Sunday, 23 November 2014

On Post-apocalyptic fiction, and a review of the webcomic Stand Still, Stay Silent

I never liked Post-apocalyptic stories, for several reasons. Firstly, most of the genre is mired in Mad Max-clichés, if the genre is not a cliché by itself. One tires quickly of endless wastelands, rust and leather. There is not much in the genre that can't be traced back to its foundational classics: Mary Shelley's The Last Man (1826), Richard Jefferies' After London (1885) and M.P. Shiel's The Purple Cloud (1901). The last real injection of new blood the genre got was the invention of nuclear weapons providing it with a new method for the destruction of humanity.  The only reason  Cormac Mccarthy's The Road could be taken seriously was because it was marketed outside of the Science fiction "ghetto" towards people who hadn't read enough SF to know that it used the most tired clichés in the genre (1).

We also have the honestly reactionary politics  of much of the genre. After the apocalypse society degenerates into a Hobbesian war of all against all. Altruism and cooperation is treated as a product of modern civilization, a veneer over humanity's true brutish nature. This is of course bullshit. Altruistic and cooperative tendencies are part of humanity's basic nature, as such exists and the war of all against all that Hobbes presumed never existed. It is actually the war of all against all of capitalism that is the construct of civilization. This is because, unlike what post-apocalyptic fiction presumes, cooperation is the best strategy for survival there is. (2) If the apocalypse happened, humanity would most likely survive in groups, not lonely survivors.

Most Post-apocalyptic fiction is in fact nothing more than a macho power fantasy, in which the lone male hero survives and fights against the inhuman hordes (for reasons of sanity, I won't even go into detail on the books that feature the white hero preservering towards hordes of black people, like Heinlein's Farnham's Freehold or Christopher Priest's Fugue for a Darkening Island.) The spectre of Nietzsche's pseudo-philosphy haunts this: the ubermensch against the weak and effeminate "last men".

There is a consequent contempt of democracy. When groups of people are depicted, it's always controlled by forms of dictatorship or autocracy. No one, even people supposedly having lived their entire pre-catastrophe lives in a democracy, thinks of organizing democratically. There are no thoughts given to the advantage the open criticism of decisions can give. It is dismissed as a frivolous luxury, unfit for the real, harsh world. The ultimate example of this attitude in Post-apocalyptic literature is probably Farnham's Freehold by Robert Heinlein in which the hero controls a small band of survivors as a dictatorship. He justifies this with "lifeboat rules" (always invoked while pointing towards his pistol), which means that just like a lifeboat captain, he must be unquestionably obeyed to protect the collective safety of the group (3).

Thankfully, there is none of this nonsense in Stand Still, Stay Silent, a webcomic by Minna Sundberg, a Swedish- Finnish comic book artist and writer. It tells the story of a world in which most of humanity has died from a horrific rash-like disease. The comic is set in the Nordic region 90 years after the cataclysm, where  250 000 human survivors hang on in very small quarantined safe areas, with the biggest being Iceland, due to its island nature. The rest of the world is the unknown "Silent World" dominated by the disease. Whether other humans live on elsewhere or not hasn't  yet been revealed. The comic is about an expedition into the Silent world of a multi-national team of explorers in order to get more knowledge about disease and recover knowledge from the old world.

The most interesting aspect of this post-apocalyptic world is that it has magic. The disease has created or returned the world to a mythological state, where Norse and Finnish mythology holds true. Magic exists and the old pagan gods are not only worshipped again, but even answer prayers. Trolls and Giants roam the Silent world. In this new world, nature is yet again, as in the time of Paganism, threatening and ineffable, making the return to the old religion understandable.
 This makes one of the most interesting worlds in Science fiction(fantasy comics. Sundberg avoids all of the clichés of post-apocalyptic fiction. In Stand Still there are no lone heroes surviving through macho bravery.  Instead it is the mundane, anti-heroic and bureaucratic process of quarantine that enables humanity to survive at all. This speaks to the more healthy attitude Sundberg has towards other human beings and democratic government (which basically save humanity here) compared to most post-apocalyptic writers. She has an awareness of the necessary dependence all humans have on each other and, in modern civilization, on the government.

There is also a refreshing optimism in her depiction of the human survivors. While there is a sense of humanity hanging on a thread, the human settlements nevertheless  keep civilization and technology alive to a large extent and actively try to create a new world for humanity to live in, by trying to come up with a vaccine for the disease and expanding their settlements through "cleansing" the Silent World. It's something that is almost non-existent in standard post-apocalyptic fiction and very heartening to see here.

