Move Aside, Masculine Mayhem: Mad Max: Fury Road is Here to Stay

I happen to like my fast-paced, car-chase, post-apocalyptic movies chock full of social commentary, the more nuanced the better. Does that mean that I have many favourite fast-paced, car-chase, post-apocalyptic movies? No. At this point, I happen to have one.

Enter Mad Max: Fury Road.

Mad Max1
Image from superherohype.com

What may unexpectedly turn out to be the cinematic star of my summer, Mad Max: Fury Road has shocked me for all the right reasons. I might be partially to blame for letting my assumptions and preconceptions about this genre—one that has only ever offered me anarchy, specifically of the masculine mayhem variety—guide me into believing that I would see an average, mildly entertaining film at best. I thought it would be safe to place my bets on the stale trifecta of blockbuster films: the conventionally attractive, white male protagonist; the manipulative, often sexually abusive male antagonist; and the conventionally attractive, token female love interest.

Truth be told I wasn’t entirely wrong. The main cast consists of two men and one woman. However, the dynamics between them are different from the traditional configuration. The antagonist, Immortan Joe, is indisputably the villain, but the role of protagonist alternates between Max and Impertator Furiosa (henceforth referred to as Furiosa). While I would initially be inclined to say that Max is the main character—the series is named after him, the first two films have starred him as the protagonist, and the narrative opens with his internal dialogue—he takes on a strongly supportive character role to Furiosa. I will refrain from going into specifics for the moment, and save the spoilers for later, but here is what you need to know.

The cast is large in reality, ambitiously large for CGI. This makes the car chases rather intense because Fury Road is not one car going head-to-head with another; rather, it is an army of vehicles equipped to the brim with fire, harpoons, guns, poles long enough to swing soldiers into adjacent cars, and an actual—non-animated—flaming guitar, all chasing after an army rig full of female sex-slave escapees. It can be a lot to take in.

Mad Max2
Image from wallpapers.com

That being said, the cinematography of the movie is actually quite intelligently done, considering the constant and ferociously hectic material of the scenes. The plain, desert landscape facilities the madness without adding excess clutter, and there are a shocking number of creative ways a person can fall off of a vehicle going at high speeds. As an audience member, you’re guaranteed an explosive visual feast. However, the visual effects are not what I and many others are praising this movie for, so we’ll move on.

Out of the entire cast there are sixteen characters important enough to be given names; six are men and ten are women. It is also important to note that there are five other prominent female members of the Vuvalini gang who are active but unnamed. With them I’ll also include the unnamed male guitarist who never speaks but is a reoccurring and noticeable character. Together, these additions culminate in a grand total of twenty-two ‘important’ characters, of which seven are men and fifteen are women. I may be watching the wrong blockbuster action movies, but that is not a common ratio.

What’s even more uncommon is that the bodies in this film are widely varied to include characters who are old, young, thin, fat, pregnant, able-bodied, physically disabled, and mentally traumatized. In every case, none of the characteristics that are conventionally added to make a character sympathetic or to weaken them were used as such. While they were not all capable of performing in the same way, every person was capable in their own right.

Spoilers follow with a deeper discussion of these variations.

Disabilities play a large role in this film, and are addressed both seriously and practically. Furiosa, already discussed as one of the m ain characters—if not the main character—is highly competent both as a driver and as a combatant, and demonstrates her ability to fight with her prosthetic arm or with it detached. Moreover, none of the other characters comment negatively on her arm, or use it as a trite excuse to question her authority, ability, or credentials. The five wives trust her implicitly with their safety, and Max, along with Nux and the Vuvalini, treats her as either a superior officer giving orders or a comrade directly on par with him.

