June 2, 2013
My friend over at The Wrathful Blogger had a post about approaching character building, so I thought I’d touch on that. More, I started to write an essay in his comments section and decided instead to make my own post.
I think there are a lot of ways to approach character building, much like world building. I won’t speak for others, but for me I like the character I play to be a strong departure from myself. The character I create will naturally have some elements of myself, but I like to get far from playing “myself”.I try to write a person, and I don’t worry about what goes into portraying them very often. I’ve played many heritages, male and female and other, and had to do quite a bit of research for some, even going so far as to reading multiple books about a subject just to have the correct seeming familiarity that my persona would.
Once I’ve built a person, I shed who I am and step into their skin, so to speak. This is the most comfortable method for myself. And while most start from some interest of mine, others will begin as vague ideas that evolve out of a random idea and compound into a person. The character I will be bringing into the Camarilla Club’s new Changeling chronicle shares effectively only my race and interest in Korean pop music. Beyond that, we have little in common-I doubt we’d like each other much, in fact. A previous character was a type study of a much more aggressive form of my own issues as discussed in this previous blog entry.
And what I am doing in creating a character is trying to explore something specific, or experiment with a specific concept. I’m used PCs to explore homelessness, gender identity and religion, cultural displacement, and my current Changeling character is an examination of combat-induced post traumatic stress disorder. Characters are each stories, in my eyes, and a good story needs a point, a theme. But it needs more than that, it needs subplots and nuances.
Doing that requires work, and a lot of thought. For portrayal and preparation, I focus on three layers of character design which I’ll explain by building a character from scratch, as I write this post:
1: Big things.
These are the themes and what I’m trying to really explore. In our example, we’ll create apolitical who is wrapped up in his identity as a public official. Being in this office is this person’s, we’ll say male, entire world. He maintains an appearance of being “a man of the people” and the dissociation with this assumed identity is eating at him, and the mask is becoming harder and harder to maintain. He is an honest family man, though, and the strain of maintaining his office and his family, keeping the two in balance, is taking it’s toll on his will power.
Right there, we’ve defined his major traits, the things that will come across the most powerfully in his story. And we’ve chosen what this story will be about, it’s a story of a person who’s “Identity” is a mask, and a destructive one-something which Jung would argue we all have to be wary of and deal with to some extent
This is important, that a character have the “Big things” about them. You have to have something to make you worth interacting with-something that makes the character fulfilling to role-play with. If your “Big thing” is that you hate talking to people and you’re a lone wolf and don’t play well with others, that’s at once really tiresomely overplayed and boring, and also going to mean you get very little engagement with other players. you may handle a lot with NPCs, but is that really the goal? Are our LARPs not social events? Make your “Big things” something that you’d want to interact with if you were someone else.
Another note, “I have a huge secret no one must ever know and there’s no way anyone could ever discover it” is just as boring and trite. Secrets are fine. But if they are your “Big thing” there are really two results: someone finds the secret out, and secrets rarely stay that way once multiple people know and your “Big thing” stops existing. Or you never lose the secret, and your “Big thing never comes into play. More on this in a bit.
2: Motive things.
You need something going on when you aren’t engaging the “Big things”. This is your subplot, the important, character shaping and moving details that maybe aren’t the core of who you are, but are a bulk of your day. Our politician is actually brilliant at making groups work together.in his district, he’s seen as the political firefighter, calming disagreements between parties and mediating issues before they can break the party or inter-party dialogues. He also does some volunteer work with his wife, but his ever shifting schedule puts a lot of strain on their marriage as he has to cancel a lot of appointments to attend sudden problems. He’s also a devout Methodist and pushes a number of social justice platforms as ouch as he can without alienating his constituency-another point of contention in his marriage as his wife would like him to do more, and so would he.
Now you’ve rounded the character. He has depth and personality. The “Big things” might leave us with the impression of some soulless bureaucrat with a failing marriage, but now we have a person who has a good heart, a social-minded individual who’s relationship is suffering though he works very hard at it all because his identity has become too wrapped up in a mask he feels trapped into maintaining.
Perhaps more than your “Big things”, your “Motive things” are essential to creating a real person. There are characters who “Discover” a “Big thing” as time moves on, but our “Motive things” change slowly and less drastically. This is how a character lives, what they do most of their life. This is the face people get to see when they take more than a glance, and is important to keeping role-play going after the “Big things” have drawn other players in.
On secrets: this is the place for them! If you’re going to have a secret, it can be a “Big thing” so long as keeping it a secret is a “Motive thing”. If your character is secretly racist, having that discovered negates the secret, not the racism. Now you create a new “Motive thing” to confront the “Big thing” being public. Bam, character development. But if your character’s concept is keeping the secret, you’ve got nowhere to go. You’ll need a new “Big thing” when you’re discovered.
3: Flavor things.
