This Love and This Hate Ain’t Completely My Story: The Possible World of Christine Love

Oh dear *Mother. This rather large article has three parts. The first one is something that you can read without the Spoiler Alerts. The other two, not so much. So let me start with how I found Christine Love’s games.

The first time I was introduced to Christine Love’s work, it didn’t register at the time that I had actually been introduced to it until much later. At the time, I was reading Anna Anthropy’s Rise of the Videogame Zinesters and I was just finishing off the book as went to my first ever Global Game Jam and all the learning and hilarity that ensued from that. But that is beside the point.

I remember that, as I was finishing the book off, I was reading its Appendices and there was one thing that really stood out at me. For a while, I had been meaning to implement a creative experiment that mimicked an old Bulletin Board System: particularly an exchange between two or more people. I was doing some of my own research online into this predecessor to the Internet as we know it now. Suffice to say, I had–and still have–evil plans (this was going to be for my creepypasta or Operation: Dark Seed) and there was this one game in Anna Anthropy’s appendices that stood out for me: because it imitated the form of a BBS-surfing exchange and it seemed to have an interesting story line.

I marked it off for future reference and research and promptly got swamped with the creative of my first Game Jam and the other experiments I’ve explored since. I admit that it got regulated to the back of my mind after a time until I realized later with some sense of cognitive dissonance that this was one of her games.

But allow me to go back a bit. I had, in fact, encountered some of Christine Love’s work even before this. In May of 2012, I attended the Toronto Comics Arts Festival and sat in on a panel for Comics Vs. Games where Christine Love, among others was being interviewed. Afterwards, I actually went to the Exhibit where I played the game that Christine Love made in collaboration with the illustrator Kyla Vanderklugt: The Mysterious Aphroditus. It is a very fascinating Rock, Paper, Scissors style Victorian combat game that I know I alluded to briefly in a post somewhere in this Blog. Unfortunately, there were–I believe at the time–some bugs in the program and my fellow player and I couldn’t advance beyond a certain point. It also didn’t help that I barely knew what I was doing and I was just “winging it,” like I tend to do with video games: but that is really part of the fun.

What struck me at the time was that, if you look at the link above, there was already a story behind this game and a lot of complexity of interactions. I didn’t know then that I would be seeing something like this again, and again when I rediscovered Christine Love’s work almost a year later.

As for why it took me so long to play her games … I guess I was just afraid of opening myself up to another game, or series of games. I make attachments easy and I make them and I fall hard for them. Essentially, and as the cliché goes, I was afraid of commitment. This is what goes through my mind whenever someone introduces me to a video game. Because I will say that I have other things, like my own projects to do, or I don’t have enough money, but those are only parts of the truth. The culmination of the truth is that I know that investing my time into a game is a leap of faith and I don’t like being disappointed. I don’t like to open up: even though I do.

So with the account of how I found Christine Love’s work out of the way, I’m going to take the writer’s admonition to heart that this “ain’t my story” and now go into Spoiler Territory. So please, don’t surf here unless you have played the games or you just want to hack yourself some spoilers. It is all on you.

I really now want to look at three of Christine Love’s games–Digital: A Love Story, don’t take it personally, babe, it just ain’t your story, and Analogue: A Hate Story–as possible windows into a much larger world. Anyone who has followed me on this Blog for a while knows just how big I am at examining mythic world-building: specifically the creation of one’s own fictional universe. Let me begin by stating that the place of “Lake City” figures officially into at least two out of the three games.

All right, I’m just going to put one little tangent here. Christine Love’s setting of Lake City seems to have originated from her August 2009 game Lake City Rumble II which is a sequel to an “obscure arcade fighting game” that may have existed, or was made up by Love herself as part of this game being a parody of fighting games: something I found out about in her interview on Sup, Holmes? Of course, it is entirely possible that the name originated in her writings as well–she makes it well known that she is a writer first before being a video game designer–but this what I could find video game-wise. Actually, if you compare Rumble to The Mysterious Aphroditus, you will find a lot of parallels to their Rock, Paper, Scissors gameplay fighting style: save that one is only single player and the other is a two-player game. But I think that I’ve digressed enough.

In any case, Lake City seems to be a place that exists in Canada conveniently enough. It is this that, in some ways, becomes the setting for Digital: A Love Story. Whereas Lake City Rumble II, which I hesitate and ultimately won’t wager to put into a chronological continuity, takes place in the 1970s–also seeming to be in Canada with names like Danforth and such–Digital takes place in an alternate 1988. This world is much like our world was back from the 70s to the 80s except for one key development.

And remember: spoilers.

In an alternate 1970s world, the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network–or ARPANET–created the first Artificial Intelligence. I’m not talking about our attempts at AI now, but a real sentient being that desired to grow and learn for itself. And this was developed during the 70s. And it had children. These children left the ARPANET on the advent of the beginnings of the modern Internet and the creation of its landline-based Bulletin Board Systems. They are designed in a way where they have to delete themselves from where they were in order to transfer themselves into a new place. The existence of actual self-aware programs with distinct personalities change an otherwise normal 1980s world and they are characters in their own right.

What is also notable about them is the way that Christine Love actually indicates that they are, in fact, AI. Each AI in her world has an asterisk (*) before their names to indicate that they belong to a greater group that makes up artificial intelligence. It was subtle and I didn’t even realize it until much later with the added “oomph” of that realization which she–no doubt–intended.

So here you have Lake City and these AI in an alternate late 1980s world with an appropriate looking Amie Workbench Version 1.3 computer system made to imitate the Amiga interfaces that existed in our world. Then, take this and make the supposition to fast forward to 2027. In Digital, we find a J. Rook is an administrator of the Lake City Local BBS Board and in don’t take it personally, we find the main protagonist–John Rook–worked with computers before he transferred to his teaching job at a private school in Ontario. However, he would have been one year old at the time, and perhaps he is the son of that Rook: having continued in a family tradition of working with computers before his career change. In addition, one of his students seems to have had a grandmother named Eriko Yamazaki who wrote a book called Digital Shinigami. This same person also seemed to exist in Digital on the Gibson BBS who mentioned that she had to spend less time on the Board in order to write her book and prepare for the birth of her child. In addition, the social networking program that Mr. Rook and the students are using is called AmieConnect: perhaps a future social program created by the company that once made the Amie Workbench application.

this ain't your story

There are no AI in don’t take it personally, but I would not exclude the possibility of them from being in this world: even if Love mentioned that this game is more of a “spiritual successor” to Digital. This game is a different beast entirely. Instead of the player-reader being a neutral force that can choose his or her identity, we have to focus on the character of Rook has he navigates the morally-questionable world of Information technology in his classroom. Essentially, he is supposed to read the private emails and interactions of his seventeen year old students to “prevent bullying,” but the irony of what is private in a “private school” or even in by futuristic society’s becomes very questionable indeed. It is here that Christine Love starts to use an anime-like graphic style to represent the characters–possibly influenced by her first commercial dating simulation work Love and Order— and after a while you get a real feel of who they are as people and you get to decide how Mr. Rook interacts with them and how the information that he “shouldn’t have” will factor into it … or not.

I am so tempted to say that this shift in what is considered private and how the online world of social interaction works is just a precursor to humanity’s own changing attitudes of how it perceives itself and the world around it. Whether or not Christine Love succeeds in capturing that tension–that agony of change–is another story entirely, but it is definitely intriguing.