Nux is an especially interesting case in this situation as he begins the movie with low feelings of self-worth that result from his hero worship of the antagonist Immortan Joe. He idealizes the possibility of dying as a suicide bomber, and tries repeatedly to take out Furiosa’s truck and Furiosa herself at the expense of his own life. However, on his third and final attempt, Nux fails before Immortan Joe, who dismisses him as a worthless failure, unfit to enter the ideal afterlife at the crux of their religion. Nux, who has likely been raised as a war dog explicitly for the purpose of serving Immortan Joe and dying valiantly, cannot function after this. It takes one of the wives—whose name, appropriately, is Capable—to find him. Capable understands the similarities between their sufferings—both have been exploited in some way, and both have been indoctrinated into a religion by a man who sees them as less than property. Nux’s mental trauma inflicted under Immortan’s patriarchal regime is directly combatted by Capable’s humanity and the ‘feminine’ prospect of expressing emotion, as well as by the validation of personal agency.

Mad Max4
Image from http://www.indiewire.com

Mad Max: Fury Road offers a great deal to its audience: high action, explosions, car chases, and wickedly fun cinematography, but there are also deep, reoccurring undercurrents of truly meaningful topics. This movie does not back away from the challenge of a visually difficult scene or even of a socially nuanced one; moreover, it is evident by the writing that these ‘feminist moments’ were given a great deal of thought. There are a number of films touted as progressive for having Strong Female Characters or for ‘empowering’ marginalized groups that are fundamentally undermined by the white, male protagonist’s need to be The Saviour.

The truly standout moment of Mad Max: Fury Road is, in my opinion, at the very end. The final scene of the movie depicts the wives, women, and Max return to the Citadel bearing the dead body of Immortan Joe on top of their car to announce the end of his oppressive reign. The impoverished people of the Citadel, always excluded from prosperity under Immortan Joe, join the women on a platform that will take them to the top of the fortress, and as they are being raised and the movie is winding down—there, you see it. Arguably one of the best cinematic shots of the movie. As the platform is being lifted, the camera pans to Max, who is not on the platform but is disappearing into the crowd below. He looks up, and there is a single shot of Furiosa, prosthetic arm off and standing with the women, watching him leave as she rises and the movie cuts to black.

Max is not the Saviour. He chooses to not go on the platform, and this Citadel is not his to reclaim. In its last shot, Mad Max: Fury Road cements that Max was never really the focus of the movie at all—this movie is about people who are easily forgotten and exploited taking back their own lives.

And it is the best fast-paced, car-chase, post-apocalyptic movie I’ve ever seen.

-contributed by Lorna Antoniazzi

 

Advertisements

Impractical Immortality: Do You Really Want to Live Forever?

holy grail
Image from moviepilot.com

Well, do you? Really?

The idea of immortality, in one form or another, comes up frequently in speculative fiction: elves, Timelords, divine beings, cursed humans, and undying monsters are all easy to find between pages and on screens. Immortality is often a flexible concept, ranging from gods that are all-powerful and cannot die but can—with the right spell, artifact or leverage with another rival god—be subdued, to creatures that can be slain but never fall prey to disease or the ravages of time. The latter includes Tolkien’s eternally beautiful elves and the sometimes benevolent—but usually malicious—Immortals of author Tamara Pierce’s fantasy kingdom Tortal.

Freedom from mortality may sound appealing to some of us, but as a wise wizard once said, “Humans do have a knack for choosing precisely those things which are worst for them.” Immortality is easily one of the worst things that heroes and villains have ever sought after.

For starters—there’s a catch. Always. Immortality comes at a price.

Sometimes the magic that makes you immortal also makes you susceptible to other, unfriendly forms of magic, or you find yourself unable to leave the cloister that the Sangrael is housed in, lest you lose all that you’ve gained. Maybe you get eternal life, but not eternal youth with it. I’m sure the Greek goddess Iris’ lover, who was granted the former but not the latter, would have much to say on the subject.

It is also likely that your immortality is dependent on you having your magic McGuffin on or near your person at all times, meaning that you’re at a disadvantage in life. Your magic ring or medal will be stolen, I promise you. It’s only a matter of time. In this case, the price of immortality is a life of looking over your shoulder, guarding your prize because your eternal life depends on it.