Our politician is a big Yankees fan, he loves baseball in fact. He’s got season tickets but usually lends them to friends as he can’t make most games. His favorite color is, unsurprisingly, Yankee Blue. He’s a fan of the Rolling Stones and never really got into newer music except by contemporary artists. He’s left handed, but pretends to be right-handed for the most part, since that plays better. He was born in July. The sound of metal on metal makes him cringe.
These are little things, they don’t matter much, they won’t usually, if ever, really come into play. But they can be included in small ways that make the character feel more like a person and less like you in a vague costume. For myself these little details, the small things, help me “find” the character, rather than express them. “Flavor things” are just that, they add a bit of flavor, a touch of context for the character as a person.
Never expect these things to be noticed. They’re small, and are only noticeable to those looking for them and many not even then. That’s fine. These shouldn’t be plot items, this ought to be something that someone notices is different about you when you’re out of character. All of a sudden you don’t have that subtle limp or that nervous flick. You cross your legs differently. Small things fill a character’s reality out.
A note about scale before we move on. Props should be big to small in terms of importance as well to an extent. Really important props should never be small. That tiny ring is never going to be noticed amongst all the costuming. The Yankees cap or cauldrons with the Lorraine Cross on them will be noticed. If it’s character essential and to be noticed, make it big. If it’s a minor character prop, something for flavor, it can be small. Unimportant things can be big, though. The pouches you wear, if pouches are common in your game, won’t matter (if they aren’t common, that says something else). If your character likes a particular color and wears it often, that’s fine. But if your character is incredibly fanatic about something, and the prop to represent that is small I can guarantee it’ll usually be missed unless you point it out often, which comes across as fairly boorish.
So now we have our character concept rounded. From there, I tend to build my sheet based on what the character would have balanced against what I can afford in XP. It is important to now what your spendable XP allowance will be at creation, so you know how advanced you concept work ought to be. If you have a small amount of XP to work with, bringing in someone who’s supposed to be a master warrior is a poor choice since you’ll not have the stats to back up the backstory.
Further, you may have certain skills your character might have by your concept, but aren’t mechanically very valuable and others might take precedence. Balance carefully. Min-maxing (starving some areas just to have one ability over-powered) is often looked down upon simply because it breaks the immersive and realistic feel of the characters.
I’m not going to get into much of the mechanical build process simply because every game has remarkably different needs, but hopefully this possibly too long analysis will be something that you can use to help build fuller, more fulfilling characters to play.
May 23, 2013
Using LARP as an exploration of gender politics by removing male/female and making it about whether you are a “Morning” person or an “Evening” person. I’d have liked to see them explore a lot more, but this was fantastic. I’d love to engage this experiment. Also, a fantastic idea of making a LARP solely about love, not conflict.
That. Is. AMAZING.
From the YouTube Description:
Uploaded on 28 Feb 2011
Emma Wieslander works with development of organizational management and leadership in social economy and non-profit organizations. Much of these theories has evolved from her years as a chair person of Sverok, the Swedish organization for role-playing, LARP, computer-gaming etc. She was the conceptual designer of the multi art production Mellan himmel och Hav (Between heaven and sea) that combined roleplay with light art and modern art music at Swedens national theater. The game was highly political and deconstructed the idea of gender as we know it. She is currently working on a new political vision focusing on environment issues among other things.
From Nordic Larp Talks Stockholm 2010.
May 23, 2013
I’ll post more on FFVII soon, I’ve been insanely busy! My poor, neglected blog… -_-;;
But this post will be about a game, specifically the New Jersey chapter of a game, called Dystopia Rising.
Now, I’ll be honest, I had low expectations for this game. Not because it didn’t look professionally done or well thought-out, but rather I had made quite a few assumptions solely based on the genre: Post-Apocalyptic Zombie LARP. I, and maybe upon reading that you as well, made the assumption this would be a role-play-light, heavy-combat game focused on fighting and very little on character interaction.
Phew, was I wrong!
Right away, I spent time NPCing. Dystopia Rising (DR) allows you to play the weekend for free, if you’re NPCing the whole time. Well, only NPCing. You do get to sleep and eat, of course! Not that I did the first two months. -_-;; I knew, just from NPCing, that this game was going to throw a lot of Roleplay at the players, not just combat. I honestly expected just to spend hours slogging through waves of zed, having a fairly dull time and getting little player interaction.
NOPE. I played more zed than roleplay NPCs, but I was surprised by the sheer quantity of roleplay mods sent out! Moreover, I was shocked to see how many mods weren’t puzzles or scavenging or killing, but straight up simple things like “move object A to site B under the cover of night, and don’t get killed.” It sounds boring, but just trying to move around at night half expecting to have zed drop out of the shadows and start wailing on you was brilliantly terrifying.
Oh, right, this game is big on horror. Silly it can be, but also downright terrifying. At one point, I walked into a building filled with antagonists, expecting to have to talk my way through, only to discover every last one of them slaughtered in the bar. I honestly felt my heart rate jump, my throat tightened, and I froze. Something wiped a group of people that forced the town from its central building.
