Disconnected Tales: Contrasting Ken Liu’s Original and Translated Works

While I was growing up, the Chinese realm of my life was wholly separate from the English one. The two only overlapped when I struggled to find the Chinese word for an object I knew in English. In one memorable instance in fifth grade, I pointed to a plug and struggled for ten minutes, failing to conjure up the proper Chinese noun.

Ken Liu’s original fiction shares some of that same disconnection.

As a Chinese person, I am used to reading about the Chinese experience in Chinese. When read in English, the natural experience turns into a cultural performance put on for the Western audience. Reading Liu’s “The Paper Menagerie” feels as if the entire story was tinged with the sort of mysticism associated with the ‘Far East’. The fantasy elements seemed like unnatural, deliberate uses of ethnicity, intended to provoke a specific reaction from an audience that looks upon Chinese culture as if it were something to be gawked at in a zoo.

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Image from npr.org

The addition of Chinese words and sentences in the piece may make it seem more authentic, but to me, it was simply awkward. I would constantly try to switch to the convention and flow of the Chinese language, attempting to read the few parts written in Chinese the way I would read a typical Chinese sentence. The English context simply doesn’t afford the leisure of doing so, however, and the smattering of Romanized Chinese plopped starkly into the middle of a completely English piece is ineffective and jarring.

A much smoother and more entertaining read is Liu’s translation of “Balin” by Chen Qiufan. Since Chen had been writing in Chinese for a Chinese audience, the reading experience seems much more natural and lacks the discomfort of cultural performance. Despite this, the translation did bring me out of the story at times. Certain words and phrases stand out (“joss sticks”; “it was like discussing music theory with a cud-chewing cow”), as these nouns and expressions are idiosyncratic to the Chinese written language. At these points, I couldn’t help but re-translate the English text and imagine what the original Chinese would have sounded like.

Personal feelings regarding the mechanics of language and translation aside, Liu’s writing in his original fiction is plain and straightforward. Even at the most emotional moments in the story, his descriptions are precise statements of fact intended to provoke feeling as an afterthought. Emotions aren’t described by Liu; they manifest in the actions of the characters. While he is the director that sets everything in motion, the quality of experience depends entirely on the interpretation of the reader. We are given the reins to characterize each of his figures throughout his story.

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Image from twitter.com/ShimmerProgram

In contrast to Liu’s own directness, Chen’s fiction is descriptive to the point of scientific precision. In a sense, Chen’s words read as Chinese. I cannot say that I have read as many Chinese works as I have English, but in my limited scope I have found vivid descriptions of colour and other sensory details to be more common in Chinese writing. Liu’s translation therefore seems clinically faithful to Chen’s original writing, and he seems to have preserved a lot of Chen’s authorial voice.

Yet Liu’s presence as translator is acutely felt. The traces of his sentence style and spacing act like a gloss of varnish over the short story. He favours short sentences and statement-like descriptions, again leaving the reader to make independent judgments that are guided only by snapshots of the scene. Not having read Chen’s original text, I cannot tell if these choices are Liu’s own preferences coming out in his translation, or aspects already existent in the original.

Reading Ken Liu’s original and translated works has been a puzzling experience, as I reconcile my culture with my education. It has made me realize that many beloved genres, such as fantasy, can take on a completely other dimension when presented in a different language. While I do not anticipate reading more Ken Liu anytime soon, I will most definitely be looking into Chen Qiufan’s original works in Chinese.

-Contributed by Stephanie Gao

Mulan Takes The Bechdel Test

Did I love Disney princesses? Of course I did. We all did. Don’t even try to lie. Everyone is an 8-year-old at some point in their lives.

It probably would have been a healthy obsession in my case—stopping after a few cute Halloween costumes, some fairly awkward conversations with animals, and an assortment of charming husbands—had it not been for Mulan.

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Image from http://vignette1.wikia.nocookie.net/

Fa Mulan.

