Shine a Light
Today it’s about semi-autobiographical comics – fiction pieces that depict things close to the author, drawing heavily upon their immediate concerns, small press almost by definition, but not featuring the author as a character or claiming to depict their actual life. They loot freely from themselves and their kin and acquaintances, but put it into just enough of a fictional blender to be its own thing. I’ve been meaning to post about them for a long time, but it didn’t gel until a bit ago, along with the thinking that prompted my previous post.
My perhaps-questionable love of definitions forces me to set aside the semi-fictional comics which do feature the author directly – Colin Upton’s Big Thing, David Chelsea in Love, It’s a Good Life if You Don’t Weaken, Cancer Vixen, and obviously, American Splendor. But you can see them just over that perhaps-arbitrary line from here, quite easily, and a lot of the stylistic details I talk about in a minute apply to them too.
It’s a role-playing design post too, so be warned. I’m pretty wrapped up with that issue right now, even more so than the past months of blogging here would indicate – see the Patreon link for more about why and how.
The titles closest to me are indisputably 90s and tied very much to my own before-and-after thirty existence, including Dykes to Watch Out For, Wendel, Hate, Alec: The King Canute Crowd, Box Office Poison, and Minimum Wage [Beg the Question], all of which I’ve posted about on-and-off throughout the blog; you can probably best find them through the Category “The 90s me.” I mentioned I was writing a game on/about/inspired by this, right? Here’s a bit about the comics from there:
Slice-of-life homeliness, the engagement with day to day routine. It’s mostly about what this person or these people habitually do, and nothing is too personal or too minor to depict. The effect may seem trivial or even pointless, but over time, the characters’ lives are illumined and grounded, and above all intimately compared with the reader’s. Sex and nudity are the more subversive for being as matter of fact and incidental as everything else.
Creative room to breathe. You write and draw what you want, with no rules of any other medium. There’s depth when you want, whether introspective, social, or illuminating the past; changes in the characters’ lives when you want; and focus on whichever character you want, adding or abandoning them without explanation. And when you don’t, there’s no rush or need to impose change and drama.
The joy of timing. The stories or strips ultimately focus on critical or illuminating dialogue, but as an emergent property rather than as planned gags. This is the art of the naturalistic punchline. It happens rarely, but when it does, look out. The overall effect combines a thoroughly enjoyable sense of improv with – sometimes – a solid mastery of short-term storyline.
Utter freedom of your opinion. The genre respects no boundaries and is famous for deconstructing, leveling, lampooning, humanizing, and exposing the author’s own chosen identity politics.
Ongoing, freewheeling surrealism, flights of fancy, and messing with the medium.
- Time is nothing but silly putty. Storylines hop into the past and future without warning; time speeds by in decades in two pages or slows to a few seconds for twenty pages.
- Art styles shift by subject, ranging from crazy expressionism to dot-by-dot photorealism, or God knows what, all grounded in the friendly cartooning of most of the work.
- Bizarre events and imagery break bounds between the depicted fiction and the content of a character’s mind.
- Fourth wall techniques abound, as the characters speak to the reader, criticize and occasionally revolt against the author, respond to interviews from some omniscient source, and generally violate all rules of ordinary fiction.
These stories are created using aggressively underground comic strip thinking, for which every new installment is its own thing, written in and for the now. If, in the long run, this turns out to be a bigger story or even a graphic novel, then fine, but that wasn’t the driving aesthetic behind most of its production.
I can hear you out there. Oh! Like Seinfeld! “About nothing,” I get it! … Aarrghh. If I had a bat with a bent nail in it, I’d be using it right now. “About nothing” was a successful marketing slogan. It masked the show’s consistent focus on the effectiveness of lying, and the challenging content which permitted that effectiveness to vary. There’s a certain truth to the analogy, insofar as Seinfeld was, mildly, to situation-comedy as these comics are, more pointedly, to the most mainstream comics, by which I mean the broadest swath, especially newspaper strips.
However, these comics break with the TV model via the medium’s marginal status, i.e., freedom to speak. They are shot through and through with economics and the characters’ understanding that they’ve somehow landed in adulthood and job-world in a deeply Kierkegaard “Fear and Trembling” sense.
How did I get into the world? Why was I not asked about it and why was I not informed of the rules and regulations but just thrust into the ranks as if I had been bought by a peddling shanghaier of human beings? How did I get involved in this big enterprise called actuality? Why should I be involved? Isn’t it a matter of choice? And if I am compelled to be involved, where is the manager – I have something to say about this. Is there no manager? To whom shall I make my complaint?