Walking in on that, alone, and being completely convinced something would kill me? Horror done right. No jump scares, nothing actually coming at me, just a great deal of uncertainty.
So, is that what makes DR good? Well, that’s part of it.
Mostly, it’s the people, and how they exist within the system. DR is built around making people work together. The Zed are overwhelming in number, they could easily swamp the town if people didn’t work together. Plus, you have Raiders, who are like Firefly’s Reavers only… No, no. they’re Reavers. Kill them or RUN. And there are human threats. That can quite frankly be the most dangerous. Scratch that. They are absolutely the most dangerous.
But beyond that, you have to work together to get things done. Need a better weapon? You’ll have to trade to get the components together, then find someone who can build it, and probably pay them since they’re burning power stats and time on the crafting. Low on Mind Points (Your “mana” or power stat)? You need to find someone who can heal yours or find a meal with stats or a brew with the same. Of course, if you’re not careful, someone could easily drug you. “Check Compound” is a useful little trick.
And you need to be trained to learn new skills. Talk to the right people and that training will be awesome. You have to RP the time to learn the new skill, and it can be wonderful seeing how different people “teach” their skills, how they see what they do. I recently picked up “Tinker”, and now I need to be taught to read and build and repair. I actually look forward to the RP time to do these, not just to the skills themselves. That’s something special, I think.
And then there’s the players themselves. I know it sounds like I’m gushing, but I’m actually holding back. But it’s easy to gush about a game in which a player will sit and roleplay a conversation with an unimportant NPC to try and heal their mental illness, and go over the required time simply because the roleplay works. DR has been one of the best Roleplay experiences I’ve had, which was startling.
But beyond that, what about the system? Oh, it’s hardly perfect. I had packet archery, but in a world that allows Nerf™ blasters as physical representations of firearms, it makes sense. Having arrows outrange, badly, firearms just doesn’t work. It’s a good scaling compromise.
Moreover, I enjoy the flurry system they have in effect. You can only strike three times, in a ninety degree arch, and in different spots each time. This makes the strikes play more realistically, and gives less experience players a better chance in the boffer area. The combat is easier to track as well. As an NPC, keeping track of three people sending a hail of strikes at you is virtually impossible.
DR is also very good at preventing Power Creep. Power Creep is what happens, especially for long-running games, when Player Characters manage not to die for an extended period, and just accumulate so much on their sheet and inventory. In Dystopia, it is very easy to die. A lot. You’d think this is bad, but it makes combat more present, more engaging. It is so easy to lose the immediacy of fear for yourself when you’ve gotten to the point you cans stomp anything into the ground. But when no matter how good you are there is still plenty out there to make your life difficult, plenty of NPC skills that can put you into a very bad place, every confrontation becomes a “thing.”
The different Strains (Races) and Professions also diversify the game quite well. I’d like to see more, but there’s always more I’d like, and DR is still very good at giving you options that fit the universe. For the veteran Fantasy LARPer, it’ll be a bit of a shock, since many of the standards just aren’t here. The game’s world doesn’t work the same way, and it’s less shiny. Figuratively and literally the world is darker, grimier, and rougher. “Pretty” becomes a relative term in a world where fragile things just don’t tend to survive and your enemies don’t just want to kill you-some want to eat your or skin you. If you arrive expecting to play an elf, you are entirely out of lucky. If you want to play a dwarf, try being a Bay Walker (kidding, kidding!).
There are four DR games I know of thus far, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Texas. Feel free to check out their site at Dystopia Rising LARP and join the fun! I’ll be happy to loot your corpse later.
January 17, 2013
Or, “My Boyfriend Wouldn’t Let Me Rename Cloud to Tidus” (AKA “My Boyfriend Wouldn’t Shut Up Until I Played It)
So, I’ve never played a Final Fantasy game. This month I turn twenty-nine, and in my nearly three decades, dozens of JRPGs, and familiarity with the PlayStation console I’ve never played a Final Fantasy Game. Not even the side games. The “closest” I’ve ever come is watching “The Spirits Within” and I’ve no reason to relive those traumas, thanks.
I picked up FFVII for the boy for Christmas, and he starts in on me to play it. Eh. I like JRPGs, and this is somewhat the archetype, so I might as well. And, I figure that I might as well keep tabs on the progress in my Blog.
Let’s be SUPER clear, I’ll be posting my take on the game, the entire game, so expect spoilers. SPOILERS ALL OVER. I will ruin the plot for you, if you haven’t played it. You’ve been warned.
And before we go further, let me say I was not allowed to rename Cloud “Tidus”, Barret “Ballsack”, or Aeris “Kebab”. The boy did let me rename Tifa “Derpina.” I am thus satisfied.
So the first thing I realize is that the current cast of misfit “heros” are, essentially, ecoterrorists as presented. The main character, Cloud, is a merc they hired. Keen. And we (AVALANCHE) are going to stop the evil organization (SHINRA) from draining the planet of it’s life force (Mako) by blowing up a reactor and killing untold numbers of presumably innocent workers who probably think they’re providing harmless power to their fellow citizens.
