The tradition of serialized comics

In Spiegelman’s discussion of old-timey comics, he doesn’t dwell much on the serialized nature of most comic strips, but I feel as though this is very important to the comparison he invites between these comics and his own art. He talks a bit about Krazy Kat and how its “daily variations” invited psychoanalytic readings but ultimately “presented an open-ended metaphor that could contain all stories simultaneously.”

 

No comic I know of is as deeply open-ended as Krazy Kat, but it seems to me that because they’re serialized, comics have the potential to tell all stories eventually, if not simultaneously. One of the charms of comic strips, and probably one of the reasons they’re associated with nostalgia, is that characters don’t age; the events of one day’s strip need not have anything to do with the next days. With a limited number of characters, most of which are clearly defined, strips end up exhausting their narratives, and presenting the same narratives again and again. For example, Dilbert has been making fun of bureaucratic absurdity for 24 years: it’s still funny because it’s still relevant.

 

In the Shadow of No Towers, of course, stops at ten strips. Spiegelman’s introduction calls his book “a slow-motion diary of what I experienced while seeking some provisional equanimity,” noting that the political atmosphere began changing after his strips. By foregrounding the political, Spiegelman intentionally limits the scope of his project compared to serial comics, which turn politics into topical humor and leave it at that. Even the largest shadows disappear with the sun (Spiegelman 10).

Gone Home and the tradition of silent protagonists

In her nuclear family, Katie comes off as probably the most “normal.” Her parents and her sister all have their arguably token demons or issues: Terry’s childhood abuse, Jan’s wandering eye, and Sam’s homosexuality. Katie, in contrast, seems a model daughter. We see her trophies for high school Track and Field, a charmingly generic memento from kindergarten with her name as an acronym, and her sweet and witty postcards. Everything that would make her particular, like her room, is boxed up.

The way that Katie interacts with her family’s possessions makes it clear that she’s legitimately a good kid, like when she says “ew” upon seeing a condom and refuses to read about Sam and Lonnie’s sexual experiences together. Katie is alone, so we know she’s not affecting her prudishness/discretion, although it’s such a minor ethic that it doesn’t disturb my ability to “possess” Katie as an avatar.

I’m not quite sure what to make of Katie’s strange lack of baggage compared to Gone Home’s other characters. Maybe we’re being asked to think about what we’re hiding behind impressive veneers, or to better feel compassion from a feeling of superiority. Maybe Katie is the neutral option amid the smorgasbord of personal issues catalogued in Gone Home.

I do want, though, to try to situate Katie within games’ broader tradition of silent or near-silent protagonists, who are usually quite bland. The first video games necessarily were light on dialogue, so characters like Mario, Pac-Man, and the spaceship from Space Invaders spoke with actions instead of words. Samus Aran is an example of a character who doesn’t speak because of her profound solitude, and Half-Life’s Gordon Freeman an example of a mostly silent protagonist whose rectitude feels almost a source of disquiet.

Speech is an incredibly complicated endeavor, and in shooters and other games that tell their stories through interactions or through found text, dialogue can inhibit the player’s ability to project onto or into the protagonist. For example, Uncharted’s Nathan Drake and Metal Gear Solid’s Solid Snake very much do not belong to the player. Games like Fallout that offer extensive conversation trees try to ameliorate this by letting the player decide on their avatar’s personality through a series of finite options, but that’s another conversation.

Point being: as a formal element, having a silent player-character usually leaves a lot of space for the player. In Gone Home, the choices afforded the player are minor, or matters of degree: there are the sandbox elements of the game, and then the constant question of how far the player wants to take their voyeurism, how long to linger on each textual object.  The mission forced upon Katie and therefore the player is less obtrusive than a hunt for a princess: it’s a series of sensible questions and answers about her family and her sister. There’s not much to alienate the player; but maybe at the same time, there’s not much in Katie to provoke, either.

Expanding on the Braid/Super Mario comparison

I’m really struck by the extent to which Braid invites comparison between itself and the 2D Super Mario platformers. We have the Goomba-like creatures, the absurd, unexplained jump height, the Pirhanna Plants in their pipes, the end-of-level flag and castles, the lines of tilted platforms and ladders from the Donkey Kong arcade game, and the Princess narrative (am I missing anything?)

We talked about the work that Braid does to subvert the Princess narrative and the flag/castle trope in class, but what really hit me the most was the relationship between the player and the Goomba creatures that we had to spend so much time bopping. In the original Super Mario Bros., Goombas flatten when you jump on them, and disappear uneventfully if you hit them otherwise. In Braid, the creatures look surprised and a little bit sad when you stomp on them, and because of the time-reversing mechanic, we get to relive their facial expressions over and over. So there’s a sort of human cost to solving each puzzle, where Tim has to cause pain to further his quest. And as opposed to the Mario games, where the Goombas are essentially obstacles and antagonists, in Braid, the player needs to manipulate the creatures extensively in order to move forwards.

In contrast to Mario, too, where all of the hazards Mario faces are united in opposition against him, the Pirhanna Plants in Braid can hurt the Goombas. Tim, then, is almost something of an interloper in an existing sort of natural order (does this tie into the whole nuclear theme?).