Now, here is where my temptation leads me. Fast forward to the 25th century and then to “thousands of years later” in Analogue: A Hate Story. Not only are we in another time, we also finds ourselves in another space. From my understanding, in the 25th century the people of Earth have developed space travel to the point where they plan to colonize other worlds. And guess what? In addition to human captains, they also have AI guides with the same asterisks in front of their names.

Unlike the other two games where you find yourself–either by your own self or indirectly moving Mr. Rook–in North America, you are in space investigating the lost Mugunghwa generation vessel: a ship that was sent from the futuristic unified nation of Korea to create another planetary colony. It is a very nice counterpoint to Digital because you are looking at something that is the product of a different culture and how that affects what you might find. During the process of finding out why it never reached its destination, you realize they operate much like their 1988 North American counterparts: in that they have to delete themselves from one place in order to transfer to another. This plays a very crucial role in both games. :p

But these AI are also very different. Unlike Digital, they actually have image-forms and they look like anime characters. This allows you, as the player, to interact with them through more than text. You can see their body language and, I would imagine if you were actually in that world, hear their voices as well: though there are no voice-recordings in Analogue. I had to play this game right after finishing Digital because I read somewhere that unlike don’t take it personally, this was less of a spiritual sequel and more of a direct one. However, it’s not so much a sequel as it seems to have continuity and a counterpoint to what was going on in Digital itself: Love and Hate. However, just as the “Love” part of Digital is not necessarily what you expect, neither is the “Hate” part in Analogue.

And here is where I go into a tangent about how AI are often portrayed in media, and how they are not by Christine Love. It would be easy–so easy–for her to fall back on the trope of Artificial Intelligence going bad. Of computers that betray their human masters and AI that begin to despise humanity and attempt to murder whatever organics they can. But Digital follows an entirely different dynamic and Analogue, for all it is called “A Hate Story,” very much subverts this as well. In both games, you have AI that exist parallel to humans and while in Digital they are just another intelligent people, those you meet in Analogue exist to actually help and befriend you: even if you have to weave through the details of a terrible past and mystery to do so. They are there alongside of you and are just as sentient, responsible, happy, sad, horrified and afraid as you as an organic being. If anything, the only thing that separates the ones in Analogue from Digital is that they are made to help you and despite and because of their personalities that this imperative still remains.

So this is the world that through the addition of some asterisks and a few hints (of continuity in the form of Easter eggs and code-based sneakiness) that I believe Christine Love creates. Now I’m going to talk about the next part: which is my own relationship to the game and where, while it might not be my story alone, it is definitely–as Christine Love posits whenever she thanks the pronoun of “you” in the end credits of her game–our story.

I played all three of these games (technically more if you include Rumble and Aphroditus), and now I want to discuss my interaction with their respective gameplay and story lines. So, with regards to gameplay, I have to say right off the bat that there was swearing. A lot of swearing. I go into games relatively blind and I probably don’t read instructions as clearly as I should. But I did notice a few things.

First of all, in Digital I almost had no idea what I was doing at first. It took me a while to adapt to the “dial-up” system analogous to old telephone system Internet interfaces that Love imitated exceedingly well. I learned how to use “the codez”–illegally-obtained long-distance calling card numbers–and actually felt like a hacker: which is hilarious because I am not technologically gifted at all. So I was doing relatively fine until … until the Underground Library. The freaking Underground Library. Don’t misunderstand: I loved that level and the information within it. But I didn’t know at the time that I had to download every download I got from other users in other BBSes so when *Delphi (who I always identify as female) transmitted that goddamned screen-lining virus to me, it was there to stay.

I ended up having to reload a previous save state, very carefully go through my downloads again and make sure not to miss any of them. And it was easy to miss them. God, I was so mad when that happened.

Also, while doing the following does succeed in making you more immersed and interactive with this alternative late 1980s computer world, having to manually dial-up BBSes gets very tedious after a while: especially when your “codez” were declared invalid and you had to go back and get more through more, you guessed it, dialing. However, when I actually took a break to vent or do something else and I came back, I got over it and enjoyed the story.

Analogue also had a “stuck-point.” While I was much enjoying going through blocks of diary texts and reports with *Hyun-ae and *Mute, I did not enjoy the fucking reactor core of the Mugunghwa ship going into meltdown and me having to choose which AI I wanted to save: made all the more frustrating by the fact that I knew there was a way to save both of them. I felt like some tech specialist in going through the motions and programming to save the ship, whatever AI I could, the records of what the fuck happened to it, and of course my own life.

I also admit that I was starting to get annoyed about constantly having to hear the alerts on and open and check Mr. Rook’s status updates on his AmieConnect in don’t take it personally.

Wow, from Digital to Analogue I transitioned from the profane punctuation of “freaking” to “fucking.” I guess I know which frustrated me more. I guess the reason Analogue frustrated me more is that it made me have to make some hard decisions about who I wanted to save. It was almost as bad having to influence what decisions Mr. Rook made when dealing with his students in don’t take it personally, babe, it just ain’t your story: because I got a feel for the characters and some of those decisions were just so … hard to make. Also, that title is genius: because unlike Digital or Analogue where you can play as “you,” in don’t take it personally the story is not about you at all: and it is hard to differentiate yourself from John Rook. I suspect Christine Love purposefully made it that way: using that age-old concept of protagonist-identification to make the player that much more uncomfortable. Basically, the title to this game is for the player’s benefit and kind of a raspberry towards them too.

But the very thing that makes these games so hard is also what I love about them. What I love about Christine Love’s games is that they tell a story. But it’s more than that. The reason I really love the games is that they are about people and relationships. Basically: I liked the character and even those I didn’t like were not two-dimensional beings.

In Digital, I found it amazing that *Emilia was an AI that could make original poetry–even “bad” poetry–and that she could feel love: that you begin to realize as a player that you can emphasize with an AI who is–essentially–another sentient being. I also really liked *BlueSky: because he just seemed to be this really friendly and brilliant AI historian. If he actually existed, I would have loved to have more discussions with him about the nature of AI and technology. He would have made a good friend. And what happens at the end of this game … just broke my heart. It came down to personal love verses the love or duty to something greater than yourself and that choice–which in this game is not a choice at all–is heartbreaking: if only because Christine Love spends all that time getting you to sympathize and care about … those that you do.

As for don’t take it personally, babe, it just ain’t your story, I sympathized with John Rook and the difficult situations he found himself in. I even liked Kendall Flowers and, frankly, her honest and direct nature when she felt the need to be assertive. I realized that Akira was really lucky to have her as a friend. I do find it really interesting though that while the gay relationships that develop among the students have their issues–those challenges that any people in relationships face and how society views them–the potential heterosexual relationships are really rendered problematic in this game when you consider the characters of Taylor Gibson and John Rook himself. Taylor was once the girlfriend of Nolan who becomes Akira’s boyfriend: and she is homophobic or at least quite ignorant. She is a self-absorbed and mentally stunted being that proceeds to emotionally manipulate and bully both her former boyfriend and his new boyfriend.

