Against Nostalgia (Part 1)

I wrote this essay nearly two years ago in response to both the final chapter of the Life Is Strange series (the first one with Chloe and Max and Rachel) and the release of The Last Jedi.  I had held off on publishing it because I thought I might sell it, but I was naive about the way that freelance writing tends to work.  It’s one of the things I’m most proud of writing, and after having seen The Rise of Skywalker I find myself revisiting the ideas I explored here.

These days, I’m hard pressed to explain what video games I like.  When the subject of gaming inevitably comes up with my students, it’s always a difficult dance of trying to give a comprehensive picture of what I enjoy; my tastes run in cycles through various action-adventure titles to more narratively focused experiences to sometimes just wanting to play a button masher.  About the only solid pieces of information I can give to students are that I don’t do multiplayer games, and I’m typically turned off by traditional first person shooters. It feels like this automatically rules out ninety percent of the games that my students like to play as subjects I can authoritatively discuss, and yet it’s inevitable that I’ll have kids say, “You should play [hot new game of this quarter],” because the desire to connect with someone over a shared interest forever seems to outweigh considerations of personal taste or ability.  It’s hard to convey the idea that things get more complex as you mature, and simple answers become more and more inadequate for simple questions. This is why when the question is asked, “what sort of games do you like?” I flounder for a succinct answer before throwing up my hands and saying, “I like lots of stuff, but the last time I loved a game was Life is Strange.”

It’s not unusual for me to play a game and have thoughts about it; a big part of the fun for me involves turning over things for a while after I’ve finished experiencing them.  With Life is Strange, it went beyond the normal mulling over; I spent the better part of a month picking apart the game because it gave me feelings.  You know, not just the typical reaction to a story that’s well crafted enough to make you sympathize with its characters but something that evokes a sense of wistfulness that never really comes back in the same way twice.  It’s a game that, among a lot of other things, is about nostalgia and the ineffable sadness that springs from understanding you simply can’t recreate an original experience perfectly. Max Caulfield learns, regardless of what final choice the player makes about Chloe Price’s fate, that there is no going back; her superpower is being able to perfectly relive memories, except she can’t decontextualize them from what she knows about the future.  Even she can’t scratch the itch that nostalgia always leaves as it skitters through our brains. Life is Strange says, quite emphatically, that we’re collectively doomed to chase imperfect facsimiles of cherished past experiences.

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Star Wars is not Life is Strange.  It begins with a nobody farm kid discovering he’s heir to a powerful legacy and growing into the power that legacy offers through a series of victories and defeats (but mostly victories).  The scale of the story is massive, the stakes the political future of a galaxy. This is high melodrama we’re dealing with, all fit neatly into a very well trodden story structure. Star Wars is big and flashy and exciting while also being comfortable in a way that can be difficult to explain.  Over the course of the original story arc, following Luke Skywalker from farmboy to Jedi Knight and liberator of the galaxy, the audience gets invited into a classic power fantasy.  There are no moments of small feeling or sitting with slight discomfort or teasing out the nuance of a few exchanged words. Emotions are big and, for the most part, pure. Audiences loved it to such an extent that now all you have to do to call up those thoughts and emotions is mention Star Wars.

Following Life is Strange, Square Enix decided they wanted to publish a prequel.  Life is Strange: Before the Storm has the unenviable task of going back in time to tell us the story that brings Chloe to where she is when she first barges into the bathroom at Blackwell Academy looking to settle a debt with Nathan Prescott.  It introduces us to Rachel Amber, the girl who has left such an indelible impression on everyone in Arcadia Bay with her absence in Life is Strange that her presence could only be a disappointment (and yet it somehow isn’t).  In the predestined frame of tragic death awaiting one or both of these girls, Before the Storm dares to push relentlessly towards the happiness that they so richly deserve regardless of the personal cost.  In a lot of ways it succeeds, although like all prequels this story suffers from knowing what comes next. That the developers felt the need to add a stinger after the game’s final credits reminding you what’s in store for Chloe and Rachel in Life is Strange underlines this fact grossly.  A story that should be about two queer girls finding happiness despite everything being set against them is marred in ways that can’t be avoided because you can’t change what’s past.

Fans of Star Wars have grappled with this problem of prequels for two decades now; a story that they loved got more added to it, but it was done in a way that failed to meet their expectations.  While George Lucas was off chasing his own nostalgia for the movies and serials he grew up with while playing with modern filmmaking technology, the audience was waiting for their nostalgia for Star Wars to be satisfied.  If we can set aside the objective quality of the Prequel Trilogy, what we’re left with is both a creator and his audience discovering in a very rude way the incompatibility of their nostalgias.  Lucas couldn’t recreate the magic of the first movie, so he didn’t try, and fans revolted. Nostalgia became a catalyst for toxicity in the fandom. Anyone who was even vaguely aware of Star Wars fans in the ‘00s knew that a vocal portion of them were bitterly angry with Lucas for failing to deliver on their preferred vision.