Sigh…

I knew there was no going back from the moment I first watched it. I went from wearing plastic tiaras to whacking my brothers with sticks faster than you can say, “The Huns have invaded China.” Maybe it was the lucky cricket. Maybe it was the silly grandmother. It was probably Mushu. But I like to think that it was watching Mulan discover herself with a sword in hand, rather than in ballroom slippers.

Let’s fast-forward (a shamefully small amount of time) to the present.

Now that I am much older and think about things (before hitting them with sticks), I have long since come to the conclusion that I was merely drawn to a strong, empowered female character. Done. That was easy.

Events transpired, however.

I recently stumbled upon something called the Bechdel Test, which is an unofficial measure of female portrayal in films.

Here is a 20-second history to get you up to speed:

The Bechdel Test was invented by Alison Bechdel and came from a comic titled “The Rule” in her series Dykes to Watch Out For (pictured here).

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Image from http://dykestowatchoutfor.com

A movie must meet three very simple criteria in order to pass:

  1. It must have two female characters (with names)
  2. They must have a conversation with each other
  3. That conversation must be about something other than a man

It sounds laughably easy to pass, but it turns out that 69% of IMDB’s top films fail that simple little test.

I’ll admit I was doubtful. I read through page after page about it.

I bet you have a favourite movie, they said. Look it up, they said. YOU WILL BE SUPPRISED BY WHAT DOESN’T PASS, they said.

So I looked it up. I saw a little green check mark next to Mulan. Hah, thought I, and gave my laptop a smug little smile. I was confident in my superior judgement. I was about to move on when the words “although dubious” caught my eye.

Dubious? DUBIOUS?!

How could Mulan be dubious? She was the pinnacle of female kickassery, the definition of feisty and unafraid, a raw, unadulterated shock of battle tactics and brute force with some kooky chicken feeding methods to boot. What could possibly be lacking?

Well, it seems that the female conversation was very scant in Mulan. Yes, there was some chit-chat between female ancestors, but they were unnamed. Yes, there was some mother/daughter/grandmother musical numbers, but those all circled around getting ready for the matchmaker to find a good husband. And yes, the protagonist was FEMALE but get this: Mushu had more lines in the film than Mulan did.

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Image from https://metrouk2.files.wordpress.com

Here’s how the movie scraped by:

Fa Li: I should have prayed to the ancestors for luck.
Grandmother Fa: How lucky can they be? They’re dead. Besides, I’ve got all the luck we’ll need.
Fa Li: Grandma, no!
Grandmother Fa: Yep! This cricket’s a lucky one! 

How progressive for the dark ages of 1998.

So I re-watched Mulan and came to the conclusion that in terms of women’s representation, it’s far from perfect. But then again, so is the Bechdel Test.

Although there was an utter lack of meaningful, non-male-related conversations between women in the movie, it’s not a stretch to attribute some of that to the largely (and in this case logically) male cast. Not to mention that this test doesn’t take into account the historical context, in which Mulan shows considerable independence and strength of character compared to the rest of the female cast as well as her fellow warriors. So perhaps this test is superficial, but it’s not entirely wrong.

Re-watching Mulan, I realized it wasn’t the perfect embodiment of female power I once believed it to be. Mulan says very few noteworthy things over the course of the movie, and the speaking parts are all largely male. Mulan is fighting for the greater glory of China, but the victory of the movie is more about winning the Emperor’s and her father’s approval, and Li Shang’s admiration.

I’m sad to say that I could summarize Mulan by saying, “Girl pretends to be a man, girl successfully blends in and is a very good man, girl wins huge victory for China and is offered a place as a woman in a man’s world but rejects it to return to domesticity. Then girl gets boy.”

That being said, for me, this movie will always be full of important victories: the cross-dressing imperial army, a Disney princess in armour, the most flattering of compliments (“Um… you… fight good.”), and an unlikely girl showing up all the boys.

But maybe I’ll make room for new heroes.

