Friday, December 13, 2013

Dear Esther: A Romantic’s Response to Social Norms

Oftentimes when a social norm is introduced to an idea that challenges it, the new idea is faced with rejection. This concept has been exemplified in numerous art forms that have come and gone throughout our society. In the unconventional video game, “Dear Esther,” reviewers challenge the game’s avant-garde setting and plot because of its apparent deviations from the typical template constructed by most games that have preceded it. However, in the past many historic art movements have emerged simply as a result of challenging an existing art form or introducing new concepts to an old idea. This can be seen in the appearance and development of Romanticism, which challenged the accepted norm of its day, Baroque. The emergence of this movement and many others illustrates the point that art of a certain genre cannot be defined as simply adhering to the norm.  Therefore, this idea validates that although “Dear Esther” does not follow the typical layout defined by many video games, it does not make it in itself any less of a video game.  
Among the list of games that do embody the generalized idea of a video game are chart-topping and best-selling hits such as “Halo” and “Call of Duty.” These kinds of games are characterized by fast-paced action, bright colors and highly interactive combat that allow the player to be constantly entertained and stimulated by different aspects of the game.  “Halo 4,” received rave reviews by IGN (Imagine Games Network) for these very reasons.  The amount of effort and time put into stunning, in-your-face visuals, is apparent from the very beginning of the game which, “starts with a mesmerizing CG cutscene that flat-out knocks you on your ass.”  (McCafrey).  He commends the makers of the game for such constantly invigorating “movements and animations abound.” Similarly, “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2” was referred to as being, “like an action movie” by another IGN reviewer, who similarly praised the “complex terrain in the environments, weather effects, destructible objects, and the overall sense of action and chaos” (Bozon). The attraction that players seem to have toward “action and chaos” can be seen almost uniformly throughout these specific kind of video games, the chart-toppers, and certainly heighten the appeal of the game due to the fact that this style seems to have the most stimulating visuals and audio effects.  McCafrey goes on to acknowledge that the game’s “gorgeous graphics [is] only one responsibility [it] must bear”, with the other being “best in class sound design.”  The fact that these reviews focus almost solely on the graphics, audio and interactivity of the game highlights the idea of what a video game is “supposed” to be, according to the reviewers, and consequently alters the video-gaming audience’s idea of what a video game is.  Both the “Modern Warfare” soundtrack written by Hans Zimmer and the soundtracks of previous “Halo” games (1,2 and 3), scored by Marty O’Donnel, “elevate the action happening on the screen.” However, the decision to use British electronica producer Neil Davidge for the soundtrack for Halo 4 was criticized by IGN because of Davidge’s moody soundtrack as being “complementary rather than additive” which results in a less-than-memorable score.  This piece of the review seems to highlight the fact that the more common in-your-face kind of soundtrack increases the success of the game and illustrates the fact that video games are generally expected to be as visually, audibly and physically stimulating as possible. Even on a small scale, Davidge’s attempt to break free from the norm of videogame soundtracks was dismissed, because it didn’t conform to these expectations. This further shows that the audience’s perspective, as well as the reviewer’s, holds video games to a standard set by these best-selling video games that aims to be as constantly stimulating as possible. Despite the fact that reviewer thought the soundtrack was “complementary,” the fact that he wished it was more “additive” shows the emphasis on more exhilarating audio.
Although a relatively new medium, video games have gone through shifts in style throughout their brief existence, as one can easily see by comparing the bloody and violent video games advertised on television to the older and less aggressive games such as “Pong” and “Pacman,” that one may still be able to find in an amusement park or arcade.  Despite changes in the video game genre due to technological advances, it is more than apparent that the overarching themes and concepts of video games have changed just as dramatically. This is not a new phenomenon because, historically, art mediums have seen major shifts in style based on changes in politics, societal influences, and technological advances.