Before the Storm, with its push to break new ground in a story about memory, couldn’t be the last word for Chloe and Max.  Nostalgia trips aren’t complete without some return to original form, and there’s too much inversion in the prequel for it to stand alone as a satisfying reprise of what Life is Strange captured; Max and Rachel, eternal foils in Chloe’s mind, have to be put back in their original roles as the respective presence and absence that pull her character in opposite directions.  To close out our time with these characters, we get the bonus episode “Farewell” which serves as a prequel to the entire series.

The whole episode is an extended exercise in fan service and nostalgia for the dynamics that fans of the series loved about Life is Strange.  Max is a little unsure of herself, and Chloe is full of enthusiasm and joy that covers some deep pain about being a social outcast.  The original voice actors (absent from Before the Storm because of a voice actors’ strike that happened during the game’s production) reprise their roles.  The soundtrack reverts from the hard rock that Chloe prefers to the more melancholy folk and indie tracks associated with Max’s perspective.  The side quest is once again Max’s ongoing search for the perfect photo ops. As a player you are supposed to nostalgia trip hard, and for the most part the episode succeeds at getting you there.  The pain and poignancy of the episode revolves entirely around moments of foreshadowing to which Chloe and Max are oblivious while the player absorbs all the tragic import.  Family plans that will be dashed mingle with Max’s ever present misgivings about how she can stay in touch when she’s moving so far away to continually pull the player’s emotional strings.  We get it; this is a last moment of unmitigated happiness for Chloe and Max before the universe starts to punish them for existing. We so appreciate being reminded of all the stuff that these characters suffer while we were growing to love them.

Ultimately, “Farewell” chooses to end in the same spirit as Before the Storm‘s main story: with a gut punch that only hurts because it’s powered by the memory of something that can’t be reclaimed.  If you step away from the investment in the characters for even a moment, it immediately becomes apparent that this story was structured to maximize the emotional manipulation of the player.  Of course the day Max tells Chloe she’s moving away is the same day Chloe’s father dies.  This can’t just be a bittersweet story about friendship promising to endure despite unseen rough waters; it also has to remind us of Life is Strange‘s worst impulses towards traumatizing characters just because it can.  A straightforward reading of the entire series is that the universe hates Chloe Price; the cynical reality is that the developers, who created that universe, don’t hate Chloe so much as see her as a vehicle for delivering measured doses of trauma porn.  They created a character that many players of the game love, and then they exploit that emotional connection to induce sadness in players, the vast majority of whom simply do not have the well of related experiences to be anything but voyeurs.  It’s a cruel trick, but this is a story about nostalgia, and the only way nostalgia can be enjoyed is to not notice its cruelty.

I remember feeling cautiously optimistic about the news that Lucasfilm had sold the rights to Star Wars to Disney.  This was a soulless corporate juggernaut taking over a beloved film series, but at least it was a soulless corporate juggernaut that knew how to make an entertaining movie.  Along came The Force Awakens, and fans were treated to the nostalgia trip they had been craving but George Lucas hadn’t delivered.  It was off, though. Some fans felt like too much was similar (the desert planet, the nobody discovering their heritage, the third iteration on the Death Star) while some (mostly white, male) fans felt things were too different.  Nostalgia found itself in direct conflict with the impetus to do something new. Still, the muddled response to The Force Awakens (after all the initial ecstasy of having a new Star Wars movie that wasn’t terrible wore off) pales in comparison to the anger that The Last Jedi elicited from certain nostalgic fans.

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Theatrical release poster for The Last Jedi. (Image credit: Wikipedia)

The extremely vocal faction of Star Wars fans who have railed against The Last Jedi are fundamentally upset because they were presented with a story that puts nostalgia in its place as something that’s fleeting and unhealthy to dwell in; they wanted Luke and Leia and Han to remain unchanged despite thirty intervening years.  Their vitriol against a story that dared to make characters change in the same way that people change is entirely fueled by disappointment that their nostalgia wasn’t satisfied. They missed the fact that Han is mostly unchanged when he boards the Millennium Falcon in The Force Awakens: he’s returned to his original state as a shiftless smuggler just trying to stay ahead of the people he owes, and the result of this enforced stasis is that he has an estranged son who ultimately kills him.  Luke, in contrast, is totally disillusioned with the past; he’s seen the havoc that sort of reverie can wreak, and he completely dismisses the glory days as unsuitable for dealing with the present. The legend of Luke Skywalker is an illusion that’s only good for a distraction.  The new Star Wars trilogy, as far as it’s gone, says quite emphatically that enshrining the past over adapting to the present will cause heartache.  Nostalgia indulged uncritically on a massive enough scale will turn from a small cruelty into a large hatred.

And of course nostalgia is cruel.  The promise of a return to something simpler and more pure and joyful is so incredibly seductive as we grow more complicated and uncertain and jaded by our experience of the world, but it inevitably disappoints.  You can’t go back, and the longer it takes you to come to terms with that fact, the more nostalgia twists the knife. We become Max, caught between an irreclaimable past and a painful, destructive present that we didn’t really have a hand in making but we do have a responsibility to help make bearable.  