-Contributed by Katie Schmidt

How Dark Souls Taught Me to Close-Read

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All images in this post are the author’s personal screenshots of his Dark Souls playthroughs.

 

Like any English undergrad, I’ve been lectured on the concept of close-reading by nearly every professor I’ve encountered. During discussions of how to find meaning by picking apart the form and content of a text, I’ve often found myself thinking about Dark Souls. At the time, I almost felt ashamed for thinking about a video game rather than a novel. But after a year of considering the game’s analytical potential, I’ve realized that Dark Souls had taught me how to close-read long before I was even given a definition for the term.

Created by developer FromSoftware, Dark Souls has garnered both acclaim and criticism for its lack of guidance and difficult combat. Many who play Dark Souls would describe it as a masochistic dark fantasy game with a dry narrative that barely ventures into the foreground. Those people are partially right, and on my first few attempts to play the game I agreed with them. I dismissed Dark Souls as flawed and inaccessible and left the game on my shelf to gather dust.

What changed my opinion was the Souls Community. This collective of YouTubers, bloggers, Reddit threads, wikis, and many other Internet venues had undertaken the task of analyzing and interpreting Dark Souls and its sequels. After immersing myself in essays and videos dedicated to the game’s narrative and gameplay, I had to give it a second chance. After all, how could I dismiss the patterns clearly seen by so many others?

All I had to do was change my expectations. The second time I played Dark Souls, I didn’t expect it to provide me with a prominent narrative coupled with a challenging yet railroaded gameplay experience. In other words, I had to realize it wasn’t designed like so many other modern roleplaying games. It was designed to be a lot deeper than that.

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The dying world of Lordran is filled with secrets.

This time, I experienced the game step by step. I overcame its merciless combat by realizing that its gameplay rewarded patience. Those who rushed in expecting instant gratification were inevitably given a grey screen with the words “YOU DIED”. By being patient, I saw the holes in my enemies’ attack patterns, allowing me to turn the fight to my advantage. I then applied this philosophy to its obscure story, and I came away amazed at the level of detail the creators had woven into its minimalistic world.

On the surface, Lordran (the setting of Dark Souls) is just another medieval fantasy world with knights, demons, gods, and dragons. There is a fallen kingdom to reclaim and heck, there is even a princess to save. It’s only when you start examining your environment, reading item descriptions, and making the connections between them that you start to decipher the game’s lore. That’s when you realize that the “monster” you killed was just defending the grave of her long dead master; that the princess and the kingdom of sunlight to which you pledged your fealty were just illusions created by a lonely deity of the moon; that the dark portal you were dragged through didn’t actually bring you to a new location, it just put you back in the same place several hundreds of years in the past.

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Ravenous beast or loyal guardian?

Any other game would just give the player all of this information in cutscenes, long expository dialogue, or big chunks of text. But instead of telling, Dark Souls shows the player the aftermath of these events and expects them to take the initiative to make sense of it all. This game expects a patient, attentive, and skeptical player, and if you meet the game on its own terms it will reward you for your efforts.

Nevertheless, there are always gaps in the story that the player will have to interpret for themselves. While other games may provide every question they raise with a canonical answer, Dark Souls revels in its fragments and provides the player with just enough evidence to evoke narratives and themes that they have to interpret on their own.

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But can you really trust an old withered snake?

While part of close-reading involves discovering a text’s hidden meanings, the rest is all about the interpretation of what you’ve discovered. Your interpretation is the “so what?” that gives your findings an actual purpose. This is why people still continue to interpret and reinterpret the lore of Dark Souls. Like any dense text, Dark Souls provided me with multiple layers of understanding to critically analyze in order to discover evidence to fuel my own interpretations.

The game never explicitly told me to do this. Instead I was led to this path through its combat, which taught me to be aware of the details and to take things slowly. Then, when I discovered that its item descriptions suggested the existence of unseen narratives, I felt encouraged to gather evidence and come up with my own conclusions. In lecture, you may close-read a text simply because the professor told you to do so. But Dark Souls convinced me that in order to enjoy the game for what it was, close-reading was my best option.

