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Devin Grayson & Sean Phillips, John Bolton

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26.99

Page 45 Review by Stephen

"The more I think about it, the less reality has to recommend it."

Originally published in 2001, this comic was so clever, accurate, eloquent and way ahead of its time.

It speaks of gender identity, sexuality, the escapist lure of the internet, online addiction, and the dangers of substituting virtual priorities for real-life interaction to the point of culpable negligence.

By the by, it also predicted how many of us would arrive bleary-eyed and outrageously late for work following an obsessive all-night session thumb-thumping away on video games.

But here, vitally, Devin Grayson is dealing with the creative capacity of the human imagination and the immersive power of stories and words, for Megan's obsession is with text-only live action role playing. It delves far deeper than you might anticipate and, as a graphic novel, it comes with its own illusions so mesmerising that they are water-tight.

For a start, although Sean Phillips's soft, shiny, largely monochromatic, photo-realistic art with its subtle deployment of colour charts Megan's real-life struggles outside of the online arena... every single richly hued, neon-bright, fantastical image created by John Bolton is a complete sleight-of-hand. It's a sleight-of-hand that has become even more successful since the ascent of massively multiplayer online role playing games with their visual components because we are used to seeing these avatars interact with each other on the screens, but every single one of these images lies only in Megan's head.

When, therefore, we come to the first key climax at the end of chapter one, Megan's wide-eyed "Oh shit..." shock - graceful fingers hovering uncertainly over the keyboards - is a reaction not to the previous "on-screen" painting by Bolton which we see before us, but to the text which has conjured that startling image in her mind.

I have no idea whether Sean Phillips even had access to that image: one should not presume; each artist is more likely to have been working independently, concurrently, from script alone. Regardless, that moment once more proves what an extraordinarily accomplished character actor Sean Phillips is, and if Phillips couldn't see it, then that goes double.

Throughout the graphic novel Phillips nails those bleary eyes, as well as Megan's mood-swings. These become increasingly dramatic as the emotional pressures ramp up both inside and outside her virtual existence, the former's grip growing increasingly fierce and compelling while the latter is left to fall apart as reality begins to escape her grasp, Megan begins to make various levels of contact in out-of-character conditions and then loses the plot in so many more ways than one.

"I can no longer tell if there's something wrong with the world or something wrong with me," she concedes in a moment of rare lucidity before, "Or if that makes any difference."

I don't want to give too much away, but online Megan has assumed the guise of Sir Guillaume De La Coeur, a paladin who, Megan decides, is willingly in thrall to his adopted lord and mistress and who considers honour of paramount importance. In her mind, Sir Guillaume is a young, buff, blue-skinned beau who begins to fall in love with his master - a development which repels that master's real-life, out-of-character counterpart - and in lust with his best friend Lieutenant McCraven, also male and played by his OOC counterpart with a charming Celtic twang. Now that is received far more readily.

But an outsider calling herself Rose Violette, not part of the guild, had taken such a shine to Sir Guillaume that, err, well, and he in return courted her back. The next two sentences, when you stop to analyse them properly, are the perfect example of why I consider this the work of Devin Grayson's career to date.

"He is sincere. I made sure of it."

Seriously.

"And it's better than real. It's her dream come true."

Will Megan try to tread softly lest she tread upon those dreams? She will not.

When "Rose" becomes too clingy for Megan's comfort, Meg finds herself becoming as angry as her Dad, and voices that anger bluntly, brutally and in equally chauvinistic terms.

This is what I meant about gender identity for all the while Grayson - through having Megan adopting a gender which isn't her own - has encouraged you to wonder who else may not be who they seem away from the keyboard. And by "delves far deeper than you might anticipate", you will not believe the car crashes which the subsequent, extended, out-of-character interactions (which are blithely deceptive on Megan's part) begin to catalyse.

"I no longer think that it's just a matter of people not caring who you really are.
"I think we don't even know how to be who we really are."

Well, quite. We don't do spoilers around here, so you'll just have to see for yourself.

So what initially drove Megan so fervently into this online community?

With her home life disintegrating in the wake of her mother's departure, leaving her feckless father to wilfully ignore his other daughter's unsuccessful attempts to find off the unwanted sexual advances of his own supposed best friend (a silence Meg is complicit in), she found herself ignored and all but invisible except when asked to buy toothpaste.

Moreover at work she was growing disillusioned not only with importance attached to the bland stats of customer satisfaction surveys, but to the disingenuous compromise of allowing a drug's owner to fund a survey as to its efficacy.

By contrast to all this, as soon as she takes her first tentative steps into this virtual world, Megan is both noticed and embraced. Instead of being rebuked or rebuffed for her naivety, she is kindly and patiently educated during OCC asides, and she discovers a liberation in being who she wants to be while appreciating a structure she find easier to adhere to within this fictitious environment than dealing with the chaos without, which she is quick to abandon as beyond her control. Additionally, in place of dry statistics, Megan immediately starts relishing not just the fantasy but the creativity which is poured into such a sustained, shared narrative.

Grayson finds so much to commend in this remarkable communal endeavour: she is, after all, a wordsmith herself and her script is as immersive as the virtual, text-based experience she is conjuring.

Let us not forget that not everyone is as predisposed as Megan to abandon their sense of perspective.

The moment which I remembered most vividly from my first encounter with this work some sixteen years ago was when Megan - who had already begun subconsciously adopting the French language she employed in character - begins hysterically screaming "LOLOLOLOLOL!" as if having some sort of seizure.

That wouldn't work in film, but printed, in this medium, it's a triumph.

There's plenty more where that came from, along with a great deal of terminology and shorthand, new then, but which remains with us today even more prevalently deployed in text-messaging and on social media.

Speaking of that which endures, I leave you with these pithy truths which I grant you aren't quite so absolute in the age of the PS4 controller, but still:

"Live one's life so that it's worthy of respect and honour by all...
"And don't eat anything at the keyboard that requires more than one hand."

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