Comics, Prose, And Virtual Realities: Cory Doctorow Discusses ‘In Real Life’ [Interview]
In Real Life tells the story of Anda, a young girl who discovers that video games aren't always an escape from the problems of everyday life. Immersed in the fictional world of massive multiplayer roleplaying game Coarsegold Online, she learns that her life inside the game can influence and shape her life outside it, and vice versa.
Published by First Second in October, In Real Life is adapted by Jen Wang from a 2004 short story by Cory Doctorow. ComicsAlliance recently sat down with Doctorow to discuss the feeling of seeing his work adapted to comic form, the ever-shrinking divide between virtual and real worlds, and the unconscious elements of design and storytelling.
ComicsAlliance: Given the themes you're addressing, this book could easily be lumped in to the whole cyberpunk/virtual reality gamer fiction subgenre, alongside James Dashner's Morality Doctrine series, Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, etc. But this is actually something quite different; though technology plays a huge part in the story, it's not a story about technology, it's about how people interact with and through said technology.
Cory Doctorow: I think the title plays with that idea that this is real life; that distinction between the internet and real life is so wholly artificial. It's like saying, "that profession of love doesn't matter because it was made over the telephone and not in real life." The internet is involved in everything we do today and will be required for everything we do tomorrow. So, the internet is real life.
CA: Yes, and it's all tied together. You can go online and commission a singing telegram to give your declaration of love that personal touch...
CD: You could probably go online and get someone at Ali Baba to sell you an entirely working telegraph, and then hire the contractors to install it, then find a morse operator to morse your profession of love out to a telegraph office at the remote end and have it delivered via messenger boy hired through Fiverr.
CA: All for the end result of a physical reality that people still put weight on. And in this story, there's also not only the blurring of that division between what is and isn't real life, there's also other elements. One wouldn't necessarily consider that finance would be a terribly exciting sub-topic for a YA computer-savvy graphic novel…
CD: But it had better be, right? Because the financialization of our economy is nearly complete, and every single decision today is reduced to fiduciary duty, and it's the all-purpose excuse.
Our schools have been remade as factories whose product is educated children. Factories whose shareholders are the public, and whose customers are the parents, and whose management layer is the administration, and whose factory workers are the teachers. Everything is reified around quarterly reports with numbers that go up, which are standardized tests and attendance scores. Everything that a kid does today is totally viewed through a lens of finance, viewed through this fiduciary lens, which is, I think, a terrible thing.
I think for the same reason that if a parent gave their kid an invoice for all the food they've eaten and heating bills they accounted for when they turned 18, we would consider that parent to be a sociopath, we shouldn't organize school as businesses. They're non-market activities – like healthcare, like love, and like family.
CA: And then, you have this story that's dealing with all these topics, and you're presenting it in a traditional hand-drawn physical format. Was that a matter of market consideration, in order to get the message out, or is the medium an artistic choice?
CD: It was artistic, primarily, although obviously, if there wasn't a market for it, First Second wouldn't have paid Jen Wang to do all the art.
Jen did all the heavy lifting in the adaptation. I don't want to take credit for her work; the graphic novel is really much more her than me. I wrote the underlying story and edited her script and edited her implementation, but really Jen is the true soul of the graphic novel. I feel like I'm a great fan of graphic novels, and that the story is told very well as a graphic novel because so much of the lived experience of the characters turns on the way that it looks. It turns on questions of timing and pace that are so well expressed in graphic form.
The trick of a novel is that is does the science fiction business of making you think that you can be telepathic and tell what's going on in someone else's head. Every novel... Tess of the d'Urbervilles is a science fiction novel, because it pretends that you can know what's in someone else's head, and telepathy is firmly in the realm of sci-fi. That's what prose does really well, and it's what I try to do in my stories, but it's not what graphic novels do, it's not their signature move. Their signature move is that compactness – a direct empathic and aesthetic experience that you have through the sequential images.
CA: How did Jen end up taking on the adaptation? Did you choose her? Did First Second suggest her?
CD: First Second sent me a bunch of portfolios, and Jen's was the one I immediately knew I loved. And the irony is, when the book was finished and they sent me the PDF of the jacket, it was only then I realized Jen had created Koko Be Good, which is one of my favorite graphic novels. But you know, I'd read it a few years before and didn't take note of the author, so I hadn't really clocked her name until right at the end. And I was like, "Oh my goodness, my book has been adapted by this wonderful creator whose work I admire!" It was great.
