Life is Strange (It is indeed)

Life is Strange is a story-based interactive video game much like the games made by Telltale Games. The game revolves around Max, an ordinary and almost forgettable girl that finds out she has the power to rewind time for short periods and has these visions of an impending storm that is coming to destroy her town. Throughout the game the player is given choices during key moments that will shape how the story will proceed. There are many great themes and discussion that stem from Life is Strange but most interesting ones are how the interactive nature of the game provides insight into the player’s moral compass and the question of free will in the context of time travel.

As with any video game, Life is Strange has an interactive element to it. The player is given options during Max’s interactions with the other characters on how they would like her to respond. I found this gave me a very good sense of my own moral compass and what my own personal sense of justice is. There are some great morally ambiguous situations that the player must make decisions on. One of my favorites, is when the security guard is harassing Kate and the player is given the option to intervene or take a picture of it. This is a great example of two very different forms of justice. Some people feel the need to get personally involved in situations they feel are not right (as I did). The other sense of justice is more discrete form. The other option is to take a photo of the harassment. I see this as evidence gathering. Someone that takes this path is thinking more about the consequences of their actions, i.e. who would believe them or how do you convince someone of what you saw. The people that like to get involve are usually a little more impulsive in their decision making.

For as long as the idea of time travel has been around there have been debates surrounding consequences (the butterfly effect) and free will (fate/destiny vs. random chaos). When someone possesses the power to travel through time, at first glance you think that it would be cool, they can go change the most embarrassing moments in their lives. But once you start diving deeper you begin to think, if that hadn’t happened to them would they be any different? How does changing their own lives affect everyone they come into contact with. This is the root of the free will debate, does changing events that affect more than one individual mean that those people no longer have control over their actions? Personally, I think that having the power to influence time is irrelevant to this debate. Humans lives are ruled by cause and effect. When an event occurs the decisions that people make are based on the effects of that event, these decisions in turn, cause other events to occur. So no matter how someone with the ability to time travel alters events, in the moments after that event has occurred the others involved still have the free will to react to the effects of that event.

Superheroes and the Tragic Hero

Today I’m going to shift gears a bit and discuss a non-superhero comic book with no super-powered characters. The comic is Ghost World. A story of two irritatingly cynical and immature girls whose lives have become stagnant after graduating high school. Personally, I did not enjoy this comic book (I think I actually fell asleep every time I read it), but it is a great example that shows that comic books don’t need to be superheroes and powers all the time.

This week, I also read Hawkeye #19 in Matt Fraction’s run of the character. What made this comic book very interesting is the use of American Sign Language (ASL) throughout. As someone that doesn’t know ASL I found this comic very interesting to read because without the ASL component that I didn’t understand I found the comic very similar one of those silent movies from the 1930s. Your focus is drawn towards the artwork in the panels and every few pages there is some text that keeps you on track with the story. Another interesting aspect of this run of Hawkeye is that it follows his life away from the Avengers. In this series he is not portrayed as a superhero. This draws an interesting parallel to Ghost World because both comics this week are about non-superhero characters without powers.

Now you might think, how can you write a comic that doesn’t have  someone going up against a villain every issue or trying to save the world. Well for that we need to go back to more classical forms of literature and the concepts of protagonists and the tragic hero. I’d argue that both Clint Barton in Hawkeye and Enid Coleslaw in Ghost World are set up to be tragic heroes. In Clint’s case its easy. His fall comes about when he is deafened by an attack in issue #18, so I didn’t read his fall from grace but you definitely see the after effects in the first few pages of issue #19. Like any tragic hero, Clint is prevented to follows his heroic path because of his pride and shame. He doesn’t want to use ASL because he feels that everyone will judge him, but in true heroic fashion we are shown him overcoming his ego at the end of the issue to rally his building so that he can keep them safe. Enid’s tragic journey is a bit more difficult to decipher but it follows the classic path of a tragic hero. Her stagnation is a result of her cynicism keeping her ego inflated. Although she eventually overcomes this when she realizes the only way she can move forward is to start over with a change of scenery.