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The player interprets the ruins of Lordran like how the reader interprets the text. Both are proactive users of the present trying to comprehend what came before them.

I’m sure many people have discovered the concept of close-reading through complex novels or other works that require critical analysis. For them, those works are what pop-up in their thoughts whenever the topic is brought up. Since Dark Souls has come to occupy that space in my thoughts, I’ve begun to wonder when video games will become a valid medium of study. When will the first courses on close-reading video games begin? When will the first person graduate with a major in video game studies? The international success of Dark Souls has shown that there is a demand for this kind of game. This means that developers are likely to produce such games in the future, and perhaps even find new ways to increase their depth and complexity.

While I think Dark Souls came out far too early to be regarded as a subject of professional study, I’m sure that the Souls Community will continue to discover new interpretations of this game’s vast textual world. Hopefully, that will be enough for future video game scholars to recognize Dark Souls as part of a vanguard that led the medium into the realm of professional study.

-Contributed by Lawrence Stewen

Enter the Raccoon

I would never have known about the existence of Enter the Raccoon if it wasn’t for Beatriz Hausner herself, who came in as a plenary speaker for the Vic One program. Surrealism is clearly not the most popular genre, and the science-oriented students could be seen smirking quietly. But it was undeniable that, once she began to read, a trance-like quality in Hausner’s voice took hold of the entire auditorium. In that moment, I wasn’t quite sure whether it was the way in which she read or the words themselves. I only knew that I wanted to read more of her work and see if I could experience such a feeling on my own.

The results were indeed replicable, although I did learn one significant thing: Enter the Raccoon isn’t the type of book you’d want to read on a subway ride, for the wandering eyes of nearby passengers might occasionally be shocked by what they come across. The collection traces the love affair of the narrator and a human-like raccoon, with a particular emphasis on the sexual side of the relationship.

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The prose poems interchange: a piece that furthers the reader’s understanding of the love affair may be immediately followed by a poem that has a very journal-like quality to it, discussing things such as artwork in a museum, a popular Chilean TV show, or the way in which raccoons act as carriers for diseases. It’s strange to describe and feels equally strange while reading, yet there is an allure to the poems that makes it impossible to put the book down.

Despite the raccoon’s description as not only human-like in stature but also possessing several mechanical limbs, the relationship he shares with the narrator is not far from the kinds one might encounter on a daily basis. It is possible that one might have experienced something similar in the past.

The wordplay and riddles that the two lovers exchange are perhaps tamer than the act of leaving and staying that categorizes modern relationships. There is always a sense of sitting on the very edge, wondering whether the relationship will continue or end, and on what note the latter would happen. Most significantly, there is an element of nostalgia present even when Raccoon and the speaker are together, as if there is a much greater emotional and psychological rift between them.

While this half of the collection may be less accessible to some readers, the other half makes up for it quite easily. Hausner mentions Amy Winehouse several times, and the event of her death is recent enough for the impact to still be palpable. These moments also act as an invitation for the reader to take a glimpse at the poet’s internal thought process.

The technique of automatic writing in these rather personal and at times rather informative pieces is what brings out the other side of surrealism; the much less outlandish one that counteracts the sheer bizarreness of reading about the relationship of a human woman and a human-like raccoon. These other poems still manage to transport the reader into a deeper exploration of the self-conscious by remaining rooted in present day scenarios and factual events.

Either way, Enter the Raccoon never stops exerting its weird charm. It also isn’t the type of collection that one can easily pick up and dive into. Rather, it requires a proper mood or mindset (or a ridiculous sugar high, take your pick). It successfully demonstrates that the fantastically bizarre isn’t as bizarre as one may think, successfully pairing it with real-life examples that create a transient state that is no less odd but enticing.

