So I Just Saw Nanette

When I was a kid I had a bit of a fascination with stand up comedy.  This wasn’t something that had the same kind of intensity as my love for anthropomorphic adolescent turtles or robots in disguise or plumbers from Brooklyn; I just thought that standing in front of an audience and telling them jokes was a cool thing.  To me, as a child, it was comedy in a pure form: someone is going to tell you funny things for at least a few minutes, and you’ll be invited to laugh about it.  I remember that I had my own aspirations to be a stand up comic for a little while when I was in elementary school.  I even had an act that I did in one of those school talent shows where no one gets turned away.

Perhaps the best punchline, in hindsight, is that I only had one joke to tell.

While I vaguely remember it having multiple beats about a chicken and a dentist, it was pretty thin material.  I resorted to a form of prop comedy as I performed in overalls and a straw hat.  I don’t remember why this particular costume was appropriate for the bit, but then again, my parents had a penchant for using school activities to put me in all kinds of strange costumes (I still remember the sock hop party my school threw which my mom insisted I attend wearing a cardigan and with a pack of candy cigarettes rolled up in my shirt sleeve); I want to say this is a weird quirk of my family, but now the internet exists and I realize that children serve the same function as domesticated animals: to provide existential salve to human adults as unsuspecting conduits for cuteness.

My love for stand up continued long after that failed one minute set, although it was more as a spectator than as a performer (though that didn’t stop me from listening to a couple of comedy albums ad nauseum in middle school so that I could recite them rote).  I went through a Jeff Foxworthy and Bill Engvall phase (the horror with which I recall my choices in humor and choices in music being circumscribed by my parents’ tastes is an ongoing source of consternation) before graduating to the likes of late George Carlin material (Carlin was probably the most subversive comic that I ever found myself enjoying, most directly because he was an avowed atheist, and I felt the same in high school even though I was scared to admit as much).  Broadly speaking, stand up comedy has done a lot to inform the kinds of things I value at different stages in my life.

During college I stopped following stand up so much; it wasn’t something that any of my friends enjoyed that much, and I had other things to spend my time on.  It wasn’t really until a couple months ago when I started thinking about stand up again because I happened to have some free time while being home alone, and I got the itch to watch some of the comedy specials that Netflix is always advertising.  I watched stuff by Fred Armisen, Hari Kondabolu, Chris Rock, Damon Wayans, Ali Wong, John Mulaney, Tig Notaro, and some other comics who didn’t leave as much of an impression on me.  I liked some of the sets better than others (Kondabolu’s material is particularly memorable, and Notaro’s style of deadpan delivery feels familiar and worthy of imitation; Rock and Wayans’s age as comics show in their trans- and homophobic material, and Mulaney’s schtick as the white guy from the northeast is inoffensive but unremarkable), but I found them all interesting in different ways.  Stand up is this strange fusion of theater performance and long form essay, and each comedian has their own particular quirks in the way they construct and deliver their sets.  Rock sort of announces his different bits by calling back to a specific line from earlier in a set that serves as his anchor point when he goes off on digressions; if you were to write up a transcript of his set, these lines would function sort of like subject headers.  Wong and Mulaney rely on extremely stylized deliveries that define the show’s parameters as existing in a specific context; these are affected versions of the real people writing the material.  Notaro does something similar with her deadpan, but she’s aiming for an affect that doesn’t read as affected; the way she plays with her audience gives a sense that she’s having fun instead of just giving a performance.  Each comic has their own particular style that extends beyond just the experiences they discuss.

What they all have in common is the way they mine personal experience for their comedy.  Besides Mulaney, who I already feel like I’ve discussed too much, all of the comics I’ve been interested in come from marginalized groups.  A major part of their comedy is rooted in the experiences that come from that marginalization; it’s what makes them interesting to watch if you’re looking at stand up comedy as a form of performed personal essay.  This marginal identity is what drew me to watch their specials in the first place; it’s important to listen to what people who have lived in the margins have to say about our society.

The most recent comedy special that I watched was Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette.  I saw a couple friends recommend it and a smattering of articles explain that it was a very different sort of set, and it was well worth watching for the way it examines and deconstructs the nature of comedy.  It was probably the first time I’ve ever seen anyone discuss a comedian’s work with the same kind of respect for narrative surprise that fiction usually elicits in the form of spoiler warnings.  It would be possible to explain why the set is so worthwhile to someone who hasn’t seen it, but the way the thing is designed to rely on the gradual building up of repeated themes and interconnected anecdotes leaves me feeling like this is a thing that’s best discussed in its entirety with someone who has already seen it.  If you know what Gadsby will do with her set ahead of time, the impact seems like it might be lessened (I feel at this point that it’s worth saying that there should be content notes in place; there’s extensive discussion of both sexual and nonsexual assault, so if those are difficult subjects to broach in your entertainment, then it’s best to be forewarned about that before viewing Nanette).  Given all that, I’ll be discussing spoilers for Nanette beyond this point.