Doom Patrol – Accepting the Weird & Wonderful

The subject of this week’s post may be a little obscure compared to the likes of traditional superheroes but the oddities and idiosyncrasies that make up the superhero group known as Doom Patrol are the exact reasons that make these characters lovable and relatable. For some context, Doom Patrol is a super-group created in the 60s that were instantly dubbed “World’s Strangest Superheroes”. Hearing this you’re probably thinking “how bad could it be?” Well let me describe some mainstays of the team over the years. The one resounding constant in any iteration of the team is Robotman. Robotman is exactly what he sounds like, a conscience human being (pretty much just a brain) that is enclosed in a robotic body. Another fairly consistent member is Larry Trainor aka Negative Man. He is infected by radioactive energy which allows him to manipulate the world around him using negative energy (I didn’t think it was a real thing either, it’s not just to be clear). His backstory is later changed to having the “Negative Spirit” as an alien that takes control of him when he becomes Negative Man (I guess when you embrace weird it can only go one way). Some other characters that  have been introduced in the last few iterations of the team include Jane – a woman whose mind is composed of 63 different personalities (take about never getting time to yourself) – and Danny – a sentient street (no, that is not a typo).

With characters as strange as as these you’re probably thinking how has anyone been able to build compelling stories around these characters. Well its happened, 6 times no less. The most recent iteration of Doom Patrol is written by My Chemical Romance front-man Gerard Way under the Young Animal imprint the strange corner of the DC Comics Universe. Way has been able to craft a story with these characters in a world that is just as colorful as they are with very profound themes ranging from mental health and disabilities to being true to yourself. Doom Patrol is a wacky kaleidoscope of colors and characters that is still able to hold the reader’s attention in the moment.

My greatest takeaway from the Doom Patrol Vol 1: Brick by Brick, is that being true to yourself regardless of your circumstances is the first step to becoming a real life hero. One of the best examples of this in the volume is with Casey Brinke. We are first introduced to Casey as an ambulance driver with a quirky and bubbly personality. As a reader I found it extremely endearing that over the course of the first few issues Casey took everything in stride. Her roommate is being a dick and gets blown up, she gets a new roommate in Terry None. She witnesses a robot emerge from an exploding burrito and get knocked into many pieces, she just picks up all his parts and puts him back together. The reader eventually finds out that Casey is in fact a comic book character created by Danny would has become a real life hero (an extremely literal example of my takeaway, but that just makes my life easier). While Casey is realizing all of this about her self, the reader is taken back to the present where Casey is imprisoned in a cell and all of a sudden her one foot disappears. The way that Way glosses over how she got this disability and how Casey later still finds a way to get back to her friends and save Danny sends a very profound message: Don’t define yourself or let others define you by your weaknesses. While Casey and Doom Patrol are unconventional and quirky, they are unequivocally heroes in my eyes. They are the kinds of heroes that we should all be striving to be.

Planetary – Protecting the Impossible

This week I will be switching gears a bit and talk about secret organizations in the world of comics. One of the things I love about comics that many people are not aware of are all the different kinds of comics that there are. Comic books don’t just focus on superheroes like  Superman and Batman. There are comics that cater to a variety of different tastes. One of the topics that sometimes gets clumped in with superheroes is the idea of secret organizations. One of the major reasons that I enjoy reading comics is escapism. Comics transport you to worlds where anything is possible. One such universe is the Wildstorm Universe. This is a universe where having powers is taken for granted. Not everyone with superpowers feels the need to put those powers to use to protect the innocent like Superman or Ms. Marvel. A universe where everyone has superhuman abilities sound strange enough but Warren Ellis decided to make it even stranger by writing the Planetary comics series. Ellis crafted a story around an organization tasked with preserving all of the weird events that befall the planet that could insight a panic. Now, if you’re like me you might be thinking what does weird look like in a universe where super-humans are the norm? That is where I found the beauty in Planetary. Whether the story is centered around a vengeful cop-spirit in Japan or an island of monsters (kaiju) that appeared after the nuclear attacks in WWII the stories still feel grounded. By having characters that aren’t focused on their powers and the repercussions of their actions a world of super-humans that involves vengeful spirits and kaiju still feels grounded with characters that anyone can relate to.

