Spring Review: “Project: Ballad”

Let’s see…where to begin, where to begin…

It was a while ago, Bloggers, when I was privileged to be asked to read a script from Project: Ballad by its author, the illustrious Michael Peterson. It struck me as a rather curious thing, all about a fandom (and a powerful cultural current!) that I’m not part of and not familiar with: the gamer world. And also it was set at a convention, and conventions are things I generally don’t go to.

But, the boy in the Prologue seemed familiar…

All stories set at our sort of conventions owe a strange and somewhat hairy debt to Larry Niven, I think — the man who chose to make a mini-career out of writing cons large across the cosmos, adolescent concerns cosplaying on luxury space barges, interplanetary trade missions, and chatter in the bar elevated to grand Galactic drama. The blasted hookups in the elevators all dignified and dignifying, the panels all Algonquin Round Tables…the outcome never in doubt. Such legendary beings. These are the times, and we are the people! Though the world may not see us yet, and our miraculous gallimaufry is hardly even heard of. Inside the bazaar, representatives of alien cultures meet, and just as in a science fiction story they secretly know one another to be of the same kind. Play-acting; but then what’s wrong with play-acting? To step into a role is a common enough sort of thing for people to do, as soldiers, students, and CEOs…and these are just more imaginative roles that we’ve got in here. Often, in the outside world, social roles are tremendously confining, sources of terrible hurt and want…

…But in here, they’re recontextualized. In here, your role sets you free! And so all the message-board stuff, that cheap substitute for expensive community, is mere build-up…the private obsession with one’s own world and one’s own desires, one’s own imperatives locked in a screen in the palm of one hand, the hard work of gaming, of figuring out puzzles and puzzling out identities, that liberates us from a solitary confinement to another but better sort of solitary confinement, this too is mere preparation. Hmm, and maybe I do know this stuff, better than I thought…

…But being just a bit too old to have entered into the gaming world as I otherwise might’ve, I’ve never seen it this way before. What a strange window, giving out onto such a strange pastureland! It may be all second nature to Michael (well, that’s the idea, isn’t it?) but I can sense his second nature making the story as special to him as it is to me: to him it’s distillation, concentration, the hard winning of theme from a life of personal experience…as to me it’s exploration, comparison, the extraction of things I hardly know I know until I recognize them, but either way something is going on here that’s important to both of us. And I suppose we’re both equally a little bit surprised, in our own separate ways, across the gulf of time that separates those born into gaming from those who just missed that boat? Surprised at just how effective all this metatextual stuff is?

How relevant?

Thirty-four years ago, a boy is lost. The Prologue did, I have to say, hit me oddly — so oddly that for a brief time I wondered how it was bloody well possible for Michael to know my city so well, as it was when I was young! And of course as it turned out that was all just a mistake on my part, but still the associations linger because it’s all…to be honest, it’s all pretty close to something real. Those deserted half-woods, in my city at that time were places with very long histories indeed, filled with strange deserted totems left over from the War long ago, and my father’s childhood…marks and signs of other fugitive inhabitants seeking escape, too…and from way back when, the history of the people who originally owned that land in the part of Vancouver I thought Michael was somehow able to talk about, and who still own it now, but it’s very different now from then. And then lying over all of it, invading it from the fringes, this eternal patch of waste and escape-hatch Never-Never Land, the steady creeping cloud of second-stage suburbanization, that most Seventies of things…bulldozers and culverts now abandoned totems too, but not for long. So, about the gaming I may not know, but there’s definitely a world here to which I’m not an alien…

But, enough about me. As it turns out, Michael is quite a fine writer — the ancillary material at P:B (the P:B Apocrypha?) is more than worth your time, and there’s every indication it’s also part of the story, and also part of the “game process” that suffuses every aspect of this thing — with a nice ability to juggle talking-heads ensemble-cast scenes with sufficient adeptness that you’re never forced to recall that this sort of thing kind of irritates you, actually. Well, Hemingway said “never confuse motion with action”, and the long period of introductions to the cast shows that the reverse is also true: all that’s happening here is introduction, but it’s more than just ticking boxes, more even than just trying to jazz up the ticking of boxes, but the process itself is an enjoyable one that comes with a side-helping of meaning…meaning that extends beyond merely understanding the various persons and their various relationships. Because this is a webcomic, and therefore one among thousands if not tens of thousands, we might be forgiven if we don’t notice the craft — at least, not the craft in the writing — because we are probably not meant to fixate on it for good solid commercial reasons. And, maybe even good solid artistic ones? As with a game (one assumes), the top level of engagement with a webcomic is light diversion, mild interest, a reason to come back that you don’t have to think about too deeply…you know there’s a mystery here, and you can even roughly sense what you think is its shape, but on the surface it’s tropes and twists and snazziness, so the one thing you are not being especially primed to notice is the pacing. Michael would modestly say that’s all Kevin Czapiewski, the artist of the piece, and seeing the quality of Kevin’s work you swiftly get used to giving him credit for things…but some pacing is always in the script, too, and Michael manages (in my opinion) a deft and tricky job with it. To compare the ancillary material to the comic is to see, for example, that he’s got a whole different set of chops than what he’s showing out the front of the store; Carla Speed McNeil is recalled to me here, the easeful gabfest and the light play with tropes and reader attention concealing something much more meticulously worked-out than it would appear at first blush…and something a bit more serious than it appears, as well. I am just old-fart chauvinist enough to have been surprised that a story about some swords-and-sorcery game possessed any hint of philosophical depth, myself…psychological depth is something I think a good writer can find anywhere, manufacture out of anything at hand, but philosophy takes a bit more work and a lot more obsessiveness, in my experience. And yet game play, game design, game immersion, this is all very fit meat for philosophers; it’s just that we haven’t seen much of that philosophy in fictional form.