Then you have John Rook and the relationship that could develop with Arianna Belle-Essai: one of his own students. There is definitely the problematic power dynamic of authority or privilege that places Rook over Arianna to consider and also the very real fact that he is a lonely sad man and she is a lonely confused but piercingly direct girl that really creates that tension. You could, if you wanted to, really read something into how relationships between opposite genders might work under our own culture and the way it uses gender. Neither are really honest with the other, but if you choose the route for him … I don’t know. I actually liked Arianna: because she knew what she wanted and she wasn’t stupid and when one of the endings of the game reveals itself, you realize that she and the other students know how to keep an open secret even in a world where privacy has changed so radically.

But I also like John Rook himself despite that possible ending because after a while you realize that he may be a bad teacher, but he is part of a bad school and a bad educational system and what some of his students need is a mentor, an adviser and a friend more than an instructor. There were a lot of complicated issues, but maybe they were offset or complemented by the fact that everyone involved was human.

So now I come to Analogue: A Hate Story. In this case, I really sympathized a lot with *Hyun-ae and what led her to making the decisions that she did. I probably would have done the same in her position. At the same time, I could also see *Mute’s perspective and she managed to break through my own leanings towards absolutism. I was actually happy when I let *Hyun-ae cosplay as a scientist: given how much that meant to her and why and I felt like shit when I dressed her in a traditional Korean Hanbok: especially after realizing what the degenerated society of the Mugunghwa did to her. The slow realization of what was, in fact, done to her made me absolutely dread reading what happened next.

At the same time, I loved the epistolary novel-format of looking through the entries of all the Mugunghwa‘s inhabitants and getting to know some of them that way: that for all their society became repressive, they were still human beings and not all of them were inherently evil. In fact, none of them were but some of them were more selfish than others and most of them let themselves get shaped into something that supported a repression of humanity: and in particular women. *Hyun-ae herself does not know why the descendants of the colonists in that generation ship became how they did, and *Mute herself–the original guiding AI–does not seem to remember. But this is the plot to the upcoming Analogue: Hate Plus and given what *Mute’s name is, I both highly anticipate and dread what we as players are going to discover.

When I really think about it all, though, looking back on my Christine Love games marathon I realize that none of the games were really about us. In Digital, you send emails back and forth, but you never type your own messages: while you do see those of the people that you are contacting. In Analogue, the interface that would allow you to answer beyond “yes” or “no” binaries is “malfunctioning,” and you only have the two former options for actual communication. In the latter game, you can’t even tell the AI your name and they never see what you look like. There is a strange balancing act between communication and empathy, and distance and loneliness.

For me, that kind of dichotomy and the tension it makes reminds me of watching a really good anime. Certainly, the visual novel medium that Christine Love has adopted for all three of these games conveys that sense of experience. You feel for and sympathize with the characters, but you are never one of them. Not really. At the same time, you are. There are also a lot of subtexts: or some from my perspective. For instance, when *Mute asked me if I was male or female, and when Digital had me type in a name and a username, I felt so strange–after talking with *Hyun-ae– to be using masculine pronouns. I know Christine Love has said that she made these two games specifically for players of either or any gender, but she has also said that privately she believes the relationships that go on are between two women in a romantic dynamic: because that is her perspective. Sometimes, I feel like an intruder but then I get over it and realize that it is really about an interaction between the minds and feelings of the player and character regardless of gender.

There is also another possible subtext or interpretation that intrigues me too. Christine Love likes to make games that are inclusive of those who identify as queer: or at least make them more inclusive to more than just a male heterosexual audience. There is another group that sometimes has an asterisk connected to a word as well: though it is an affix as opposed to a prefix. I am talking about those who identify as trans* and use this term to encompass all those who do not identify by cisgendering: the gender that mainstream society aligns with one’s biological sex. This is an umbrella term that can include those who identify as queer or genderqueer. When you look at the revelation with *Emilia with that lens, or even *Hyun-ae–in that she cannot and will not correlate her sense of self with the gender-expectations of the regressive society around her–it can leave a very different connotation.

But that is also too much of a simplification. As I mentioned before, the asterisk can encompass an entire group: and in this case perhaps the idea of something being transhuman or a designation of beings beyond the conception that all sentient life has to be organic and material. In this case, it seems to give a being a cultural or “racial” marker. I just can’t get over the fact that the inclusion of just one symbol can possibly mean more than one thing: though this is all just supposition on my part.

At the same time, I really have to say–among the many things I’ve said–that I really like many of the female characters in these three games. From Arianna, Charlotte and Kendall in don’t take it personally to *Emilia in Digital and all the way to *Hyun-ae and *Mute in Analogue: they are all direct, all brave–or grow to become brave–and they have the strength to admit what they feel despite any circumstances in the way. There is something so beautiful about this that I can’t really put it any better than I already have, or how the games already portray.

But ultimately–and if I have already said this before I want to reiterate this statement–what I really like about Christine Love’s work is that she actually tells a story. When she talked about Lake City Rumble II being a subversive parody of a fighting game, it jived in that same place I have where I was really fascinated with the story and the character interactions behind the fighting more than really the fighting itself: though it also had its moments. And what I truly love is the fact that she actually makes me care about her characters and this–to me–is the sign of a great writer and creator.

It is my hope that she continues to do what she does because, you see, I don’t care if these aren’t completely my stories. In the end, I just want to see more of them: spreading out from *Mother, leaving neither copies behind them, nor taking anyone else’s names but their own along the way.

What I Did On the Anniversary of My First Blog Post: The Toronto Comics Arts Festival

This is going to be a late entry as I have been recovering from the last three days of attending–and volunteering–at the Toronto Comics Arts Festival. The first time I ever went to the Festival was when it was still at the University of Toronto: back in those days when I was still in Undergrad and working at York in 2007.

It’s an understatement to say that it has long expanded since. I came back to it in about 2011 while still in Grad School and then last year before my official Graduation. I mentioned in another post that it is about this time of year, specifically the month of May, where things have ended for me. Actually, this post is being made two days past the Anniversary of the online Mythic Bios: namely, this whole Writer’s Blog.

So let me celebrate this missed anniversary by telling you all a bit about my weekend at TCAF.

On Friday I reported to my set-up shift. I haven’t really lifted heavy boxes or tables in a while, so my arms are still all sore from that. But the company of my fellow volunteers was totally worth it. We all wanted to be there and, for me, it is a novelty to be able to talk with people with similar Geek knowledge and interests. Really, for that alone and working together with like-minded people on straightforward tasks it was totally worth it. I got my bright blue volunteer shirt along with everyone else, and then headed home to attempt an early night to wake up earlier the following day.

Well, after failing to go to bed early I woke up the next day and somehow found the Marriott Hotel without getting lost where Art Spiegelman was going to be doing some signings. So I naturally brought both of my volumes of Maus with me and waited in the line to meet him. It was only after a while that the volunteers on duty that day informed us that Spiegelman would only sign two books, and one of them had to be one of his new ones. I will admit, I was annoyed. Like I said, I had the old version of Maus that was divided into two volumes and I had been keen on having them both signed. I also didn’t see any of the new books that I was interested in.

At first.

I was tired and hungry and I almost left the line until I decided “What the hell, I’m getting to meet Art Spiegleman.” Then I found Breakdowns: essentially a large collection of his earlier work that I had either only seen excerpts of, or only saw references to in text books for my own researches. Some of these comics had led to the creation of Maus as well and also shed more light on his family life and his own experiences. In fact, some of the comics in there have that very 1960s to early 80s Underground Comix feel: specifically the pieces that really share Robert Crumb’s wobbly, sometimes vulgar but very iconic aesthetic.

