In Real Life

In Real Life By Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang.
By Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang.

As a YA graphic novel, In Real Life will no doubt be described by critics as being “relevant” to its target audience. Writer Cory Doctorow uses the subject of gamers and the MMORPGs (Massively Multiple Online Role-Playing Games) they play to give a crash-course on how globalization creates the conditions for economic exploitation, even within the World Wide Web. It’s a timely message, and fortunately Doctorow packages it in a form that’s both comprehensible and entertaining. Artist Jen Wang produces some beautiful illustration work in order to fashion the book’s virtual world and the characters who populate it. But the story itself suffers from a weak 3rd act. As a result, Doctorow’s thesis that the virtues of interconnectivity will save everyone comes across as less than convincing.

Anda is an American teenager inspired to participate in an MMORPG called “Coarsegold Online” and to join a guild named “Clan Fahrenheit.”  The fictional Coarsegold is described as having upward of 10 million players worldwide, while Clan Farenheit is an all-female gamer group that requires its members to also play female characters. This is because women often choose to disguise themselves by playing male characters within the game as a way to guard against harassment. So the guild’s policies are designed to challenge sexist attitudes within the online world while establishing a community that provides women with much-needed support and encouragement. Sounds like a cool idea, right?

In Real Life By Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang.

However, even Farenheit's high-minded ideals are blinkered by their own privilege. Anda is conscripted by another member named Lucy to accept real-world cash payements from shadowy clients for slaughtering playing characters dubbed “gold farmers” - individuals who hoard the game's virtual resources (gold, magic items, weapons, etc.) not for their own use, but to sell to other players, and also in return for actual cash. There's a lot of money going around that's being kept on the down-low. Lucy justifies her own mercantile behavior by claiming that gold farming is inexcusable because it violates both the rules and the laissez-faire spirit of Coarsegold. She lectures Anda on the moral superiority of players who procure resources through their own efforts, just as the game designers intended. It isn’t long before Anda is forced to confront the contradictions within Lucy’s actions, and she befriends a gold farmer named Raymond. Anda learns that he’s just one of a multitude of Chinese teenagers who work for local companies that turn a profit from gold farming. Many of them labor under sweatshop conditions. Raymond himself is suffering from poor health due to the long hours he’s required to spend online by his employer in order to earn his wage.

IRL’s narrative constantly shifts back and forth between the real and game world. Wang is equally capable rendering both. But for the most part, the real world backgrounds look nondescript while Coarsegold looks sumptuous. The game’s blend of European and East Asian artifacts appears vaguely inspired by Hayao Miyazaki. I myself find the aesthetic quite attractive. Wang doesn’t markedly change up her drawing style to help differentiate the two worlds, but she does noticeably alter her color palette. The former is dominated by deep earth tones layered by brush in translucent washes, while the latter’s colors are purer and brighter, as if to suggest the digital nature of the setting. For example, Anda’s usual hair color is brown, but within Coarsegold it burns an unrealistic hue of bright red.

In Real Life By Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang.

Wang’s art particularly shines in the character designs, as she demonstrates a facility for facial expressions and body language expected of an animator. I like how she maintains the basic physical features of Anda and Lucy so the reader can still identify them whatever form they take. Their in-game avatars are basically fantasy projections based on their real world appearance. And all the guild members can be distinguished through their individual avatars. By contrast, Raymond and the other gold farmers share the same harmless-looking gnomelike appearance that makes them nonetheless easy to spot in a crowd. They're effectively interchangeable mascots. If anything, the subsuming of rugged individuality to a bland corporate identity (or Eastern collectivism) might be a little too on-the-nose.

But if the morale of the story is all too apparent hallway through, it at least refrains from hammering it in (That’s what Doctorow’s written introduction is for). IRL succinctly raises a whole host of thorny issues when portraying how the globalized economy functions that deserve further exploration, but then rushes to conveniently resolve them. The plot in itself is rather flimsy, with most of the secondary characters popping up just to deliver some piece of exposition. The consequence is that the comic doesn't quite convey the full weight of the problems its trying to address. Anda and Clan Fahrenheit use the power of Internet messaging to unite the gold farmers in their struggle to obtain better working conditions. But the victory feels hollow. While the newly-empowered guild celebrates in their palatial headquarters, much of the actual struggle of their Chinese counterparts takes place of-panel. The only indication the reader gets in the end is a hazy reassurance from Raymond that things are now “better” for them.