What I find most fascinating about Gadsby’s set is the way that she builds this intricate structure that calls back and recontextualizes the early material in Nanette.  The first ten to fifteen minutes are just relatively staid jokes about how hard it was for Gadsby to be a lesbian living in Tasmania, where homosexuality was outlawed until 1997.  She tells multiple stories about casual homophobia that people she does and doesn’t know engaged in towards her.  There’s the story about a man almost beating her up because he thought she was hitting on his girlfriend, thinking she was gay, and then stopping after he realized she was a woman; she also recounts coming out to her mom and her mother’s darkly comic reaction of wishing she didn’t know because it’s like telling someone you’re a murderer.  She plays the fact that she hadn’t come out to her grandmother at all for laughs.  In between all these anecdotes are bits about how her early material when she started doing stand up was very immersed in the subject matter of “gay comic 101.”  Gadsby accompanies her explanations of the jokes she used to tell with direct samplings of those jokes, all while wryly intimating to the audience that while it may be funny it was also ineffective at combating homophobia.

About twenty minutes into the set, Gadsby introduces the core assertion of her show: she needs to quit comedy.  It’s first placed in the context of receiving criticism from others that she’s not appealing enough to what they want from her comedy, but it quickly turns towards a meditation on the nature of stand up in general.  Gadsby explains that so much of her humor as a queer woman relies on self deprecation, and she finds that self deprecation coming from someone already marginalized has a bad effect.  It’s further humiliating someone with low social status as they try to make themselves heard, and she can’t continue with it any longer.  From there she proceeds into material regarding art history focused around Vincent van Gogh (he was a functional artist, she asserts, because he received treatment and support from therapists and family despite his difficult behavior) and Pablo Picasso (he was a misogynist who had sex with an underage girl claiming she was “in her prime”).  By the set’s end, the jokes all subside as Gadsby launches into an impassioned polemic about the ways comedy has become conflated with the hard work of discourse and the culpability of straight white men in pretty much everyone’s suffering.

The ending stretch of the show is particularly brilliant as Gadsby calls back all three of the stories that she used as examples of the sorts of jokes she used to tell when she started.  We’re informed in rapid succession that Gadsby’s mother has reflected on the way she reacted to her daughter’s coming out, and she regrets her decisions in handling that (she suspected long before Gadsby told her, and she wanted to protect her daughter from the trouble that being gay in Tasmania would entail); that the man who caught her hitting on his girlfriend but got confused about what a lesbian was came back after he figured it out and did beat her up; that the failure to come out to her grandmother is an extension of the internalized homophobia Gadsby struggles with after growing up in an environment that is so toxic.  These jokes occlude the realities of Gadsby’s experiences, and in the telling and the hearing they overwrite those lived traumas, lessen their perceived impact.  Gadsby’s introspection about the way she’s been doing comedy is paired with an implicit accusation aimed at the audience for being complicit with this erasure and commodification of a marginalized person’s suffering.  It recontextualizes all of those other comedy shows where the comics mine their lives for material, leaving you wondering what parts were cut in service of a laugh.

It seems silly to heap effusive praise on a thing that’s already receiving so much, but in this case it feels distinctly warranted.  Nanette is more than an excellent piece of comedy; it’s a careful and precise examination of the way we interact with comedy and allow it to shape our social narratives.  It is absolutely worth the time to watch.

________

Further reading:

Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix special Nanette is powerful anti-comedy.

Hannah Gadsby Knows Why Nanette Is a Sensation

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Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #23”

I’ve spent months wondering about how I was going to talk about The Wicked + The Divine’s twenty-third issue.  It’s such an unusual artifact set pretty much right in the middle of the series, and it adopts a format that’s at once reminiscent of the backup material found in issues of Watchmen while doing something that I’ve not encountered before in fiction writ large.

The covers for Imperial Phase present the Pantheon at their most collected; each cover will show a god in control of their image backed by a panel depicting one of their core motifs. The first one has Baal looking like he’s in charge now. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson; Image credit: Comic Vine)

The conceit of the issue is that it’s not an issue of a monthly fictional comic but a monthly fan magazine that exists within the WicDiv universe.  This sort of creation of in-universe artifacts isn’t that unusual (again, Alan Moore did it as filler for the letter pages when he was writing Watchmen), but what strikes me as special about it is the fact that Gillen has actually outsourced most of the copywriting of the book to actual journalists (he cheekily inserts himself as the Editor of Pantheon Monthly, which I’m sure some fans somewhere have used as an excuse to create art where he is mercilessly tortured by his own creations as payback while declaring “this could totally happen!”).  The way this narrative sleight of hand is accomplished was through roleplayed interviews between Gillen as each of the subjects and their respective interviewers over instant message with accompanying notes from Gillen about what the gods were doing during each scene.  It’s a really cool way to collaborate with other writers in a way that helps shape the narrative without stifling individual voices, and I’m left curious about the possibilities of this particular style of writing. On the art side of things, we have a couple of pinup style pieces by McKelvie framed as ads for products that Baal and Persephone are selling bookending the issue, and each article is accompanied by two to three illustrations of its subject by Kevin Wada presented as fashion photography.  Anything that might be considered traditional sequential art is limited to two pages at the issue’s end where the public version of Ananke’s death is recapped with panels meant to be still frames from the documentary footage that Beth’s team got during the events of Rising Action and a three panel gag strip of the Pantheon deciding to party after Ananke bites the dust reside.