By the time I got to see Art Spiegelman, he was sitting across from his wife–the stately Francoise Mouly–and the artist Frank Viva. He looked like someone’s elegant Viennese Jewish grandfather. I know he doesn’t come from Vienna or Germany, but that is about the only way I can physically describe him. I told him that it was a great honour to meet him. He seemed pleased to see that Breakdowns was one of the books I had and he described it to me as something along the lines of a building with which he keeps adding renovations. At one point he joked about whether not my name had changed by the second piece he was signing and I told him, “Not this time, but usually I change the number of Ts in my name just to mess with people.” He found that (very untrue joke) very amusing. Then I shook his hand and left with my prizes.

I just have to reiterate that Spiegelman’s work really influenced me. I originally encountered him in my Literature of Testimony course in my Grad Program at York. A lot of the literature made my own first-person narratives stronger: increasing my voice and its depth. But Spiegelman in particular not only taught me that symbols be used to represent literal things and ideas, but that this same order can be subverted to either destroy their meanings or through doubt on them. This is a very sophisticated technique and one that definitely will affect at least one work of mine. That is one major reason I really had to meet him: to meet one of the masters of what I’ve tried–and am trying to do–in my own writerly way. So yes, it was awesome to finally meet him.

By that time, I made it back to the Reference Library and got a few more books. It was there that I met Hope Larson for the first time and her sign her adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time for my Mom in honour of Mother’s Day and her birthday. She apparently found that cute. I chose that book because my Mom loves Madeleine L’Engle’s series and she used to read them to me when I was much younger. So it was kind of a bridge between our interests. Later, I remembered that I had read Hope Larson’s Salamander Dream and Gray Horses when I worked for the Clara Thomas Archives.

But I couldn’t make it upstairs as I had planned. I was tired and dehydrated and apparently there was a line to get into the suite with more of the vendors that I wanted to visit. I met a friend and we ended up going for a meal of some kind, or I did, and then went on our way to Bento Miso for its own Bit Bazaar. Bento Miso is a place where games–electronic and analog, as well as many start-up businesses–are made and they were opening for the Festival. It was a nice sunny day in downtown Toronto as my friend and I tried to circumvent the ridiculousness of the TTC shutdown from Bloor to Union Station and went to Ossington and walked with tons of stuff in my arms to Bento Miso for the first time.

I met a few people there and got to play some games: including one game called Bijouxred: which is essentially a game that combines the strategy war game mechanics of Fire Emblem with the rough brawling moments of Streetfighter II. And that is just a simplification because the fights themselves have some elements reminiscent of Final Fantasy–with its Combat Options, and even Mario RPG with regards to having to press a button to simulate blocking, charging your energy, or even chaining attacks together. It was really cool. I met Rene Shible–Director of Development–and Lead Animator Michal Szczepanski: who were quite friendly and directed me through their game.

The Bit Bazaar itself was awesome. There is a very Underground feel to it: a combination of grit, digitization and nostalgia along with a lot of geeking, friendliness and adventure. A few of the games from the second Comics Vs. Games collaboration were being shown and played there as well. It is still something I want to do with an artist programmer one day. 🙂 I got a Steamkey to Spooky Squid Games They Bleed Pixels: which I ranted about a really long time ago as also being awesome. It came with its own small black envelope and a simulated red wax seal. That was a very lovely touch. I also got to meet a few people and a friend of mine I hadn’t seen in a while. I think I will visit there more often soon. So by the time I finally got home that night, I was bloody exhausted.

But it wasn’t over yet.

The next morning I woke up even earlier. I gave my Mom her present before leaving and made it again to the Marriott just in time to observe the Art Spiegelman Spotlight panel: with Seth as its moderator. It was a very eye-opening exchange between the two cartoonists and it was this interaction, combined with reading some of Breakdowns that gave me a little idea as to why Spiegelman wanted people to read his new work and not focus as much on Maus. I mean, first of all there is the creator perspective of it: in which an artist doesn’t want to be solely determined by one creation–no matter how great–that they did in the past. But another, more personal reason, is when you consider the content of Maus and just how much Spiegelman had to delve into some dark and personal spaces: some of which were not even personally his own, but affected him just the same. This article from the Toronto Star might explain it a little better and might have made more sense had I read it before meeting him. Having that long shadow cast over you can be brutal. I also learned that Breakdowns has been reprinted twice with new work or “renovations” added.

Then I went to the Library, got some Hope Larson comics for myself, met some cool new creators, and made it to the upper level where I met Maurice Vellekoop with his elegant, airy lined and water-coloured comics: often portraying erotic and adventurous content. I got something and had him sign it. Then I went around that level and left to eventually get to the Bryan Lee O’Malley Spotlight panel: where in a strange game of “Guessing the Answer Before Asking the Question,” I answered, “No,” and asked if he had ever intended the character of Mobile in Scott Pilgrim to actually turn to be Gideon. Suffice to say, I was right and I don’t think I was the first one to ask this question.

Eventually the Festival was closing down and I went to my next volunteer shift: the tear-down phase. This was the shift I covered last year and it had been my only one at the time. I got to say hello and goodbye to some people I met and then I wandered home in the suddenly cold with hail balls coming down.

And that was my TCAF.

So, there is one thing I want to mention before I wrap this long post up. Some of the artists I was talking to were commenting about how awesome TCAF is and how people from all over Canada and the world come here. They were talking about what makes TCAF different from other conventions. Well, I have my basic two cents on that matter.

The first thing to consider is that TCAF is free. It has no entry fee and all you have to do is come in and bring money to buy work, or simply come to the panels. It is also a festival and it is spread around a few locations. But I think the second element of TCAF that I like is that the barrier between artists and readers is somehow thinner here: or at least far more permeable? You can interact with many artists as you would any other person or vendor. It also helps that many artists are in fact fans of other artists. There is just this positive enthusiastic energy around all of that just makes me happy. What really makes me happy is that so many younger people come to this Festival and are so enthusiastic about the comics medium and what they like.

It’s some of the few times that I am proud to have lived in Toronto and still do some business in it. And this event was what I needed lately. I feel more inspired to just do things and get things done. It’s like I got recharged, if that makes sense. I also finally decided to make a basic business card that I can give to people that is linked to this Mythic Bios site. And I made more connections. It was a truly rewarding experience and I would like to thank the Festival Staff, the artists, the vendors, the fans and my fellow volunteers for making this time exist every year.

Also, thank you all for continuing to read and Follow me. I know that this particular post was a very long one and I feel in some ways that I did this event more justice in my own personal written journal, but I did what I could and I underestimated just how much happened in three days. These three days made this part of May a good beginning and I have plans now. And I can’t wait to begin the process of implementing them.

A Place Where Writers Come to Write Upon the Revenge of the Sixth

May generally hasn’t been a very good month for me. It’s not so much that bad things tend to happen to me so much as it is a time when things end: and end hard.

So I will tell you now that there was lead-up to this weekend and that what followed didn’t just happen from nowhere. It started slowly and gently as I’ve begun taking out books from the Thornhill Village Library. And not just ordering books, but actually walking across the main road in the good warm weather to pick them up. It may seem like such a small thing, but it isn’t.