And that’s the crucial limitation of an otherwise good book. Educating its young audience and getting them engaged might be a commendable goal. The privileging of their perspective might even make them feel better about themselves. But IRL mostly leaves out of the picture those who have to toil in less fortunate conditions. It hands them another empty promise that the more affluent parts of the world will back them up next time, because openness!

In Real Life By Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang.


Cosplayers #1-2

Cosplayers By Dash Shaw.
Cosplayers and Cosplayers 2: Tezukon
By Dash Shaw

Cosplayers is surprisingly accessible for a Dash Shaw comic. It’s missing his requisite fantasy elements. And on first impression, it feels oddly familiar. The two books were released as pamphlets by Fantagraphics, a noticeable contrast to most of that publisher’s line of graphic novels from indie creators who've gradually abandoned the serial format over the years. Cosplayers' everyday milieu even seems to recall the listless urban settings populated by man-child heroes affecting some form of ennui found in alternative comics from the mid-nineties. But there’s a certain playfulness about our mediated reality that marks it as a Dash Shaw book.

The art is unmistakably Shaw’s unique combination of loosely drawn black-and-white line-work mixed in with computer coloring that often appears half-finished. Some panels look like basic flatwork. Others are modelled with simple two or three-color gradients. And others are filled with cheap digital effects. It might sound awful when being described, but this computer-generated form of minimalism actually reinforces the raw energy and naiveté of the comic’s mostly adolescent cast, as well as effectively speaking to their regular online activities.

Cosplayers By Dash Shaw.

A peculiar feature of the comic are the various pin-ups of random cosplayers that interrupt the narrative. The images themselves may have been copied from actual photographs. The cosplayer poses certainly have that stiff, photographic quality to them. They’re mostly portrayed floating over the kind of repeating patterns that could have been found either within the graphic software being used or downloaded from the Web. For me, this harkens back to when mainstream comics from a decade ago began to experiment with digital workflows. A lot of the coloring from the era looks rather primitive today. But a lot of artists found the new methods liberating and responded by designing page panels that were basically gratuitous pin-ups. This isn’t the case with Shaw as his art naturally subverts the usual function of the pin-up by contrasting the slick representations of these commercial properties with the less than ideal physiques of normal human beings dressing themselves in form-fitting outfits. But the digitized nature of the imagery can also refer to the pivotal role of the Web and social media in the dissemination of the cosplayer way of life.

Cosplayers 2: Tezukon By Dash Shaw.
The book’s subject-matter clearly marks it as a work that could have only been created in the 21st century. Sure, cosplay has been around almost as long as geek culture itself, but it’s become truly ubiquitous within the last several years. More importantly, it’s a form of expression favored by the current crop of fans, many of whom are women. The principle protagonists of Cosplayers are a pair of teenage girls who’re drawn together by their mutual hobby. One is an aspiring actress who dreams of fame while the other is a budding photographer who views the former as her muse. Their desire to reshape their lives with the fantasies they’ve consumed leads them to experiment with guerrilla film-making on unsuspecting strangers. It’s a dangerous task, both physically and emotionally. Not only do they risk retaliation from irate individuals not wanting to be filmed, their actions eventually open a small crack in their friendship as more people fall victim to their deception.

In the 2nd issue, the duo attends a small anime convention called “Tezukon” - in honor of the great Osamu Tezuka. While their relationship is further strained by participating in a cosplay contest followed by a chance encounter with a pair of fanboys who know them through their Youtube videos, the most memorable character is a nebbish Tezuka scholar who’s so frugal he’d rather sleep in the nearby alley and dumpster dive than pay for a hotel room. The scholar is very much a throwback to the passive, self-loathing protagonists of Chris Ware and Daniel Clowes. But he differs in one crucial respect - he actually feels awe and admiration for all the cosplayers at the convention. While there’s something creepy about a middle-aged man ogling people half his age wearing revealing costumes, his adulation is undifferentiated and an expression of envy at their youth and untapped potential. And that’s a more positive way to react to the noticeable generational shift in fan conventions.

Plus, he gets to interact with a character from another comic.

Cosplayers 2: Tezukon By Dash Shaw.


Animation: Landing

xkcd by Randall Munroe
Go to: xkcd by Randall Munroe (via Lauren Davis)