And the controls are kinda wonky. Yeah, alright.
We have a few bosses, some random encounters, stores to check out, and Aeris to meet. Oh, and Cloud gets to cross-dress and it was fabulous. Somewhere around here I joking say “Couldn’t AVALANCHE just take out the plate and destroy the reactor?” “Yeah, but it’d kill everyone.” “But save the planet. Win some, lose some.” Very tongue in cheek, very clever, until it happens. But it’s SHINRA setting up AVALANCHE to take the blame.
Biggs, Wedge, and the almost love interest Jessie all bite it in this scene. We’ll talk about them in a bit. The heros fight valiantly, but fail to stop the plate from falling. Everyone on the plate, everyone below it, dies. Watching it immediately brought 9-11 to mind, which was somewhat uncomfortable (though not triggering for me). It was a decent scene, they’d set it up well, and it kinda fell flat. Well, no, it didn’t, but it should have.
The characterization at this point has not impressed me. Cloud is your standard roguish young hero with a troubled and mysterious past. and it’s not a very interesting past, even with his pseudo mental illness I’m also going to touch on later. Biggs and Wedge? Those two never get interesting enough for their deaths to be emotionally impactful. Jessie, the cute, awkward girl that like Cloud should have been more of a gut punch, but we barely got to know her so her death was also pretty empty. Barret is a fascinating character, but his characterization is dull as dirt. “Derpina” is less interesting that watery, cold oatmeal.
But Aeris actually shines. Within a few conversations, we get her personality. her drive. Who she is comes across quickly, fully, and elegantly. Rarely do I see characters so quickly and perfectly laid out. Oh, and there are lots of other people who show up once or twice with all the personality of “third guy at the bar, scene 12, take 6″.
Barret I want to be interesting. You’ve got a guy who clearly grew up tough and bad ass, but responsible and caring, in the slums under the plate of Midgar, and he gets caught up in the conflict between the desire to be with his daughter or fight for her future. DAMN that’s good. But his dialogue? His screen time? Mediocre.
Cloud…. aaahhhhh, I’m sure it gets better. He fits the standard trope, but he’s part of the reason for that trope. Hardly the origin, but he helped make it a “thing”. His voices are interesting, though. Hearing voices has no single diagnosis. It’s one of those odd things that we aren’t really sure of. Right now, i don’t know enough about Cloud to say why he’s hearing voices, but I’m very interested in how they handle that.
But that’s all we’ve got for characters. This great tragedy occurs, half the characters we’ve met die or are kidnapped, and except for the weird echo of 9-11, which I wouldn’t have had had I played this back in ’97, there was simply no emotional resonance. Presumably thousands of people just died, and I just wanted to move the game along. In terms of story telling, FFVII is not scoring high just yet.
So now we have to climb back up to the floating city. There have been parts that feel very gimmicky (the timed “escapes”, for one), but there are also parts that work tremendously well-the Materia system is probably the magic system I will be saddest to let go of when i finish the game, and I’ll comment on that in another post when i’ve had more time to play with it. Thus far it’s a solid JRPG, nothing mind blowing, but very rich, lots of depth. I’m only three hours in, so don’t nail me to the wall yet, fan boys.
November 30, 2012
I’ll be joining Knight Realms ( http://www.knightrealms.com/ ) tonight, doing the NPC thing all tonight, tomorrow, and tomorrow night. I’ve got a ride, and a desire to shoot things with padded arrows.
Report of my weekend after I get back and have time-I won’t do a review until I’ve had the chance to play for a while. Cheers!
November 28, 2012
So, it’s very apparent that my symptoms got worse some years ago, probably not coincidentally around the time I broke my skull (it was a minor fracture and moderate concussion-nothing too gory). But not hugely bad. I’m still very high-functioning for the most part. But not all days were created equal.
Most days I have noise, static. It is very hard to describe, quite possibly because I’m not absolutely sure what needs describing. But I can certainly tell you what it’s like losing the world entirely. Those days are when I am not distracted, I’m not having trouble filtering real and unreal-some days i can’t be bothered to even try. And the worst moments, there’s no filtering possible-real has taken a complete back seat.
If you wanted to rate how in-sync I feel with the world (feel, not am-we’re operating n an entirely subjective scale, here), I’d say if ten is perfect, one is completely gone, I’m probably usually around a seven or eight. Hey, passing grade! I’ll take it! Really good days are nines, and on the rare ten, the world is really… dull. Quiet. normal. It feels like there’s nothing happening in my head that isn’t really, pretty much, out there for everyone else to see as well. Those days are, in their own way, mildly disturbing. You do get used to it, in a sick way.
