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.

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