The interview format of the issue allows it to serve a unique narrative function within the series as a whole.  Coming off of the climax of Rising Action, the Pantheon is now in uncharted territory as it has to navigate its final year without Ananke’s machinations guiding everyone towards whatever her own goals were.  The kids are on their own for the first time, and that new status quo requires a fair bit of set up; instead of jumping right into the next bit of action, issue #23 gives a little bit of a breather and lets the reader know obliquely about how things have changed in the intervening three months.  Besides the expositiony stuff, there’s also a healthy dose of character exploration, although it’s all filtered through the way the gods interact with the public instead of among one another; except for the Morrigan (who, let’s be honest, is always in character), every interview has at least one moment where the writer notices the artificial nature of their subject’s pose.  It’s a well-worn critique that celebrity breeds a level of disingenuity between a person and their fans, but this issue seems to revel in that reality as a core commonality among the members of the Pantheon, who are as dysfunctional in their interactions as ever.

While each god approaches their interview with a different explicitly stated motivation, the common thread among them is an assertion of self and legacy that seems pretty closely tied up with the desperation that likely follows from suddenly being without a mentor.  All the gods are clearly thinking about their impending mortality and what they hope to accomplish in the time they have left; the Morrigan and Amaterasu are a bit more explicit in their wish to leave behind something more than just the memory of them, but even Baal and Woden hint at wanting to have some kind of purpose to their divine tenure (even if in Woden’s case that purpose is just enjoying himself as much as possible).  Lucifer’s interview is the oddball in the group just because of its temporal displacement within the series’ continuity.  In this piece we get a glimpse at what the world was thinking about the Pantheon in its early days before Lucifer blew the big secret about all the miraculous stuff being legitimate.  More intriguing than that bit of early mystique (clearly Lucifer is just on the verge of stealing the spotlight) is the reminder that Lucifer’s take on the godhood deal early on was a lot more cynical than the other public facing Pantheon members.  She’s playing her part as the unrepentant rebel dutifully, but there are hints here and there that she’s not really happy with the turn of events.  All the gods worry on some level that the cost of their fame is probably too high, but aside from characters like Woden and Sakhmet (who pair their coping with an intense amorality) Lucifer is the one who tries to sooth those worries with a hedonistic abandon that clashes so strongly with what she values.

When the issue is over, the strongest sense that we’re supposed to take away is that the gods are determined to do their own thing now that Ananke is dead, and they will very likely make it all worse while they’re trying to figure out what that should look like.

Persona 5 Log 2

There is so much content in a Persona game.  It’s been a few years since I last played one, so I had sort of forgotten the all-consuming nature of this particular series that draws you in and makes you spend every waking moment thinking about relationships as commodities and rewards and means to ends that only ever chain on to ever more twists in the story.  You kind of lose yourself in the melodrama of high school kids living in a world filled with terrible adults while also having the idealized teenage experience. Days fly by and your only experience of them are the fun bits where you’re hanging out with friends or beating up monsters; occasionally you have some exams, but they’re easily dispatched by making the right decision on a few multiple choice questions (and no one will call you a cheater if you look stuff up on the spur of the moment).  It’s all a glorious withdrawal into this slightly terrifying fantasy world that’s still more comforting than the real one because even if people are awful in fictionalized Tokyo, at least you have the power to change their hearts.

I took about a month off between last week’s Persona 5 post and this one; the end of the school year came with a lot more mental fatigue than I had anticipated, and then the real world news just kept getting worse, and all the resources I normally set aside for blogging were just consumed with start of summer activities and this game.  Persona 5‘s save game function takes the form of a journal that the protagonist is keeping as evidence of his good behavior while he’s on probation; each entry is marked prominently with the date and the playtime.  When I finished, I had a save with over one hundred thirty hours prominently posted; I haven’t devoted five days’ worth of time to a game in a while (especially five days compacted into such a short amount of time), but it felt necessary.  Rachael and I took a week at the end of June to go visit some good friends of ours down in Los Angeles, and we were driving home on the day that Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement (to cap off a couple weeks of extremely bad Supreme Court decisions); going back to engaging with the real world just didn’t feel possible, and Persona was waiting at home to give us more of a respite.

I don’t think I can express how weird it feels to spend so much time immersed in a game at this point in my life, and how much that weirdness is compounded by the game functioning as a way to not think about the real world.  So many of the days that I spent on this game included the occasional thought that I should try to do something else, like doing some writing, but the prospect of opening up my laptop and just being in proximity to the internet felt like too much.  When you don’t have a job taking up most of your time during the day, it becomes way too easy to get sucked into the infinite scroll. The alternative of immersing oneself in a game that will last for weeks but does have a definite end doesn’t seem so bad in that context.