The confounding thing about this position is just how frequently we seem to get trapped in it.  Yes, the wistfulness and the reverie are appealing, but they also hurt.  The big question seems to be whether the pain associated with nostalgia gets directed inward towards the person experiencing it or outward towards others.  Neither direction seems especially healthy, and it leaves one wondering why we continue to collectively indulge in nostalgia at all. We seem to be addicted to this thing that we’re only capable of weaponizing in order to torture each other in our endless interaction with story.  It feels untenable, but in the long run it probably won’t change in any meaningful way; people are remarkably stubborn when it comes to holding on to the past.

Reading “4: The Inn”

If Die were a television serial instead of a comic book, then I’d say that we’ve been through the flashy two-part pilot followed by the actually-not-at-all-forgettable third episode that gets into the messy business of establishing the rhythm of a series, and now it’s time for the fourth episode where the characters begin to feel like they’re a little bit more than what was presented at first.  Instead, it is a comic book, and everything we’ve seen up to this point was at least outlined in pretty good detail before the first issue ever hit the stands.  The beats we get here, Matt’s ridiculously varied experiences of grief (oh my God, can we please get this guy home as soon as possible?), Isabelle’s reflexive impulse to compare things to the behavior of her students (I can totally relate to that), Ash’s discomfort and rage with being confronted about how she uses roleplaying as a way to explore parts of her identity that weren’t safe to explore as a teenage boy in 1991, were all present in the first issue and just waiting to be developed at a time when there would be room for them to breathe instead of getting overwhelmed in the immediate urgency of the initial crisis.  It’s time for a quiet issue, and being a story about fantasy storytelling, it naturally centers on an inn.

Being in Die, for Angela, is all about replacing things that she’s lost and weighing that against the things she still could lose. (Cover by Stephanie Hans; Image credit: Comic Vine)

The cover features Ash’s sister Angela, the party’s resident rogue and cyberpunk.  We see Angela here embracing a cybernetic dog, a pet that’s based on her real-world dog Casey who died just before the events of the first issue.  Angela’s personal life is a mess made from bad circumstances and poor choices; when we met her in the first issue Dominic let us know that she’s going through a hostile divorce involving a difficult custody battle for her children all while getting more deeply involved with her new girlfriend.  On top of that, because Angela’s character in Die is a cyborg, she lost her biological arm when the party returned to the real world the first time.  Where Matt seems to be a character all about how people can get battered by forces way outside their control, my initial read on Angela seems to be that her character is more subtly directed at the ways that trauma induces bad decisions.  Some of the things about her background really suck for her, and then she compounds the damage.  It’s no wonder her character’s core flaw is that short-term gains have to be prioritized over long-term goals in order to feel like an effective, contributing member of the party.  I want more complexity from her character, and I trust it will come with time, but the main thing that’s communicated through this cover and Angela’s actions up to this point is that, like Matt, she’s been dealt a bad hand, but then she’s gone and played it badly on top of that.  In the edges of this piece (and this is a motif that’s echoed in Jamie McKelvie’s alternate cover of Die #1 that features Angela as well) we see glimpses of Angela’s real world life; her arm is missing, and the cybernetic dog is flesh and blood.  She strikes me as the character most directly torn between the needs of her old life and the temptations of the game world.

Before the tale telling begins, Ash invokes the refrain of many good adventure stories: This isn’t a good idea. (Artwork by Stephanie Hans, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Because Gillen absolutely loves playing with structure, the second half of this issue is built around tales told in between the fight-y bits (and because this is a story about storytelling, Ash explicitly says that’s what’s going on).  The adventurers have survived to another day, and they’re celebrating with stories, mostly about difficult things.  The two explicit tales we get come from Dour the dwarf, who gives an example of how relentless awful Sol has been to the denizens of Die, and Matt, who talks about that awful common experience of waiting for someone who’s in the hospital to get better (because Matt is the world’s punching bag, he has a version where things are scary but turn out okay and a version where they don’t).  The third story, because things always come in threes, doesn’t actually get told in the inn; it’s interrupted by Angela having a moment of distress (I think this is where Gillen plays a small joke; Isabelle had to read aloud from her teenage diaries to a congregation of worshipers of the Mourner, one of the gods that Isabelle contracts with for miracles; there was a third story earlier, we just weren’t the audience for it).

