January 14, 2019

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"Because It's Next" - The Creator's Dilemma in Self/Made # 2

Written by Mat Groom
Line Art by Eduardo Ferigato
Color Art by Marcelo Costa
Letters by Troy Peteri
Published by Image 


The second issue of Self/Made hit the stands this week. Only two issues in, this book has proven that it can tackle large philosophical concepts without sacrificing any degree of narrative flow. This series is dark and intense, but it doesn't feel depressing or morbid, mostly thanks to Mat Groom's punchy dialogue and an art team that understands the sweet spot tone of this book. Ferigato and Costa combine to create a world that effectively uses stark contrasts to mimic the landscape of a near future proto-dystopia

When we pick up with issue 2 of Self/Made, we find the programmers wrestling with supposed glitches in the game beta. NPC (non-playable characters) are behaving in entirely unpredictable ways. The commentary here is important. It's telling that they chose NPCs, the drone bees of game design, for this anomaly. These are the characters that should be least affected by free will. We've seen meditations on games in which playable characters find ways to break the rules of the game, but the potential sentience of a drone is something else entirely. Groom asks big questions - do the lives of these creations matter? Should they even be considered creations?

And the answer Groom seems to be leading the reader to discover is that creations matter, of course, because they are extensions of ourselves, of the creators. Again, Groom hits on the notion of an auteur and the sanctity of one's creations. It's hard not to read some comic book metafiction into this interpretation. We're likely in the golden age of creator owned books, both in terms of quality and quantity. There are multiple layers to the notions of creation, mainly artistic and financial. Beyond the financial rationale (justification in and of itself), there is a reason the estates of Golden Age comic creators lobby for recognition - these creations matter to the people who create them. In Self/Made, the central conflict emerges because Amala matters more (and also differently) to Rebecca that she does to Bryce, her competitive colleague, and Stuart, the corporate overlord.

Fiction that explores the concepts of our games isn't a new concept, but it certainly has been on an upswing following the unprecedented success of Ready Player One. In many ways, Self/Made extends the tropes of Ernie Cline's book, and the art utilizes a similar color scheme, but this book is far from Ready Player One redux. It plays in the same side of the sandbox, and it touches on similar themes, but the questions and concepts Groom and company explore delve into an entirely new area.*

Self/Made reminds me again of Ready Player One in that it brings in the industry of game design and the corporate overlords who control the game world. Fundamentally, Self/Made is a mystery. It brings up questions of artificial intelligence and sentience, but it also casts the game designer - in this case, Rebecca - as an auteur. Many works of both fiction and non-fiction have played with the god complex motif for tech gurus, but Self/Made takes the concept to another level. It all makes sense. There is a creator myth that likely guides creative types, and the status becomes that much more prevalent for game designers. Fiction authors, for instance, create a world and define the reader's interaction with it, yes, but that interaction is fairly linear, even with expansive series. Game designers create an immersive world, and they set the rules for interactions with it on a far grander scale. They are part author, part director, and part emperor.

After issue 1, I was incredibly impressed that I had read a remarkably strong debut issue from a creative with which whom I was entirely unfamiliar. I've waxed about Groom's concept, but his execution is also strong. He crafts pithy dialogue, and assigns the appropriate acerbic tone to the interactions between his characters.

Eduardo Ferigato and Marcelo Costa are equally impressive. Costa chooses dark hues, but manages not to step over the line art. He avoids an overly dark tone, choosing shades of gray to avoid washing out the panels. His colors, especially his backgrounds, evoke a cold and calculating corporate world. Along with Ferigato, Costa focuses on making Self/Made a work of contrast, a technique that works both thematically and visually.

Self/Made 2 is a great looking issue, but this page captures the creative team at their peak and highlights Troy Peteri's lettering skills.

Ferigato's linework is stellar and expansive, but it's his shading that provides both the depth of his landscapes and the emotions of the characters. His ability to build character through art allows Groom's dialogue to be that much sharper. Ferigato makes the characters seem tangible, and he helps break down the wall between the video game environment and the "real world." The issue ends on a cliffhanger, and the impact of that event is driven by Ferigato's expressive character work. The art team, as a whole, creates a sci-fi noir aesthetic, almost reminiscent of a spaced-out Francesco Francavilla. There is a degree of welcomed scene-chewing terror in some of this book's interactions, bringing just a dose of pulpiness to this book.

Beyond the ethics of creation, there is also the question of value. Rebecca views her game design and her desire to create dynamic game characters as a form of art. Stuart, and the game company as a whole, clearly only care about the financial bottom line. Of course, there are the typical questions of how functional art can be within a for profit industry, and, as a result, whether art that isn't inherently functional needs to exist at all. Rebecca has both concepts in mind, though, and she hedges her bets, selling her creations as at to Bryce, and as moneymakers to Stuart.

There's a core concept, a quotation Rebecca defiantly utters that not only gives this series it impetus, but also speaks a greater societal polemic Self/Made tackles. When asked why she needs to pursue this line, Rebecca contends "because it's next." It's a longstanding assumption, regardless of whether you buy into the myth of progress or not - that society will continue to build towards better things. This notion dates back to the Enlightenment, if not earlier. Even some prominent societal critics will admit that the world gets better in measurable ways. And, indeed, there are certain undeniable aspects of progress. Fewer people are subjected to disease, for instance. Technology has made the world better for large swathes of the population, but any who has ever read a science fiction novel is becoming increasingly alarmed at the bleed between speculative analysis and the end goals of Silicon Valley. Fundamentally, this is the discourse Groom looks to have with his readers.

*It would be hard to ignore the fact that this week sees the second issues of two books that explore gaming culture and design. Self/Made explores the culture and, more importantly, the ethics behind the immersive MMORPG environment, and there is an emphasis on the technical aspect inherent to that mode of gaming. On the other end of the gaming spectrum, Die jumps into the world of D&D and tabletop gaming in general. I don't think it's insignificant these two books have appeared at the same time, nor is it easy to gloss the technological discourse Self/Made shares with another pair of Panel Patter favorites, Crowded and Friendo. When each of these series conclude, it would be a great sociological study to read them together.