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Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Tag Archives: Fantagraphics Books

When I received a review copy of Estrada’s Alienation last June, I liked it so much that I contacted the publisher for permission to include four pages in the anthology section of Leigh Ann Beaver’s and my forthcoming textbook Creating Comics (Bloomsbury 2020). Here’s why:

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Maybe 2054 won’t be so bad. Press a button and a fully prepared meal appears. Nap while your bed-shaped car drives you to work. Answer calls without picking up a phone. Let your Googleland brain implant monitor and adjust your chemical health, while McBody takes care of the rest. Watch a livefeed of the solar eclipse in the privacy of your own VR. Attend a Jimi Hendrix concert. Travel to fantastical landscapes and transform into impossible creatures. Have polar bear sex. Have snail sex. Set your implant to methelendioxymethamphetamine mode.

There are some downsides too. The north pole is floating in the center of the Arctic Ocean. All the pizzas and tacos and sushi you’re eating are made from fungus because most animals are extinct and nuclear waste poisoned the oceans that flooded the coasts. The world supply of oil will run out in a few years, and you were just laid off from the last refinery that wasn’t run by robots. Unpredictable extreme storms have eliminated all air travel. You stopped playing Call of Duty because the advanced levels may be secretly hooked to military drones for actual combat missions run by the government. Commercials happen directly to you, with annoying company mascots literally in your face. The content is suggested by your recent thoughts. Oh, and that livefeed of the solar eclipse was from a Starbucks satellite orbiting above permanent clouds of pollution.

This dystopic future is the product of Inés Estrada’s disturbingly plausible imagination, beamed indirectly into readers’ heads via the antiquated analog technology of ink and paper. When her characters Eliza and Charly logout from the solar eclipse, Estrada draws the Starbucks logo flashing inside their eyes. Readers just have to turn the page. The physicality of the book is always an appeal of graphic novels, but it is rarely so thematically critical to the story it contains. Eliza and Charly are trapped in an alienatingly virtual reality while we view them inside Estrada’s 3×2 comics grids.

That two-worldness plays out the level of style too. Estrada typically draws Eliza and Carlos as rudimentary cartoons, the lines of their bodies, like the lines of their apartment walls, containing little crosshatched detail. They’re literally and metaphorically empty. But when they go online, Estrada upgrades the CGI to detailed naturalism. Eliza floats in layers of meticulously inked cloud banks, the progression of their evolving shapes receiving their own page grid of near abstraction. When she gazes at her reflection in a forest pond, the surrounding vegetation approaches photorealism.

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Estrada captures the quality of light reflected off of gently bobbing water as Charly floats, every kink of his hair precisely etched. When they are talking in their apartment, Estrada renders their bodies with sack-like simplicity, their anatomy more implied than shown. But when virtually floating underwater, the careful contours of their forms reveal the depth of Estrada’s drawing skill.

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Though their real world is less real than their virtual worlds, Estrada breaks that norm at key moments. The two-page spread of Charly’s bayside oil refinery and the remaining fragments of polar ice surrounding it are as detailed as anything in their VR escapades. And Charly’s full-page commute through the raised highways looping through edge-to-edge skyscrapers of once-rural Prudhoe Bay, Alaska is too.

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In contrast, Eliza never physically leaves their apartment, while working as a unicorn-horned, thong-bikinied, virtual porn star. If Estrada were a male artist, I might have found the porn choice exploitive, but she seems fully aware of and in charge of her novel’s politics. As one of Eliza’s NPC (non-player character) friends says, “Most AI are misogynists, just like the humans who programmed them.” That also helps to explain why all of the NPG characters in the virtual dance club are white people. As Eliza’s porn avatar dances, talk balloons from unseen viewers ask, “What’s your ethnicity?” (she’s Inuit), and offer to “pay u to fix your teeth.” Her grandfather calls her (by his hand-held cell phone) about the bad omen of a beached whale, extending their tribe’s colonization by Europeans and their descendants to the level of technological exploitation as their bodies are invaded by artificial organs.

Like Estrada, Charly is from Mexico. When he virtually visits home, half of the dialogue is in Spanish with footnote translations breaking the narrative flow for monolingual readers such as myself. It’s a smart choice because it pushes against the kind of effortless absorption that the virtual technology represents. Sometimes it’s good to have to work harder.

The footnotes also include the proto-links of choose-your-own-adventure technology, with six of the virtual scenes ending with a direction to “Return to pages 86-87” where the two-page spread offers a mid-story table-of-contents of the time-killing activities Eliza and Charly employ while waiting out the most recent storm. Only this time the storm waits out them when they lose internet connection for days. This result is boredom, actual rather than virtual sex, and, most importantly, dreams—the original, biological version of VR.

The problem is Eliza and Charly have already been having trouble distinguishing what is real and not real, and whether the distinction still means anything. Charly’s violent past has been haunting him in hallucinogenic flashes of Eliza’s corpse (a fear that briefly comes true). Estrada explores the theme at the meta level too, with Eliza asking, “Why do I feel like I’m still being watched?” (because she is, by us). Later she notices the fourth wall of her own comics panel and climbs out of the grid and into the open page—only to startle herself awake. More subtlety but weirdly, she refers to one of her earlier virtual adventures (an unfortunately R. Crumb-esque pornographic one) as something she read in a comic—which it was for readers, but not for her.