-Contributed by Margaryta Golovchenko

Anybody Can Be a Hero

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Image from gameranx.com

Heroes never die!” – Mercy

Released in May 2016 by Blizzard Entertainment, Overwatch is a team-based first-person shooter (FPS) that has quickly taken centre-stage in the gaming world. In a landscape already saturated with FPS games, what makes this one so different?

Perhaps a successful new IP was to be expected from the developers of Warcraft, Starcraft, and Diablo. But what makes Overwatch unique, is that it appeals to diverse audiences with its similarly diverse content, a hard find in an industry still dominated by white male developers who cater primarily to gamers like themselves.

Overwatch has garnered an avid fan-base and a burgeoning competitive scene, surpassing 30 million players as of April 2017 across PC, PS4, and Xbox One. It has also amassed an intriguing collection of lore that spans across a variety of mediums.

Set on a futuristic Earth where robots (known in-universe as Omnics) have gained sentience and turned against humanity, the original “Overwatch” organization was an international task-force that ended the war, kept the peace, and tried to prevent new crises from arising. As with most powerful global organizations, however, corruption soon tore it apart and ended its official operation. The game’s main timeline begins after the fall of Overwatch, when ex-member Winston—a scientist and gorilla who was raised on the moon—recalls the old team to face the new threats to the world.

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Image from nowloading.com

As a class-based shooter like Team Fortress 2, Overwatch features heroes who each have their own role to play on the team. However, Overwatch takes its narrative aspect much farther, incorporating unique skills and abilities that are rooted in each hero’s backstory. From Tracer, a spunky British pilot who can blink through time; to D.Va, a South Korean eSports idol in her tanky mech; to Lucio, a black Brazilian DJ and freedom fighter who supports the team through sound waves; to Bastion, a decommissioned battle unit with PTSD accompanied by a small bird on its shoulder; Overwatch’s characters span cultures and professions, ages and races.

A relatable international cast makes Overwatch appeal to audiences world-wide, and the development team has made it clear that representation is a priority. Jeff Kaplan, the game director of Overwatch, has said that the team “want[s] everybody to feel kick-butt,” alluding to the role that heroes play in this universe and in pop culture in general. They recognize the importance of acknowledging that anybody can be a hero.

The follow up to these ideals has been significant as well; for example, when Tracer’s over-sexualized victory pose stirred up controversy early in the game’s beta period, Blizzard listened to fan critique and changed the pose to better fit Tracer’s overall depiction. This change occurred in spite of the protests from other fans who accused the team of pandering, as well as limiting free speech. The decision to put the concerns of problematic representation above adherence to the status quo is a promising sign of Blizzard’s commitment to inclusion in gaming, and an acknowledgement of the way gaming audiences have changed.

Overwatch is perhaps the embodiment of ludonarrative dissonance, a phenomenon where the gameplay doesn’t necessarily match the plot of the story. This is how mortal enemies like Reaper and Soldier: 76 can be on the same team, defending a magical artifact they would canonically be fighting over from an attacking team that might consist of Russian weightlifter Zarya and Omnic monk Zenyatta, despite Zarya’s hatred of Omnics.

Overwatch allows for maximum gameplay potential using its team-based structure without sacrificing its rich world-building and ongoing speculative narrative. Players can choose how much to engage with the lore, whether just through playing the game and picking up references to the deeper story, or through reading each new comic and following the animated shorts for clues about alliances and histories.

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Image from @OverwatchNews on Twitter.com

Multiple mediums such as comics, animated shorts, social media, and even alternate reality games expand upon the lore and characters of the game. The compelling narrative of Overwatch has gained many followers, some of whom have never even played the game. Fan art and fiction of the characters in various canonical and alternate universe situations proliferate in online communities, as well as shipping of just about every possible character combination (a number of queer couples in particular). Not to mention the impressive amount of pornographic content that existed even before the game’s official release.