In today’s culture, the prevailing style of video games is characterized by bright visuals, immense soundtracks and complex mechanics, and heightens the players’ senses to the point where he/she is completely immersed in the stimuli. This is directly comparable to what was the widely popular Baroque style of painting and music during the 17th century.  Baroque styles emerged under heavy Catholic influences and were adopted by European aristocrats as a means to impressive visitors with heavy overtones of wealth, triumph and power. The style spread from canvas to architectural works in an attempt to be even more impressive and grand. This style mirrors the goals of “Halo” creators in designing themes and soundtracks to capture their audience in the most outstanding and impressive ways. The gaudy and direct aesthetic of this style was used not only to impress the viewers but also to communicate themes without the ambiguity of interpretation.  One painting, “The Fall of Phaeton,” personifies the major stylistic traits of Baroque paintings. The colors are exceedingly vibrant, the amount of detail in the image is impressive and, given its title, there is no debate over its meaning or content.  This is also directly relatable to the themes of highly popular video games, of which there is no debate when looking at titles such as “Modern Warfare,” “Gears of War,” and “Grand Theft Auto.” These styles, prevalent in both the video games of today and the works of the 17th century, were utilized to attract audiences based on the most visually stimulating aesthetics.  Just as Baroque developed from paintings to grand architecture and even the famous and enormous Trevi Fountain in Italy, to keep the gamer audience engaged, developers need to produce games that are even more stimulating and mechanically engaging than the last. Direct evidence of this can be seen outside of a Best Buy the night before a game such as “Halo” or “Call of Duty,” is released, as hundreds of customers can often be seen camped out at the store, waiting eagerly to see what new graphics and special features accompany the latest version of the game. Although nearly extinct as a current form of art, the remaining pieces of Baroque art continue to carry out their main goal of impressing the audience in the most visually appealing ways even to this day, as it is estimated that over 3,000 Euros are thrown into the Trevi Fountain, constructed by Nicola Salvi, every single day. Even just a screenshot of “Halo 4” appears ostensibly similar in terms of color and detail to a typical Baroque painting, which asserts the idea that popular video games of today do in fact have very similar stylistic traits when compared to popular Baroque-style paintings such as “The Fall of Phaeton.”  Further, the production of Baroque paintings, specifically in regards to Reuben’s, “Fall of Phaeton” and his other works is very similar to the production of games like Halo and Call of Duty.  Studios run by popular baroque artists including Reubens himself were made of up of dozens of apprentices who worked on paintings and other works of art that were commissioned to them.  These workshops were not uncommon during this Baroque period and were seen all over europe including Reubens’ largest one in Antwerp.  His apprentices would do the majority of the drawing and sketching while Reubens would supervise and add final touches.  The output of pieces of his workshops were astonishing and at one point he was commissioned to create 39 ceiling paintings for a church in Antwerp. (McLanathan). Similarly, Call of Duty, among other blockbuster games, was created by a studio of artists, designers and programmers.  Infinity Ward, the creators of Call of Duty, has approximately 150 employees and undoubtedly collaborate with more, who all work on their titles.  They create Call of Duty games biannually which is relatively a very large output, especially due to the intricacy and detail that go into their games.  Both of these large Baroque and Baroque-style workshops and studios mimic the aesthetic of their artworks.  The chaos and action that is associated with this style can be attributed to the work environment of these large and busy studios.  
“Dear Esther” challenges this “Baroque” style of video games with its appeal to the audience’s emotions through more subdued visual and subtle auditory aesthetics woven into an organic interactive narrative. Between the “sweeping strings,” “gloomy piano pieces,” picturesque landscapes, and dense narrative, “Dear Esther” appears analogous to another stylistic art movement, Romanticism.  Pioneers of the Romantic era were, like “Dear Esther,” rejected by the major artists of the time, deviated from the major Baroque movement by promoting a more individualistic and natural view of the world as opposed to the direct and incontrovertible themes of the Baroque era, which had been established mainly by the Catholic Church.  “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog” by Caspar David Friedrich is a descriptive example of a Romantic painting that deviated from what was at the time considered the norm. John Lewis Gaddis describes it as leaving the viewer with feelings of contradiction, "suggesting at once mastery over a landscape and the insignificance of the individual within it.” This style introduces the ambiguity that comes along with interpretation, which was not seen in Baroque, or in video games with indisputable themes like kill-or-get-killed. However, it is precisely the factor of interpretation that sets apart both Romanticism and refreshingly new video games such as “Dear Esther.” Rather than using the title of a piece to blatantly spell out the theme in a few simple words, such as Baroque and top video-game developers have done, Romantic painters leave much more up to the imagination of the audience.   “We see no face, so it's impossible to know whether the prospect facing the young man is exhilarating, or terrifying, or both.” Leaving the theme up to the analysis of the audience gives the meaning of the art an entirely new meaning. Pieces of art that require more thought-provoking interpretation challenge not only style of art, but the way that people are forced to think about it. Unlike examples of Baroque art, which often convey the piece’s entire message just in the title, one cannot look at a classical Romantic artwork and immediately know what the artist is trying to say. The entire idea is that a work of art will speak differently to those based on their respective interpretations. By simply reading the title, “Dear Esther,” it is not obvious at all what the game is going to be about, and even in the first few minutes of the game it does not become readily apparent, whereas most popular video games will spell out the plot on the back of the box if it is not implied in the title.  “Dear Esther” presents an isolated individual traversing the “natural beauty of the coast and the startling luminescence of the underground caves”, a scene reminiscent of Friedrich (MacDonald).  Although one does this by simply “hold[ing] down the “W”-key for 70 minutes” this does not detract from it’s classification as a video game because what it lacks in mechanics it boasts in “strength of the writing and the world alone” (Pinsof, MacDonald).  The interactivity is not based in the mechanics like traditional games; rather it is rooted in the obscurity of the landscapes scrawled with cryptic writings, and an emotional narrative, both of which can be interpreted in countless ways.  This style of video game mimics the goals of artists throughout the Romantic era, who shifted the focus from just simply trying to stimulate the audience in every possible sensation to a more thought-provoking and inward seeking style of painting. Conceptually, this is what set Romanticism apart from painters and architects of the Baroque era, whose goals were purely aesthetic. Much more like the creators of “Dear Esther,” painters of the Romantic Movement drove their audience to evoke their own personal expression through art. This outlook is what drives players to immerse themselves in the visuals and sounds that the game presents despite the relatively simple mechanics.   Contrasting again with the Baroque artists, romantic works of art were not created in large workshops by dozens of artists.  They were created in studios by the sole artist and were not as prolific as Baroque artists.  This individualistic and isolated work environment reflects in the art itself in terms of mood as well as theme. Additionally, as a result of the indistinctness in plot and goal, “Dear Esther” evokes curiosity from its players, which is evident in the countless web pages and forums that discuss the many and varied interpretations of the video game.  While some players praise the game for its unconventional characteristics, a much larger majority have complaints based around their previous notions of video game features. However, discussions foster an interaction with the narrative that is unlike that of today’s popular video games.  By creating a game in which its interactivity is not defined by the number of customizable weapons or multiplayer capability, the makers of “Dear Esther” have transcended the traditional realm of gaming by innovating a new way to interact with its players. Essentially, this too was the goal of Romantic painters that challenged the superficial themes revolving around Baroque, which was met with the same opposition that many gamers have shown toward “Dear Esther.”
        Despite the varying themes between “Halo,” “Call of Duty,” and “Dear Esther,” the reviewers were critical of similar elements between all three games.  This shows the uniformity of expectations that video gamers currently have for this art form.  Halo reviewers criticized the latest edition for a, “complementary rather than additive” soundtrack, targeting the level of stimulation, much like those of Dear Esther who were critical of the fact that they had to, “hold down the ‘W’-key for 70 minutes,” implying a critique of the even less stimulating mechanics. Both reviewers were most displeased with aspects of the game that they felt didn’t engage them in the most stimulating way possible. Simply put, reviewers of the most popular video games want something, “like an action movie,” and consequently hold the entire genre of video games to the same standard. It is no wonder then that avant-garde games such as Dear Esther receive such a harsh score, a 4.5, for failing to adhere to this widespread standard, while Halo and Call of Duty received scores over 9.5.  
Although some might argue that comparing the deviation of Romanticism from Baroque to the deviation of Dear Esther from popular contemporary video games does not in itself confirm “Dear Esther” as an art form, there are countless other examples to assert this logic. Impressionism emerged in the 19th century despite overwhelming opposition of the movement by the majority of French artists at the time. Just in the last century, surrealism and abstract expressionism styles established themselves despite the mainstream prevalence of realism in the United States. Throughout history, deviating from the norm has resulted in the proliferation of new art forms as well as modification of existing ones, and “Dear Esther” is no different. Although video games are a relatively new art medium, many experts and gamers already have their minds made up about what it should be. Nonetheless, those that decide to question the norm, such as the creators of “Dear Esther,” deserve equally as much credit for challenging the present standards and introducing new concepts to the genre as a whole.