I have been obsessed with this panel since I first saw it; I want a blown up print of it to hang on a wall. In context, this is the moment where the drinking companions sit and reflect over a particularly somber moment in the first story. (Artwork by Stephanie Hans)

The reason for Angela’s distress is her realization that she still has one ability that she’s yet to activate since returning to Die.  In the backmatter essays, Gillen discusses how he conceived of the Neo as a rogue character who’s untrustworthy specifically because of their nature as addicts.  Neo abilities are powered by Fair gold, a special substance that disappears within a day of being looted.  Angela has to have a steady supply of the stuff in order to be a contributing member of the party, but up to this point it hasn’t really been established what would compel her to risk the party’s safety to get her hands on the stuff.  The bit about the dog nails it down here.  Angela’s life is not a great one, and the allure of Die for her is clearly a combination of having her arm back and being able to access a thing she missed deeply at the time of the original disappearance: her dog.  There’s more going on here than just the sadness at losing a pet (which I understand is a really deep sort of grief for folks who are inclined to have pets); Casey’s also emblematic of the stuff that Angela had to leave behind at a too young age.  Everyone else was about sixteen when they disappeared, which is still awful, but Angela was even younger than that.  Childhood nostalgia’s a heady thing, and I can totally see now why that might be a dangerous thing for Angela to have to contend with.

I think this is the panel where the parallel between drug addicts and Neos become most apparent. We’ve learned what it is that Angela’s afraid of becoming dependent upon if she starts using her full abilities again, and it’s a justifiably scary and tempting thing. (Artwork by Stephanie Hans, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Reading “2: Players”

Second issues are always really hard to discuss in ways that I don’t typically find in either first or subsequent issues.  I think it has something to do with the way that the second issue is invariably a follow up to the big pitch of the first that leaves everyone scratching their heads and asking, “Now what?”  In the case of Die, we’ve been introduced to the concept (a group of teens got pulled into a portal fantasy world while playing a tabletop game for two years before they escaped, and now as middle aged adults they’ve been dragged back by their friend who never got over the game) and some dangling emotional hooks for all the characters that, ideally, will draw us in and make us want to know more about how they operate both as individuals and as a group.  There was a lot of time spent on the foreboding feeling that everyone has hanging over them as a consequence of this experience, with mostly just a tease of the fantastic bits at the issue’s tail end.

So I guess the “Now what?” is actually pretty easily answered with the second issue: we need to see how the characters operate in the fantasy world, and we need some additional exploration of what precisely happened to them during their two years’ absence.  The geas has been lifted, so now Ash, as our narrator, can stop playing so coy about what the heck is going on.

I expect that every part of Chuck’s ensemble exists in a quantum state of both ironic and non-ironic at all times, even when he’s being observed. (Cover by Stephanie Hans; Image credit: Comic Vine)

The cover for issue #2 features Chuck as the Fool.  Decked out in a leather jacket with “Player” emblazoned above a flaming devil’s skull on the back, a messy top knot/man bun, brass knuckles that read “CHUK,” and holding a vape device, Chuck appears to definitively be the douchiest role-player you’ve ever met.  His design is a mishmash of individual elements that might in isolation signal that he’s a pretty cool and interesting character but altogether let the reader know that at least on the surface there is very little about Chuck that needs to be taken seriously.  I suspect that like with most fools that appear in stories, there are some hidden layers that will eventually be uncovered.  For the meantime, Chuck is totally the guy who knows he’s ridiculous but is having too much fun to care that you’re all not-so-secretly judging him.  Like with Ash on the previous cover, we can glimpse Chuck’s die featured prominently (he wears his Perfectly Ordinary D6 on an earring).  I expect this will be a motif that continues through the first five issues as we get to know each of the main characters.

Ash’s powers are scary stuff; good thing she’s our narrator and therefore entirely trustworthy. (Artwork by Stephanie Hans, letters by Clayton Cowles)

The issue starts us right where it last left off (like many fine adventures tend to do) with Sol, who was revealed to be Die’s new Grandmaster (the fantasy world is also called Die because everything is better with necessary disambiguation for an extremely common term in any extended discussion of tabletop gaming) in the first issue, explains how he overthrew the previous Grandmaster and now has plans for everyone to continue playing his game.  It’s the megalomaniacal equivalent of a GM saying to their players, “Look, I know things went rough last time, but I swear, I have the best campaign planned out now.”  I immediately find myself pitying Sol’s obsession with the game and how it marks him as a child who has never had the chance to grow up.  His whole life has been Die, and he appears to have no real connection left with the real world.  The players’ insistence that they have lives they can’t just abandon makes no impression on him.  It’s a mirror image of the implications raised later in the issue when Isabelle notes that the group must behave as though Die is real regardless of its actual state of existence because the alternative is a descent into monstrous amorality.  Sol’s done the opposite; for him, the mundane world with families and jobs and responsibilities is just an inconvenient distraction.  It’s immaterial how his game has disrupted the lives of the players; what matters is that they’re here to play.  Unfortunately for the party, they have to cooperate as long as Sol doesn’t want to leave (it’s one of those, “you can leave whenever you want, but you all have to want to go” dealies).