And of course the game ends.  The core mechanic of Persona beyond getting to know cool people and seeing their stories is time management.  You can mess around with your days if you want to, but the game’s story marches on regardless; things happen with you or without you, and there’s no option to delay the end of the world just because you feel like doing those weird pointless tasks that are the hallmark of any endgame (well, for the most part; if you want you can screw around in dungeons for as long as you like without time passing, but that only has so much appeal).  The fact that the game is going to boot you off to do other things eventually makes its extreme playtime a lot more palatable.

The time in between your first day being a social outcast in a strange new city and the tearful goodbyes as you leave all your new friends behind is incredibly full; each month spills over with the central melodrama of the protagonist and his ever growing circle of friends dealing with the abuses that adults are all too prone to committing and the secondary side stories that are more about interpersonal drama in ways that are slightly less fraught (but only slightly).  This is a series that takes swings at sexual assault; exploitation of workers; depression and social anxiety; and political apathy, and those are all issues that get their own distinct story arc beyond just the general milieu of social malaise viewed through the eyes of teenagers doing their best not to fall into total disaffection. Persona 5’s core assertion is that society is terrible, but it doesn’t have to be if you can just get enough people to care about it.

The Important Thing is Telling the Story

I did not grow up playing the King’s Quest games.  I think I got King’s Quest V for Christmas one year, and as far as I got I enjoyed it, although I don’t recall finishing the thing (Sierra adventure games of the era were notorious for allowing players to get stuck in unwinnable game states that required completely starting over if you didn’t keep a whole lot of saves).  Rachael, on the other hand, was a total fangirl of the series, and she played all of them to completion, even the oldest ones where you have to do text input to do anything.  We’ve revisited a lot of these games together over the years, and when we saw that there was a King’s Quest revival game, we immediately bought it and prepared to spend a weekend playing the thing through to completion.

The thing that’s important to understand if you do pick King’s Quest up is that it is a serialized game, and each chapter is going to feel significantly different from the previous one.  The first chapter leans pretty heavily on a sense of nostalgia for the King’s Quest brand; you play as a young, pre-royal Graham who has just come to Daventry to make a name for himself as a knight in the court.  The puzzles begin relatively simple, and the introductory section goes on a little too long, especially for a game that clearly seems to be banking on pulling in players who were already familiar with the series.  Graham’s quest to become a knight of Daventry is a relatively low-stakes story, and as Rachael pointed out when we were playing through it, the game falters a bit in making the player feel invested in this first story.  There’s just a little bit too much hand holding for a player who knows what to expect from a King’s Quest game, and the stakes are just a little too mundane.  Despite these flaws with the first chapter, the game overall is well worth your time if you like adventure stories with a quirky sense of humor or you already know the King’s Quest brand.

King's Quest 2015 cover.png

Cover art for King’s Quest featuring young and old Graham. (Image credit: Wikipedia)

What makes this new game so good is the way that it takes the history of the series and uses established canon to weave in untold stories about Graham’s life that offer new and interesting context to established events.  The frame for the entire game is Graham recounting his adventures to his granddaughter Gwendolyn while he convalesces in bed following an illness.  He’s reflecting on the arc of his life while trying to impart some of his hard-earned wisdom to Gwendolyn, whom Graham is seriously considering as a potential successor to his throne.  Through this frame, each chapter examines a different stage in Graham’s life from his early days as a young adventurer through his learning how to relate with his family into old age.  It’s a very common story arc, and the beats that the game hits aren’t exactly surprising or innovative, but they’re solidly constructed so that you care about Graham’s success in each stage of life.

Running parallel with the narrative arc is a mechanical arc.  Each chapter focuses on a stage of Graham’s life in the story, but the method of delivering each smaller story changes to best suit the kind of story being told.  The various subgenres of adventure puzzle games are represented: the staid point-and-click format of the first chapter; a variation that focuses on management of available resources to try to reach an optimal solution (the point here is that there is no “right” solution) in the second chapter; a focus on analyzing character details and personality to find answers in the third; a logic puzzle heavy fourth chapter; and a return to point-and-click form in the fifth chapter, but with a twist.

Everything we experience as players is filtered through Graham’s narration (a cute quirk of the frame and adventure game conventions is that when you try to use items in places where they aren’t appropriate, Graham notes that that action wouldn’t have made sense at the time), and in the final chapter of the game, this narrative convention melds with the game mechanics in alternately fun and affecting ways.  Graham is an old man in physical and mental decline, and his memory of events is imperfect.  Certain puzzles require Graham to misremember events in specific ways so the player can acquire items that are needed elsewhere, which is a cool twist, but it’s all tinged with more than a little sadness because of what this means for Graham in the present.  As the final chapter advances things fall into further disarray because Graham is so focused on recounting all his adventures to Gwendolyn that he’s unable to see how his obsession over insignificant details is hurting the story.  It’s all a proxy for Graham’s relationship with his family and his own sense of what his life has been; Gwendolyn loves her grandfather and his stories, and it’s not important to her that every detail be exactly right as long as Graham’s character shines through.  Graham, knowing that his time is up, reflects endlessly on whether the choices he made are the right ones.