That’s the real tie-in to my post Generation who, which is understandably in place due to the generational overlap between me and many of the authors. Not only the stories’ content but these kinds of comics wouldn’t even exist except as an artifact of the socio-economic dynamics I described there.
Another feature is the kind of character development that seems to occur merely in the doing, rather than through Swiss-watch artifice. The content undergoes inadvertent growth from gags and strips to stories, as the partial author avatar shifts into their own person. (Pity the author, like Bechdel, who has to gently dodge the fans’ love-affair with Mo’s early nuttiness and bleed that onto her.) The series mostly begin with the characters in their early twenties, but they often age with the author, or characters are added who reflect the author’s current age. Sometimes, and simultaneously, as the author becomes more skilled and, as I see it, more artistically ambitious and self-revealing, the stories include more material about the characters’ past so their childhood and teen selves get some attention.
Death is absolutely, always present in the stories, striking in its randomness and variety of cause. It’s almost invisible until you look again; they are shot through with lethal accidents, senescence, suicide, and murder. It’s markedly different from sex, in a complex way. You might see them as equivalent, as sex is also ubiquitous, and also random and various. But it’s not the same. If I mentally relax a little and think of all the titles at once, they unequivocally depict an unbuttoned and varying depiction of sexuality in tandem with everything else in life, but a disquisition on death’s disruption of all those things as a collective. In them, death doesn’t get adjusted and internalized and matured, and it is decidedly not a cute chick.
Religion’s there too, and blessedly, it’s wonderfully normal, just the way people do it, with all the casual-life ambiguities and criss-crosses about values and identity. It’s in all of them, but I give honorable mention to Minimum Wage, in which Rob’s “little man upon the stair” religious background turns out to be far more central than you’ll notice at first. Characteristically for these comics, it’s brought up early and brutally as hell – “You’re Jewish enough for the ovens,” snarks an also-Jewish pal after Rob berates him for being too much so – and then only really operates as a plot feature because it makes sense, not because anyone spells it out for you. The whole story, after all, is about whether you get married for children or not – and the crux hits upon the nigh-simultaneous funerals of Sylvia’s grandma and Rob’s mom. It’s about a Catholic Italian-American and a Jewish German-American, both entirely secular, sex-positive, and non-identifying with their family histories, who only think they’ve found escape from their backgrounds in each other.
Now for the game I did. It’s one of four intimately linked games about religion I’ve designed but never taken through late-stage playtesting about publication: Estimated Prophet, Shine Light Cathedral, and Daemon Lover. Shine a Light is the one I’m talking about here; you can get it as a free download through the link. It focuses on observance, as I wrote about in Everyday religion and Super good. As with the other three, the song it’s named after is important:
It’s also nothing but this precise sort of comic done – not emulated, done – through the role-playing medium. I’ve messed with what a “session” is to reflect the ambiguity between strip and story; I’ve focused on coming-of-age; I’ve decreed that real-player childhood religious background is invoked; and – um – I kind of made up a heretical religion for one of the characters to have, both rooted strongly in real religious history and profoundly at variance with the Abrahamic tradition in terms of death.
I really like it. Playtesting has showed me that the “guts,” the functions of the cards and talking – the diagram reproduced here – works very well. It’s also showed me that the initial buy-in needs some easier steps, and faces a considerable barrier in the hobby-gamer conceptual habit of thinking the religion-content is setting. At least if we’re thinking about this as a publishable game intended to inspire and appeal more broadly, the approach I’ve taken to that latter would probably have to get scrapped.
But maybe I don’t want it to. These four games may suit best as the opposite of the conventional wisdom about role-playing design, that it’s supposed to expand beyond “play it with me.” That might be analogous to finding some way for Box Office Poison or whatever to become a franchise, a Universe, a mine for computer gaming and movie-making. I hesitate profoundly to contemplate making them “accessible.” Maybe “play it with me” is what these games are written and designed for, with outside instances – like the evidently kick-ass playtest of Estimated Prophet in Italy – being a bonus.
Links: my website material about these games
Next column: The whites
Posted on November 19, 2017, in Absent friends, The 90s me and tagged Alec, Box Office Poison, Dykes to Watch Out For, Fear and Trembling, Minimum Wage, religion, Shine a Light, Soren Kierkegaard. Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.