October 12, 2014

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In Real Life

Story by Cory Doctorow
Art and Adaptation by Jen Wang
Published by First Second

Science fiction author and prolific blogger Cory Doctorow makes his graphic novel debut with In Real Life, an adaptation that will delight YA gamers but may give his usual readers a case of deja vu.

Based on Doctorow's short story "Anda's Game," In Real Life follows the online and offline adventures of a nerdy high schooler who gets an invitation to join an exclusive guild for girls in the MMO Coarsegold Online. Under the guise of girl power, Anda and "Sarge" battle against gold farmers, players earning virtual money and equipment in order to sell it for real sums. When the protagonist actually speaks to one of the "Chinese bots," she learns that behind every gold farmer is a real human worker just trying to make a living. Anda has some things to learn about empathy, workers' rights, and being her true self both in the game and out of it.

Doctorow's sort of rebranded himself as a YA author in recent years, so it's not a surprise that this book is targeting a younger crowd. With its character designs and bright pastel color scheme, the art style is sure to appeal to those who have grown up in the webcomics generation. Jen Wang's action is easy to follow and it's all quite well-drawn, even if the art isn't groundbreaking. The use of color serves to put a line between the real world and the game world: most of the "reality" scenes are colored in drab browns and oranges, underscoring Anda's disillusionment with her life outside the computer. I was pleased that Anda's avatar KaliDestroyer isn't drawn to be a buxom maiden in a chain-mail bikini and simply looks like a slimmer, red-headed version of Anda.

Anda mows down gold farmers.
As for the adaptation itself, it's faithful. While the action is shifted from England to Arizona, and the subplot about Anda's obesity is only alluded to, those seem reasonable enough changes for a graphic novel aimed at young audiences. Strangely, part of the issue is that it's too faithful. As someone who read Doctorow's output pretty regularly up until the last few years, this reader simply wanted to see something new, not a rehashing. It would have been nice to see things change more when in the hands of a comics creator and not Doctorow himself. However, I can definitely see the value in getting gamer kids to see that there are real human beings on the other side of their boxes, and most of the intended audience has probably not read the original short story. This reader really can't fault any book that tells kids unions are a good thing.

In short, if you're new to Doctorow's work, have MMO-obsessed kids, or just want to learn about international macroeconomics in an easy-to-read graphic novel, definitely pick this up. But if you've read the short story or Doctorow's novel For the Win (despite the YA label, it's actually a very deep and complex book, told mostly from the Chinese and Indian gold farmers' point-of-view), this adaptation isn't required reading.