Although these features define the one current style of the art form, that is not to say that it defines the art form itself. It simply shows the narrow mindset that many gamers have about what video games are and could be. Although they may be less popular, many other styles can exist and constitute a video game just as much. A game that challenges this style is often rejected as a video game because of the simple fact that the audience is expecting something different.  The most essential characteristic of a videogame, as defined by many, is the ability of the player to control or interact with the images on a screen regardless of the orthodoxy in its execution.  This definition, although seemingly lacking, is a unifying concept of all works in this art form and does not restrict the artist in the manner in which he does this.  “Dear Esther” deviates from traditional video games because it introduces a new way to interact with images and narratives based on a holistic view of emotional appeal rather than the traditional style aimed solely at the senses. Despite this nonconformity it still meets the essential criteria of a video game.  
Much like the early critics of Romanticism, and countless other artistic movements, those challenging “Dear Esther” as a video game base their argument almost solely on the fact that this piece of art does not adhere to the standard created by a vast majority of other video games that dominate the market and determine their most common features. “Dear Esther” and other alternatively created video games exemplify many of these emerging art forms by taking a genre, such as video gaming, and introducing new concepts that challenge the audience’s perception of that art form. Although most often met with dismissal and rejection, it can be argued that games such as these help the genre to evolve and develop, simply by countering what its audience’s previous expectations and introducing new ideas. In “One-Dimensional Man”, Herbert Marcuse stresses that oppositional movements are crucial to prevent “flattening out of the antagonism between culture and social reality.”  Because the alien and oppositional elements of culture have been eliminated, no longer is the “autonomous personality, of humanism, of tragic and romantic love” celebrated.  Marcuse asserts that this elimination of oppositional elements is a result of the reproduction and display on a massive scale of “high culture.”  The mass production of Baroque paintings in the 17th century and the Baroque-style video games of the 21st are exemplary of just that.  The mass production and reproduction of these art styles resulted in the deconstruction of the boundaries between higher culture and social norm.  Just as the Italian and Roman aristocrats scoffed at the introduction of Romanticism, the makers of “Halo” and “Call of Duty” would more than likely dismiss a game such as “Dear Esther.” Despite the opposition of those that set the norm, it still holds true that the evolution of an art form, genre or movement can only happen when someone challenges it’s key features and forces it to develop into something entirely new.
Works Cited
The Chinese Room. Dear Esther. Steam, 14 Feb. 2012. PC.
Allistair, Pinsof. "Review: Dear Esther." Rev. of Dear Esther. Web log post. Destructoid. N.p., 12 Feb. 2012. Web. 14 Oct. 2013.

MacDonald, Keza. "Dear Esther Review." Rev. of Dear Esther. Web log post. IGN. N.p., 13 Feb. 2012. Web. 14 Oct. 2013.

Mccaffrey, Ryan. "Halo 4 Review." IGN. Imagine Games Network, 1 Nov. 2012. Web. 20 Nov. 2013.

Bozon, Mark

Marcuse, Herbert. "One Dimensional Man, by Herbert Marcuse (contents)." One Dimensional Man, by Herbert Marcuse (contents). N.p., 30 May 2005. Web. 20 Nov. 2013.

McLanathan, Richard. Peter Paul Rubens. New York: H. N. Abrams, 1995.

The Saddest Kids on Earth

An Examination of James and Jimmy Corrigan’s Mutual Development throughout
Jimmy Corrigan: The smartest Kid on Earth
            In Jimmy Corrigan: The smartest Kid on Earth, the final transition between James Corrigan’s childhood timeline and Jimmy’s adult timeline finds James standing at the top of The Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building, one of the centerpieces of the World’s Columbian Exposition. Standing atop this intersection of the old and new, James is abandoned by his father, leaving him to face the coming revolutions alone – a state of being that he is quite used to already. Even with all the epochal changes – electricity’s proliferation, an emerging architecture, a rethinking of the world’s cities – foreshadowed in that park in Chicago, James Corrigan still ends up by himself, abandoned and ostracized by society at large. This dichotomy of progress – the personal progress of James (or, as we will see, the lack thereof) and the country’s current status as compared with the potential highlighted at the World’s Fair –  is rooted in the relationships that shaped both James, Jimmy and the American people at the turn of the twentieth century.