In other cases, the cost of immortality is too hideous to contemplate. Aloysius Crumrin, the aged warlock in the Courtney Crumrin comic series, is offered eternal life by an old flame—in the form of vampirism. He turns immortal life down but does accept her last elixir vitae; the potion lets him live a little longer despite his wasting illness. “Do I want to know what’s in it?” he asks the vampire. “No,” is her firm reply, and seeing as she herself keeps living by draining the life of others, it’s for the best that Aloysius doesn’t question her further.

And of course you’ll be lonely. How could you not be? You’ll outlive everyone you love.

In Ella Enchanted, the fairy godmother, Mandy, tells her goddaughter Ella that the Faeries tend to earn the ire of even their dearest human companions: “We’re immortal. That gets them mad…. [your mother] wouldn’t speak to me for a year when her father died.” The benefit of living to see a whole family line grow is somewhat tempered by knowing that you will have to bury them all.

Similarly, Skysong, the baby dragon who is born in Tortal away from other dragons and is raised by human mages, will outlive her guardian and all the mortal animals who become her friends.

And speaking of being lonely, it must be said that Captain America—who managed to survive a crash landing in the Arctic and being frozen there back during World War II—is starting to look very lonely, having outlived most of his comrades. He is stuck existing in a world that he doesn’t really belong to.

Even if you do your best to fit in the world you find yourself in, you won’t. Yuta, the protagonist of a manga series called Mermaid Saga, tries to live like a normal man after gaining immortality. But his wife can hardly fail to notice that, though she grows old over the years, he remains the young man she married. “I’m afraid of you,” she tells him. And who could blame her?

Finally, just what are you going to do with all that time?

Bowerick Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged devotes himself to insulting everyone, forever. If that sounds lame, consider that living forever will leave you running out of hobbies soon enough. You will run out of places to see and things to do because you will simply have too much time on your hands. If you have no plan, you’re doomed.

All that can truly occupy the immortal is watching history being made. This is a dubious prospect; ask the elves of Middle Earth. They never fail to seem jaded about the decisions made over the years, or the doings of the mortals around them. Elvenkind has simply seen too much to fully trust any other race; they remember too much.

Watching eras pass is bad enough, but living through them is much worse. Yuta lives through feudal wars, famine, the bombings of World War II, and murderous multigenerational feuds among those he befriends. Madame Xanadu loses her young lover in the witch-burning fervour of the Spanish Inquisition. And Wolverine seems to do nothing but get caught up in somebody’s war. For every triumph of humanity there are a dozen failures. History is a harsh place to live.

Take the Fame lyric “I’m gonna  live forever” literally and what you have is masochistic madness.

In the genres that ask “what if…?” any exploration of immortality yields fascinating answers. The concept of immortality and the presence of immortal characters in fiction forces us to take a long look at the way we live our lives. An immortal traveler who has seen far too much once said that “A longer life isn’t always a better one.”

What happens if you do away with mortality, a fundamental part of our humanity ? Nothing that we would ever really want.

-contributed by Miranda Whittaker

Sandman : Handful of Dust

sandman shushes me
Image from empireonline.com

 

When a young Neil Gaiman first approached Vertigo comics about The Sandman, he was pitching a simple revival of the 70s series of the same name by Joe Simon and Jack “The King” Kirby. But DC editor Karen Berger insisted that while they keep the name, Gaiman should create a new character.

And thank goodness he did, for otherwise the world would have been robbed of something beautiful. Running from 1989 to 1996, for a total 75 issues collected in 10 volumes, The Sandman managed to create its very own expansive self-contained mythology.

The original artists Mike Dringenberg and Sam Kieth fashioned the title character after Gaiman himself. The Sandman, also known as Morpheus or Dream, and by many other names, carries with him an aura of inhumanity. While early issues exist in the DC comic universe with appearances by The Martian Manhunter and John Constantine (hellblazer), the creators quickly realized that Sandman should be a world unto itself, and so that is what it became. Sandman used several different types of stories to keep itself going and to keep it feeling new and alien all the way through to its final issue, but over its run, three types of stories were prevalent.