The Nordic setting is wonderfully done and really makes this comic something unique. There are no Mad Max style clichéd wastelands here. For me, it makes the comic much more powerful and immediate, as it is set in places I have actually visited. When yourself have crossed the Öresund bridge, seeing it in ruins in the comic is chilling.
The use of Nordic and Finnish mythology is very well done and creates along with the setting a powerful atmosphere. It has much of the same feelings which echo throughout Scandinavian folk music, lore and mythology (4).

This feeling is in part due to Sundberg's beautiful art. Her backgrounds and environments are drawn with a painting-like detail and technique, yet filled with charm and the aforementioned atmosphere. It's frankly contains some of the most beautiful art in a comic I have ever seen, with its lush winter landscapes.

Using what Scott Mccloud calls the "masking effect", she contrasts these detailed environments with more simple "cartoony" (Mccloud uses the word "iconic") character designs. In her art, she takes influence from both manga and Franco-Belgian comics (she has explicitly mentioned Moebius, Herge and Uderzo as influences).  In her explicitly "Nordic" style, she reminds me of the old national romantic painters from the region, of which she has explicitly names Akseli Gallen-Kallela as an influence (5).

Her writing is also up to the task. She provides her well-built world with well-written and likeable characters. Even minor characters are given surprisingly full personalities, like the ancestors of the main character we meet in the prologue.

Sundberg also has a fine sense of humour, which despite the bleak setting is central to the comic. This is not surprising considering her influences, like the aforementioned Franco-Belgian creators and Don Rosa (6)

The comedy eventually gives away to it's opposite: horror. The apocalypse in Stand Still, Stay Silent has the for post-apocalyptic fiction rare quality of actually being scary.  The comic actually reminds me of Lovecraft at times. And like him, Sundberg knows the value of mystery in creating horror and suspense and deliberately keeps many aspects of the apocalyptic disease and the world it creates hidden from the reader, who must make their own conclusions. I won't spoil the comic by burdening you with my own explanations, but let me say that the rash disease is one of the most frightening fictional diseases I ever read about and the implications of the "trolls" and "giants" are truly horrific.

This speaks to the greatness of Stand Still, Stay Silent: It's apocalypse is human in every way.  Most post-apocalyptic fiction has a very limited view of humanity, one that doesn't makes sense. For Sundberg however, life after the apocalypse is just as human as life before it. There is still love, comedy, horror and, above all, myth.


(1) I have a burning hatred of Cormac Mccarthy. That his cowardly and reactionary tripe is more successful than Thomas Pynchon's daring prose is a severe indictment of modern culture.

(2) Biologist Frans De Waal has talked much of how so-called "Veneer theory" of morality is not borne out by the scientific evidence. Here's a good interview with him which touches on the subject.

(3) For more on the politics of Post-apocalyptic literature, I can recommend Paul O'Flinn critique of Golding's Lord of The Flies here and Cory Doctorow's takedown of Heinlein's Farnham's Freehold in this article. On Nietzsche, there is no better takedown on the net than Sator Arepo's Wagner contra Nietzsche on his blog Think Classical: Part I and Part II. The essay require some foreknowledge of both Wagner, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, but is nevertheless brilliant.

(4). This feeling is perhaps best conveyed by music and not words. Here are some swedish bands which have this unique "nordic" feeling: Änglagård and  Sagor och Swing 

(5) As sources for Sundberg's influences I have used this interview for the Webcomic Alliance and this other interview on Artagem

(6) Like most Finns, Sundberg is of course crazy about Rosa. Combining the two great cultural touchstones of Finnish culture: Donald Duck and The Kalevala has really paid off for him.


This comic was recommended to me by ScifiterX on the El Goonish Shive fan forums, who wished for me to review it.

Rain (webcomic review)

This is an unusual review for me, as it is an request. warrl, demonhunter and Zorua on the El Goonish Shive fan forums requested this, so now that I read the entire archives on their recommendation, lets hop on it. Also, here be spoilers. I'll avoid it, but it's inevitable.

Rain is a webcomic, written and drawn by Jocelyn Samara, about the title character, a teenage transgirl named Rain Flaherty. With the help of her aunt and guardian, Fara, she gets the opportunity to go through her senior year at high school as her true gender fulltime, something hitherto denied to her (Luckily, she passes very well as a woman). The comic is about her successes and challenges doing so, and about the various people she meets and befriends during the way.

The writing of the comic is rather good, despite being somewhat melodramatic at times, due to the drama being grounded in reality (including personal experience ), which gives it resonance and meaning. The characters are well-written and deep enough to be able to handle it. (1) The drama is also leavened with a lot of humour, which is needed in a comic like this, a self-proclaimed soap opera.