            Jimmy Corrigan’s first few frames offer an immense ‘zoom-in’ from the cold reaches of space onto Jimmy’s childhood home just outside Chicago. Loneliness, then, is present in the story from the first page on and only continues to grow as the story progresses in those early pages. The first ‘shot’ of Jimmy that we get is of him putting on a mask, an action that encapsulates his absolute desire for attention, or even just acknowledgement, and juxtaposes it with his absolute anonymity to others, a theme that will be drawn on throughout the story.
The first few scenes of the novel serve to set-up the novel’s main plot, which involves Jimmy meeting his father for the first time. After spending just five pages on Jimmy’s childhood, the novel uses the growth of Chicago – the childhood house is neglected and torn down - as a transition to Jimmy’s adult life where not much has changed for Jimmy. He still survives on the periphery of human contact, seemingly unable to break out from his mother’s overbearingness. Receiving a letter from his dad, a man he never knew, he is invited out to Waukosha, Michigan – a small, any-town suburb – for the weekend. The next series of scenes, showing Jimmy’s preparations and travel, continue to highlight Jimmy’s social awkwardness and ineptitude in everyday situations.
Two of the most telling scenes in this section are the two dream sequences that Jimmy experiences getting ready for and on the flight to Michigan. The first one sees Jimmy as a robot,[i] an apt metaphor for his lack of human interaction – literally imagining himself as a non-human entity, though one with all the emotional needs of the people he struggles to interact with. The dream’s plot revolves around adult-robot-Jimmy searching for and finding a young-child-robot-Jimmy – mirroring his real-life dilemma. The next dream takes place on a farm in rural America during the period before the Great depression. Jimmy is seen as his current-day self interacting with the period-characters of his dream-family. He, unlike in his actual childhood, has an older-brother and an abusive father. The dream turns violent, and Jimmy witnesses his father beat up his brother on the edge of the family’s peach farm. The story then resumes as Jimmy wakes up on the plane. The transition frame between the dream and real-life shows Jimmy as a robot with a bird perched on his head and a branch from a peach-tree.  In a not-too-subtle gesture, Chris Ware gives the reader an explicit diagram of the different motifs to watch for throughout the novel. Of the two we have encountered already, the robot stems from Jimmy’s unconscious portrayal of himself, while the peach, as we will see later, will come from deeply repressed sexuality.
As the story unfolds, the main narrative is continuously interrupted, often for extended periods of time, to focus on the childhood of Jimmy’s grandfather, James Corrigan. The majority of James’ story is centered on the year 1893, and his experience with the World’s Columbian Exposition. James’ family life seems reminiscent of the farm-dream that Jimmy had, and his family dynamic is opposite that of Jimmy’s – an abusive father instead of an overbearing mother. Throughout this section, James’ representation graphically recalls Jimmy’s appearance, and many of the mannerisms and character traits seen in Jimmy are present in James. We can even go as far as to say that James is supposed to represent, at least thematically, Jimmy’s childhood.
This literary choice lets us read the book as a profound statement on the idea of progress, namely that it is both exponentially quick, going from the World’s Fair to the modern-day Chicago, and almost non-existent – major similarities exist between James and Jimmy; progress in this one happens so slowly, it can be said to not happen at all. Chris Ware, by telling the story of Jimmy through three generations of male characters lets the reader focus on how difficult it is to see change on a personal level even though the world around them becomes unrecognizable throughout the course of a lifetime. This idea – that Ware is trying to show how progress is relative to the timeframe you are studying – relies on the interactions and similarities between James and Jimmy, while placing their lives in the context of the World’s Fair and its effect on the country.
James Corrigan is introduced as the son of a moderately successful Chicago glazier, William Corrigan. The city of Chicago is finishing up work on the ‘White City’ of the World’s Fair, and James and his father are staying at his grandmother’s house for the time being. In these early scenes, we see James as an obedient child, one who never learned how to interact with others due to his abusive and controlling father. James is unable to confront his father, though he does often has violent fantasies involving his dad as a victim.[ii] James is just as ostracized by his peers and elders as Jimmy is, though in different ways, owning to the difference in time periods. When looking at James’ story line, there are several major plot, character and thematic elements that carry over into Jimmy’s world.