Bad days it gets to a five, and I talk to myself, I mutter, I’m twitchy and I’m probably that person you avoid sitting next to on the train. If I roll a three, we’re talking mood swings that make Girl, Interrupted look like an episode of Full House. I’ve never had a day at one. One is that moment where something in my head crosses wires terribly and I am not connected to reality anymore. Whatever world I’m seeing, and it’s never a pleasant trip, is just… scary. I’ve spent over an hour in a nightmare world, so I’m told. If I’m unlucky, I remember it. My subconscious is pretty gruesome.
So let’s really pick apart some of these episodes. I don’t know if it will help me, but maybe it’ll provide someone with something. I can’t describe the transitions from one state to the other-they’re too fuzzy. Think of it like switching channels on an old TV-you don’t smoothly crossfade from one signal to another-you start on channel three, there’s a moment of static, then channel two. Switch back and it’s the same. Now imagine Channel two is transmitting their sound turned up several times what it ought to be, and that static in between is so loud it’s silent (which makes no sense, but the analogy is stretching thin). I suppose the brain just blanks out during that moment of conscious/subconscious shear.
I remember waking to a room full of death. Not zombies, but not inanimate. As if the concept of death were animate, and… not malevolent, but it wasn’t friendly, either. It was pervasive. I could feel the cells in my skin dying and falling away, could hear each cell’s agony, odd as that is. I could hear everything in the room, everything that had been alive or was kept from growing. There were bodies, but they weren’t real corpses, but ideas-concepts of dead individuals. My nerves squished of death (I have no idea how else to express that concept-imagine feeling like rot, decay, and death, inside and out and all over and surrounded), my eyes weren’t seeing all this, because they were decay, I just knew what was around me.
I wanted to scream, and scream, and scream. But I couldn’t, because my throat was dead. But apparently my real body was very capable of screaming. Talk about embarrassing. I’m sure, had my psyche not been realign from the sudden separation from and re-emersion into reality, I’d have been beet red. All that, in what was, I’m told, about fifteen seconds.
Could have fooled me.
Another time, I was home with my parents. The pet birds were loose, and I stepped on one. Bare foot. It was still alive, and I couldn’t do a thing for it. It just fluttered, broken and in pain and I couldn’t make myself end its suffering, and then it rotted away. First it’s head shed the feathers, and the flesh turned to nothing, leaving the bones. Then the rest of the flesh on the body melted away, the feathers disappeared, and I was holding a skeleton. I dropped the body, and it was alive, but broken again. I couldn’t catch the poor creature before it hit the carpet and it’s back snapped like a twig, it’s neck twisting to the side. And the other birds were dead. And my dogs were there, nothing but bones long since passed from life, and the rest of everything was perfect, normal, exactly the way it should be.
That was the part that really scared me, nothing could have been further from sanity-the world was perfect to memory-every smell, every sensation, every surface just how it should have been. But not. I was there. Obviously, I wasn’t actually even in the same timezone, but my mind was fully believing what I saw.
And this shit happens to me while I’m awake.
Back it down to a two, and you have severe problems all their own, where reality and illusion are just too hard to keep separate, because what’s real just is less solid than what isn’t. A year ago we’d just gotten the heat in the house turned on, and it was noisy. Insanely noisy. And it was just clanking and clanking and ringing and just the sound of metal on metal all night and it rattled inside my skull and I tried to dig it out of my head, I tried to knock it from my skull but it wouldn’t go away. It got louder and louder, and I got angrier and more upset, I wanted to rip down the walls, I wanted to hurt myself, pain and noise could make it go away, I knew it, if there were just enough. Enough pain and/or noise could block out this horrible, mind-piercing sound that just wouldn’t stop. It could, I had to try.
The worst part is that enough pain and sometimes enough noise, and certainly both, can somewhat block it out. It’s like stimming on another level altogether. I have a couple scars on my left arm I’m fairly secure in my belief must have come from stimming of some sort when I was having an episode. I can’t say for certain-I only remember one day noticing I had the little things. One, on the base of my left thumb, is almost gone. The thin white line on my upper forearm looks permanent. It practically looks like a surgical scar, it’s so precise.
The violent impulses are bad, too. But I have those under control simply by abhorring violence, often refusing to use even justified violence when I ought to. (No, really-I once was trying to de-escalate an encounter while physically having to fight someone off). This doesn’t change the VERY vivid imagery of causing another person deep physical harm. The moments of utterly bizarre and unreasonable instant wrath that fills my stomach with fire. Someone brushes past me on the subway platform? I want to smash their skull on an “I” beam and fling them bodily onto the tracks. Someone laughs near me, talking quietly to a friend? Clearly they’re mocking me and I should rip their jaw free of their skull and smash their rib cage in, twist their knee until something breaks loose. Oh, that guy looked at me. Bring it. BRING IT. I WILL FUCKING STAB YOU IN EVERY ORGAN. Or, calmly control my heart rate and adjust my shoulder straps.
