May 2016


In 1944— a time when the war lowered a lot of barriers— Chu Hing became one of the first Asian-Americans to work in comics. He created a superhero named the Green Turtle, who fought the Japanese who were attempting to conquer China. Rather strangely, the comic never shows Green Turtle’s face; the supposition is that the publisher refused to allow an Asian face, and in return Hing refused to draw a white one.  Another oddity is that the Turtle’s shadow is drawn (without explanation) as a big black turtle, with yellow eyes and a red mouth.

Now Gene Luen Yang (Asian-American) and Sonny Liew (Malaysian-Singaporean) have teamed up to revive and explain the character.

Liew

His origin story: he’s Hank, a Chinese-American boy whose only goal is to help his father run a grocery store, and run it himself after him.  But after his mother meets a superhero, she gets it into her head that Hank should be one too. She takes him for martial arts training, arranges accidents with industrial waste, and even knits him a costume… with a big 金 and the helpful legend GOLDEN MAN OF BRAVERY.

This part of the book is a lot of fun— Hank’s mom is both adorable and annoying, and Yang recognizes that the whole superhero thing is a little ridiculous.

It gets more serious later on, as Hank confronts the tongs that control Chinatown. As part of this, he meets the tortoise spirit, one of four ancient spirits that safeguard the Chinese Empire, and are a little lost when the Empire disappears.  So now he has real superpowers— though he has to learn how to use them to do some good. Also he can finally choose a better superhero name, the Green Turtle. (Which happens to be close to the name of his father’s shop, 玉龜 ‘jade tortoise’.)

(Pedantic note: the book gives this as Yu Quai, but the family is Cantonese so the first character should really be Yuk. Possibly a little interference from Mandarin ?)

The story is set in the 1940s, and deals realistically with the casual anti-Chinese racism of the time. The viewpoint however is always with Hank and his family, who have little interaction with whites; even the villains are other Asian-Americans.

I have to say that Sonny Liew’s art takes some getting used to. He’s great with cityscapes and shadow creatures and Hank and his father.  Everyone else is caricatured in a weird ugly way… if a white guy drew Chinese people like that it would come off as racist. Still, I’d love to see a Volume 2.

As a bonus, the book provides one of the original Chu Hing Green Turtle comics from 1944. Even at the time, it was surely a bit odd that you never saw Green Turtle’s face. For a modern reader, there’s another peculiarity: the Chinese in the story are drawn nicely, but the Japanese are monstrous.

I also recently read a graphic novel of Liew’s: The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye.  It’s an odd meta thing: a mock retrospective of a not-very-successful imaginary cartoonist. This gives Liew the opportunity to parody all sorts of historical styles (e.g. there’s a nice tribute to Pogo), and also to recount the dramatic history of Singapore: British rule, the Japanese invasion, independence, Lee Kuan Yew’s authoritarian rule. The mockumentary format is well suited for wandering through history, and for pastiching cartoonists he admires; perhaps less so for maintaining narrative momentum.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A game based on Philip K. Dick is either going to be great, or horrible.  From reviews, it seemed that Californium at least looked great, so I picked it up.

Basic idea: a failed writer, Elvin Green, starts finding holes in reality. So he starts to seek them out, and see what happens.

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Bubbles of alternate reality

And you gotta admit, that’s a pretty Dickian idea.  The implementation is pretty neat, too: when you open a hole, it expands into a sphere, changing everything inside it.  There must be some interesting engine work going on there– see in the picture how nearby objects get a perfect circle cut out of them.  And this is a dynamic process– once a bubble has opened, it even wavers back and forth.

You can figure out most things by yourself, and should, but here are some things to know that may avoid frustration.

  • You will find TV sets that indicate the number of holes you still have to find in that area.
  • There’s a bug in level 2, which you can avoid by going into the police station last (i.e. when you’ve explored every other area).
  • Some of the holes are only visible from certain angles.  You may have to walk around or change your angle.

I’ve seen some reviews that chafe at that last bit, but really it’s part of the point.  The idea of a glitch in reality that may hide when you look directly at it is just part of the existential nightmare.

There is a light puzzle aspect to some of the holes.  I think it’s best to just give in to the spirit of the game here, even if it means walking around trying to find that maddening last glitch.  If they had made the puzzles harder then the story would perhaps have felt intrusive, and if they had made them easier (e.g. adding audio cues or a compass) you’d be done in half an hour.