In the end, the important thing that both Graham and Gwendolyn realize is that the telling of the story is the important part of their bond.  It’s not Graham who gives the final accounting of how he ultimately wins his last adventure but Gwendolyn, coming up with an ending that fits what she knows about her grandfather irrespective of what the actual facts may have been.

Reading “The Wicked + The Divine: 1831”

Despite my usual discipline in waiting patiently for new arcs of The Wicked + The Divine to finish and be collected into trades, I must admit that I simply could not wait for the special issues to get collected.  The plan for these issues, which focus on telling standalone stories featuring members of past Pantheons, is to collect them all into a trade at the series’s conclusion since they’re technically supplemental material; you can read and enjoy the core story of The Wicked + The Divine without ever dipping into the specials.  Still, “technically supplemental” is probably the flimsiest description you could give to a thing, particularly when so much of the joy of WicDiv is in learning about the historic, meta-, and intertextual stuff that Gillen is doing.  The WicDiv universe is extremely similar to our own except for the whole incarnating gods thing, and the series’s underlying premise of divinity being an expressed cipher of contemporary cultural values and priorities creates a pretty rich playground for figuring out what’s going on in past eras.

The 1831 special looks at the final days of a Pantheon built on the foundation of English literary figures including Percy Bysshe Shelley (poet of Ozymandias among lots of other things), Mary Shelley (author of freakin’ Frankenstein), Mary’s step-sister Claire Clairmont, and of course Lord Byron (he got a shout out in issue #2 when Laura meets Cassandra at an art museum in a gallery of portraits of figures from past Pantheons; the Byronic figure is, of course, the 1831 Lucifer).  Two thirds of the Pantheon are already dead, and the remainder have planned a house party to while away their few remaining weeks before their two year timer expires.  Lucifer, who in this incarnation is romantically entangled with a female Inanna (our viewpoint character), wants to meditate on the Pantheon’s mortality by telling horror stories before unveiling his plan to use necromancy to bring the recently deceased Hades back to life.  Also present are Woden, Inanna’s step-sister, and her husband the Morrigan (I think Gillen had some great fun taking several major characters of the present day Pantheon and gender flipping all of them).  This whole setup is broadly speaking modeled on the summer of 1816 when the Shelleys and Clairmont stayed with Byron in Switzerland–the period when Mary conceived the idea for Frankenstein.

I get why you’d put Lucifer on the cover of a special issue; people love Lucifer. I just wish Inanna had gotten spotlighted seeing as this issue is so much about her and Woden. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matthew Wilson; Image credit: Comic Vine)

The historical background is useful for understanding the context that Gillen’s playing with in this issue (I wasn’t aware of any of this history when I first read the issue, and it helped immensely knowing this stuff on my third reading).  The pastime of telling ghost stories, the multiple dead children, the sibling jealousy, all of the details of this Pantheon’s interpersonal dynamics are pulled from the lives of the figures they’re paying homage.  One important thing to keep in mind though is that the members of the Pantheon aren’t stand-ins for the actual historical figures; within the world of The Wicked + The Divine the artists whom the Pantheon represent still exist (this is why in the first arc Cassandra can make an offhand joke about Lucifer stopping when she got to her parents’ David Bowie collection as readers who are somewhat familiar with the artist recognize that Lucifer’s design borrows heavily from Bowie’s persona the Thin White Duke); you can imagine that this makes for some weirdly recursive in-universe stuff (I mean, besides the Recurrence) where the events of fifteen years earlier for a different set of famous people play out in an eerily similar way for others.  Even stranger, the events of 1831 take place when Mary Shelley and Claire Clairmont were still alive, meaning it’s possible that in the WicDiv universe, they heard about these doppelgangers who resembled themselves and their dead beloveds (well, ex-beloved for Clairmont; she and Byron had a major falling out after they had a daughter together).  I’m not saying I would read that crossover fanfiction, but I would probably read that crossover fanfiction.

Woden and the Morrigan are a total raven power couple. (Artwork by Stephanie Hans, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Anyway, setting all the tangents aside, this issue does a lot of intertextual work with Frankenstein.  Mary Shelley’s novel explores a lot of stuff, from the folly of trying to circumvent God’s natural order to the tragedy of parental abandonment and a lot of other stuff.  Gillen pulls all of that stuff into his little ghost story about ghost stories.  This Lucifer is brazen enough to think he can use his power to reverse death (our first clue that this definitely won’t work out the way he hopes is that Ananke is the one who provides him with the piece of Hades he intends to use in his ritual).  Lucifer sets the stage for the tragedy, but the major action occurs between Inanna and Woden, our stand-ins for Clairmont and Mary Shelley respectively.  Inanna explains in her version of a ghost story (she doubts it qualifies because it ends happily for her), her step-sister and brother-in-law were approached by Ananke and transformed into gods while the three of them were traveling abroad.  Inanna was initially overlooked because she lacked the raw talent of her two companions (Clairmont is historically notable for her close connections with the Shelleys and Byron, but she’s unremarkable in her own right), but then Ananke granted her divinity.

