By Carter Glace, Staff Writer
For a second week of breaking down female comic works, we look at a comic that takes well trodden ground and takes it in a fresh, fascinating, and thoughtful direction. “In Real Life,” co-written and drawn by Jen Wang, came out in 2014, and centers around Anda, a young computer programmer who gets sucked into the game Coarsegold Online. A MMO/World of Warcraft-type game, Anda is brought into a guild focusing on encouraging females to female characters, and discovers she has a knack for the game.
The topic of Massive Multiplayer Online games is a topic that has been well-covered. When both “South Park” and “The Simpsons” have done episodes on the topic, you know the topic has passed as ‘topical.’ And yet, “In Real Life” breathes life into the conversation with delightful originality and thoughtfulness.
Wang visualizes the virtual world does an incredible job balancing the ‘video game’ aspect of the game and giving the action a more fanciful, cinematic quality in a way I’ve rarely seen. Some may say that the action in Coarsegold looks nothing like World of Warcraft, but I would argue that is the charm. It captures how we picture these incredible worlds, unshackled by the restrictions of game rules and animation. On that note, the graphic novel also does a lot of subtle and interesting things with how characters appear compared to their online avatars. No one ever pauses and reflects on how they visualize or characterize themselves, but little visual cues and ideas help shape and give nuance to characters in some brilliant visual storytelling.
Not to mention, the book is filled with grounded, likeable characters. While the book has its share of exaggerated moments, the characters themselves sell every minute of the action because they feel believable, lived in, and fleshed out. Even characters who appear for a few frames feel like there is an entire story behind them.
If “In Real Life” settled for just being a well made detailing of a girl’s experience of MMO’s, it would have been lovely, but the book goes the extra mile and takes into a plot and subject I never thought I’d see covered in a narrative. Anda is recruited by another player for a paid job in which she must kill “gold farmers.” Gold Farming is a real life activity where groups of people will spend lengthy periods of time in a game mining in-game currency and then sell it to other players for actual cash. During her tasks, she befriends a miner, who reveals that he works in sweatshop like conditions in China.
Yes, this is a real thing that happens. And no, I did not expect a graphic novel to take a complicated and nuanced look into the nature of this strange and complicated topic. The book handles it with a level of thoughtfulness and empathy that is incredibly admirable, and turns what was already an engaging and entertaining book into something meatier.
A short, visually lovely, and thoughtful book, “In Real Life” is another pleasant gem that proves that even well-worn topics can have something worthwhile left in them.