A GRAPHIC NOVEL OF SECRET IDENTITIES: SUPERHEROES NEED NOT APPLY
Peter Bagge’s latest graphic novel, Other Lives, proves to be a brilliantly original and thoroughly surprising read. Although I’m still unsure of what I found to be more surprising—the story’s clever deconstruction of modern identity issues or the fact that it was published by DC’s Vertigo line of comics. In the past I’ve enjoyed pretty much everything I’ve read that bore the Vertigo logo (Sandman, Books of Magic, Fables, Hell-blazer, and many many others) yet I still find myself refreshingly surprised by the ever-widening scope of stories that are being released under this imprint.
I had been aware of Bagge’s prior work (his name is frequently brought up by my fellow panelists when I speak on the comics industry at science fiction conventions) but I had never gotten around to browsing any of his work. It takes no more than a quick glance at his artwork to see that he is clearly a product of the 1970’s underground comics movement; there’s an unmistakable boldly inked R. Crumb-style mixed with the elastic loopiness of the old Leon Schlesinger cartoons to Bagge’s artwork. However, his work has clearly evolved beyond his influences—he’s been published by all of the major comic companies and Hate, his satirical look at the alternative culture of the nineties, ran for nearly the entire decade and won the Harvey Award for Best New Series.
In Other Lives Bagge gives us the story of four Dragon Con-going gamer geeks, each struggling in some way with defining who they are. The main plot line follows Vladimir Rostov (pen name, Vader Ryderbeck), an investigative journalist who is researching an article on how people use the internet to assume new identities. The main focus of his story is Javier Ortiz (cover identity, Otis Boyd), a terrorist-obsessed conspiracy theory junkie who may or may not be an agent for the Department of Homeland Securities but is definitely known to be good with computers. Rostov’s investigation frequently takes a back seat to his personal life which is complicated by his own insecurities derived from unresolved issues with his dead father and by his sudden engagement to his girlfriend Ivy Chin (online persona, Shi’a Electra). Rounding out the foursome is Vlad and Javier’s old gaming buddy Woodrow Wooley (poker ID, The Poker King; online persona, Lord Burlington), who serves to reconnect Vlad and Javy and introduces Ivy to the online community of Second World. Plot threads for all four (nine if you count their other lives) characters twist amongst each other in a cleverly plotted study about how much we are influenced by the lies that we tell to others and, more importantly, the lies we tell ourselves.
I briefly mentioned Second World; it plays a large part in the story. Second World is, as the name suggests, Peter Bagge’s version of the online phenomenon Second Life. As in Second Life, Second World allows users to create virtual avatars that exist in a simulated 3D online environment. All four of the main characters in Other Lives interact with Second World in one form or another. Some play nicely, some don’t.
While Second World may be the most visible manifestation of alternate identities, there are plenty of other identity issues at play. Vlad has near-crippling insecurities because he still thinks of himself as the fat, unpopular teenager that he used to be. That, coupled with some serious daddy issues, has left him questioning the value of his life and career. His girlfriend Ivy, however, finds Vlad’s reinvention of himself as a thin (but weight-obsessed) journalist who has cut ties with his past to be a rebellious act that she respects because it is so alien to her conservative Chinese upbringing. Clearly trying to establish her own identity, apart from her family, Ivy leaps headfirst into becoming The Bride and also experiments with a more sexually playful version of herself in Second World. Second World is, of course, a perfect outlet for escapism. Woodrow spends all of his free time in online identities in Second World and on poker sites as an escape from the painful reality of his divorce and financial troubles. The line between separate identities is most blurred for Javy. Diagnosed as a bipolar individual with schizoid tendencies his identity depends primarily on whether or not he’s taking his meds—on them he’s the quiet and shy Javier Ortiz; off his meds he’s the paranoid braggart Otis Boyd.
Complicating matters, Vlad discovers that much of what his hyper-critical father had told him about his own family was untrue. When he tells his uncle about his engagement Vlad discovers that his father had led a secret life of his own. All along Vlad had been led to believe that his father was a restaurant owner whose business had burned down, leading to hard financial times. In truth the restaurant was a struggling but fancy night club that had been torched because Vlad’s father wouldn’t hire minorities and Vlad’s grandfather had left the family with sizable trust funds.
As a whole, the narrative of the story focuses on how each character incorporates their separate identities into their real life. Will the fantasy win out? How much immersion into a second (or third, or fourth) identity is too much? And where and when do you draw the line?
Overall, there’s a universality to the dilemma that Bagge’s characters face: Who are we? We each have our own work, personal, relationship, social, and on-line identities—is any one of these more valid than another? It’s a question that Bagge addresses quite nicely, giving us an entertaining and thought-provoking good read along the way. But don’t let my professional reviewer identity influence you too much—go read Other Lives for yourself.
Originally published in the California Literary Review.