So…is it an ambitious project? At least…having only gotten through Chapter One (the big introductions!), is the rest of it as ambitious as I suspect it is?

Well, look: it must be, or Kevin wouldn’t be working on it this hard. On the P:B Forum, when urged to think of a new thread to start, I fancied myself very clever by bringing up the matter of Colour! in comics…and boy, am I feeling sheepish now, because the boys were already miles ahead of me on that one. I had talked about the colour in Asterix, the gripping blue of a wave, or the green of a meadow…the joyous lunacy of The Big Fight and its Druidic slap-fight polka-dots. But Kevin had more of a STERANKO ROMANCE COMIC in mind here, it seems…(!!!!)…and that’s a kind of colouring we haven’t seen in a good long while. I think Steranko himself got it from Toth, actually? But in the modern field of comics it’s not been seen much for a while, and to return to it is a very welcome thing indeed. So many PINKS! So much YELLOW! For a certain value of just plain exuberance the last thing I saw that seemed to be in this same mood was the (for my money) unjustly-maligned Daytripper by Ba and Moon. And quite plainly, this approach is very carefully chosen…not just the colour but the looseness of the line that confines it, the casualness that wafts you past Michael’s artfully-strewn hints, flowers on the lawn that you step across, drinks at the bar that you’ve not yet ordered…because there are other places where the look is slightly different, because the tempo is different. It’s so easy to forget about that boy, lost thirty-four years ago! By the time Chapter One ends, the pace has ramped up enough that we are carried away from him, even though we are still aware of him all around us as the excuse for everything…as the context of everything. But we are distracted from seeing him, not just by Kendra and her friends but by the big DMMM that inaugurates — twice! — this, our just-slightly-askew adventure into Tropeland.

And, you know what else we are distracted from?

Well, if you look, it’s right there; so go look. This one’s more than it seems, which is just the way I like them. And it’s part of a larger corpus of inquiry and interest, which is the way I would like them if only more of them came that way. And I’m not even the only one who thinks so! But Peterson and Czapiewski are wiser than to think comics are just about ideas, and that really forms the main selling-point here…the thing that’s really keeping me coming back, and the thing that’ll probably keep you coming back as well…

…Which is that it JUST. LOOKS. BEAUTIFUL.

And it’s a real smooth read to boot.

Anything else that’s in there, you don’t really need me to tell you about it, you know?

Because if you’re interested in finding it, you’ll find it.

So…to close it all out…

Larry Niven might’ve made a tidy mini-career out of the fictionalization of SF conventions, but I think I like this twist on it much better…because what’s available to be fictionalized from the con world is something a bit more developed than what once was, and to be honest Larry’s adolescent chest-puffery just made me mad, after a while. Such a confining space, in which there really isn’t the room for anyone to discover anything! Or at least, not anything they weren’t already sure they knew. He always dressed it up very nicely, but it was always still a mannequin: a dummy, just there to hang things on. Heinlein manque; super people in a super world, whose effort was just something they always talked about but never did. I should say — and maybe when I write that Warren Ellis post one day I will say — that it isn’t even the problem that your basic Heinleinian hero is a super person in a super world, but that instead that they’re an ordinary person in a super world…a world where superiority is just that easy to have, that bartenders and taxi drivers and even SF fans all have it, indefeasibly just have it, because the rules of a superworld simply make it inevitable that they should. And in this way even Niven’s conventioneers are just terribly well-defended people, to the point where even their hangovers are cool…and if I sound like I grew to hate that geeky triumphalism of his it’s because I did, I really did, I hated the idea of the Geek as much as I hated the idea of his Triumph, and so thank God none of that is on evidence here. Because there’s something so much more valuable about the fictionalized con culture of today, isn’t there? I think even an old fogey like me must admit that the gaming stuff makes it all different, deeper, more searching…I mean, I’m sure I’m missing a lot more than half of the, ahem, “political” commentary of the thing (by which of course I mean the whole thing, the whole site), but even I can see that things get a bit more teasingly metatextual when you don’t just have an identification-figure in your fiction, but an actual avatar…whose choices you script, so thoroughly (or at least: diligently) that “identification” barely merits thinking about. Does Wotan think about how much he “identifies” with Siegmund?

Does Thor think about how much he “identifies” with lame physician Don Blake?

So it’s much better now, than it was in Larry Niven’s day: this play-acting doesn’t have to mean escaping into a juvenile fantasy, at all…

So to the gamers, so long disdained, I can only say…


I tip my hat to you. This is so clearly the next wave, you know? Of pop-culture analysis, I mean. And to think I used to believe games were a more limiting environment for story…well, clearly I have some catching-up to do…

…So I guess I might as well begin at the beginning.



2 responses to “Spring Review: “Project: Ballad”

  1. Pingback: Read This! (Plus, a Note) | Project: Ballad·

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