There’s a central plotline involving Eliza’s brain transplant getting hacked and the world’s A.I.s searching for a human host to create a hybrid biological/artificially-conscious baby. Though Estrada’s glossary-like endnotes assure readers “Don’t take anything too seriously, after all …. this is just a comic!,” she also refers to the “current exponential development of AI,” and, oddly sandwiched between the copyright and ISBN notices, “Climate change is real. The earth is alive and we’re killing her. Technology is not the enemy: oppression, greed, & exploitation are.”

It’s a fitting final word to her not-so futuristic dystopia.

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[A version of this post and my other recent reviews appear in the Comics section of PopMatters.]

 

 

 

 

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The “O” is for “Olivier”—or possibly “Olver,” or the nickname “Oly,” or even “Ooh-lee,” depending on which of O. Schrauwen’s Parallel Lives you’re inclined to believe. The Flemish artist-writer goes by “Ollie” at his blog, but that real-world identity isn’t one of the six featured in his (or sometimes her) collection of genre-interrogating science fiction tales. These varied Schaurwens are abducted by aliens, cryogenically frozen and reanimated, stalked by a mysterious Mr. Yellow, contacted through time-travel video broadcasts, and cartoonified and later trolled via cerebral cortex nanocomputers.

They also have a lot of sex. One futuristic Schrauwen experiences an alien “miniature iron maiden” designed to collect his semen to breed hybrid alien-human children. Another has sex with his estranged girlfriend while running a Cartoonify program that makes him feel like a “virtuoso balloon animal artist, showing off his tricks.” Yet another, stranded on an alien planet without their hormone-regulating meditrons and hypersexual-field group sexotron, tries two-person, genitalic sex, which they and their partner find “far inferior” with an “uneventful build-up” and a “superficial” orgasm.

Despite the sometimes literal focus on genitalia, these stories of “O” are far from erotica. The actual Schrauwen is playfully undermining not just genre, but gender too. Though the large-breasted Ooh-lee has a penis, she is a she, and though the reanimated Olivier is exploring the “archaic notion of the self,” they and their companions understand themselves as sexual and yet genderless “organs in a body.”

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If these future worlds sound dystopic, the effect is more utopic—at least in contrast to the contemporary norms they critique. While lampooning sex, Schrauwen also mocks the related gender roles of traditional science fiction tropes. The sixth and longest tale is a riff on Tarzan, with Olivier having to explain to his girlfriend, “I am the hero here; you’re a woman with an uneven chest, and of no consequence to the story.” They both laugh uproariously, before she remarks how odd it is that the hero in “ancient adventure stories” is so often alone, since “group-heroism seems more enjoyable and meaningful.”

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Schrauwen delves even deeper into the comics form, using each story to interrogate some norm readers otherwise take for granted. While “Greys” refers to grey-skinned aliens, the story is rendered entirely in grey tones, as Schrauwen introduces himself as a graphic novelist presenting a personal memoir using yet another kind of grey: “I chose to tell this story in the comics form [because] I believe that precisely in this grey area—the overlap between what can be said with words and what’s best shown with images—lies the language that can truly convey the profound mystery of the events.” Of course, Schaurwen—meaning either his narrating pseudo-self or the actual author—conveys nothing of the sort, offering an absurdly abstract sketch as a supposed “visual approximation of the fear he felt” because his emotions are “best expressed in a more abstract way.” He also enjoys the occasional visual metaphor, with an erupting volcano illustrating “I came.” Despite drawing correspondingly blank panels for gaps in his memory, he still concludes with the ”hope that by working in the comics medium I have managed to shed light on particularities that would be impossible to convey in any other medium.”

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“Cartoonify” pushes the stylistic norms of that medium further by literalizing artistic effects through the sci-fi premise of a downloadable brain app. When Schrauwen is running Cartoonify, “small details—moles, dimples—have disappeared. Other, more pronounced physical traits seem exaggerated,” making it “much easier to find his way around this simplified body.” The images vary according to how high a “level of cartoonishness” each character prefers, reducing dangerous physical injuries to bloodless bumps and emotional relationships to superficial entertainment. The analysis can be applied to any comic drawn anywhere along the continuum of extreme caricature to photorealism, with each artistic choice defining the psychological effect of its content on a reader.

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“The Scatman” offers a similar sci-fi analysis of the word-half of comics image-texts. The transgender Schrauwen suffers from a troll who hacks into her brain hardware and “acts like a narrator. Like a writer telling my life story.” When her friend responds, “So it’s telling you what you’re doing, while you’re doing it, in a prosaic way?” Schrauwen is critiquing the redundancy of comics that use words and images to express the same idea simultaneously—a norm of Golden Age comics and often an unfortunately continuous trend in many since. It’s no coincidence that this Schrauwen unmasks her tormenter while singing nonsense syllables on stage.

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“Space Bodies” continues the critique, as the next narrating Schrauwen explains that he is “Storytelling”: “I’m relaying what is happening to me in the form of a first-person narrative,” which is recorded by an omni-cam and sent “back in time and converted to an ancient medium”—literally the comic book in the reader’s hand. “Hello” interrogates the comics grid by using a gutterless 6×4 layout that variously expands into larger panels by eliminating the single frame line separating images. “Mister Yellow” instead employs a similar but rigid 10×7 grid, telling its entire story in 140 panels that span only two pages. “Cartoonify,” in contrast, includes only 90 panels, but spreads them across ten pages.

Taken together, Schrauwen literally draws attention to the basic building blocks of comics, science fiction, and our cultural sexual norms. While it’s rare for a creator to address even one of these underlying structures of form, genre, or gender, Schrauwen and his team of parallel selves tackle all three.

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[A version of this post and my other recent reviews appear in the Comics section of PopMatters.]

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