These are, not surprisingly, more common the lower my day scores. And yet, I believe I live a fairly peaceful life, at least as far as my own actions are concerned (the incidence of people starting fights with me is, however, somewhat remarkably absurd. I swear, I’ve got a psycho magnet hidden on me and when I find that damn thing I’m dropping it in the atlantic). I think my mental issues have given me an absurd level of stability on my decent-to-good days. Maybe this is necessary for living in a place like New York City-after what my brain throws my way on a bad day, nothing reality has in store can really turn me upside down for all that long.
Today was a nice eight or nine. I rather those numbers.
November 25, 2012
I’ll be speaking of the series in terms of the Trade Paper Backs, not the saddle-stitch issues.
David Mack’s Kabuki is one of those comics that comes at you sideways. Pick it up, and you’re reading a standard hyper-violent, Japan-themed comic book in black and white. The inking is excellent, the visuals are striking, it’s masterfully accomplished, but it seems pretty normal. Right away, you should notice Mack is doing something different with his ink, though. Balancing negative space, repeated images, objects morphing into symbols and vice versa. Painful subjects including rape and death and cultural annihilation show up. Assassination, cultural decline, and corporate super-powers show up as well. In the first few pages of volume one.
Afterwards, a child is murdered, but revived, and we get what might feel like a cliche’d story of a child raised to be an assassin. The storytelling and art are fantastic, but I felt, at first, that the story being told was very common. Even the subversive climax is really not that unexpected. But the telling is so brilliant, I came back for volume 2, just to see where he’d go with it. I expected more of the same: a standard action Comic told with masterful skill.
I was wrong on half of that. Dreams was anything but a shoot-em-up violence-laden smash up. Rather, it is a multi-media feast with gorgeous, brilliant, and startling visuals, in an array of carefully picked styles and ideas.the way he plays with the words and lettering add to each image. Mack manages to do something most comic book artists forget about, using the words on the page to add to the visuals. Each moment has its own style, its own ideas generated by the contents of the individual frame (or lack thereof). This is taken further in Masks of the Noh in which Mack continues his tale, but from the point of view of the other agents in Kabuki’s team-each story told through a different artist. The mechanism is a skillful choice for the story telling.
Skin Deep is unique in and of itself, a glance into a fiction institution where reason and sanity and paranoia all exist as illusions and realities. Kabuki gains a friend, but she only speaks to this friend through notes that fall from an overhead air duct. She reads them, and destroys them, least the people holding her learn anything from them. Mack himself, and Kabuki, both talk about what is possible. Perhaps the notes are from a fellow agent, looking to build trust and kill her. Maybe it’s a trick of the institute she is trapped within. Worse, maybe it’s all a trick of her mind. And there’s the slim, but essential possibility that she has a secret friend who loves her simply for being her, the very first person to ever do so.
This has a lot of resonance for me. There is a lot of fear around mental institutions for both the mentally “sound” and those with psychological difficulties. For the “sane”, there is a fear of being surrounded by those with whom one cannot fully connect-no matter how well-trained, how accepting, how caring you are, the people around you are, in some small way at least, on a different wavelength. Maybe they simply commit self-harm, or perhaps they respond to a world entirely unlike the one everyone else shares-regardless, it’s unsettling. Humans like to believe that reality is solid in some way. But we get to thinking, around those whose reality is clearly different, that that may not be the case. It knocks our founding beliefs sideways.
For the handicapped, it’s a place that means you’re broken. Not really-it’s a place that means you need help, and hopefully the institute you’re at is truly trying to do so-but that’s not what it feels like. You feel constantly talked down to, looked down upon. You know these people can’t fully understand, and you’re right. But they still try so damn hard and it is infuriating. They tell you things that aren’t true, not because they’re lying, but because true for you is just plain different. “You don’t need to cut yourself”, they might say. Except that, yes, right this moment I do. Or, “You just have to not listen to them“. You try just not hearing what is being said to you, from a voice that knows everything about you.
This is where Kabuki finds herself, the setting we join her in, and it works perfectly. To progress in this story, Kabuki needs everything called into question, she needs her world shattered. I suppose that’s what I love about Skin Deep, because when Mack needed a place to restructure the story, to set it on a new course, he chose a place that is used to restructure minds. It was, to say the least, apropos. Moreover, this is the volume of Kabuki in which I fell in love with the main character. She is made fully human, with the help of her mysterious friend. This book deals on a very different layer with how people interact, how we communicate, and in doing so, I feel, highlights much of how we should be speaking to one another by removing how we normally can.
But the series continues to delve into these in Metamorphosis, in which we meet new friends, and see more of the Institution that Kabuki is trapped within. This continues Mack’s new extravagance with beautiful colors and inks, and brings us swiftly to Scarab (Yes, I’m skipping past Metamorphosis, essentially. Not because it isn’t good, but because you need to really read it and I really refuse to spoil even a moment of it!). Scarab is one of Kabuki’s former fellow operatives. We learn her story, though the other agents were more background to Kabuki until now. And Scarab is a girl. A normal, young woman in a very strange profession-a profession that means murder and blood shed and paranoia, deceit, and just as we really know and love this new person in our lives, we’re thrown backwards to the opening scene of Skin Deep, and clear up a startling scene in a surprising fashion that breaks your heart.
