Saturday, May 9, 2015

YALSA top ten GNs 2015: In Real Life

In Real Life
Writing and illustration by Jen Wang. Original story written by Cory Doctorow.
Published by First Second (2014).

This is only Jen Wang's second graphic novel, but based upon the quality of her illustrations, I really hope it's not her last. Her characters are deeply expressive, and Wang is capable of showing how they're feeling through their facial expressions and their body language. Even without dialogue you're able to know exactly how the various characters feel just by looking at how they're acting in the art. She's also able to show action in clear and exciting ways, both through what the characters are actually doing, the panel-to-panel storytelling, and the general layout of the page. Wang breaks panel borders (at times doing away with them entirely) and uses white space incredibly effectively to help create an atmosphere that captures the feelings of the characters and the world(s) in which they live.

But the thing that truly stands out is the colouring. In Real Life alternates between the real world, and the world of an online MMORPG called Coarsegold. Wang has chosen to colour each of these sections with distinctive colour palettes. The real world sections feature a more sedate style of colouring, with lots of browns and oranges. The online sections feature considerably more colours: pinks, greens, blues, purples, reds. The comparison between the drab "real world" and the more exciting and beautiful game world really help to show that to Anda, the main character, the game is considerably more exciting than real life. It's kind of interesting that seemingly the only time that blue, one of the "game colours", is used in the real world, it's used on the shoes of the person that introduces Anda to Coarsegold in the first place.

However, while I really enjoyed the art, the story pretty much left me cold. It's view of gold farming, labour abuses, online bullying, and other aspects of MMORPG culture are fine, it's just the way in which they're communicated to the audience that I had a problem with. I guess I should say I'm not really a fan of Cory Doctorow's fiction. I like that he's a major proponent of the Creative Commons and digital rights, and that he regularly talks about other important aspects of the digital culture and economy. He's also pretty great at telling people about other things (politics, culture, etc.) through BoingBoing, which I used to read pretty regularly (and still look at occasionally). But I think the only thing he's written that I've read all the way through (apart from blog posts) is Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (his first book), which was fine I guess (though I'm still puzzled as to why anyone would care about Disney World that much). I've tried reading at least one of his other books, but there's something about his his style of writing that I find unappealing. That continues with In Real Life, which he didn't even write! (Instead Jen Wang adapted a short story that Doctorow wrote over a decade ago.)

I can see why you would choose this book for a YALSA list: it has teenage characters doing things that they care about (playing video games!), it has females doing computer stuff, it exposes people to other people from other cultures, it teaches them about aspects of games, online society, and economics that they don't otherwise know, and the characters have realistic body types. But at the same time, it seems incredibly simplistic, kind of promotes slacktivism at its worse, and the end is a little too "happily ever after" for the types of stuff (Chinese people working 16 hours a day so rich people can buy things in video games) the story talks about. As a 13 year old I probably would have found this book to be really cool, and taught me a lot about things I didn't realize were happening online. As a 31 year old...well, it has really nice art.

If you want to take a look at the comic, here's a preview and here's an original story set after the events of the book (I think). It's probably kind of gibberish if you're not familiar with MMORPGs, and (at least part of) the moral seems to be "if your bicycle is stolen it's okay to buy a stolen bicycle", but the art's nice at least.

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