This book is something I’ve just read recently and found myself determined to talk or write about to as many people as possible. I feel it shows a trend emerging in literature that gives me great hope for the future. It wasn’t something I even meant to read in the first place, but one of those passing bookshelf encounters that led to a passionate, torrid affair. I’m talking about IRL or In Real Life, written by Cory Doctorow and illustrated by Jen Wang. That’s right. This book has pictures. It’s a graphic novel, to be specific, and possibly one of the most heartfelt and authentic exploration of online gaming and “real” life I’ve come across yet.
The book follows Anda through a very awkward period in her teenaged-life. She’s moved to an new and unfamiliar school, and soon feels not just homesick but lost in her new life. A constant love for computer and video games leads to her joining an online gaming league promoted by the school, which acts not just as an emotional anchor but as a chance to connect with her peers. Soon, though she realizes her safe haven is an open world, one where she can come into contact with lives just as foreign as the one she finds herself trying to live. When Anda meets a Chinese gold farmer Raymond, she is exposed to an new “real life,” she can barely understand. Raymond works in an office in Shanghai collecting in-game items for gold, which is then illegaly sold to other players for real cash. He has health problems but because of the nature of his work cannot get really fair treatment on the job for his problem. She feels a connection to him because of their shared love of video games, but at the same time can barely comprehend the what Raymond has to endure at his shady job just to escape poverty. Anda’s attempts to connect with and save Raymond show not just her but the reader as well a fascinating, complex web of issues like digital identity, poverty, and globalized interaction. It all packs quite a punch, one meant to get people, especially gamers, thinking.
All this in a young adult book, a comic book no less. We’ve got writers of Adult graphic novels, (some of which I read in my teenage years but I guess we can’t all be wunderkinds,) like Alison Bechdel, Marjane Satrapi and Art Spiegelman using graphic novels as mediums to present the serious issues and sometimes dark stories of their lives, but what about a younger crowd? Well, there’s actually several very promising artists and writers out their making comics and graphic novels with teenagers and young adults in mind.
Some of the better works that pop into my head are American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang, Smile by Raina Telgemeier, or Anya’s Ghost by Vera Brosgol. These are just a few of my favorites, but each of these and many more address serious issue like racial, cultural identity, and facing the many strange new choices and changes teenagers face. I know from experience that through the hell that is high school, and yeah sure some of that middle school cesspit as well, kids are looking for places, things, or people that can show how shared their struggle is perhaps even help them. They could, of course, like Anda, end up finding themselves only by realizing how many people in the world live through struggles they can barely imagine, (unless, perhaps, they pick up a book.)
I also know from experience how many people are intimidated by picking up a book. Reading, why that’s the sort of thing that adults force students to do against their will, they’d exclaim while staring at me with my novel of the week like I was drinking antifreeze. Comics, though, were always “cooler.” They had wicked pictures and often enough, fight scenes or romances, and they didn’t seem to exude the same air of commitment grown up books with no pictures and a teacher glaring at you to read the thing had. Some writers and artists were smart enough to realize the mediums potential for a younger audience and are taking advantage of that, to everyone’s benefit.
Cory Doctorow is a young adult author I’m actually pretty fond of. His books always carried some self-empowering message that made me feel like a super-hero. I’m thinking mainly of the first book I read by him, Little Brother. That’s another one I’ll probably have to cover later because it addressed the patriotic, post 9/11 panic in a way that not only connected to me as a younger person, but made me feel like I could actually have a voice in what course my country took. It also made me want to become a vigilante hacker, but sadly that was years before I could have Chris Hemsworth as a role model and that dream didn’t pan out. I do have a blog though, and am pretty skilled at creeping people on Facebook. Close Enough.
Anyhow, In Real Life specifically is another great addition to the growing bed of evidence that the graphic novel as medium is reaching a renaissance period. I see more and more graphic novels, for adults and young adults alike, coming out and discussing issues that certainly would’ve seemed off limits in the past for the pulpy, “children’s” medium. Not only do comic books not have to be just for children anymore, they don’t have to treat children and youths as simple people looking for simple, mindless comedy or action entertainment.
But Batman can totally stick around if he wants to. There’s always room for the Batman.