Returning to the idea of progress, the James-Jimmy dynamic is used by Ware to set up the question of whether or not personal growth is visible over a single lifetime. Tracing Jimmy’s history back all the way to the late 1800s allows Ware to provide extensive backstory to Jimmy’s quirks and social ineptitudes. Rooting a majority of his issues in James, Ware’s most immediately noticeable cross-generational dynamic is the fact that the male characters are often under-developed, juvenile characters, woefully unable to cope with the demands of interacting with people, especially those of the opposite sex. In fact, sexism and blatant objectification are common threads throughout the novel, starting with the ‘instructions’ page on the inside cover of the book, where Chris Ware breaks the fourth wall and says “if b [female], you may stop. Put down your booklet. All others continue,” giving the reader a brief taste of the sexism that they will encounter throughout the book. Crucially, however, not all the objectification is leveled against women. In contrast, most of the serious gender issues arise from the fact that the men, and specifically the Corrigan men, are the victims of the sexism present throughout the story.
On the first glance, it is clear that Ware’s story showcases femininity and women in a negative light. Most of the women that aren’t major characters do not get their faces shown, instead, as can be seen in the noted picture,[iii] Ware focuses on their bodies, purposely hiding their faces by everyday objects. Ware, however, does not treat the men in the story any better than he treats the women; throughout the course of the multiple-generation story, there is arguably not a single all-around strong male character. Ware writes the men so that they all lack in at least one area of traditional masculinity. Contrasted with that, is the fact that the two strongest characters, Amy and the Girl in the Blue Dress (who is not named), are female. While the Girl in Blue is the only female character who interacts with James as a peer, she is never given an identity. Identity, as one of the major themes in Jimmy Corrigan, is represented “as an ongoing process filled with errors and corrections,”[iv] where both the reader and characters continue to learn about their relationships to each other. Without a name, the Girl in Blue simply exists as a force of nature in James’ story – with no tangible relation to anyone else. The reader never learns anything about her other than what she presents to James besides the fact that at some point it is implied that she is James’ cousin,[1] though this is never confirmed or denied.
One of the first implications, if James’ story is read as a representation of Jimmy’s childhood, of her lack of a name is that fact that she may very well be Jimmy’s mental projection of his own mother and her damaging effect on his mental state. The only interactions James has with members of the opposite sex are his dying grandmother and the Girl in Blue. Neither of these interactions are particularly healthy and since they are the only ones James has as a child, it is not unreasonable to see the manifestation of this stunted childhood, both socially and sexually, present in Jimmy.
It becomes increasingly apparent throughout the course of the story that the only two truly-strong characters are the Girl in Blue and Amy, Jimmy’s black half-sister. William, James, Jimmy’s Father (who is also never named directly) and Jimmy are all poses non-traditional masculine traits. William is abusive, out of shape and divorced – nothing about him is part of the idealized male character; charming, fit, chivalrous. His son James, scarred by the abuse and emotionally stunted from the lack of motherly figure to balance William, is lonely, quiet and ostracized by his peers at school. Jimmy’s father is also out of shape, with numerous children from failed romances. He is far and away the most classically masculine character, especially when one considers his womanizing ways. This fact plays back into the idea that Ware is attempting to turn the conventions of sexism in pop culture around, back onto the typically sexist male characters. By making the men the weaker characters, Ware is able to highlight that for as obvious as female sexism is in a work – anybody would quickly pick up on his almost-blatant objectification of the minor-character women – the sexism leveled at the men, all of who have been failed by society’s image of masculinity, goes unnoticed in general discussions of the story.
Jimmy’s relationship with Amy, the only other strong female character, mirrors James’ relationship to the Girl in Blue. With James, the Girl in Blue approaches him for the first time, another proof that James is not a strongly masculine character, and befriends him on his first day at a new school. As the two grow closer, James continues to fall more and more in love with her, at one point focusing only on a strand of her hair blowing in his face atop the unfinished World’s Fair building.[v] Similarly, Amy is the first to introduce herself to Jimmy when they meet at the doctor’s office.[vi] As with James before him, Jimmy finds himself falling in love with the only strong female character that he meets.
When James finds out that the Girl in Blue is related to him, he reacts violently to the news and attacks her. This is used against him later, when the other children make fun of him for hitting a girl – one of the least traditionally ‘masculine’ actions one can perform, and a large social taboo.[2] When Jimmy falls for Amy, he too is aware that it is explicitly against social norms to act on his urges. When he finally does act on these, by grabbing her hand when they find out their father died, he is violently rejected by Amy, who pushes him to the ground.[vii] In James’ case, the rejection comes internally, when he reacts to the Girl in Blue’s taunting after learning that he will never be able to be wither. On the other hand, Jimmy’s rejection comes from an external source – Amy, though in a larger sense society as a whole, pushes him away when he tries to make the most basic of human connections.[3]
To Ware, literary criticism – especially when done through a feminist lens – relies on the assumption that society’s view of masculinity has a lesser effect on the men of the society. To draw attention and provide a counter to this rather ‘institutionalized sexism’, he presents the effects of this assumption on four damaged men. The women in the story are there to ensure that the discussion of sexism happens in the first place (which only furthers his original goal – if he had not objectified characters such as the airplane passenger or empowered young female characters such as the Girl in Blue, would we have even noticed the inherent sexism against the men?).