The series starts by introducing us to the immortal Elijah Snow with the ability to control the temperature around him; Jakita, who possesses super-speed and super-strength; and The Drummer, who has the ability to see the flow of information – who make up the field team for the secret organization known as Planetary. Now, you’re probably thinking how can anyone relate to characters like these: super-human, immortal, part of a secret organization. Who has a grandpa or elderly neighbour that is set in their ways, can’t figure out how to use all the new devices these days, is always reminiscing about the “good old days”? Well congratulations, you know someone just like Elijah Snow. Everyone has met a driven, and powerful woman whose only focus is getting the job done. Well, meet Jakita. Finally there’s The Drummer. He is just like that new guy in the office that thinks he knows everything. Their superhuman abilities are neither here nor there. Planetary is a comic about people: their motivations and their character.

Black Panther – The not so secret superhero

T’Challa, the Black Panther, is a very unique superhero. Much like Kamala Khan’s Ms. Marvel, T’Challa is a hero that breaks the mold of conformity. Not only was he one of the first black superheroes to come into existence in comics, he is also one of the few non-American superheroes out there. One of the things that I find interesting about T’Challa’s story is that he doesn’t hide behind a mask, everyone knows who he is. Now some people would think this would make for a boring hero because there is no conflict in his identity, but to those people I will say you are very wrong. T’Challa is the king of the fictional African nation of Wakanda but ultimately sees himself as a scientist. This personal identity struggle is something that is very refreshing in a comic book because even taking away his mask and his powers, there is still a personal struggle that T’Challa is going through. That kind of a personal struggle is a very powerful tool that Ta-Nehisi Coates uses very well throughout his story in “A Nation Under Our Feet”. T’Challa’s struggle between being a king and being a scientist may not seem very relatable on the surface but it boils down to the struggle of leadership vs. self-interest. I feel my connection to this message is much more powerful through T’Challa than Superman (who had the same struggle in All Star Superman) because his being a superhero can be completely removed from the equation while leaving his struggle completely intact.

I also find T’Challa’s growth throughout the story to be extremely encouraging. In All Star Superman, Superman is doing everything in his power to keep the world safe after he is gone but he struggles throughout the story to find a way to bring Superman & Clark Kent to be one. T’Challa, on the other hand, begins to resolve his personas of king and scientist in Vol. 2. In Vol. 1 he meets with his advisers and expresses the need to show his strength and suppress the revolt that is starting to take shape because that is what he believes a king would do. But his scientific nature isn’t so easy to push aside. In Vol. 2, T’Challa is getting intel about the funding behind the revolution and is meeting with dictators to get their opinion how to deal with revolution, but all of that is really just him gathering the data he needs to make an informed decision. His meeting gets exposed to the public but that doesn’t deter him from his plans as he goes on to expose the non-Wakandan faces behind the revolt. A lot of the decisions that T’Challa makes in Vol. 2 are completely contrary to the advice he receives, whether it is from his advisers or the dictators. I think this shows that T’Challa is deliberating on the information he gathers.

Ms. Marvel – Old But New

Comic books, like any other form of fictionalized media, are used by many of its readers as a means to escape reality.  Superheroes are the most well known characters to grace the pages of comics and the writers and illustrators show us worlds where people have these extraordinary powers such as flight, super strength, super speed and laser vision to name a few.  They craft stories of how these super powered individual go about saving the world and protecting the innocent because they have been given these extraordinary gifts.  For those of us that are fans of the stories, there have been many times where we sit around and discuss questions like “If you had a superpower what would it be?” and “If you had a superpower what would you do?”.  For the longest time, superheroes stood apart from regular people. Sure there where certain qualities that made them relatable but being a superhero always seems just out of reach of the readers: they are geniuses or rich or possess an almost inhuman skill-set even though they are merely human (I’m looking at you Hawkeye).  This all changed when G. Willow Wilson decided to come up with a superhero for the new generation of readers: the millennials.