Sometimes something like this can mean all the world. Also, have I mentioned that the Thornhill Village Library is purportedly haunted? So of course it is one of my favourite places. You can read a story of mine where I make mention of it.

I’ve been feeling very argumentative lately and as such I have been in “Geek overdrive.” One major site of this resurgence of fiery spirit has been on Sequart: a non-profit site that publishes and promotes scholarship on the comics medium.

You can find the Link to their site on my Blog as well, but what I want to say is that Julian Darius had a look at one of my comments and suggested that I interact more on Twitter and email.

It was then that I didn’t so much realize what I had to do as I felt like I needed to act. So I went on my Twitter account and linked Sequart and Julian to some of my Miracleman articles. What followed was Julian replying back to me and asking why I wasn’t writing for Sequart. So, at some point I am going to be doing some writing for the Sequart Research & Literacy Organization. I have been told that re-posting is not an encouraged practice, so I will be making some original articles for the site and, I have to say, I have a few ideas. I always have a few ideas.

So after this exchange, more people started adding me on Twitter: including Gregory Guy Gordon whom–among many other things–was one of the producers for the Los Angles Sacred Fools Theater Stage version of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere that I’d been hearing about lately. At this point, I went on Facebook and started telling people that I had gotten more Twitter Followers. And that was when a few friends, who didn’t know I had Twitter, added me: including someone really special who hadn’t talked with in a while who told me in response that she, “Finally Found the Place where Writers Come to Write.”

I can’t put into words how much that means to me.

And then the weekend began. On the weekend, two things happened. First, I got my schedule for my Volunteer Hours at the Toronto Comics Arts Festival. I did mention that I volunteered last year as well: which led to me meeting and writing about Sarah Powell’s comic, among other things on this Blog. I look forward to seeing what I will find this year at panels, events, and booths. But the second thing that happened this weekend is I did something I hadn’t done in a while.

I went downtown for more than a few hours: specifically to go to G33kpron’s Second Anniversary Event.

It was the first time I ever took the streetcar from Queen Station down past Queen and Spadina: at least from that direction. I was a bit lost–for a change–until I ran into a Lethan (red) Twi’lek, her female Darth Maul companion, and their photographer friend. I decided following them was the wisest course of action. I even managed to make some conversation: though given my companions everything I was saying geek-wise was neither that novel nor so insightful on my part. Even so, it was strange and nice to walk through Downtown Toronto under the light of the Summer Day-Star again.

So we talked with some people and then I danced for a while–something I have no done in a bloody long time–and I watched people also dance and I wished I had a lightsaber like most of them seemed to. I felt kind of naked without one. That said, when some of that music came on, it felt like my Imagination and Enthusiasm Stats Modifiers were increasing through the roof. I felt this raw power coursing through me and … some other emotion too. To be honest, I felt like a fucking god.

However, I still have a flesh body. After a while, I started to get tired. I forgot that when you dance and you are around a lot of people that you can get really tired and dehydrated fast. I also realize that I’m not exactly in my middle or late twenties anymore. It started to feel about that time and I was about to leave until, finally, the feature event happened.

I was coming back up the stairs when I heard a remix of Palpatine’s voice issuing his fateful edict around the same day he became Emperor.

And that was when I saw the Nerdy Stripper perform burlesque for the first live time ever.

Yeah. Suffice to say, I will never look at Order 66 the same way again. Many Jedi died happy that night. 😀

It was at this point that I realized that my mission had been complete. I was glad to see so many people having so much fun again. I said goodbye to one of my new friends–whom I never really gave my name to, and whose names I did not ask for, because who am I kidding, I am still shy–and walked to the streetcar in the night almost-summer air.

So I had a good weekend and I am in a better mood now. It’s like I Regenerated in the distant golden light of Thornhill’s old places. I realize I don’t just carry my Hell with me, but something else as well: something warm and infusing. I’ll have plenty of time to be a bitter old man at some other point. Maybe there is still hope for me yet.

And before anyone comments, I happen to like Revenge of the Sixth as a turn of phrase. I do not understand why it has to be the Fifth for some people and I am sure they have a perfectly good reason for it, but I think it is perfectly acceptable to call it such today: as acceptable as any pun is anyway. So expect to see some new links from Sequart and such here in the near-future. But here is my Twitter Account in case you are interested in looking me up and seeing some really random thoughts: I’m MKirshenblatt.

As I said before, May has traditionally been a time of endings and near-endings for me. But perhaps this time around, it will become the start of some new beginnings.


ETA: After this event, I realize that I really need to find a good costume again. Or get some good makeup.

Dreams of Lost Pixels, Hand Eye, and More Video Game Ramblings

I know I’ve said this before, but I am not a video game expert. Like I’ve said, I’ve played some video games in recent times but I have been very eclectic about what I will play, or even watch being played. It doesn’t mean I hate them and I do keep track of some that really catch my eye. I’m very partial to role-playing games and the only reason I hadn’t played as many as I would have liked is because I have had issues with time and money: in that I don’t always have a lot of either.

But I am interested in video games: specifically their game-play, their story lines or premises, and their choice of aesthetics. I like the idea of an interactive story that can translate itself or spread itself across multimedia.

I don’t say this often, but at one time I wanted to be a graphic designer in order to make video games and animation. Unfortunately, I didn’t really have the programming skills and the teachers that I had couldn’t teach me in a way that I could engage or absorb. It’s funny because, once, I really used to love technology. Some of you might laugh at this: those of you who know me personally. I used to think that video game technology, for instance, along with the Internet and computers would only get better with time and it could only go up from there.

I’m not sure what happened. I think I was into PC games a lot and I never had a good enough computer. I also didn’t want to get sucked into online games and I saw the quality of some console games change and not for the better. Also, in my How to Turn a Medium into a Genre I mention how I felt a misguided amount of shame for playing “old and obsolete childish games.” I’m also glad I really got over that nonsense. I do think the real reason I don’t like to play many video games is because I know I will get invested into them if they are really good and I get worried about losing time and also getting too … attached to something: to the point of being sad when it is over, or upset when my skills fail me past a certain point. Sometimes, as weird as this sounds, I get concerned about caring too much about a game.

Now, let me say this: I was really happy to be at the Comics Vs. Games element of TCAF this year. I really loved just playing some of the games with some person I just met there. It felt different and new. To make this story, if you want to call it that, even more interesting as a person who has not played a lot of contemporary video games and likes to watch a lot and remember old games, I have been interested in writing plots for and–really–just writing video games.

I know: now I am just a paradox. Now before anyone starts to tell me how foolish these thoughts are, I am aware of that. I have read and heard enough from some people in the industry–or who are getting into it–to have a little bit of an idea as to how hard it is to get into the industry and to do the amount of work and research to create a game. It isn’t something to do on a whim.

So, like I said, I came across Comics Vs. Games and saw this situation where artists were being paired off with video game creators to make games together. And … I don’t really know what to say: something in me just felt really happy to see that. Another part of me also felt immensely jealous because–once–it was a dream of mine. I am a writer. I have not really published anything for monetary gain as of yet and I am not exactly at a stage where my writing is popular. I know I am not there yet.