The Sandman was able to hold on to many overlapping threads throughout its near decade-long run, with characters who appeared in early issues later returning to have their stories told in elaborate detail. This worked well for the first main kind of story that was used. While several volumes are focused on the Sandman himself, there are also a number of stories in which the title character only appears in a minor capacity, and sometimes he fails to appear at all, instead being merely alluded to or referenced by the other characters. These stories were all set in the present and centered on ordinary people who are pulled into problems or adventures that they don’t understand, becoming involved with magic and monsters.

But even when Dream himself didn’t appear, Gaiman never lost focus on what the series was about. Even in these more domestic stories, the focus is on these ordinary people’s dreams, and the effect that dreams can have on the waking world. Whether it be the story of a young woman named Barbie who becomes trapped in her own dreaming, or of a girl named Rose who finds herself with mysterious powers, the underlying idea behind the story is always clear—what is important are the dreams that these characters have, and how these dreams provide a glimpse into the effect that Dream has on the world he inhabits .

The next kind of story that Gaiman used most often involves the various preexisting mythologies that the world has to offer. In The Sandman, the deities from various cultures and mythologies coexist. This allows Dream to engage with different stories from various mythologies, and allows Gaiman to teach the reader about histories and mythologies that they might not have been exposed to otherwise.

The Sandman also includes Biblical figures such as Cain and Able, who in the series exist as servants to Dream in his mystical realm. Cain is doomed to always kill his brother and Able is doomed to be endlessly resurrected. The devil himself is a key figure in several volumes, with Dream actually visiting hell to sort out his conflicts with the infamous fallen angel Lucifer. One such conflict is when Lucifer decides to retire and leaves Dream in charge of hell, leading to all sorts of problems .

Dream also has stories with characters cut from Egyptian mythology, such as the cat god Bast, and characters from Norse mythology, such as Thor, Odin, and Loki, with the latter two becoming important figures in The Sandman’s later volumes. The three Fates from ancient Greek mythology also figure, and in the end they become Dream’s most important foes.

sandman family
Image from wikimedia.org

But the third—and probably my personal favorite—kind of narrative that The Sandman employs is historical: the blending of the Sandman’s unique and eerie magic with historical figures and events. This is used to showcase the Kings of Rome and Marco Polo, and, most notably, is used when Morpheus visits the dreams of William Shakespeare, helping to inspire some of the famous playwright’s most beloved works. In issue 19, collected in the third volume Dream Country, Shakespeare’s company puts on A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Morpheus, with actual Fairy Folk sneaking into production. This issue is the only comic book to ever win the World Fantasy Award.My favorite example of this blending of history and fantasy will always be from Volume 6, Fables and Reflections, in which Dream inspires the broken and suicidal Joshua Abraham Norton in the year of 1859 to become the self-proclaimed Emperor of America, a real historical figure who solved social disputes in the city of San Francisco.

The Sandman is an intelligent, unnerving saga that follows an inhuman, monstrous magical figure. It traces his deeds and misdeeds throughout history with his siblings Destiny, Despair, Desire, Destruction, Delirium, and Death. The Sandman is a unique and beautiful series, and should always be remembered both as one of Gaiman’s crowning achievements and as one of the greatest creations of the comic book medium.

-contributed by Ben Ghan

God Bless You, Mr. Vonnegut

slaughterhouse cover (2)
Image from amazon.com

“Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time.”

These are the words that begin Kurt Vonnegut’s great 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five, also known as The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death. This is not Vonnegut’s only work of science fiction; indeed, it is not even his only good one. But of all his novels, Slaughterhouse-Five has perhaps best stood the test of time.