Fans enthusiastically follow the developer updates and hunt for clues about upcoming characters and maps. Beyond the addition of permanent content, however, the game also has constant updates that reflect real-world events, such as the summer Olympics or the Lunar New Year. The events create a link between the futuristic setting and the real-time experiences of its players. Limited-time cosmetic items and game modes come with these events, and sometimes they have accompanying narrative context that occurs outside of the game.

For example, the heartwarming winter wonderland comic “Reflections” that was released near the end of December portrays a number of the primary cast celebrating the holidays. The main plot of the comic follows Tracer as she urgently searches for a present for her lover, who is revealed to be a woman after months of speculation about canonically queer characters in the cast. Since the main face of such a popular game is queer, and in such a relatable and normalized way, that sends a strong message about Blizzard’s intentions for diverse representation in the game going forward. Queer representation is no longer relegated to fandom, and the developers are actively creating characters with diversity in mind while attempting to avoid tokenization.

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Image from mic.com

This is why it’s so significant that Overwatch won Game of the Year in the 2016 Game Awards, and continues to boast a growing community with developer support more than halfway through 2017. In a time when the real world could definitely use a few more heroes, seeing a popular multiplayer game strive to represent the increasingly diversified community of gamers in empowering ways is uplifting. Overwatch’s success gives me hope that the often misogynistic and white-dominated world of gaming is experiencing a long overdue change. Although new conflicts arise and old ones grow more complex in the futuristic world of Overwatch, those with the power to make an impact come from many different backgrounds. Perhaps we can all imagine a future in which anybody can be a hero.

As Tracer says at the end of the launch trailer, “the world could always use more heroes.” Her words carry a sentiment we can all take to heart.

-Contributed by Victoria Liao

Anna Biller’s The Love Witch: A Feminist Approach to the Alternative Horror Genre

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Anna Biller’s faux-1960s alternative horror film, The Love Witch (2016), follows the narcissistic and eyeshadow obsessed Elaine in her search for the perfect fairy-tale romance. The self-proclaimed “Love Witch”, Elaine (played by Samantha Robinson) is a woman who uses home-made love potions, sex spells, and her own mysterious allure to seduce men until, of course, it takes an unexpected turn for the worse.

Aesthetics and visuals are central to the film. The costumes, scenery, cinematography, and soundtrack are all carefully directed and consulted on by Biller herself, a Cal Arts graduate. The sequences seem spontaneous, taking on a life of their own beyond the linear plot of the picture. These vivacious, colourful, and intrusive statements guide the film from the tropes of a mainstream horror flick to the unconventional features of an independent art film.

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In the director’s statement for The Love Witch, Biller mentions, “While I am quoting genres, I am using them not as a pastiche, but to create a sense of aesthetic arrest and to insert a female point of view.” Although Biller takes influence from aspects of the alternative horror/thriller genre, she uses a perspective that twists the typical male gaze of that genre, and brings about a sense of female empowerment. By using her knowledge of what men want, Elaine controls her own sexual agency.

This feminist concept is intermingled with the rules of witchery and the occult within the film. This is evident when the members of Elaine’s cult discuss how the strength of a woman’s sexuality both excites and challenges men’s patriarchal position in society, and how this makes men feel inclined to “put women in their place.” It is the figures of magic who bring attention to this, and the concept is juxtaposed with Elaine’s controversial behaviour regarding her lovers. Elaine uses her attractive persona to seduce men, but with her potions and her high expectations of romance, she “loves them to death.”

In a twist, Biller presents the dichotomy of Elaine’s lack of concern regarding her lovers with their increasing emotional attachment and eventual toxic separation from her affection. Elaine lacks any moral conflict in her actions, believing that the tragedies that result are simply a shame.

Biller borrows from the trope of the 1960s femme fatale, utilizing their hatred of betrayal by former lovers and twisting it so the woman gives the man what he wants physically but uses magic to separate herself from the emotional response he desires. Here, Biller references the social ideology in which men are thought to lack an emotional response in relationships. The moment Elaine denies her lover an emotional response is the moment that he starts to long for her love and support.