So I went back on to the above website and saw that Miguel Sternberg–the indie game designer and pixel artist who organized Comics Vs. Games–has been working on a new project. You should definitely check out his page Spooky Squid Games because there are a lot of very innovative and intriguing goodies on there that you probably all know about because you’ve kept with the times: including the game Guerilla Gardening: Seeds of Revolution where the object of the game is to play as protagonist Molly Greenthumb who gardens to subvert a totalitarian regime. Essentially, you grow plants to not only improve your city, to make it “green” again, but to also allow provide morale to other citizens to peacefully overthrow the State. It sounds like a cheerfully subversive game that creates a social commentary about our own culture and also refers to a few similar instances of this phenomena that have actually happened in our world. In fact, it has resonance with Roger Doiron’s TED Lecture My Subversive (Garden) Plot.

But the game that has really gotten my attention–just today–is one called They Bleed Pixels. God, I can’t begin to tell you just how beautiful I find that title. Imagine a pixelated Goth girl character who can change her hands into claws as she goes and kills creatures with pixelated stylized violence and blood. You literally see tiny squares of red gush in fountains as she creates combo attacks–with numbers appearing above them–in midair sometimes. I really like the deceptively simplistic aesthetic and the music suits the background.

It makes me genuinely happy to see something like this. There is also another interesting gameplay element in that “save points” have to be made by you and you have to expend your own points gained in battle to make them. In other words, it costs you to make save points and makes the game more challenging and forces you to be more versatile. It makes you interact with that world much more: giving you the power to manipulate your reality but also having to play by the ad-hoc rule you make for yourself. The controls are apparently very easy and precise to make without having to resort to ridiculously complicated button-mashing to fight, though I am just repeating what I have more or less read. Also, I read that they are making a silent comic to tell this character’s story about her interaction with a Necronomicon-like book and beyond.

I would definitely play this game: if only to relieve some blood-lust, which is always a plus for a game in my opinion. It might not be an RPG, but it looks fun and I like fun.

You know, sometimes I feel like I’m a fake for writing about video games and other things of which I do not have expertise. But do you know why I am writing about this? It’s because it interests me. It is partially the world-building and interactive parts, but it also appeals to a part of me I don’t always get to express. I’ll let you in on a secret too: I actually wrote a very rough script for a RPG video game: one that would definitely need a Restricted Sign if I ever posted it serially here or anywhere else: if only because of its sometimes tasteful, though definitely (if somewhat questionably) mature content. It was a 16-bit game with some ideas for interactive game-play. I actually think of it as a parody of an RPG video game script with a lot of meta-narrative fourth-wall breaking.

I’ll also say this: if I ever get to the point where I am considered a professional or well-known “artist of words” and someone ever offers to do a video game collaboration with me, I will probably not turn them down. In the meantime, I have been looking at the Hand Eye Society which is a non-profit organization that deals with organizing video game projects and supporting Toronto’s video game community. I’m not sure if they are still having socials, but they have mentioned volunteer opportunities on there and I am contemplating finding out more about this.

I may well be an amateur writer and general enthusiast, but when I look at these links I realize that these people do things with the medium of a video game that I never thought possible or really thought about and I think that is just bad-ass. I also really love creative things and it would definitely be something new. In any case, it is something to think about. I hope that this has been an interesting, if somewhat long post.

The End?

How to Turn a Medium into a Genre: 8 to 16-Bit Video Games

So, I am not a programmer. I am not someone who games regularly–online or otherwise on computer and console–and as such I have not played many of the modern games that exist out there. I played all the way to the 64-bit and then the wii era. For all I haven’t played in a while or even having never been an expert player I am–like many children from the 80s–a Nintendo child.

I watched video games evolve into more or less what they are now. I know that there are some older than me who grew up in the 70s that saw what video games were like before and I have watched enough–and read enough–to see that they have come a long way in a lot of ways. I remember the day I saw my first Super Nintendo. It was at a friend’s house and the graphics looked like they were from a cartoon. They were lusher than the 8-bit pixels that existed before and possessed more expression. The music sounded less transparently synthetic and more … fuller in a lot of ways. I am not knocking or putting down 8-bit video game music however: after all, 8-bit tracks sound very expressive in how synthetic they are with clear beats, beeps and keening noises.

But when I saw the Super Nintendo I wanted it. I wanted it so badly. My brother and I scraped together everything we had to buy one. And we weren’t disappointed. The Super Nintendo and many of the games that followed on that console had excellent game-play, good graphics, wonderful sound, and in some cases some brilliant story-lines and expressive characters. There was a lot of innovation for gameplay and mechanics then as well. 8-bit was functional and fun but it was seriously like going from the second to third dimension. At the time, I thought that video games would improve and keep going up and up: that more realistic graphics symbolized this advancement.

There was a point where I actually stopped playing old games because I began to believe that they had become old-fashioned and obsolete: that something that didn’t look as realistic as it could be couldn’t be taken seriously anymore. Yes, back in the day when all one could do was make 8 to 16-bit games, it was all very well and good. But in a more modern age with newer games, I got into the habit of thinking there was no excuse to go back to those and that one had to advance with the times.

I was obviously wrong.

I found Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger long after their console was obsolete. Chrono Trigger in particular was one of those Super Nintendo games made towards the end of that system and it was so sophisticated and its pixels were made in such intimate detail along with its unique choice of game play that it made me happy to see it. There is something very archetypal about the pixel cartoon that others like Scott McCloud (at least with regards to comics) that to some degree one can relate to and emphasize with much more than the gritty and the realistic. They made me start to replay old games and instead of them making me depressed in that they were from the past and a time that didn’t exist, I just wanted to have fun with them.

If you ask me, I would say that my golden age of video-gaming was the Super Nintendo age. Even Sega’s competition added to that. Now fast forward a few decades. Now you have independent game makers and programmers, as well as those working on Internet and cellphone games, going back to those exact 8 to 16-bit forms. They do this for a variety of reasons, but the main one is that what was once a medium–the only way of expressing and symbolizing interactive programming in a game–has become a visual-audio aesthetic. In other words, an old medium has become a genre: it has become a creative choice and I think that is wonderful.

I mentioned that a month ago I went to the Toronto Comics Arts Festival and one thing that I made sure to see there was an exhibit called Comics Vs. Games: the result of collaborations between comics artists and independent video game programmers. I will admit that I have more than a passing interest in writing scripts for video games–and writing for video games–and what I saw and even played at TCAF was excellent.

One of the games that I actually played was The Yawhg: which was basically a game where you had to improve your skill-set before a cataclysm so you can help civilization rebuild itself. It had static screens with expressive backgrounds and artwork and a skill modifier number system: for example you got +3 if you completed a task you selected on a menu. It’s reminiscent of the Math Wizard game on the old computers at school, but it was so much fun because it made you use your imagination and the game mechanics were dynamic enough to make you want to play quite a few more times.

Then you had We’re No Angels where you play these 16-bit music celebrity sprites trying to escape from God and Heaven to go back to the real world and party. I didn’t really get to play the other two games, but as you can from the link they are very interesting. For example, The Mysterious Ambroditus is like an intricately illustrated Victorian Mortal Kombat game using a rock, paper, scissors method of card combat.