This is a book about a man named Billy Pilgrim, a soldier in World War II, who is time-traveling up and down his own personal timeline, from his childhood to his old age and his time as an optometrist; from being a soldier in the Second World War to his kidnapping by aliens. But even with all this mayhem of time travel and aliens, Slaughterhouse-Five never loses sight of what it is truly about: the firebombing of the city of Dresden in WWII.

Vonnegut has no concerns for linear storytelling. He tells you exactly what the book is about, what happens, and how it ends, all in the opening pages. He explains openly and almost callously the entire life story of Billy Pilgrim before actually telling that story. There are no surprises to the plot, and when Billy climbs out of the wreckage of the destroyed city on the last page, it’s something you always knew was coming.

One of the many things that are truly miraculous about this book is how science fiction ideas are used to sell the emotional story of a historical event. Vonnegut cares very little about the plausibility of his story. He doesn’t bother with scientific explanations for any of the things that happen. When he says that Billy Pilgrim is now time-traveling, that is that. Billy is time-traveling, and Vonnegut doesn’t give a single hoot if you want an explanation as to how.

When Billy is kidnapped by the extraterrestrial Tralfamadorians who put him in an alien zoo and teach him about fate and time as the fourth dimension, and who tell him that one day a Tralfamadorian test pilot will accidently destroy the universe, that is that. Vonnegut is not concerned with whether the Tralfamadorians are plausible or even remotely believable.

Illustration
Illustration by Iris Benedikt.

 

Vonnegut instead is completely unabashedly unashamed of his use of using science fiction as the vessel for his tale. The aliens are there because he wants them to be there; they translate Vonnegut’s own strange ideas onto the page and add to the chaos and inhumanity of the story.

Vonnegut does not insult you with expository jargon on pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo, and instead invites you to revel in the lunacy of what is almost secretly a very sad story. Vonnegut uses aliens and time travel to speak about the horrors of the Second World War. But he isn’t speaking about the war generally; he’s speaking about something that actually happened to him.

Billy is not only captured on earth and taken to the alien planet of Tralfamadore, but he is also captured at the Battle of the Bulge in 1944, and is held as a prisoner of war in the German city of Dresden, just as Vonnegut himself was. He is held in a building called Schlachthof-fünf: Slaughterhouse-five.

And, just like Vonnegut, Billy Pilgrim and his fellow inmates are some of the very few survivors of the allied firebombing of Dresden that took place between February 13 and 15, 1945, which destroyed most of the city and killed close to 25 000 people.

This was a major event both in the history of the war and in the life of Vonnegut himself, and part of the novel’s brilliance is Vonnegut’s own apparent struggle with the fact that yes, Dresden was a German city controlled by the Nazis, and yes, the Nazis were evil, but the firebombing of Dresden was also a horrifying event. Vonnegut is writing about his inability to comprehend how human beings, on both sides of the war, were capable of doing such things to one another.

This is a dark subject. This novel is about war and depression and massacres. So it stands to reason that a book about these things should be as dark, grim, and serious as its material. And yet it is not. Vonnegut finds humor in how, after all this carnage, an American soldier is tried for pillaging and shot amongst the wreckage. He finds humor, and thoughtfulness, in the idea that somewhere out there in the stars is an alien race that sees our world the same way we do.

To the Tralfamadorians, a person’s death is not sad because they are still alive in the time period in which they lived. To them, time is lucid and eternal, not linear: It is just like the pages of a book, and can be flipped back and forth. And no matter what, when you read that book, those events are still happening. All of us—everyone who has ever lived and everyone who will ever live—are still alive in those moments, and those moments are happening right now.

This is the beauty of Vonnegut’s book. He has taken a horrific event and wrapped it in the musing of science fiction in the way only he could. For Vonnegut, science fiction was about the conveying of ideas; it was about making it possible to tell a story that would otherwise be impossible to tell.

He used science fiction so that when Billy Pilgrim climbs out to survey the wreckage of Dresden, it is sad, yes—but it is also beautiful in the way that the story has been told, right down to a little bird hopping up to speak to Billy in that mass grave:

“Poo-Tee-Weet?”

