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Review In Real Life

In Real Life
Written by Cory Doctorow
Drawn by Jen Wang
First Second; $17.99

The story of a young woman who is also an avid gamer, In Real Life is a rather timely graphic novel—but not for the reasons you might expect (or dread), if you’ve been following the depressing news over the course of the last few weeks regarding the toxic sexism of gaming culture.

Rather, the book deals with a completely unrelated negative aspect of the Internet, the flip-side of one of the Internet’s great virtues: Connectivity.

That ability to connect with, communicate with, and play with people all over the world allows privileged, First World young people like our heroine Anda to engage in a fun and rewarding online life after school in a fantasy-themed Massively Multiple Online Role-Playing Game.

But it also allows for economic exploitation, as Anda learns when she stumbles upon the real-world phenomenon of “gold farming.” That is, people play the game  to make a living, specifically by playing to win gold (or points or experience or items or whatever the reward system of the game may be; in this case, it’s gold), which can then be sold to players in the real world for real money.

In the game, Anda meets up with fellow gamer girl Lucy, who goes on paid anti-gold farming missions (which basically amounts to having her avatar slaughter the avatars of the gold farmers, whose avatars resemble cute little snowmen gnomes). During one such raid, she gets to know a gold farmer named Raymond, a young Chinese man who works in a sort of gold-farming sweatshop.

Learning of his plight, Anda tries to help by forwarding on ideas garnered from her father’s experience with labor organizing and unionization in the states, but that doesn’t quite translate in China, and things just get worse for Raymond and his fellow exploited gold farmers. Ultimately, Anda is able to do some Internet judo and use the connectivity of the Internet to help solve a problem that grew in the shadows cast by the Internet’s connectivity in the first place.

In Real Life, written by novelist, columnist, activist and Boing Boing co-owner Cory Doctorow, is a pretty obvious, if not quite strident, lesson-story for young adults, the highlights of which Doctorow double-underlines in his prose introduction to the comic.

That doesn’t mean it’s not engaging though.

The art comes courtesy of Jen Wang, whose previous graphic novel was Koko Be Good, also from First Second. Wang’s art is an extreme treat. An assured character designer, she imbues every person she draws with a full range of real-feeling expressions, gestures, and actions, and Wang does a particularly incredible job of intimating a continuity between the real world and the game world of “Coarsegold Online,” the two locales that the book spends equal amounts of time in.

That is, rather than using any cheap coloring tricks or differentiated style to separate the worlds, the two locales seem equally real—or equally artificial, depending on how you want to look at them. The game world is mainly separated from the real world by its more fantastical contents. Additionally, Wang’s art keeps the basic faces and expressions of the “real” Anda and Lucy intact when they are in the gaming world, despite the fact that they’ve chosen avatars that are rather radically different from their real selves.

Anda’s avatar, for example, is super-slim, with porcelain white skin and long, straight, fiery red hair with severe bangs, while the real Anda is bigger, with unruly brown hair, and flesh-colored flesh. Lucy’s avatar has short, pixie-like blue hair with a life of its own, that same white skin, and a penchant for dressing in animal furs, while the real Lucy looks like a reverse-engineered version of the avatar, a skinny little freckle-faced girl with short brown hair that just lays atop her head.

Wang and Doctorow’s online world is an interesting one, a mish-mash of fantasy that seems as European as Japanese, with a wide, weird assortment of avatars, objects, and creatures that would seem to clash aesthetically sharing the same space, but because there is so much that is so different, it all ends up fitting together nicely and seemingly belonging together.

While the story’s main thrust involves the proper use of the Internet to effect positive change, Doctorow and Wang do touch on issues of interest and importance to a lot of gamers—and, perhaps in particular, girl gamers—as they arise. Much of this is subtle and appears only as background, like the activist who visits Anda’s school to encourage young women to get involved in MMORPG gaming and to do so as girls (instead of hiding their gender within male avatars), or the ways in which the avatars reflect the ways in which the real characters perceive themselves (or want to be perceived) and how, in Anda’s case, the avatar and the avatar’s life reaches back to affect her in her real life, from her appearance to the way she treats other people.

There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on in the art and under the surface of the book, which makes it somewhat unfortunate that Doctorow decided to pre-explain what he was going for in an ultimately superfluous introduction that will only bias and, perhaps, distract the readers.

It’s a well-written introduction, earnest and honest and with an important point to make, but, if you’re reading, maybe skip ahead to the comic, and then go back and read the introduction after you finish the rest of the book. In Real Life is good enough that it needs no introduction.

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J. Caleb Mozzocco About J. Caleb Mozzocco

J. Caleb Mozzocco is a way-too-busy freelance writer who has written about comics for online and print venues for a rather long time now. He currently contributes to Comic Book Resources' Robot 6 blog and ComicsAlliance, and maintains his own daily-ish blog at EveryDayIsLikeWednesday.blogspot.com. He lives in northeast Ohio, where he works as a circulation clerk at a public library by day.

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