Inanna really undersells the story of how she ascended. (Artwork by Stephanie Hans, letters by Clayton Cowles)

The flip side of Inanna’s story is Woden’s, which directly addresses the grief she feels at her divinity apparently dooming her chances at having healthy children.  Mary Shelley suffered the early deaths of multiple children over the course of her life, and these events were major catalysts for depressive periods in her life.  Woden is similarly focused on her own tragedy, and it colors all of her interactions with her circle of friends; she resents Inanna’s jealousy because she sees the price of divinity as being too high, and she’s alienated from the Morrigan because he doesn’t give full import to what they’ve lost.  Unlike the present-day Woden, this one feels fully sympathetic; she’s certainly detached from her peers, but the source of her detachment isn’t a generalized misanthropy so much as repeated, little acknowledged trauma.

Woden is not playing with you. (Artwork by Stephanie Hans, letters by Clayton Cowles)

While Inanna and Woden exist in tension with one another over their perspectives on divinity, the Morrigan (minorly) and Lucifer are more interested in addressing the problem of imminent death.  With a piece of the newly deceased Hades as a catalyst (delivered by Ananke, which we know means nothing good will come of it), they go about trying to resurrect the dead.  The experiment’s result is a magical version of the famous monster of Frankenstein: a creature that was made from Hades’s body is born, but it doesn’t share his identity.  The creature immediately proceeds to eat the essence of its creators, killing Lucifer and the Morrigan in quick succession (alas, Gillen doesn’t have them die in the same order as their historical counterparts).  Inanna is terrified by the thing, but Woden offers herself up willingly, viewing this creature as the progeny she’s been denied.  Inanna’s the only one who escapes, and in the story’s epilogue she reveals that she’s pregnant with Lucifer’s child and that she killed Woden’s children in the crib as part of her bargain with Ananke to attain divinity.

Of course, no one escapes the Pantheon, so Ananke shows up to execute Inanna.

The creature takes on Woden’s appearance after it absorbs her, and I have so many questions about how it knows what Inanna did. (Artwork by Stephanie Hans, letters by Clayton Cowles)

So much of this story is built around the desire for children and legacy.  Each of the four gods are grasping at some sort of immortality, although they go about it in extremely different ways.  Lucifer, a most self-obsessed individual, doesn’t care that much about having children himself, but he wants to find a way to cheat death; offspring are no fun if you don’t live to see them carry on.  The Morrigan (who is honestly relatively underdeveloped beyond being a Percy Shelley pastiche) seems most concerned with living on through his work.  Just before he’s eaten by the creature, he misquotes the famous lines from Ozymandias and in the speaking demonstrates the futility of legacy that Shelley’s own poem argues for.  Woden disdains her talents because they don’t serve her desire to have children; the creature offers her one last chance at leaving behind something other than herself.  Inanna’s aims are less far-reaching; she just wants notoriety in her own life, and she’s willing to sabotage the hopes of her closest friends to achieve it.

Some things about this issue that I find surprising after having read it a few times are the way that it succeeds in making a Woden the subject of most genuine sympathy among the characters.  The present-day Woden is a despicable character that is meant to be loathed most of the time while small bits of humanity peak through, but the Regency Woden just doesn’t have that vibe.  She’s certainly scary and imposing in her way (her design evokes the nascent science fiction genre that Mary Shelley ushered in with Frankenstein), but as far as what’s presented in this story, she’s done nothing wrong.  Also, we get a pretty clear picture here that Ananke doesn’t want the gods having children although the reason remains murky.  Carrying over from that, we’re also left with one giant dangling plot thread in the creature itself.  We don’t know anything about its nature, and at the story’s conclusion it wanders off into the wilderness where Inanna at least assumes that it will live out its life.  It’s a weird thing to have happen in a side story, and I am still wondering if the creature will figure in at all in the main series.

Next time we’ll take a look at The Wicked + The Divine #23, which is a very different sort of book.

It’s a Dungeon Crawler! Or A Visual Novel! Or Both!

