{comics} IRL

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In Real Life by Cory Doctorow & Jen Wang

First Second (2014)

 Anda loves Coarsegold Online, the massively-multiplayer role-playing game where she spends most of her free time. It’s a place where she can be a leader, a fighter, a hero. It’s a place where she can meet people from all over the world, and make friends.

But things become a lot more complicated when Anda befriends a gold farmer–a poor Chinese kid whose avatar in the game illegally collects valuable objects and then sells them to players from developed countries with money to burn. This behavior is strictly against the rules in Coarsegold, but Anda soon comes to realize that questions of right and wrong are a lot less straightforward when a real person’s real livelihood is at stake.

In Real Life is a perceptive and high-stakes look at adolescence, gaming, poverty, and culture clash. –jacket copy

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You could pick this one up for the Introduction alone. Cory Doctorow lays the ground work for Anda’s finest impulse: to affect change in the face of a social injustice. “This is a book about games and economics,” Doctorow begins. And he closes with the reminder that it is “risk” to “change the world for the better,” but there are “principled people” (like Anda) who prove willing–and able. Like the novel itself, Doctorow’s Introduction educates and inspires with plain-speaking and zero condescension. A young Anda isn’t the only one who thinks that maybe she could try to make another’s circumstances better.

You could also pick this one up based on that cover. That Jen Wang is a talented artist is evident. But it is Anda’s real life-likeness that has me enamored and intrigued. Wang sets the visual tone as to what is real. She grounds Anda, but not in order to create a dramatic contrast with the fantasy of the on-line gaming world and the avatar there-in. Anda may strengthen her self-esteem via her gaming/community (love the red-hair dye), but her ferocity stems from a compassion and intellect. In Real Life draws two worlds that bleed into the other, not in a singular direction; note how little, if at all, the color palette shifts between worlds. Anda’s avatar is not a wholly separate entity formed completely as an other (despite the design options). And neither are the other players. Anda interacts with other gamers through a variety of avenues (classroom visit, voice, chat, skype, mediating avatars). In Real Life reminds us that life exists in/on multiple platforms.

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We need to see some of the real life implications of gaming–for the negative and positive–and In Real Life delivers. “Coarsegold Online” has upsides and downs. The upside is argued by Anda to her concerned mother. Not everyone is a perv and connecting globally broadens horizons. A downside that the novel focuses on is in the gold farming and the desire for some of the gamers to enjoy their time without a complication of ethics. Our heroine finds camaraderie in a space that also generates millions of dollars from abusive labor conditions—I’m referring to the online game-scape, but the same is said of her life back home (e.g. Anda’s school, media), as well as our very own real life comic and gaming cultures. The very spaces that can liberate can oppress, and vice versa; the comic panel and its composition… Wang’s verisimilitude in the rendering of Anda does not go unnoticed.

In Real Life is worth the complication of the female character. So Anda can look like a waif or no, go by Anda or no, and still essentially be her self. I dig how females can be both competitive and cooperative, blood-thirsty and compassionate, a leader and follower.

The online gaming world isn’t only this ‘other’ place where real people say they play pretend. Similarly, Anda’s avatar is just another visual representation of who she really is: a resourceful young woman capable of a complex range of emotion and action. Her only limitations in the imagined setting are rules or expectations imposed by her self or others. …Hmm, sounds like real life.

Anda finds success, but not without error and conflict. What sets her apart, where she finds connection on-line, is in knowing a person exists beyond the avatar/game. Liza is real to her. Raymond also becomes real. She is real. Her father evidences a connection to an event spoken about on television. Life is illustrated in the connections made between the differing realities of media.

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Like most good “serious” or “important” books, the creator knows how to tell a story first and foremost. First: the choice of form. Comics are a great medium for discussing gaming, and not just for the visual familiarity, but a cultural one. Girls in comics and gaming share a conversation. Comics and gaming share a counter culture and overlap in followers.

Second: Wang is excellent in her craft. A random page-flip…6 & 7. On page 7, Liza, the game-recruiter is outside of a box (panel). Page 6: human hands direct/interact with what happens on the screen. Pages 70 & 71 wordlessly seats Anda in a classroom with maps, connecting bubbles of information on a projector, and a clock. We see her considering the time difference with China, both settings connected by a centrally located smart phone operated by thumbs. On 71, Anda begins to research gold farming, not relying on just one source of information (“Sarge”). She is curious and has/uses her resources (education, technology, peers, adults).

Just as Anda’s online persona informs her physical one, the interdependence formed and flawlessly expressed between the Writer (Cory Doctorow) and Artist (Jen Wang) of In Real Life demonstrates how the plural can inhabit a single narrative. As Anda is inspired by both physical and online situations equally, learning from both to aid her in either world, In Real Life is inspired textually and visually.

I swear that In Real Life is an accessible, entertaining graphic novel with beautiful art and an engaging story. It’s just that it is also really smart and unusual that it can’t help but be talked about in some depth. Anda digs deep. She takes risks and inspires others to do the same. She moves beyond the superficial, in perception of self and others. Maybe that is one of the things I like about Anda and In Real Life, both can be fun and serious. Both can be complicated in important and entertaining ways.

{images are Jen Wang’s}

2 Comments Add yours

  1. tuulenhaiven says:

    I was gonna ask yesterday when you posted about this winning the Cybil if you’d read it yet. Sounds incredible. I’m stoked that Doctorow turned his powerful pen to something short! Heh. I’m definitely keeping an eye out for this and I’ll pass it on to some of the students I work with who would like it too.

    1. L says:

      I was one of the Finalist Judges for the Cybils in both graphic novel categories. Been reading a lot of good comics lately

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