-contributed by Ben Ghan

Voiceless but not Powerless: Defying Narrative Convention in Supergiant Games’ Transistor

This post contains spoilers.

Illustration by Lorna Antoniazzi.

Actions speak louder than words.

It may be a cliché, but it definitely holds true with indie game developer Supergiant Games’ 2014 sophomore release, the sci-fi action role-playing game Transistor. The game is set in a gorgeously rendered futuristic city named Cloudbank, whose  districts are being devoured by a strange technological force called the Process. Players take the role of Red, an unyielding singer-turned-heroine who has lost her voice under mysterious circumstances. She is accompanied by the eponymous Transistor, her giant talking sword, which—surprise, surprise—she has also acquired under mysterious and tragic circumstances. Together, they go searching for answers from the Camerata, a shadowy administrative organization in Cloudbank.

The silent protagonist is nothing new in role-playing video games. In fact, he—and it usually is a he—is somewhat of a feature, especially within the genealogy of fantasy and sci-fi role playing games. Meant to be ‘everyman’-type heroes that the ‘typical’ gamer can relate to, a silent protagonist allows for deeper immersion into a richly developed speculative world. With a silent protagonist, interactions with non-player characters and participation in game events aren’t sullied by a reaction from the player character that the player disagrees with.

Many games nowadays still reflect this in their development. One only has to glance at a list of the most popular speculative games to find customization options galore. These range from whichever races occur in that particular fantasy world to a choice of preferred weaponry or battle style. Usually, this is a step up from the ubiquitous white male hero; female protagonists remain a rarity, however. When player characters do have a distinct personality and point of view, they are almost always male.

Given this history, it can feel disheartening to find Red deprived of her voice from the very start of the game. In its place is the Transistor (voiced by the talented Logan Cunningham), the voice of her male companion who has been absorbed by the sword. He compels the player to move around as Red, calls out to her, and lays out an initial course of action: flee the city. His narration fills the space left by her missing voice throughout the game, and by reacting to events and commenting upon the rich scenery, he renders Cloudbank familiar to the player.

The guiding narrator is not a new feature, either; often, the hero needs instruction on their quest through an unfamiliar fantasy land, and using a wiser narrator character as opposed to disembodied text onscreen better retains the player’s immersion. Gamers grow used to following the cues of the trustworthy narrator, who directs them to the next significant plot point. In some ways, it is the narrator who is really in control, with the player character’s agency ceded to the narrator’s greater knowledge.

Transistor takes all this and tosses it out. In an effort to keep Red safe early in the game, the Transistor guides her to a motorcycle, their intended escape vehicle. “Take the second right. Do not turn left. And, thanks for the lift.” Moments later, he is taken aback. “You turned left.” And so Red has, in a cutscene without the player’s input. Of course she turned left. She’s the hero now, and despite being voiceless, that one action has established her agency as distinct from the Transistor’s narrative guidance. It is a joy to play a woman character who has her own agency and makes her own decisions in a genre that is sorely lacking in nuanced female protagonists. But the Transistor is not the enemy here—he has a close relationship to Red, which is slowly revealed as they travel together, and he tries to support her as she confronts the Camerata.

What is harder to notice, especially during one’s first play through the game, is Transistor’s subversion of traditional narrative tropes. Here is the unlikely hero: a woman, a singer, voiceless but not powerless. The narrative voice of Red’s companion primes the player for a quest to save the city. The Transistor doesn’t have all the answers, but he knows who does. So begins the journey through Cloudbank to find the leader of the Camerata, Grant Kendrell. There is a blink-and-you-miss-it subtlety to Grant’s relationship with Asher, his second-in-command and lover, who pleads with Red to understand their good intentions in unleashing the Process. As the player proceeds ever closer to the heart of the city and encounters a few other moments of LGBTQ representation done right even as the world goes wrong. The build-up is immense, and the narrator’s commentary primes the player for a revelation.