There is more than just Ware’s reversal of sexism that connects James to Jimmy in the novel. As previously mentioned, whereas Jimmy has an overbearing mother who took him for granted during his childhood, James’ father was abusive, ill-tempered and despised James enough to abandon him a few days after his ninth birthday. To continue the opposite family-dynamic, until the events of the novel, Jimmy had never met his father, and lived with his mother, while James’ mother died while he was too young to remember her, leaving him with his father and the help they hired to run the house (it should be noted that Jimmy’s mother lives in an assisted-living home as well). Jimmy’s trouble with connecting with his father begins to make more sense once it becomes possible that his difficulty is a result of James’ emotional trauma caused by his dad. By giving Jimmy access to the deep-seated lack of trust towards father figures of his grandfather, Ware provides a mechanism by which to explain Jimmy’s fears of his own father – culminating in the scene where he imagines his father killing him while he sleeps. To expand on that, it is also evident that Jimmy retained James’ violent tendencies, at one point imagining casually slicing his father’s back open with a shard of ceramic, and not unlike James pretending to execute his father.[viii]
Now that the personal, symbiotic relationship between Jimmy and James has been established, we can move onto examining their relationship to each other in the context of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. Charting the personal growth of the two main male characters, we see a massive difference in their progress as an individual and the progress of society as a whole. The World’s Columbian Exposition, as with Fairs in the past, was set up to show the coming technologic improvements that would soon be taken for granted. This fair in particular was the first to be fully illuminated by electric light, supplied by Westinghouse after they won the auction for the contract.[ix] The Fair was seen as a showcase for not only new technologies in everything from transportation and agriculture to machinery and electricity, but a marvel of city and urban design and architecture.
Many papers can be devoted to the above facets of the Fair, and it would be easy to get lost in an endless discussion about neoclassical architecture, City Beautiful planning, the importance of A/C power winning the bid, to name just a few examples. Instead of focusing on the history and application of these topics in particular, we will focus on their overall effect on the country and the symbolic relationship their potential had with James’ and Jimmy’s outcomes.
A shining example of American Exceptionalism, the World’s Fair captured the spirit of a country starting to go through a revolution in almost every aspect of daily life. At the peak of the Gilded Age, the Fair encapsulated all aspects of the century to come. To return to the opening paragraph’s scene – with James Corrigan standing alone at the top of the largest building in the world at the time – we can see that Ware is tying the Corrigan’s future to that of the country.
Besides their mutual childhood experiences, James and Jimmy can be seen as representing the story of America, both pre-World’s-Fair and post-World’s-Fair. This metaphor is most prominent in the scenes leading up to James’ schools participation in the opening ceremony of the Fair. Each student is given red, white or blue clothing, and when they stand up together, they form a large American Flag. While Ware graphically represents the re-birth of America in this scene – using the youth of the time to form their own image of America under the guidance of the older generation[4] – an important narrative change also occurs. When James stands up in the grandstands, it is the last time his story is narrated with a third person pronoun, with “the boy occupies himself by watching the crowd”[x] being the last reference to James in this person. Every scene after this puts James in the first person. With the graphical re-birth of America, James enters the next stage of his life and begins to be his own person. No longer is an omniscient narrator controlling his life through “he does…” or “the boy…” instead, the narration takes on James’ inner thoughts. Fittingly, the scene immediately following the re-birth of America involves James being mean to an immigrant student he does not want to be associated with.