I like how even with the minimal detail of this panel you can still tell that Chuck’s a pig, Sol’s creepy, and Dominic is the sad, sensitive type. (Artwork by Stephanie Hans, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Following the bestowal of the quest, Gillen gets into the primary purpose of the issue: some random encounters designed to show off what the characters can do and also remind us that every aspect of this fantasy world is going to be filtered through the needs, desires, and experiences of sixteen-year-olds.  It’s weaponized nostalgia where every character, every locale will be meant to elicit an awkward or wistful or whatever memory that will make someone in the party wince.  The two encounters here revolve around Ash’s sexual explorations; the first is the appearance of a generic elf queen whom Sol modeled on the girl a year ahead of him and his friends in school that they collectively lusted after.  She turns out to be a trick set up by the Fallen, Die’s generic fantasy monsters who are meant to be killed without remorse or moral reflection.  I’m not sure how to feel about the juxtaposition of guiltless slaughter with memories of a girl any of the players barely knew.  Given that Gillen makes of point of placing the girl, Maria Wardell, in the role of Helen of Troy in a production of Doctor Faustus (a detail that Ash fully considers as both on-the-nose terrible and incredibly captivating), it’s probably safe to say that he wants us to think very carefully about the implications of the Fallen, whatever their deal may be.

I do dig how even in the memories, the colors in Die are just so much more vibrant than anything seen in the real world. (Artwork by Stephanie Hans, letters by Clayton Cowles)

The other horrific memory has to do with Ash’s time in Die.  As a teenage boy, Dominic knew that he was bisexual although we don’t know up to this point if he ever explored his attraction to other boys.  In Die, as Ash, she got to do precisely that with a fling that ended with all the horrible import you expect when a teenager with the power to impose her will on anyone she likes curses her lover just before he goes off to other adventures.  At its basic level, this sequence lets us know the characters did some terrible things as teenagers in a world where they had ridiculous amounts of power and little understanding of consequences.  Thematically, it clues us in that one of the central tensions of the story will be between nostalgia (Ash’s vague but generally fond memories of a consequences-free fling) and a very adult sense of regret and horror at the carelessness of youth (the fact that her joke resulted in this dude wandering the land for decades as a sightless undead corpse that now wants her dead).  Presumably everyone in the party has some similarly messed up stuff from their last stint in Die just waiting to come up and retraumatize them all over again.

Big mood. (Artwork by Stephanie Hans, letters by Clayton Cowles)

“Do You Think, If We Hadn’t Been Given Rooms Next To Each Other, That We’d Have Ended Up Being Friends?”

The first time the football fans descended on campus at the University of Georgia my freshman year, I had one clear thought that has remained with me nearly fifteen years later: I do not want to be one of these nostalgic alumni invading student space when I get older.  At UGA, it was simply understood that six Saturdays a year, if you lived on campus, your home was commandeered to serve the wants and needs of ninety-plus thousand football fans.  Living in one of the dorms located on one of the most central quads, I awoke to see a sea of red, white, and black outside my windows on these days.  I’ve never been a fan of large crowds, and the nature of game days only exacerbated that antipathy to the point that my negative feelings spilled over into a dislike of football in general.  I’ve mellowed a bit in the intervening decade; I have generally positive feelings toward my alma mater‘s team, even if I wasn’t directly caught up in the excitement of the last football season.  Still, I’ve never forgotten that I resented having my space invaded by people who weren’t students.  Nostalgia, I figured, was for people who couldn’t get over the fact that they were past that stage of their lives.

Even though this distrust of what I termed nostalgic alumni became deeply ingrained while I was a student, I wasn’t so good about follow through after I graduated.  Rachael and I spent a couple years away from Athens, but we jumped at the chance to move back when she decided to go back to school and I got a job at a school in the area.  I mostly stayed away from campus (living in a different part of town that’s not especially popular for student housing helped), but there was always the occasional sting of nostalgia.  College can be a really special time in your life, especially when you contrast it with all the responsibilities you have as an adult.  Living in your old college town, no matter how sensible you try to be, does carry with it some danger of trying to ingratiate yourself back into campus life.  What you inevitably find, though, is that you’re getting older, the students aren’t, and gradually you find yourself having less and less in common with them.

This is okay.

Each cover features one of the characters doing something perfectly mundane, like texting while you wait for a ride, or hanging out on power lines with birds, or channeling Joan of Arc. (Cover by Lissa Treiman; Image credit: Comic Vine)

For folks who don’t want to fall into the nostalgia trap, but do want to enjoy a bit of fond reverie, there’s a comic series that can scratch that itch.  Giant Days, written by John Allison with art primarily by Lissa Treiman, is the story of three girls who become friends in their first month at university (it’s set in England, so you call college university) and then have a variety of adventures that evoke all the things you remember fondly about your own time as a practice adult.  Our protagonists are Susan, a die hard cynic; Esther, a goth party girl who subsists on drama and whimsy; and Daisy, whose home school education has imparted her with remarkable book smarts and a naivety about the world that her friends find endlessly charming.  The chief unifying factor among these friends is their proximity to one another: they all live on the same hall in their dorm.  This fact of physical closeness breeding new and interesting relationships is one of the most delightful aspects of college life that Giant Days hits on, and then it just proceeds from there.