However, it shares a common problem with many of its brethren in the genre: there are too many unlikely coincidences for the sake of drama. The main cast consists with one exception of various sorts of LGBTQIA people (and the one exception's father is gay, because that's just how this comic rolls), which is somewhat unlikely in general and especially considering most of them go to and met at a Catholic School (2). To illustrate, the cast at the school includes one transwoman (Rain), two gay people (brother and sister too), an asexual woman and an pansexual woman, who all know of each other and are friends. Granted, most of them have valid reasons for going there and the school is quite large, but it is still rather improbable, especially as the comic recently added another transwoman to the cast, who has no reason whatsoever to be there.

It also turns out that the Dean of students just so happens to have a brother who is trans, which makes him more understanding than might be expected, thus he enables Rain to go to the school in the first place.  Outside the school, Rain and Fara  have a neighbour who is genderfluid. Yet another example is Rain's brother Aiken having a relationship with a woman, Jessica, who turns out to be transgender as well.

There is also some very unlikely relationships between the characters. Despite the characters moving around, somehow they always run into people from the past, having unknowingly moved into the same city as their friends did years before.
For example, it turns out that also at the school Rain goes to, is her old best friend Gavin, who she lost contact with moving many years before. Another example is Rain's therapist Vincent, who turns out be one of Aunt Fara's old partners (from 15 years prior) and  trans as well (granted, the latter isn't  improbable at all, considering he as a therapist specializes in trans issues).

This is just the most unlikely examples, but you get the point. The individual stories and characters are well-written on their own, but when you get them in bulk and connected together haphazardly like this it feels melodramatic and unlikely as a whole. One's ability to enjoy the comic relies on one's ability to look past these coincidences, to see the good writing that exists beneath them.

The art is not great and far from beautiful, but passable. It has the important (for me at least) quality of clarity. Every panel is clear and lacking in clutter. You never have to question who does what or what happens. This is an aspect of comics-making that even masters fail at sometimes, but is perhaps the most important aspect (3). There is much good and beautiful comic book art, which is sadly lacking in clarity, often due to an excess of detail. Rain may not look beautiful, but the art does tell the story, which is the most important aspect of good comic art.

So that is Rain, while it has many flaws, it also has many virtues. I suspect I would have been more impressed by it if I was a lot younger and hadn't read so much about this subject (4), so that it's themes wouldn't be so well-known to me. If I was fifteen, this would be a revelation. Now I can't help but compare it to the classic, but unfinished webcomic Venus Envy by Erin Lindsey, which is also about a teenage transgirl in high school. The themes of Rain are relevant, but they have been done before.

But despite this, there is much of value in the comic and the fact that it is fiction is very welcome. Transpeople seldom feature in fiction, at least not in a positive way, and it is a gap that needs filling.
They, as all people, deserve representation in fiction and culture. (5).


(1) There is of course some wish-fulfilment involved (the author is herself trans) in the scenario, but it never overpowers the story or is too unrealistic and it's hard to find fault with it. Remember that all fiction is wish-fulfilment of some kind, as fiction always reflects and confirms the author's world-view.

(2) It is expressly noted that being gay or transgender is regarded as a sin and worthy of expulsion. It just reminds me once again why such schools should be banned. It should frankly be illegal to treat minors that way, or even teach such rubbish to them. Frankly, private schools in general should be banned by law, for they do not place education foremost as a good school should: the only reason for most of them to exist is either to make money or push religious dogma. Exceptions should only be made for non-profit secular schools.

(3) Part of the reason Carl Barks and Hergé are held in so high regard is that their art always had that clarity.

(4) While not trans or gay, I'm not gender-conforming in various ways, something which led to me questioning my gender during my teenage years and reading everything I could find on transgender and gay people and issues. There was also sheer curiosity towards other people and a wish to understand in order to help some of the people who suffer the most under capitalism and the patriarchy.

(5)  Samara has talked about writing another comic with transgender themes, but this time a full on "magical girl" fantasy comic, called Magical. I can't help but find this even more interesting than Rain, as a fantasy story with (real) transgender people would be very original. Most decent fictional depictions of transpeople have been realistic dramas, and it would be nice if they could have a part in other genres.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Refugees from the old country (poem)

Refugees from the old country

I see the elderly stagger,
refugees from a country that no longer exists,
now privatized and sold off.
The land of my mother, dead and buried like her.
And like her, that land cared for the unfortunate
and the poor.
Only the distant dreams remain, once so near.

Flyktingar från det gamla Sverige.

Jag ser de gamla famla,
flyktingar från ett land som inte längre existerar,
numera privatiserat och sålt.
Min moders land, död och begraven som hon.
Och liksom hon, tog det landet hand om de fattiga.
Bara de avlägsna drömmarna finns kvar, en gång så nära.