Tuesday, 16 August 2016

In Real Life Review (Cory Doctorow, Jen Wang)

Being a teen is restrictive but for Anda, when she logs into Coarsegold, a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), she’s free as her avatar. And then she meets Raymond, a player her age from China, and her world, online and offline, changes. 

Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang’s In Real Life is an enjoyable and compelling comic that cleverly highlights the differences between Eastern and Western childhoods, as well as their similarities, through online gaming. 

Coarsegold for Anda is partly a way of building self-esteem and earning some extra pocket money on the side (which she doesn’t need as her parents are well off), but it’s mostly entertainment for her. Raymond in China has to work in this online world to make money to send home to his family - it’s this or working in a zipper factory, and he has to fit hours of work in between his schooling. He’s already got back problems that he can’t get medical help for. 

It’s a sobering reflection of global economics and the disparity between prosperous America and hardscrabble China, as well as showing Anda growing as a character through her developing social conscience. Doctorow offers a naive and questionable solution but the story’s strength is in showing readers, particularly teens like Anda, their relation to the wider world and awaken empathy to disadvantaged others’ plights. On the flip-side, it shows Chinese kids ways they could possibly achieve a better life. 

There’s a couple of critiques here like how weird it was to have a games developer show up at a school to flog their game to students - do schools really allow that? And the ending is a little too pat - workers demanding rights in tyrannical China wouldn’t go as smoothly for Raymond and his friends in real life! Though maybe the intent is to foster optimism and the possibilities of change in the reader rather than allow reality a too dominant presence. After all, reality can be - and has been - changed many times before, so why not now? And the book ends sweetly, celebrating the simple similarities children the world over share: friends and dancing. 

Jen Wang’s art is evocative, energetic and imaginative, showing a familiarity with the kinds of worlds games developers create with their MMORPGs while creating a convincing one of her own here. The character designs are very cool, especially in showing how the online avatars differ from the real world people - I liked that Anda was a chubby girl which you don’t often see in comics protagonists. 

Like a lot of First Second comics In Real Life is aimed at the high school crowd but as a grown-up (in theory), I still really enjoyed this. Doctorow’s writing and characterisation is both powerful and enthralling and I flew through the book in a single sitting. I applaud Doctorow for writing an engaging story with a strong positive political spirit. In Real Life has a heart and a brain - recommended to all fans of quality comics!

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