Instead, the player is shocked when they break through the barriers and discover that Grant and Asher have already chosen to commit suicide, averting the expected boss fight at the top of the tower. Up until that moment, the Transistor is still calling the Camerata liars and cowards. It is only afterwards that he admits he was wrong about them. Red’s reaction is inscrutable. The way the game is set up, it’s easy for the player to think that her goals are the ones described by the Transistor. The overall theme is the same: find some answers. The Transistor remains convinced that they’ll “sort all this out.” But Red has her own plans that aren’t readily apparent. And it becomes clear in the end that this game is not another hero-saves-world role playing game, and all because of the way the protagonist is written. In the final scene, the player is taken completely by surprise as the only scripted ending takes over and Red acts on her decisions.

The heart-wrenching  ending seems, initially, to make little sense, especially after all that the characters have been through. Proceeding through the game with certain expectations of how things will go, and encouraged by the familiar but not entirely accurate narrative constructed by the Transistor’s narration, the player is likely to miss cues in Red’s actions and words that foreshadow the end. Upon taking a step back, however, it becomes clear that the expected ending would have been antithetical to the game’s theme. Despite losing her voice, Red’s perspective is revealed in the words she types at terminals and in the song lyrics of the masterfully integrated soundtrack. In the end, she speaks most powerfully with her actions, which go uncontrolled even by the player.

The game is about many things, but one of its main focal points is the power of voice, agency, and individuality, and resistance to being subsumed into a featureless whole. Red’s voice permeates the game despite her role as a ‘silent’ protagonist, and her choices are valued on her own terms. Nobody and nothing—not the Transistor, not the expected grand narrative, not even the player—can take that away from her.

With its unapologetic protagonist, uncannily beautiful setting, and deep engagement with complex themes, Transistor is a prime example of video games as art, and displays the transformative potential speculative worlds have for shedding light on our own world.

-contributed by Victoria Liao

Falling Into The Abaddon

Art by Koren Shadmi
Art by Koren Shadmi

Webcomics are still a relatively small market, but with such gems as xkcd and Cyanide & Happiness, they will likely continue to gain traction in the future. One hidden gem is the vastly underrated bi-weekly webcomic The Abaddon by Israeli cartoonist Koren Shadmi. The Abaddon, which began in January 2011 and finished in April 2013 after two volumes, was partially funded on Kickstarter and is essentially a comic book adaptation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist play No Exit set in an apartment in Brooklyn.

The comic is about a head-bandaged man named Ter who finds himself trapped in a bizarre apartment with an equally bizarre group of roommates. He quickly discovers that his new home is a strange prison with a complex, mysterious puzzle that needs to be solved in order for him to escape. Over time, Ter also realizes that he has forgotten crucial parts of his identity and that uncovering his obscure past is the key to unlocking the puzzle of the apartment.

It is the coded, subtle way in which Shadmi unravels this puzzle that makes The Abaddon such a thrilling piece of speculative fiction. Shadmi’s distinctive artwork, drawn in pencil and then scanned and further developed in Photoshop, is the first clue within the puzzle: each of the characters is distinct—from Bet’s curves to Shel’s plump figure—yet they are all aglow with a pastiness that blends into the milky dreariness of the apartment.

Ter finds various symbols in his quest for escape, namely a journal that belonged to a roommate named Ral who had managed to escape the apartment. As the days go by, Ter discovers that everything that happens to him is recorded within the journal, and he sets out to relive those experiences and retrace them in order to find loopholes he can use to escape the apartment.

Ter also finds flies. He notices a picture of one printed on the back pocket of Bet’s pants, and a stamping of one on a piece of chocolate is later found stuck in the fur of Shel’s cat. Ter interprets them as a sign that there was a way out of the apartment, which Shadmi uses to effectively twist the plot within the story. He does this repeatedly in order to demonstrate the hopelessness of Ter’s situation. Ter is overcome with panic and anxiety attacks numerous times out of his frustration over his inability to escape from the apartment.