The first time I played a Persona game was about a decade ago.  I read a review for Persona 3: FES (the game had apparently just been re-released with a bonus epilogue) that sounded intriguing, and so I picked it up for something like thirty dollars at the local electronics store.  There was a pretty wide gap between what I thought the game was going to be and what it actually was.  I imagined a straightforward JRPG experience, but set in a near-future Japanese high school; the Persona games definitely follow this formula, but they encompass a lot more than that.  In addition to the dungeon crawling (a relatively lackluster element in Persona 3 that revolves around rushing through randomly generated dungeons while trying to manage resources), there’s an incredibly robust story that plays out over the course of a calendar year.  It’s a ubiquitous motif throughout the series that the protagonist and his friends (except for the PSP remaster of Persona 3, all the games in the series feature male protagonists) lead double lives: they are both ordinary high school students and the secret last line of defense between the real world and a nightmarish alternate reality that manifests itself in a variety of strange ways.  Success with the fantastic is predicated on at being at least competent at navigating the mundane.

Also, you have to be prepared to invest over a hundred hours of play time into any entry in this series.

Many years after I first encountered Persona 3, I realized that half of the game that revolves around managing the protagonist’s social life is actually a staple of visual novels, a game genre that’s popular in Japan, but which doesn’t have quite the same cultural cachet in the West.  There’s a certain irony in this lack of enthusiasm for the genre, because its story- and character-focused traditions are the backbone of JRPGs, a game genre that thrived in Western console markets throughout the ’90s.  Persona is notable for taking that pedigree and simply amping the connection up exponentially.  Besides your dungeon crawling stats, your main character also has a variety of social stats and relationships that you have to manage with the free time you have available in your schedule.  Developing your relationships directly benefits your strength in battle, but the stories that accompany each character are the major draw.  However, because multiple intricate systems are overlaid within the game, the path to actually maximizing all your relationships in the time you’re given is extremely tricky.  I’d say it lends each Persona game some strong replayability if you don’t see everything on your first playthrough, but then there’s that obnoxious thing about each game just being so ridiculously long.

Enjoy this screenshot of the title card, as it is the only high quality picture we’ll have in this series. Persona 5 doesn’t allow screenshotting at all while you’re playing the game, so all future posts will be illustrated with crummy pictures of my TV taken on my phone (kind of like all my analog comics photos, hooray!)

Honestly, there are a lot of generalities you can make about any given Persona game (part of the appeal of the series is how predictably formulaic the elements are), and if I continue writing about Persona 5 (the most recent entry in the series, which Rachael and I just bought in anticipation of having something to do with our days off over the summer), I’m sure they will come up in due course.  For now, it’s enough to know that the game is long, it’s about Japanese high school students saving the world in secret, and more than likely every adult you meet is highly irresponsible and/or abusive to children.

Persona 5 is a fun entry in the series because it pulls in all of the familiar elements, but it’s also a significantly more polished product than its predecessors.  All the menus pop with visually intriguing motifs that make the process of checking up on your party’s stats of various sorts a pleasurable experience instead of the usually monotonous experience of most menu driven RPGs.  The game’s graphics feel like a throwback to peak Playstation 3 (not unusual, given Atlus’s penchant for localizing relatively niche Japanese games for a Western market) that make everything feel a little retro, but given the present state of video gaming where hyper realism is just one aesthetic out of many, it doesn’t detract.  The signature visual style of the Persona series is present, with highly detailed character portraits helping to convey the emotions of the only slightly less expressive character models (I’m pleasantly surprised during the copious cut scenes when I stop reading the text for a moment to catch one of the characters displaying a particularly readable facial expression).  The whole effect of all the visuals is to make the game feel like a well animated manga, which is a perfect aesthetic for the elevated reality of the game where our heroes are constantly beset by “shitty adults” who have no sense of what is and isn’t okay to say to a bunch of teenagers.

Perhaps my favorite innovation in this iteration is in the characterization of the protagonist.  One of Persona‘s mainstays is the Social Link system (in Persona 5 renamed to Confidants) where the protagonist has to develop relationships with a wide variety of acquaintances in order to grow in his power as a Persona user.  The sheer number of different personalities that you encounter in your friendships in past games led to Rachael and I joking that Persona is a series where the main character is psychopathic, adopting whatever personality is most socially advantageous in the moment without any sort of core sense of identity.  We’re thirty hours into Persona 5 (which, for folks who are familiar with the game’s format, puts us in early June), and I really don’t get that sort of vibe from the protagonist.  The background explaining how he landed in his current predicament is that he interrupted an attempted sexual assault, and because the perpetrator turned out to be a well-connected politician he ended up being charged with assault himself.  The protagonist got a really bad rap because of forces way outside his control, and now he’s trying to make the best of his bad situation.  What comes through as the various plots and subplots of the game unfold is that while the player does have a good bit of latitude in determining how the protagonist responds to different situations, his core identity is as someone who wants to help people.  There’s a pretty strong social justice bent to the whole narrative because of this shift in focus, even if it is still framed within the very conservative cultural milieu of Japan (the game’s treatment of female characters is particularly regressive, but that’s a point for a whole other discussion).

Anyway, that’s enough about that right now.  I have to get back to saving kids from being abused by terrible adults.

Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #22”

The end of the “Rising Action” story arc ends with about as much spectacle as we’ve seen from its beginning in issue #18.  McKelvie presents us with an array of spreads and splash panels (heavy emphasis on the splash) that hammer the major moments of the fight between Team Underground and Team Valhalla.  We see Ananke finally brought low, and we get a little bit more explanation for why she’s been so murder happy since the story’s beginning; more importantly than that (because Ananke’s nonsense, as interesting as it is, is secondary to the question of how these characters react to extreme and not-so-extreme circumstances), Laura gets a little bit of catharsis for the trauma of her family’s murder, and we end on a major question.

Be more creepy, Minerva; I don’t feel guilty enough about your impending trauma yet. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson; Image credit: Comic Vine)

The cover for this issue features Minerva for the first time, and unlike the other entries in this cover series, she’s not shown in the midst of a performance, but peering at the reader from behind the guts of the mysterious machine that Ananke intends to use to sacrifice her.  The cover’s lighting tips us off that we’re looking out from the machine’s inner workings which, if you want to get super critical (in the academic sense), suggests a kind of complicity between the reader and Ananke’s ongoing sacrificial project.  Minerva is the last god Ananke is trying to off to achieve her ends, and this cover puts the reader at the center of the method by which she intends to consume Minerva for her own ends.  When in doubt about textual criticism, assume that stuff is about the creative process and the audience is probably doing something harmful to the creator or a creator surrogate.  Thanks, Gillen & McKelvie.

It’s definitely not better. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Seeing as this is the resolution to the arc, there are a lot of ends to tie up, so the pacing of the issue shifts from luxuriating in action sequences to getting the primary conflict wrapped up quickly so there’s room for a big interpersonal confrontation among the gods in the depths of Valhalla.  We’ve had enough whizbang to last us for a while in the preceding issues, so instead of spending a lot of pages on finishing the fight, McKelvie gives us a double page spread that captures all the individual fights that carried on in the last issue before zooming in on Woden, who decides he’s reached the battle’s inflection point.  The readers know that Woden has been party to most of Ananke’s machinations, even if she kept him in the dark about specifics (like the point of all the murders), but the rest of the Pantheon don’t, so he arranges to throw the fight in a way that gives him plausible deniability in case Ananke somehow manages to pull out a win.

The main event of the issue is the extended conversation among everyone who’s not unconscious (Woden allows himself to be incapacitated and Sakhmet gets knocked out by Baal after she refuses to agree to a ceasefire) in the depths of Valhalla before Ananke’s murder machine.  Ananke goes on a pretty good tear complaining about the general dysfunction of the gods and her frustration at having to manage them for millennia.  It’s exhausting keeping the Pantheon from running amok while she tries to orchestrate sacrifices for combating the Great Darkness.  We still don’t have any clue what she’s talking about with that beyond her vague descriptions of the pre-civilization gods; Ananke seems to be serious about this particular problem, so maybe there’s something to it, but on the other hand she’s also really good at manipulating everyone into getting themselves killed.  Whether this is a legitimate problem she brings up or one last gambit to get the gods to release her will have to wait for further explanation later.

Well, that’s certainly one reason for all the murder and decapitation. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Out of all the back and forth of the basement discussion, a pattern of motivations emerges.  Laura and Ananke are in direct opposition to one another (beyond simple enmity) because Laura, in her new role as Persephone, represents the complete disruption of Ananke’s imposed order.  Persephone is the thirteenth in a Pantheon of twelve, defies the normal rules for miracles (she can affect Cassandra and break Valhalla’s walls; perhaps her particular talent is breaking down obstacles in her way), and she’s looking to take Ananke out.  She resists manipulation in a way that makes it very hard for Ananke to work around her–if the situations were reversed, Ananke would absolutely kill her.  Even though it’s hard to tell what precisely Ananke’s ultimate goals are, we know that she has them, and she constantly works to make her goals happen.  She gives the gods a purpose (whether they like it or not); under Ananke’s guidance, we know that the Pantheon means something.

Said every frustrated adult ever. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Cassandra’s role is less in conflict with the others so much as just trying to slow everything down so the gods can get some answers.  She wants to keep everything grounded in reality, but she’s actually really bad at it.  This is what happens when you have a nihilist trying to wrangle a bunch of gods.  Still, she jumps into the role of “grown-up” with both feet quite readily after everyone confirms that Ananke is trying to kill them all.  One begins to wonder if Ananke’s relatively quiet frustration at the gods’ behavior is just Cassandra’s rage after being worn down by multiple millennia of herding a bunch of extremely destructive cats.

This moment is supposed to be really horrifying and gruesome, but I can’t help getting the giggles when I look at Baphomet and Dionysus’s faces. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson)

Ultimately Laura overwhelms all other points of view; Ananke killed the Wilsons as simple collateral damage, and she has to pay for that.  Persephone is the “Destroyer” and she lives up to it, showing total indifference to what the rest of the Pantheon wants.  The order of Ananke is over, and now, without anyone left to act as a guide, Laura declares a free-for-all.  Theology of necessity makes way for a messy existentialism.