This is a little bit tangential, but another difference between Mario and Braid is the sort of incentive systems they have in place with the player. In Mario, the pleasure is strictly gameplay-oriented; it’s a hallucinatory trip of a game, from the graphics to the novelty and surprise of the invisible blocks and secret shortcuts. In Braid, Blow definitely suggests that the puzzles are supposed to be their own satisfaction–each level becomes one of the “blocks” of the mini-castle at the end of the epilogue, and there’s nothing in the way of a purely mechanical experience of the game. Because it is, at that level, a really, really fun game, where the time reversal mechanics allow Blow to up the difficulty, and force the player to be incredibly precise.

But with the puzzles in the epilogue, and the text at the beginning of each level, Braid dangles text and story advancement as an additional carrot to the player. The epilogue is particularly interesting, because the puzzles that reveal the additional text are optional in terms of completion of the game, and hiding Tim is a very symbolic gesture.

I know story as incentive is nothing new in video games, but I think this is helpful in thinking of the difference between theme in a traditional sense, and mechanical metaphors. Whereas Dys4ia is offputting because the “game” elements often just give you access to the next message (text), and Jason Rohrer’s games are about as pure as mechanical metaphors come, the epilogue of Braid works this in-between zone, where the player can opt to undertake symbolically significant actions to gain access to these very poetic vignettes.

God’s Law vs. Caesar’s Law

We talked on Tuesday about law, but I want to dig a little deeper into the dichotomy between religious and judicial systems of law, and the blurred line between these systems and individual characters’ ethical codes. Skiffington, our dear sheriff, finds “solace…in separating God’s law from Caesar’s law” (43). In practice, this turns into a private-public life distinction, and Skiffington at first works simply to maintain social order, whether it means blocking the window so white women can’t see Moses naked (173), or appeasing Robbins and the other citizens in the sense that they’re his clients/constituents. Crucially, what he seeks is “solace,” though, not what’s right; by deferring to larger authorities, Skiffington absolves himself of responsibility, in a sense. This goes to crap, of course, in the last chapter, but that’s another topic.

Whereas for Skiffington the dynamic between religious and judicial law is a sort of internal struggle, the tension between these systems is externalized elsewhere. In particular, when Henry and Augustus fight after Henry tells Augustus about purchasing Moses, they embody each side of the argument. Augustus refers twice to God: he tells Henry “don’t go back to Egypt after God done took you outta there” (137), and he refers to “God’s earth” (137). In contrast, Hnery refers to the fact that he “ain’t broke no law” (138), and “ain’t done nothing I ain’t a right to” (138).

Augustus is appalled at Henry because of inability to empathize with the slave he purchased. Henry appeals to social order, and, crucially, the idea that “he ain’t doing nothing no white man wouldn’t do” (138). There’s so much to unpack here: judicial law as dehumanizing and religious law as humanizing; Henry’s quadruple negative and the way he’s trying to deny the social order he grew up in by succeeding within it, how for Skiffington dealing with this tension is a job and for Henry and Augustus, it’s their lived experience. There’s much (much much!) more work to do here, but I think it’s helpful to divide systems of law and ethics within the book to empathetic and religious vs. legal and societal.

Mapping in “The Lizard of Ooze”

We talked a fair amount in class about the relationship between the “Night Towns” and the real world in “The Lizard of Ooze,” but we never brought up the story’s own explicit commentary on what it calls the “Cities of the Map” (Lake 163). As opposed to the a real world “ruler-straight city girded by concrete and stone,” Astur exults how Ooze changes such that “with a turn of the head the world would be different” (169).

I want to look at this characterization of Ooze in terms of Jameson’s geneology of cognitive mapping. Jameson says that postmodernism’s new type of hyperspace has “succeeded in transcending the capacities of the individual human body to locate itself, to organize its immediate surroundings perceptually, and congitively to map its position in a mappable external world” (43). Ooze, though, is not a mappable external world, and Astur claims that it is precisely this that makes Ooze superior, or at least more interesting, than the “Cities of the Map.” Ooze is described in terms of it’s landmarks, which seem concrete enough–“The Seats of Ease” (159), the “comestitorium” (162), the “Descending Stair” (167)–and its social orders. But the narrator still finds himself in unfamiliar territory when he visits the lizard, who continually changes its physical manifestation according to the “logic of fear and desire” (168). Physical order, from Astur’s point of view, means mental constraint, and in this sense, we can view the New Weird as a revolt against the mundanity of the real world.

We can also look at the relationship between Ooze and its real world counterpart in terms of the story’s central conflict, that of Astur and the clown. Whereas Astur is a human wearing the costume of a Night Town, the clown is the inverse; a feral clown hidden beneath a human guise. Correspondingly, Astur is a champion of a sort of social order, while the clown is a threat, and this is what characterizes Astur’s humanity. This story, then, associates humanity with a Jamesonian commitment to logical orders–cognitive maps–over appearances, and turns appearances into the strange, unstable bodily permutations of the New Weird.