But the crown of the entire series, in my mind, is so completely different from the rest that I’ve seen many reviews pan it, though not as many as raved. The Alchemy is the grand finale, and takes a different role. There’s no weapons and madness, just a lot of healing-something maybe needed for everyone. There are a lot of fictions, a lot of deceits, and a lot of pseudo sciences, all used to present a truth. The Alchemy is not only a masterful take on multimedia in comics, and a mind-blowing look at how we can interact with and alter our own realities, but it is also a chance to embrace being human, and that essential component of interaction.
The title is apt. Taking one thing and making it another-that is what The Alchemy is all about. A lot of old images and symbols from the series are re-used-not because the artist is lazy-far from it! They’re, just like the main character, filing a new role and in doing so, becoming a new thing all together. Little notes and messages make up a great deal of this story, but as word-dense as this Volume is, the visuals are no less intense-and, in fact, The Alchemy is probably the most complex piece of all, with meanings and hidden details through out. You can read it like a normal comic, or really dissect each page, each image, every inch, and still find something new every read-through. I know, because I read The Alchemy regularly. It keeps me focused.
It also introduced me to an idea which I’m only now, upon writing the article, seeing again: the concept of a “Scar Name”. For Kabuki, this is a literal concept, but isn’t it, at times, true for us as well? I like the idea of a name having so many connotations of our past tied up into them, and furthering the alchemical concept, maybe we can change that. This is another recurrent theme in kabuki-words as part of reality, shapers not merely reflections of. One character says:
“If you don’t like the story your culture is writing, it’s not enough to rail against it or say you don’t subscribe to it. You have the obligation of writing your own story–to be a contributing author of your own culture.”
In this, we step away from words shaping reality in the metaphysical sense, and approach it in the very real sense. And you pick up, perhaps, that we’re not just talking about subversive literature and art and expression altering the culture as a whole, but perhaps also of a more personal level. Mack references the experiments of one Dr. Emoto in which water from fresh, natural, and healthy sources formed ice crystals that were more aesthetically pleasing and regular than water taken from polluted sources. Further, water labelled with words carrying positive connotations formed more appealing and evenly structured ice crystals than those labelled with words having negative connotations. While the science of this is pure bunk, and denied by a direct triple-blind test, the implication for ourselves is just as valuable.
Those whose psyches differ from the assumed concept of “normal” are mostly very aware that reality is in great deal simply perception. If I perceive this as “blue”, it is blue. If I perceive “red”, then red. But the same applies to how I see myself, doesn’t it? If I stop using the term “broken” for my mind and instead think “injured”, does that change things? If we avoid labels that chain and trample, using language that is instead accurate, but supportive, are we not going to see an alteration in behavior and perception, thus altering reality? Are we not on the edge of being the catalyst for our own alchemy every second?
This is what comes from David Mack’s Kabuki. Even if you don’t get the same ideas or see the same plethora of concepts dripping from each page, I’d say it’s worth a look.
November 2, 2012
Sorry my update got pushed back. Right now it’s just a mess of notes and the frantic panic of studying for a certification exam. Oh, and that whole “I live in New York City” thing.
Expect another article later today or tomorrow! I hope your loved ones present and past are well!
October 13, 2012
All the stuff around Comic Con and The Anachronism: Goblin Market has just fried me. I meant to post about the fantastic comic book series -Kabuki- by David Mack, which I honestly feel may be one of the most artistically accomplished artists and visually and topically brilliant pieces of serial graphic art ever. No hyperbole, it is, in fact, that amazing. You should absolutely go and pick up the entire series, now, and read it before I post about it Tuesday.
I’ve got this announce post under the same categories as you’ll see that post. Intrigued, yet?
October 11, 2012
I am, on occasion, asked how I know that what I think is reality is what everyone else is experiencing. I have no clever, canned response to this. See, it’s not a simple “Because ‘x’,” or even an “I’m not.” The reality is I’m sure it -isn’t-. Which is both terrifying and incredibly mundane, the latter is terrifying in it’s own way, but let’s try to keep this more linear than my actual thought process (I promise I’ll free-write for you sometime soon, so you can somewhat glimpse how my train of thought works. Imagine less train, more plate of spaghetti.)
I -know- that people don’t hear the constant sound of a crowd at a distance, see shapes darting around their periphery, and watch lizards crawling alongs surfaces that they aren’t. I know that it’s unusual to greet or speak to thin air. It disturbs me when I see others do it, because that’s not normal, right? I know what normal looks like, it surrounds me, and I’m not playing the same game.