Did I mention there’s an issue just about dealing with being sick when you’re on your own for the first time? There is, and it’s glorious. (Artwork by Lissa Treiman, colors by Whitney Cogar, letters by Jim Campbell)

The plot lines that spin out from this simple set up are incredibly low stakes affairs; while the world is a little zany, and some strange fantasy elements can wander in from time to time, the guiding ethos of the series is that it’s a story about young folks just learning about themselves and about being an adult in an environment that’s designed to let them do that learning in a relatively safe way.  No one’s ever in mortal danger, although things do turn serious on occasion (the third issue revolves around Esther being targeted for sexual harassment after the purveyors of a campus website take photos of her at a party and place her on a “Hottest First-Years” list).  These are stories about growing up, so while the tone is generally silly and lighthearted, you can’t escape some moments of gravitas.  In the same issue where Daisy celebrates her eighteenth birthday (partly by accidentally getting high on ecstasy at a club and deciding the sound of the hand dryer in the bathroom is the best song she’s ever heard) she also realizes that she’s attracted to women and gets rejected by a friend whom she hopes wanted to be more than that.  Both facets of the story are played so well, and the goofy highs (even if you’re like me and never were a hard partier in college, you probably still have some memories of moments where things got out of hand in ways you didn’t expect) only magnify the depth of the serious lows.  This series feels like a distilled version of the college experience, which makes it a perfect fit for nostalgia trips because most folks are going to remember those same extreme moments of their own matriculation much better than the mundane stuff like the homework and the reading that we all did because even then it wasn’t all fun and melodrama.

This exact shop configuration exists in Athens, except they’re stacked on top of each other. There’s a reason I find this comic so charming. (Artwork by Lissa Treiman, colors by Whitney Cogar, letters by Jim Campbell)

If this all sounds like something you think you’d relate to, you should check Giant Days out.

Our Collective ’80s Moment and Paper Girls

On a whim, I recently checked out some books from the library about comics theory and criticism.  Regular readers know that I really like reading comics, and because I have an English degree and a blog, I tend to write critiques and analyses of the things that I read.  Doing that with books and short stories is easy; I spent four years learning how to churn out a paper examining a piece of written text.  What’s more challenging for me is offering comprehensive critiques on more visual media like comics and cinema.  I can appreciate good cinematography and artwork when I see it, but I fundamentally lack the vocabulary and theoretical foundation that is necessary to speak intelligently about aspects of a creative work that don’t have to do directly with elements of story and language.

So I got some books, and I’m currently reading Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, which is one of those foundational theory books about the art form.  I’m only two chapters in, and it’s blowing my mind.  The theory that McCloud presents on the various spectra that exist between photo-realistic and cartoon artwork is stuff that feels intuitive and revolutionary to me at the same time.  I’m really excited about applying more of what I learn going forward.

In the mean time though, I’ve been thinking about another comic that I picked up because I’ve had positive experiences with the writer’s other work (like with The Wicked + The Divine and Phonogram).  Even before I was aware of Brian K Vaughan as a comics creator, I was familiar with at least a little bit of his work.  I’ve read a decent chunk of his Marvel series Runaways (this was way back when I was in grad school and what I read in comics was determined entirely by what was available at the small local library near my house back in Georgia), all of Y: The Last Man (that was a fun series to pull apart), and most of his current comics hit Saga (y’all know I love Saga, so let’s not rehash that here).  I trust Vaughan to tell a good story and work with excellent artists.

So I picked up the first volume of Paper Girls from the library.  To sum up its premise briefly, because I had no idea what it was about other than that tonally it would be reminiscent of Stranger Things, this series is about a group of girls who deliver newspapers in their neighborhood getting caught up in some weird stuff on the morning after Halloween 1988.  Some things are a little more clear by the time you get to the end of the first volume, but I honestly can’t give any more details than that without spoiling some of the fun.

According to what I’ve read in Understanding Comics, Chiang’s slightly cartoonish style helps the world of Paper Girls feel grounded in a recognizable reality but still leaves room for the reader to identify closely with the characters. (Artwork by Cliff Chiang, colors by Matt Wilson)

The fact that this is a weird ’80s story about a group of children explains the Stranger Things connection.  Eighties nostalgia is really big right now, and it’s clear that Vaughan and his co-creator Cliff Chiang are cashing in on that trend a little bit in Paper Girls.  Thankfully, Vaughan and Chiang are smart enough to avoid the pure nostalgia that seems to underpin various other ’80s throwback endeavors like Ready Player One (which I haven’t read, but have heard much discussion thereof) and Stranger Things.  This is a work that does not view the ’80s through rose-tinted glasses, with small nods here and there to the social conservatism of the time that made things miserable for a lot of people who weren’t in the American mainstream.  Furthermore, Vaughan and Chiang set out to center an Asian-American girl, Erin, as the series’s protagonist with a supporting cast of other girls from Erin’s neighborhood.  You generally get enough of those small touches to let you know that this is not going to be a simple rehash of what some thirty-something white dude loved most about his childhood.