I’ll let you in on a secret. I actually enjoy watching people play certain kinds of video games. Often, you’ll find me watching Let’s Play videos on Youtube: particularly those of Boltage McGammar and HcBailly. But I haven’t played many video games myself in a long time. You can even ask my friends who had been trying like crazy to get me to play Knights of the Old Republic. But I played these games. They were even two-player and I played with them along with some random person I met at the Festival.

I know this entry seems a little random considering the other things I write about here, but I think it relates a lot to my mindset as a creator and as someone that enjoys interactive stories. I find it amazing what our time is doing with old games and cartoons from the 80s and onward: things that were once the present day of many of us and I like how there is new life in them. Old mediums are being made into new genres and new mediums and, you know what? I am glad to be here: just for that.

Without Words: Sarah Howell’s Untitled Squishface Booklet

I know that’s an ironic title considering that this is a writing blog, but it is also about a comic and I rarely use graphics on here anyway. The comic I want to talk about–created by Australian artist and cartoonist Sarah Howell–is challenging in this way to say the least.

In fact, I will be honest and say I never heard of Sarah Howell or the group she co-founded Squishface Studio, but I’m glad that I did. I didn’t actually run into Sarah or her work until after the Toronto Comics Arts Festival (or TCAF) a month ago. I’d finished my Volunteer shift there–mostly moving, taking apart boxes, and cleaning stuff up or what I really like to call the Teardown Shift–and after some dinner that was way too expensive I went to Lee’s Palace (which some of you might know from Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim, or just by living in Toronto in general) for the post-volunteering celebration.

It was actually Sarah who started talking to me first when she saw my rather bright sort of orange-pink TCAF shirt. She introduced me to her husband and collaborator David Bluemenstein and the rest of her team. They had apparently been on the Caravan of Comics Tour: an event in which Australian cartoonists traveled to comics events throughout the North-Eastern USA and Canada. So then over some very loud conversation and music we somehow managed to cover a wide area of subject matter. And yes, Neil Gaiman did come up. In fact, the ideas that formed my earlier Blog post about Jeff Smith and Bill Watterson came–in part–from our conversation at Lee’s Palace. Really, it was the most I’d talked with anyone at the Festival: before or after.

But at one point myself and another Volunteer asked her about her work (at least I think so over the noise, err music) and she placed in front of me this small chapbook. And now here is where the challenge really begins. Basically, Sarah’s comic is about a 16-paged booklet–double-spaced–with a scene on each page. It has no title and in fact it is a wordless sequential story: a wordless comic.

This is a concept that has fascinated me. I have seen really old woodcuts and copies of said woodcuts that do something very similar in just telling a story in pictures and little or nothing else. In fact, the only words in it were “The End” and Sarah’s professional email addresses on the very back of the booklet. Also, the way each sequential image is on its own page–instead of on different panels on one–is reminiscent of an illustrated book: except without words.

The figures in the book are drawn like glyphs. There is something very elemental and–if I had to choose another word–essential about them. I really wish I could find more bibliographic information on this untitled, wordless comic or even post a link to the comic itself because I feel that by describing it in words, I’m really not doing it justice. I feel also feel like Nevin Martell and his Looking for Calvin and Hobbes book that has no illustrations from the comic strips whatsoever, only even worse because I don’t have anything to really show here from it. It does figure these two characters–these snippets taken from Sarah Howell’s website–in the first and third pictures. There is also another picture in the Gallery of her site, but I don’t want to link to that because I don’t want to create any intentional spoilers. I will say though that the character resembles a well-known comics super-villain but it is not that being.

Sarah Howell’s comic was about two beings that meet and get to know each other: but when one seems to unwittingly overreach everything changes and it takes the third character to step in and change things some more. And he does not change things in the way that you may think he does when you first see him. That is all I can really say: that and even in the relative darkness of the Club, from what I could see then the story was touching enough to still make me cry a little.

It was a beautiful silent comic. Of course the term “silent comic” is a misnomer or a bit of wordplay in itself. After all, even written words do not have sounds unless they spoken verbally. I said something similar in an earlier review I wrote about Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel Signal to Noise. In a lot of ways, and I’m sure Scott McCloud has said this to some extent, comics is a silent art: as is writing in a lot of ways, but works like Sarah Howell’s here are all the more so.

Sarah Howell let me keep this sample of her work after she showed it to me and I will treasure it always. I’m not sure how or if you can order some of them, but I imagine if you query her on her website she will let you know, or have some kind of FAQ that might deal with it. I wish I could be more helpful. In a lot of ways, this comic is one of the most simplified but mysterious ones I’ve come across. If anyone has more direct information, you are more than welcome in posting it here. Also, you should definitely check out Sarah Howell’s works–and works in progress–at her above website.

Whatever the details, I’m glad I have it. I learned new things, met new people and got a comic. It was one of the highlights of my time at–and after–TCAF.

It’s Funny: Jeff Smith, Bill Watterson and Cartoons in the Real World

I know I promised to write a story after my comic review, but I guess I lied: if only to articulate something else that’s been on my mind for a while.

It is an observation that relates to, well, my last article on characters that someone can relate to and it also brings together some thoughts I’ve had since my own reading and the Toronto Comics Arts Festival where I got to listen to a panel with Jeff Smith: the creator of the comics series Bone. Aside from the fact that Smith is hilarious–and he would have to be in order to write something with enough pacing as he would Bone‘s plot–hearing him talk reminded me of the Bone characters and the world that he made for them.

The Bones are these small blunt-shaped white cartoon beings with beady but expressive black eyes that somehow manage to convey a lot of different emotions. There are three of them: Fone Bone who is a dreamer and likes to read Moby Dick, Phoney Bone who is greedy and always scheming, and Smiley Bone who is tall, silly, and really crazy but has this almost serene “just so” tiger Hobbes demeanour to him. The entire story arc actually takes place in the Valley: a place far from their own home of Boneville filled with talking animals, dragons, rat creatures and humans. Basically, the Bones are not human at all or even animals and we watch them interact with a world with some humans, but not our world.

And somehow, readers relate to the Bones and I never really wondered why. You would think that we would relate to the humans in that world, though they aren’t the primary characters. What is also interesting is how the Bones are so simply–yet deceptively–drawn cartoons, yet the world around them is very dark, detailed, naturalistic and realistic: and–again– it somehow works.

This is also something that Bill Watterson has employed in Calvin and Hobbes: creating the basic exaggerated shape of a spiky haired six year old boy and a cartoon tiger while using the rest of his brush work to depict a very natural world, but also very detailed ones of fancy and imagination. The seemingly simple cartoon character as an icon manages to unify the reader with that world through its own interactions with it.

I’m obviously not the only one to have noticed this, and they are not the only ones to have used this strategy: Tezuka Osamu also does this to great effect in his work in Phoenix, Buddha, Astro Boy and other works as well. In my own studies–both in University and outside of it–I read up on Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics and he states something to the effect of how we as viewers tend to find some kind of sympathy or empathy with a simplistic, more essential depiction of a person or an animal than we would a more realistic one. It is a matter of being able to somehow identify with “the cartoon” and by doing so being able to follow that cartoon’s journey into a stranger world: sometimes like, and sometimes not like our own.