What Ter fails to pick up on are his own surroundings. The apartment contains mysterious pink gunk flowing through its pipes. Though it is never explicitly stated, the liquid is revealed to be representative of hell and blood. This recalls No Exit, which was in fact about a group of people trapped in a room that is quickly revealed to be hell. This blood and gore is investigated and expanded upon by Shadmi throughout the comic as Ter is forced to remember his own traumatized past and the demons he’s unwittingly left behind in order to escape the everlasting labyrinth of The Abaddon.

-contributed by By: Diandra Ismiranti

My Human Library: How I Started Reading My Friends

My Human Library: How I Started Reading My Friends

If I had a super power it would be the ability to read people like books. I mean, teleportation or shooting lasers from my eyes would definitely be fun for a while, but there’s something uniquely attractive to me about understanding the mechanics of being human. Strangers on the street are endlessly fascinating because they represent lifetimes that I will never know or appear in except for that brief moment when our times and spaces happen to intersect. This is a story about how I attempt to realize this odd little dream.

It began, as some things do, with an uneventful summer, a cute boy, and The Name of the Wind.

I happened upon The Name of the Wind, the fantasy novel by Patrick Rothfuss, during a slightly desperate attempt to seem casual on a pseudo first date. He was a twenty-one-year-old college dropout, a free and easy spirit with a slight Punk Rock aesthetic—making him insurmountably incomprehensible to me with my high-strung, college freshman anxiety. I quickly scanned the first few pages, picking up some key words and phrases, and cobbled together more enthusiastic praise for the book than I had felt at the time. His ecstatic reaction, however, registered in my slowly pooling grey matter as solid conversational ground to stand on. He felt a strong connection to this book, and had read it over a hundred times. I bought it soon after at a second-hand bookstore, but since I’m a procrastinator to the core, my copy remained untouched for the rest of the summer.

When I finally picked up the book in a fit of nostalgia a few months later, it completely won me over. But, more than that, reading the novel felt… weirdly familiar. You know how after a while a couple starts to resemble each other? I thought something similar had happened to that boy with the book… Except I don’t just mean a resemblance to the protagonist (though I could definitely see where he had adopted Kvothe’s characteristics). The sense of similarity ran deeper, permeating the prose and the style of the narrative. It was like, all at once, I had a much deeper understanding of who he was, like I was reading his life story as opposed to that of a fictional character.

In a way I suppose, this is makes sense, since the stories of our lives shape the people we become. And what are the books we have read and loved but another memory, another story of our lives, as much a part of us as the stories of our first day at school or our past relationships? When we truly immerse ourselves in fiction, we live the events of the story as if they were happening to us. The suspense, the heartbreak, the happiness, the love—they are as real to us as our own uncertain existence.

I recently came across an article in the Boston Globe titled Why Fiction is Good for You. I’ll summarize the important bits: basically, we allow ourselves a vulnerability when reading fiction that we don’t permit with non-fiction. We view news or history or politics with a critical eye that the blatant lies of fiction easily evade. “We are moved emotionally, and this seems to make us rubbery and easy to shape”. We know through ample research that fiction affects our psychology, particularly the way in which we experience empathy toward other human beings. It stands to reason, therefore, that the books we choose to represent us are a record of our lives in development.

Over the past two years, I’ve been collecting and reading the stories in which my friends see themselves. Perhaps it’s a testament to the people I choose to associate with, but these books are consistently speculative fiction. One thing that surprised me, though, was the speed and conviction with which many people chose the book that I was to read them through. While in my experience the common bibliophile reacts with debilitating paralysis to the words “what is your favourite book”, as if the questioner was asking them to murder all but one of their children, it seems that they understood I was asking for something different. Not a judgement of merit, but a memory from their own lives. Some titles were old friends (The Hobbit, Harry Potter) and others were fascinating strangers (The Angel’s Game, Gormenghast). In every instance it allowed for unique insight into the lives of some incredible people I feel fortunate to know.

-contributed by Amy Wang