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Another vital aspect of the plot is Elaine’s obsession with fairy-tale romance. Despite the contrary ways she exhibits this, she greatly desires a relationship in which her love is fully requited and without complications. While Elaine presents herself as imposingly stern and careless, she fantasizes about a pseudo-medieval scene in which she rides off with her prince charming, away from the difficulties of a mundane life.

When Elaine’s curious landlord Trish (played by Laura Waddell) snoops around in her apartment, we are exposed to the hyper-erotic drawings and paintings that cover the room. These depict explicit scenes in an artistic style that is unexpectedly harmless and bubbly. This seems contrary to the darker erotic aspect of the film’s visuals, but its absurdity and spontaneity are central to the alternative rhythm of the plot, and play on the extreme paradoxes in Elaine’s character.

Overall, Anna Biller’s The Love Witch explores the rhetoric of the ill-fated search for a perfect love affair. In unison with the occult genre, this results in over-the-top dramatic sequences, stunning visuals, and a soap-operatic flair. Although the film is identified as a horror/thriller, it most definitely isn’t the type of film that has you at the edge of your seat in anticipation. Rather, the overly dramatic acting, quick-cut sequences, and flashy and comical costumes leave you with a smile plastered across your face.

-Contributed by Mia Carnevale

Swamp Things and Singing True: a Review of the comic Bayou

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Image from lovelaughterinsanity.com

If you’re going to build a world with words, look at Jeremy Love’s comic book series Bayou for inspiration—you can’t go wrong. What began as a web comic is now printed in two beautiful volumes that you need to read. Southern swamps have never looked so beautiful.

I have to warn you though, Bayou is not what I would call easy reading. It will make you think in ways that might not be familiar in your standard, comic-reading experience.

For one thing, Bayou is building on African-American folklore, such as the stories of Brer Rabbit, Brer Bear, and Tar Baby, among others. Their stories come together in a beautiful and horrifying mix of history and fantasy. The world beyond the swamp is a kind of pre-Abolition wonderland, where the characters of slave folklore live under the Bossman’s thumb and try to get by one way or another.

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Image from vulture.com

It does help to have at least a touch of knowledge about these African-American folk tales when reading Bayou, just as it helps to be acquainted with Greek or Norse mythology when reading other comics.

It also helps to have some knowledge of the Blues. Bayou embraces what I have seen other comics merely touch on: song lyrics included in the comic’s panels. You see, our cast of character includes several rambling musicians and singers. The enchantingly beautiful and somewhat deceitful songstress Tar Baby is the mother of the comic’s protagonist, Lee Wagstaff. Brer Rabbit and Bayou come out of their swamp-side world to sing the blues in a Southern speakeasy, and it all goes to hell when the local levee breaks and a flood takes them all. But come hell or high water, these characters get to speak and sing in their own voices. The past and present overlap in Love’s storytelling, and songs ease the transition between them. Similar to how Disney movies use songs in a montage to mark the passage of time—only Bayou never turns away from real-world darkness.

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Image from webcomicoverlook.wordpress.com

Nearly every character in Bayou speaks in a dialect. This includes the Southern accent, and specifically period-consistent African-American slang. It’s easy to pick up as you go along, and what isn’t totally clear becomes clear with usage (such as when one woman calls another a “heiffer” in a barroom spat). It also includes multiple uses of the N-word, with asterisks for the following letters. It’s a jarring reminder of the history of hate and oppression. You can never forget that slavery is in the characters’ recent past—but why should you? Little Lee may be free, but we first meet her as she swims in the swamp to retrieve the body of a boy her own age. Young Billy Glass lies dead in the bayou because local white men lynched him.

This ain’t Carroll’s kind of wonderland.

Bayou is full of love and hate, cowardice and bravery, sinners and saints. Even the characters that are anthropomorphic animals are beautifully and tragically human. You’ll see the best and the worst of the characters in this comic, but all of them are truly people—even if many of them don’t recognize it.

-Contributed by Miranda Whittaker