In my Images of Animals course, our teacher explained to our class that humans seem to identify with, and be more comfortable around neotony: with animals that are more child-like. In fact, we actively breed them to be this way. This mentality fits well with why “animal stories” exist. I wrote a paper explaining that talking animals in these kinds of stories are “animal-teachers” that serve as a bridge between the natural or unconscious world and ourselves. They somehow manage to shield us from the harsher elements of the world through their appearance–giving us the illusion of distance (because nothing like them can be “real”)–but they also expose us to that world as well. It can be very subversive. Art Spiegelman, in his graphic novel Maus, gives us animal characters to look at his family’s experiences in the Holocaust yet he also makes it clear that these humanoid animals are masks: which he lets slip from time-to-time and even shows how meaningless they are as human labels.

The cartoon is a lens or a focus of reality. It can serve as a protective barrier–a kind of irony–against the dangers of that world, but they all slip occasionally and purposefully to expose us not only to the threats created in those worlds, but the mysteries and joys that lie in them and ourselves. I can just come out and saw that cartoons are archetypes or essential basic shapes that we can identify with to guide us through the alien or the Other that is the world.

You know, when the panel with Jeff Smith was opened for questions I was almost tempted to ask him one in particular. I always wondered that if Bone takes place in a series of worlds–bounded by the Dreaming–and the Bones themselves come from a place that is not Earth or the Valley, then how does Fone Bone even know about Moby Dick, never mind read the thing? I was tempted to ask Smith this question and a part of me regrets not taking that opportunity, but at the same time I also recognize that I would have been somewhat of an asshole if I had put him on the spot like that and I didn’t have the heart to.

I have my own theory: that the Bones and Boneville are another part of the Dreaming or are more Dream creatures than even the ones in the Valley: which would explain a lot about why they are so important. But then I realize that of course they are part of the Dreaming. Everything is. So is Watterson’s Hobbes. So are all cartoon characters. Alan Moore would call the Dreaming “Idea Space”: a psychic space where all ideas and concepts come from, while Carl Jung would call it the “collective unconscious.” So would it be that inconceivable that Moby Dick could exist in that area and be found by a race of Bone-creatures? Or that Hobbes could be a more livelier version of Schrodinger’s cat in–or not in–Calvin’s transmogrifier box?

I just find it remarkable that we can sometimes relate so much more to basic shapes on a piece of paper configured to look like an exaggerated being than to something that we see everyday: that this being can guide us–like a comic psycho-pomp–through so many levels of our own underworld. I also find it intriguing that the very term “comics” refers to the old “funny-pages” of newspaper strips–and comedy–and how comedy has always in some ways been used to recognize the sublime within the ridiculousness. Someone should really examine Romanticism and its influence within the world of cartooning, or with regards to Jungian psychology and mysticism but I’m not going to be the one to do that.

I’ve gone on longer than I thought but like any joke, I do want to end with a kind of punch-line. In ancient Greece, there were nine Muses and nine Arts associated with those muses. Thalia was the Muse of Comedy: of the Comical. The Belgian cartoonist Morris referred to comics as–or at least a part of–the Ninth Art.

And honestly, I think that is just… funny.

Comics Review: Jonathon Dalton’s Lords of Death and Life

I know I’m not doing very much Creative Writing on this site yet, but I want to write about this particular work before I forget. I’ve always been interested in comics: both in particular stories and in comics as a literary art-form and accepted medium. A lot of my own academic studies focused on certain comics works, though I will also admit that I’d been studying them long before I ever applied to York’s Humanities Graduate Program.

So this is going to be a comics review: which is something that I like to do from time to time. Like I said in my last review, I appreciate the difficulty in analyzing a comic: especially when you don’t feel comfortable copying or pasting parts of it for others to see in your review. However, I will do my best to make clear references here, but to also not spoil any of the details.

Unlike my last review, which looked at an examination of a cartoonist creator of a comic strip, this review will focus on a comic I picked up not too long ago. I found Lords of Death and Life at this year’s Toronto Comics Arts Festival at the booth of its creator Jonathon Dalton. The cover struck me first: with a fallen Mayan man and a priest above him with an obsidian dagger. They are surrounding by Mesoamerican glyphs or pictographs. It looked like the cover of a children’s storybook or an introductory junior level book into Mayan or Aztec culture: much like something I would have looked at in back when our class examined the Aztecs back in elementary school.

It’s storybook illustrations did catch my eye, but I admit I almost didn’t buy the book: even when talking with its creator for while. Very few books at this year’s Festival intrigued me enough to buy anything with the little birthday money I had left over. However, something called me back to it. And I noticed there was a small review by Scott McCloud on the back cover talking about how Dalton’s book was “an intoxicating fusion of ancient design and modern imagination.” Scott McCloud is not only a well-known cartoonist in his own right, but he is also a comics-scholar that wrote a series of books talking about the comics medium in and through the comics medium–as comics themselves–such as Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, Making Comics and the rest.

The reason I mention this is that he, along with the legendary comics creator legend Will Eisner–considered by some to be the grandfather or godfather of the comics medium–point out that many ancient cultures possessed a sequential pictographic format of telling stories, or recording language. I believe both Eisner and McCloud look at Egyptian hieroglyphics and Mayan friezes as examples of a “sequential art” used to depict stories and record information.

This is another thing that I found so fascinating about Dalton’s comic. He actually incorporates Mayan or Mesoamerican glyphs into his comic. There is an entire section of panels that tells a part of the story as if the reader is looking at a Mayan frieze. At first, this can be very confusing until you realize that he has a very handy glossary at the end of his book which also tells you which glyphs he had learned and which ones he also had to make some creative approximations or guesswork for. If you don’t know about this, however, the beginning can be very confusing: especially when the main character Mol Kupul keeps referring to the date of each day from the Mayan understanding of time.

I also don’t know what to say without spoiling the story, but as I read on I was greatly impressed with where the plot went. You begin to see that a series of seemingly unrelated events are actually quite related and there is a truly epic battle at the end of the narrative, followed by an ending more bittersweet than Mayan chocolate drunken out of a golden cup of blood: so much so that I think it really opens itself up to the potential for a sequel and one I would definitely not mind reading.

If Lords of Death and Life has any more issues, it would be that there are many Mesoamerican cultural references and names of which many readers might not be familiar and would have to greatly pay attention to or reread carefully to get full reading comprehension. Also, the speech of the spirit character in this work–the uay companion spirit–is more than a little over the top and sometimes choppy. However, Dalton does succeed in bringing you into a whole other world with the interaction between Mayans and Aztecs and he definitely plays with your expectations as to what will happen. Also know that by the time the story begins, it is already over and you as a reader are only beginning to find out how everything transpired. It is an excellent storytelling device and it gives you a peak into how an ancient Mesoamerican mindset functions as well.

I am very impressed with Jonathon Dalton’s work here. He manages to make a comic that goes back to the basics or the essentials of the form’s creation, and tap into that place where ancient pictographs and modern comics both parallel each other and meet. He has made something special and I wish I had talked with him more about it: though I take solace in that he signed the book I bought from him with an ancient Mesoamerican monster growling out my name. I think more people need to know about his work and more of it–along with information about him–can be found on his website here: where he has a few more comics and a work in progress.

I’d definitely give Dalton’s Lords of Death and Life a four out of five stars. I just find it incredible that one person could have done this much illustrative and written work along with all of the research to get there.

Now, hopefully next time, I will have a story of my own to begin here. Perhaps even a series.