All of that is particularly refreshing since I’m personally very much over the “I love the ’80s” moment that we’re having in pop culture right now.  I joked with some friends that I’ll be all in on ’90s nostalgia in a few years as long as it only consists of pastiches of the Nicktoon Doug, but otherwise I’m not exactly loving the nostalgic moment that we’re experiencing presently.  It seems like we’re collectively retreating into the sort of reverie that Alan Moore discusses through Adrian Veidt in Watchmen as a way for societies in troubled times to cope with all the stress of the present.  I shudder to think what sort of nostalgia we’ll be dealing with in thirty years for the ’10s.

“Nostalgia Is an Emotion for People With No Future”

I’m pretty taken with Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s currently running series, The Wicked + The Divine.  I’ve read the first three trades, and I’m very strongly inclined towards getting the fourth in a few weeks once our stuff has arrived and our apartment is finally fully settled.  In the meantime, I have library books, and today’s selection is a thematic precursor to Gillen and McKelvie’s current work: their 2006 series Phonogram.

More specifically, I’m looking at the series’ first trade, Rue Britannia, which is something of a murder mystery wrapped up in a meditation on identity, nostalgia, and a bunch of music junk that is way outside my realm of expertise.

If you’re just a fan of Gillen and McKelvie’s storytelling style, whereby they throw you into a first world fantasy with virtually no context and then take multiple issues to help you figure out the basic rules of the universe, all while making you feel like they’re doing something really intelligent that’s just every so slightly going over your head, then Phonogram delivers that in spades.  It’s honestly a very similar feeling to what I had the first time I read the first trade of Wicked + Divine, but this story feels even more esoteric since it’s all about music hipsters who are also magicians and the one that we’re following is really into a music scene that is intensely local to a specific time and place.  Gillen and McKelvie, when they’re working together, are unapologetically British, and while the general pop-star-as-deity concept is easy enough to relate to in Wicked + DivinePhonogram‘s first arc dares you to try to make sense of its context without having experienced early ’90s Britpop.

That task is all but impossible for someone like me who grew up listening exclusively to country music in the ’90s, but I’m not one to shy away from a work by a creative team that has already impressed me.  Consequently, it’s fair to say that I don’t know much of anything about the stuff that the protagonist, David Kohl, discusses as he goes about trying to figure out why the collective memory of ’90s Britpop is suddenly changing and taking his sense of identity along with it.

Kohl is your typical anti-hero protagonist; he’s petty, insular, incredibly asocial, and a raging sexist.  We meet him in the first issue as he’s arriving at a feminist arts festival where he intends to try to meet a fellow phonomancer whom he admires and also where he hopes to get laid by impressing someone with his remarkably skilled analysis of any and all music that gets played at the venue where he’ll be trolling.  His internal monologue is obnoxious from the first panel, and he’s self aware enough to regularly point out just how unlikable he is supposed to be.  Part of it is supposed to be ironic affectation, but like most things left over from the ’90s and ’00s, uncritical irony does not age well.  David’s self awareness is supposed to ingratiate him to us as the protagonist, but I honestly didn’t find him appealing as a character until issue five or six of this arc, which is a sight late to get your reader invested in your protagonist.

This is not how David Kohl looks most of the time, but it is an accurate representation of how he seems himself from a decade ago. (Art by Jamie McKelvie, letters by Drew Gill)

Despite that, David does eventually develop some worthiness of sympathy.  It comes after he goes through a lot of self reflection over how he’s been terrible to lots of women and after we learn more about the stakes of Britpop’s collective retcon.  In the world of Phonogram, a person’s identity is strongly tied to their nostalgia for a specific musical movement.  David, for some reason that even he doesn’t appear to fully grok, is rooted in ’90s Britpop.  Allowing its history to be rewritten will carry the very personal consequence of rewriting David into someone else.  We see what this effect looks like in other characters, like Beth, who has been severed from her nostalgia for the movement and now has no emotional connection to music that she used to love, and Emily, a phonomancer in David’s coven who dropped her attachment to Britpop hard in order to fashion a newer, more powerful persona.  They’re different ends of the same spectrum, and David is stuck in the middle where he’d rather not change at all.

At its core, this arc of Phonogram is deeply interested with that question of how nostalgia influences and shapes our identity.  David is a terrible protagonist that we get to know far better than we’d really like, and there are a lot of things about his personality that are absolutely worth chucking in the bin; nonetheless, he is a complex character with a messy, fleshy personality and it’s easy to sympathize with his desire to remain as complex as he is.  The connection with nostalgia in particular is the really interesting hook though; much of David’s self examination revolves around his recognition that he was objectively a worse person in his past than he is in his present.  He’s grown, but he still needs to be anchored to a point of reference that he can look back on.  Perhaps what’s so befuddling is that his nostalgia isn’t rose-colored at all; where it’s tragic that Beth was forcibly cut off from her ghost (she can’t even take a little bit of pleasure in reminders of a formerly important part of her life), David seems like he would be happier without all that baggage.  As he’s busy investigating what’s going on, he whinges constantly about Britpop and its aggressive shallowness all while reveling in how much he hates who he used to be.  The story’s theory of nostalgia seems to revolve around the feeling as an uncomplicated, glossed over sort of memory for either better or worse.  David wants his memories to be complex, and the rewriting of what ’90s Britpop was terrifies him because it softens the image he has of himself.

