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.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

YALSA top ten GNs 2010: Children of the Sea Volume 1

Children of the Sea Volume 1
Written and illustrated by Daisuke Igarashi.
Published by Viz (2009)

Ruka is a girl who is slightly too violent at hand ball. Not violent enough to be kicked out of school or get in any serious trouble, but violent enough that she's not allowed to play with the school team all summer. It's the first day of summer vacation, but fior Ruka it feels as though it's already over.

Ruka's parents both used to work for the Tokyo aquarium, but they've split up and now only her dad works there. Ruka lives with her mom, who drinks a lot of...alcohol? (It shows her drinking cans of something, but it's not translated or explained, so I can only guess that she's drinking beer. I mean, it's probably beer, I'm not sure why they'd show piles of cans in the garbage otherwise. The translator's notes in the back of book "helpfully" point out that people recycle cans in Japan.) Ruka doesn't seem to have the best relationship with either of her parents, or any of her classmates at school, and she's looking at a pretty lonely summer until she encounters Umi and Sora.

Umi and Sora are kids who can swim really well and spend most of their time in the water. They were apparently raised by dugongs (those weird sea cow things) for the first few years of their life, and are "prone to dryness" (e.g. they need to be soaked in water a lot). It's a mystery where they came from, or how they ended up being raised by sea mammals, but they've turned into normal(ish) kids. Umi and Sora feel like they have some sort of connection to Ruka, though as they're don't know their origins, they can't really explain what it is.

So that's the main plot of the comic right? Finding out what the deal with these kids is? That's what I thought until I read the description on the book flap. It says that this comic is about "the mystery of the worldwide disappearance of the ocean's fish", which isn't something that gets introduced in the (300 page) first volume. Because of that I'm left to wonder what this book is even about. Is that description accurate, and the mystery will be brought up in later volumes? Or is it wrong and the plot is "who are these weird kids who were raised by dugongs?". I'm not sure if I'm interested enough to find out, but I think that this sort of book could definitely appeal to teenagers (which is what the YALSA books are for). It's about outsider kids, loneliness, broken relationships, and mysteries. What's not to love?

Daisuke Igarashi's art kind of reminds me of a cross between Moyocco Anno and Taiyo Matsumoto, and while that at first sounded kind of strange to me, all three artists are listed on the Wikipedia article for La nouvelle manga (probably due to their inclusion in Japan as Viewed by 17 Creators) so they have at least one thing in common. (Oh wait, here's an interview where Igarashi says to Matsumoto "I actually read your work just to steal [your ideas]".) The storytelling is generally clear, and there are some pretty cool drawings of aquatic animals.

I don't read that much manga anymore. That's kind of relative I guess, I've read thirty something volumes of manga so far this year, but to be honest that pales in comparison to the other comics I've read (somehow I read 56 graphic novels in April) _and_ is the result of me trying to read more manga. But I used to read a lot _more_ manga than I do now. Either way, I am at least familiar with manga as a medium. Somehow, despite that, I still frequently seem to forget that the pacing in manga can be completely different from western comics. Case in point, Children of the Sea takes 70 pages before it introduces Umi (and Sora takes even longer).

It's kind of funny that the last thing I reviewed was Rust Volume 2, which was another comic that I described as slow, but unlike that one things do actually happen in Children of the Sea. Characters are introduced, events occur. There's no 60 page robot fight scene, but there's also no people discussing farms. So really, on that level alone I have to call it amazing.