The whole idea of the superhero has blown up in recent years from the internet making comics and events like Comic-Con more accessible to the general population to the the bring of the Marvel and DC Cinematic Universes.  The character proposed by G. Willow Wilson was Kamala Khan: a Pakistani-American girl in high school that is obsessed with superheroes.  Now what makes Kamala that much more relatable to the everyday person is that a lot of the tropes that are used in a traditional superheroes origin are largely left out.  Kamala has no tragic backstory.  She grew up in New Jersey in a stable, Muslim family.  Being in high school she also doesn’t have everything figured out.  Many times superheroes are depicted as stable and knowledgeable people.  They always seem to know exactly how to come out of any situation and this gives them a maturity that a lot of the younger fans of comics can’t relate to.  Kamala, on the other hand, really wants to help but she doesn’t know how to and this is shown really well in the No Normal and Generation Why story arcs that introduce her.  There are plenty of times where Kamala is shown defeated or stump about the situations she’s going into.  One of the biggest deviations from a classical superhero that I really enjoy in Ms. Marvel is that she has a very high emotional intelligence (EQ).  What I mean by this is that Kamala Khan is very aware that she is not perfect and she is always looking to grow and better herself despite her failures.  This is a quality that is not portrayed in a lot of the more traditional superheroes like Batman.  Batman is birthed from the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents right in front of his eyes.  The darkness of such an act is portrayed very well in the character but there is not a lot of self improvement to Batman’s character.  Most of the time he uses that pain and darkness as a driving force and that means that it will be ever present.  Another aspect of Kamala Khan’s high EQ that I love about her character is that she is very observant of the people around her and their potentials.  In the scene after Kamala has rescued the missing kids from the Inventor’s safe house she gets blasted by them because they are all there by choice.  They all believe that they are doing the only thing that makes them useful to society.  Kamala retorts by pointing out all of their skills and what their potential futures could look like.  This observance comes from Kamala’s own journey of discovering her capabilities and it allows her to become an inspiration on a more personal level than someone like Superman.  Kamala’s ability to connect personally with people in particular is what makes Kamala Khan’s Ms. Marvel the superhero for the millennial generation

Superman – A God Among Men (Or Not?)

This week’s discussion focuses on Superman,specifically All Star Superman by Grant Morrison.  Superman is one of the most well known comic book superheroes to date.  He stands for truth & justice and he’s the defender of the weak.  He is a figure that for many represents the epitome of masculinity and is seen as a god among men.  In many ways all of these ideas are present in All Star Superman but G. Morrison also presents a vulnerability to Superman is in many ways a polar opposite to the hero admired by people around the world.  The story follows Superman’s exploits and preparations after he learns that he is dying.

One of the most prominent themes throughout the 12 comic run is the duality in Superman. Is he man or is he god? Is he Clark Kent or is he Superman?  The duality of Superman is something that is ingrained in the character and part of what draws the audience into the character.  The uncertainty that this creates in the character is what makes the character relatable.  Uncertainty and doubt are a part of the human experience and this is a clear sign of the human side of Superman.  Having grown up among and being raised by humans has instilled Superman with a value system that is warm, welcoming and helpful.  This is in direct contrast with how Kryptonian society is protrayed in the comics.  Kryptonians are usually protrayed as a cold and sometimes ruthless people that rely on science and cold-hard facts when making decisions.  All Star Superman makes great use of the duality of Clark Kent/Superman as almost polar opposite extremes of the same spectrum.  Morrison uses this to great effect when Superman is trying to convince Lois Lane that he is in fact Clark Kent. Lois doesn’t believe it, saying that there can be no way to reconcile the the clumsy, bumbling Clark Kent with the sure, straight-backed Superman.  The writing from Morrison and artwork from Quitely does a a fairly good job of showing these stark differences while also showing a reconciliation between these two polar opposites.  While there are scenes showing the clumsy Clark Kent, the story is drawn and written in such a way that it feels like these moments are premeditated by Superman to protect his identity.  His premeditation shows a concern for his friends and loved ones.  This shows that Superman’s motivations are based on human emotion.

The last point I would like to make is about the duality of Superman as man and god.  The second half of the run follows Superman completing “twelve labors”, as they are described in the comics, before he can finally die.  This immediately draws parallels with Greek Mythology and the story of Hercules, son of Zeus.  In the story, Hercules is tasked with completely 12 labors under King Eurystheus in order to atone for murdering his wife and children.  What is interesting in this comparison is that Hercules is a demi-god, the result of a coupling between a god and a mortal.  Morrison uses this reference  to further show that Superman is neither an all powerful god or a mortal human being.  Superman is in fact the modern day version of a demi-god.  Morrison uses this reference to very succinctly reconcile Superman’s image as a god with his human upbringing.