Or I convince myself of that at least. See, objectively, there’s no real proof. I could be a brain in a jar. None of this could be real. Or I might be locked in some awful ward, trapped inside a world of my own. My hallucinations might simply be parts of the delusion that aren’t perfectly integrated. It’s occurred to me. I know I must seem crazy at times when I react to the nonexistent. But… I can’t really allow myself to care.
What would the actual, functional difference be? I could devise any number of tests, but if I can devise them, surely I can devise the “proof” to maintain the illusion. Or break it, which would be remarkably upsetting. Occam’s Razor suggests that I am at least close to a fully-functional person. I don’t scream at walls (often); I control my wildly inappropriate violent urges; I don’t make mention of anything I see that seems completely out of place. Of course, this is New York City, so often I don’t comment on the bizarre unless other people actively seem to notice it. For the most part I seem to interact primarily with real objects, things happen the way physics suggest they should, and so long as I’m not alone, there’s always someone else who I can at least hope will react only to real-world stimuli. The rest I can (usually) ignore.
It is a surprisingly uninteresting reality I occupy. Okay, so most people don’t see dinosaurs or have to let others enter a room first because it’s clearly on fire until someone’s inside of it. Most people don’t hesitate to respond to a stranger’s greeting on the grounds they might be a momentary loss of “normalcy”. Paranoia that makes every laugh on the train, every whisper, something cruel and derisive of oneself isn’t something common, at least at the severity I feel it (I gather this particular paranoia is normal to a small extent, but it’s one thing to feel off, it’s another to have to cap your retort because you’re -sure- they’re laughing at -you-). Most people don’t freak out when something isn’t where they remember putting it because it -was- there, I know it was, I put it there… didn’t I?
But… you either learn to tune it out because you’re lucky enough it’s a mild enough problem you can, or it drives you mad. I guess that makes me very lucky. So what if I never seem to get a quiet moment with this crowd always following me? They don’t really bother me even if it’d be nice if they SHUT UP for once. They don’t get in my way, so… whatever. Oh, just dropped change onto the sidewalk, not a homeless person’s cup. Alright. I’ll pick that up then. Or leave it, it’s just sixteen cents. That room is on fire. But there’s no smoke and people aren’t panicking. Cool. Someone will walk in and break that for me eventually. I just won’t go in there for a bit. That cat’s head totally was twisted the wrong way for a moment. Creepy, but probably done in After Effects.
It’s unsettling how -glib- you become. How jaded. How desensitized. Because after a while, or, y’know, life, you just adapt. Leaves glow during the summer, did you know that? It’s beautiful. But they really don’t. I always thought it was pretty until I realized it’s just a -symptom-, it’s just a reminder that part of me is -sick-. Kinda soils it. Pizza has the most colorful flavor of delivery foods, but it doesn’t. Because flavors aren’t colorful. That’s a misfiring neuron or something. My size relative to other people is variable. Sometimes they’re so much bigger, other times I am. But that’s just a matter of perspective and perception. I know that to be true, even if I only have what I want to be real’s word on it.
Tangent: You might expect it, given my tone and previous post, but I hate movies and shows that make mental disorders out to be almost-super-powers or romantic quirks. You can describe it romantically, until you really understand that any beauty that these delusions present (and they are usually not beautiful, but rather mundane or upsetting) in ruined by sheer fact that it’s a -lie- some disquiet part of my brain is creating. But back to the plot.
I’m told I’m considered eloquent. I used to have speech issues. On a bad day, I still do. Reading numbers is hard, and if the “fuzz” is really bad, it hurts. Oh, and I mentioned that these illusions are “dispelled” at times-I can’t touch them. I get tactile hallucinations rarely, and never combined with visual, but I can’t touch the visual ones either. It’s a good test. If I can’t get myself to touch it, it’s not real. But I don’t usually think like that. Who prods a stranger to see if they exist? My brain just finds ways to avoid even broaching the subject. But other people, naturally, pass right through them. And it breaks them.
I use the term break, because that’s what it feels like. It -hurts-. I know what being forced to break one myself feels like. It’s worse.
There was one time I had a minor panic attack because of something similar. I had just washed a cup and put a tea bag in. I was holding it and pouring in hot water when the cup randomly and suddenly cracked down the side. It startled me, and I wasn’t sure it was real. It seemed irrational and hallucinatory-but I was touching it. Remember when I said I never see what causes the tactile hallucinations? You see where this is going. For a brief few moments, or minutes, I’m not sure, I was abjectly terrified and certain that I was getting worse. If I could touch and see things that weren’t real, if my reality were cracking that much and so suddenly, my foothold on the “real” was meaningless, and thus so was I.
I was scared, tears flooded out of me, and I doubt anything I said for the first couple of minutes as my boyfriend comforted me made any sense.
See? It’s more complex than any short statement could encapsulate. I spend every day dancing on Occam’s Razor, wondering how many times it will cut me. So, in point of fact, there’s little point in wondering how I know if my perception of the world is real. If I worried about that, I’d misstep and those days are never good.
And that’s why I’m dealing with aces.