but when there is, there will be a lot of it. I encourage you to check it out and discover what kind of connection you can form with these characters. Lily as a character is extraordinarily likeable, and I find myself wanting to read more… not to learn more about where she came from or how she is able to transform like she does, or even to find out how Detective Tate’s investigation shapes up, but just to find out how she gets along as a person. I want to know how she deals with work, how she comes to terms with her feelings, how she settles into living a human life. She feels like a real person, and I’m rooting for her.