There are NPCs scattered around the level; they are 2-D models that turn to face you, and talk at you when you’re close, not unlike Jazzpunk. This is not my favorite design technique, but I understand that for a small studio, 3-D human models and animations would be a huge effort that wouldn’t improve the game greatly.  The voice acting is all good, however.

The best thing about the game, besides the hole-in-reality mechanic, is its feverish level design.  You start out in a supersaturated, cartoony 1970s Berkeley, California, and it’s fun to walk around the street and a half or so that you’ve given to explore.  You see other worlds in the course of the story, and they’re all fun and thought-provoking, plus they have a thematic relevance to Elvin Green’s story.

It took me a little over 4 hours, which is probably about right for what the game mechanic can support.  I mean, they could have added three more worlds, and it would probably be tedious more than exciting.

The ending is a little abrupt, and not as mind-blowing as one might hope… but honestly, Dick doesn’t usually succeed in wrapping things up nicely either.  He creates this hallucinatory blend of religion and paranoia, and just being there is the point.   So it’s probably just as well that the developers didn’t overdo the ending.  I’d say they capture the atmosphere of a Dick novel very well (though they’re not aiming at any one novel in particular), and if that sounds like the sort of atmosphere you’d like to breathe for awhile, check it out.

 

 

 

This paragraph is amazing:

Once upon a time there was a monk who was inclined to imagine things rather a lot. One day, he happened to imagine a man named Jivata, who drank too much and fell into a heavy sleep.  As Jivata dreamt, he saw a Brahmin who read all day long. One day, that Brahmin fell asleep, and as his daily activities were still alive within him, like a tree inside a seed, he dreamt that he was a prince. One day that prince fell asleep after a heavy meal, and dreamt that he was a great king. One day that king fell asleep, having gorged himself on his every desire, and in his dream he saw himself as a celestial woman. The woman fell into a deep sleep in the languor that followed making love, and she saw herself as a doe with darting eyes. That doe one day fell asleep and dreamed that she was a clinging vine, because she had been accustomed to eating vines; for animals dream too, and they always remember what they have seen and heard.

This is from the Yogavasishtha, written sometime between the 10th and 12th centuries; the translation is by Wendy Doniger in On Hinduism.

Where do you go after a paragraph like that?  Anywhere you like.  But here’s how it goes.

The vine saw herself as a bee that used to buzz among the vines; the bee fell in love with a lotus and was so intoxicated by the lotus sap he drank that his wits became numb; just then an elephant came to that pond and trampled the lotus, and the bee, still attached to the lotus, was crushed with it on the elephant’s tusk. As the bee looked at the elephant, he saw himself as an elephant in rut. That elephant in rut fell into a deep pit and became the favorite elephant of a king. One day the elephant was cut to pieces by a sword in battle, and as he went to his final resting place he saw a swarm of bees hovering over the sweet ichor that oozed from his temples, and so the elephant became a bee again. The bee returned to the lotus pond and was trampled under the feet of another elephant, and just then he noticed a goose beside him in the pond, and so he became a goose. That goose moved through other births, other wombs, for a long time; until one day, when he was a goose in a flock of other geese, he realized that, being a goose, he was the same as the swan of the Creator. Just as he had this thought, he was shot by a hunter and he died, and then he was born as the swan of the Creator.

One day the swan saw Rudra and thought, with sudden certainty, “I am Rudra.” Immediately that idea was reflected like an image in a mirror, and he took on the form of Rudra. Then he could see all of his former experiences, and he understood them: “Because Jivata admired Brahmins, he saw himself as a Brahmin; and since the Brahmin had thought about princes all the time, he became a prince. And that fickle woman was so jealous of the beautiful eyes of a doe that she became a doe… These creatures are my own rebirths.” And, after awhile, the monk and Jivata and all the others will wear out their bodies and will unite in the world of Rudra.

(Rudra is better known as  Shiva; in this tradition, he is the supreme god.)

So the interlocking dreams turn into a transference of souls just by imagination, and then into the cycle of rebirth.  And it ends up as a playful, vivid demonstration of the idea of pantheism– we’re all forms of Shiva, but just don’t realize it.

Still, it’s the little details that create the intense dreaminess of the passage: Jivata’s drunken stupor, the celestial woman making love, the bee’s infatuation with lotus sap. (As Doniger points out, the common element running through the dream is desire.)