CA: What degree of communication did you have while she was handling the adaptation?
CD: I did do some revisions on the visuals. I'm not a super visual person, but more to the point, I'm a terrible drawer. It took me a long time, I did a previous project for IDW, and it took me a long time to get over my preciousness of other peoples' drawing that it felt like just sorcery to me. Asking people to revise a drawing felt like such a huge ask, and it took me a while to figure out that asking someone who draws all day for a living to change a drawing was not, in fact, an onerous ridiculous thing – it's no weirder than me asking to revise a paragraph. So with Jen, I was a lot less shy about it. There were a few things where I felt strongly about the art, and she was very good to work with.
There are no juicy stories about the collaboration; it was one of those incredibly smooth, easy collaborations where she did most of the heavy lifting and I agreed with most of what she did. And the places where we deadlocked, our editor Calista [Brill] broke the deadlock, and she did so in a way we felt was both fair and evenhanded.
CA: You mentioned that sense of "drawing is sorcery", which is something I also feel when dealing with artists. It's not a language that I speak fluently, so I often end up defaulting to musical and literary terms, and applying them to this other medium in a way that I hope makes sense to my collaborators. When crossing media, do you have to search for a specific way to communicate your ideas?
CD: What I do is, I say, "I want it to feel like this," and in my limited ability to express what that means, "I'd like you to try X Y and Z." I try to give both the purpose and some specifics, and then I trusted Jen to follow through with it.
As I'm sure you know from writing, the most difficult editorial feedback is, "Can you make the third paragraph punchier?" I'd much rather have someone say, "We're trying to punch it up, here's a rewrite that gets at where we're getting at," and I don't mind scanning everything they've done and taking another cut of the rewrite, but often their rewrite plus the reason, the underlying rationale for it, gives me insight I can use in my revision.
CA: An element of Jen's work that really impressed me is that the transitions are incredibly well handled. As a story that happens in two worlds and combines those two worlds, you're never at any point confused about where or how something is happening. The pallete, the style, the transitions are seamless.
CD: It reminds me of some of the work that Imagineering did in distinguishing the different territories in the big Disney theme parks. They have palettes, they have textural palettes for each one. There are interstitial areas, so as you go from Frontierland to Adventureland, the materials are neither one or the other but a little in-between. There are places where you don't notice them consciously, but they work so well.
Like on the train that runs under the [English Channel], the Eurostar. On the English side, the announcements are in English. On the French side, the announcements are in French. And when you're under the Channel, there are no announcements. It's such a lovely little transition that I didn't' notice until about the tenth time. It's such a nice little way of organizing it.
CA: As far as this adapted graphic novel format goes, is this something you'd like to do again?
CD: Yeah. This was so successful, I couldn't be more pleased with it. It's wonderful when someone else adapts your work, because you get something that has your name on it that you can feel proud of without feeling boastful. All the stuff I'm proud of here is really someone else's work! It was such an absolutely wonderful experience, I'd happily let Jen or someone like Jen do this again.
CA: But this story wasn't originally intended as a graphic novel, correct?
CD: No, I wrote it as a short story, First Second asked me if I'd be interested in doing a graphic novel, and I wrote a treatment for a graphic novel adapting the story that was actually based on the format of Transmetropolitan, where there were these little stories that all formed part of the bigger arc… And they didn't want it.
So I ended up writing a novel called For The Win based on it. And then [First Second] said, "But we do like the story it was based on, and we'd like to do that as a graphic novel." It's funny, all the things I've envisioned as graphic novels have turned into novels, and the things that have started at short stories have turned into graphic novels.
CA: So for you, does the form determine the function, or visa versa?
CD: I think, when I'm thinking of graphic novel ideas, I'm thinking about ideas whose primary aesthetic and emotional impact comes from the visuals. When I'm thinking about novels or short stories, I'm thinking about the internal, that access to the internality of other people. So, yeah, that's a very abstract criteria, and there's a lot of fuzziness in between, but I think that's the thing that, for me, distinguishes one kind of one idea from the other.
In Real Life by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang is published by First Second and is available in stores now.