All in all, I don’t think that Phonogram is quite as good as The Wicked + The Divine.  It’s from an earlier decade, by a less experienced creative team, with a concept that’s designed to feel esoteric to anyone outside a very specialized subset of readers.  Parts of what happens still don’t make sense after some reflection.  Still, it’s entertaining, and like its conceptual successor, Phonogram does a lot to get you pondering interesting and unusual questions.  It’s worth a look.

Pardon Our Progress

I’ve been on summer break for two weeks now, and what I have discovered in that time is that the process of preparing for a cross-country move and the need to recover from that preparation really eats into my time.  Given that, this is notice that my blogging schedule is going to be extremely sporadic over the next month-and-a-half-ish.  The hope right now is to be settled in Portland by the end of July, but there’s still a few details that are unsettled regarding when we’ll have access to our apartment which keeps me from knowing a definite date.  Nonetheless, I wanted to mention this because I didn’t want it to seem like I was just falling off the face of the earth this summer.

For anyone curious about more specific updates, I can say at this point that Rachael and I have both secured job offers in school districts where we think we’ll be happy working next year.  Our expected income looks like it’s going to be pretty comfortable for the two of us, and we expect that we’ll spend this first year in Portland just getting to know the city and figuring out what areas look like good places to live long term.  We’re excited about the prospect of the cooler climate, and we’re hoping that the abundant natural beauty in Oregon will be incentive enough for us to go enjoy outdoor activities more (we both like being active outside, but the climate in Georgia makes the outdoors uncomfortably hot in the summer when we have the most free time).  There’s a gorgeous city park in walking distance of where we’re planning to live that we hope to frequent regularly.  We’re also just excited at the prospect of doing actual city living for once; we’ve lived in the suburbs pretty much our entire adult lives, and while we’re comfortable with that sort of community setup, we’d like to see what it’s like in a more concentrated community.

Of course, moving to an urban setting involves a lot of downsizing since the apartment we’re renting is probably about half the size of our current home.  The last two weeks have been largely preoccupied with sorting through our belongings, determining what we want to keep and what we want to get rid of (we have runs to the local Goodwill for donation drop offs down to a science).  We’re also in the process of figuring out what to do with the furniture that we can’t bring with us.  If things go well, we expect that we’re going to be living in significantly sparser environs for the last two weeks of our current lease as we give a lot of furniture to members of my family.  This broad umbrella of figuring out how to dispose of items in our house has been the single biggest time sink of the last two weeks (we thought that might be job hunting at first, but then we both got offers that we liked within the space of a week).  There’s also all the logistical planning that goes into pulling off a move as well (I’m really looking forward to getting our apartment lease settled this week so I can schedule end dates on our utilities).  It’s a lot of stuff, and days are often very full as a result.  By the time we stop working, Rachael and I both typically just want to veg in front of the TV watching The Office (we’ve binged through nearly four seasons in a week now, and we’re planning on continuing right on into the show’s final seasons which are, to be polite, not as good as its heyday).  So that’s why so much radio silence on the blog.

It’s not all drudgery though; part of cleaning house is finding stuff that you’d forgotten you still had and enjoying the memories that come with it.  This weekend Rachael and I cleaned out our cabinet of Dungeons & Dragons materials from a campaign that we ran for each other about six years ago.  It’s super geeky, because we set the whole thing in a fantastical version of Anglo-Saxon Great Britain around 800 CE.  We had this whole grand scheme to follow the adventures of the characters who were meant to be the ancestors of some big epic heroes we had vaguely imagined.  There were maps and adventure notes and mounds of character sheets (I think we created about ten unique player characters for this campaign that was just played by the two of us, plus characters for some friends of ours that we attempted to bring in on one very ill-fated gaming night; there were dragons and curses that prevented folks from not being able to get drunk and more than a little bit of petty thievery; unfortunately, we didn’t get to carry on that gaming group).  It’s a big pile of old papers, and it doesn’t make sense to take all that stuff with us to Portland, but I am a softy for that stuff (I wrote four NaNoWriMo novels set in that universe), so I spent an afternoon scanning all the documents into a massive PDF that is now safely nestled on one of my archival hard drives.  I might never look at it again, but it’s there in the event that I get the itch to review old campaign stuff for another round of tabletop gaming.

Anyway, that’s the sort of stuff that’s been going on around here while I have not been blogging.  I’ll try to drop updates when I can, but in the meantime, know that I have not given up on this space; I’m just trying to get my meatspace in order first.