 Realizing the independence he has been granted with this new pronoun – I – James begins to finally form his own thoughts. And just as American society as a whole resisted the large numbers of immigrants coming to its shores, James – already ostracized as it is – does not want to be associated with the immigrant student who is simply looking for a friend. Instead, with his new-found identity (a realization that he is his own person) he chooses to try and fit in with the rest of the kids at his school. As James’ story progresses, the reader watches as he continually treats his Italian friend (again, never formally named) as a ‘second-class citizen’ only to one day find that his friend has deserted him and joined the group at school who incessantly tease him. This is yet another way in which Ware showcases James’ utter lack of social skills. Had James not attempted to fit in with the rest of the school by rejecting the friendship of the ‘weird kid’, he would have had a friend on his side when everyone started making fun of him.[5]
Ware’s most profound statement on America and progress can be found in Jimmy and his representation of America after the World’s Fair. After the peak of James’ potential atop the Exhibition building, the narrative shifts back to Jimmy. In this scene, where “Progress, marked as white, is associated with attaining great heights…leads father and son out to the very "edge of the largest building in the world" in a series of frames scaled to set personal drama as inconsequential against the grand architecture of the White City,” Ware sets up the dramatic contrasts between James’ and Jimmy’s progress and the country’s progress.[xi] Ending James’ story on his abandonment, Ware shows that this ‘new America’, represented by James and Jimmy, must embrace the changes alone. The changes are simply too new for the older generation to keep up with and this lack of ability to relate to the progress is mirrored across all aspects of society. The arts would begin to break from Traditionalism as artists across all mediums began to think in an entirely new way leading to the birth of the Modernism movement and radical new plans for cities would emerge.
            As Jimmy’s story takes place decades after the implementation of these new ideas – many of which would be disproven or radically altered – his story can be seen as a representation of modern American society. Jimmy, as a self-described loser, struggles to live a life with any semblance of normalcy. As a human being, Jimmy is missing the most fundamental of social skills, a result of a generations-long history of loneliness and isolation. Unable to function in a world where rejection is a necessary social outcome, Jimmy – whose main issue is that he is “paralyzed by a fear of being disliked”[xii] – can be seen as representing a generation of men who are unable to meet the demands modern society places on them. Existing in our society requires a bare minimum of social ability, and neither James nor Jimmy was truly able to function at this level for any extended period of time.
            When a reader views Jimmy as an ‘everyman meant to stand in for the general population, they are shown a very pessimistic view of modern society. After the World’s Fair, the ultimate expression of the country’s potential, we are shown what society has actually become – a generation of Jimmys. Ware uses the various generations of Jimmy’s family to highlight each of their respective generations’ faults, all stemming from their flawed views on masculinity. With these views on society, and in the way Chris Ware is able to showcase them aesthetically and narratively, Jimmy Corrigan could be seen as a drawn-out representation of the society that Herbert Marcuse envisioned in One Dimensional Man.
            Marcuse’s view on modern, post-industrial society is quite similar to the characterization of Jimmy. “And yet this society is irrational as a whole. Its productivity is destructive of the free development of human needs and faculties…its growth dependent on the repression of the real possibilities for pacifying the struggle for existence,”[xiii] writes Marcuse in the opening chapter of his defining work. If Ware’s story describes the society visually – what it would physically look like – Marcuse describes the society theoretically through the written word. Both the world Ware draws and the world Marcuse describes have important similarities. The main one being that even though “Contemporary society seems to be capable of containing social change - qualitative change which would establish essentially different institutions, a new direction of the productive process, new modes of human existence,”[xiv] the societies choose instead to remain where they are – unwilling and possibly even unable to change their situations. Both of these authors are seeking to show that we have grown complacent with modern societies and, because we all have aspects of Jimmy and the rest of the Corrigans inherent in our selves, that we are quickly becoming unable to change the situations even if we wanted to  - shown in Jimmy Corrigan by the death of Jimmy’s father. Even at his lowest point – reeling from this news, unable to ever really communicate his feelings, he finally is able to reach out and attempt to start a meaningful connection with Amy – he is quickly and thoroughly rejected. Even if he was able to finally try to change, to make good of the potential James had at the top of the World’s Fair, society is still against him. Society, it seems, has moved past the need for meaningful human experience.
            Showcasing this alienation, as art is supposed to do according to Marcuse, allows Ware to show the reader that because society has grown and progressed at an exponential rate, the individual members of the society are harmed. Out repressive society’s traded the well-being of the individuals to make it better for the collective. Modern society progressed at a rate which did not allow the citizens to properly adjust; forever ensuring that people will not be well enough adjusted to truly excel – or as is becoming more common, even function – in the societies they create.


[1] This has significant implications in terms of Jimmy’s underdeveloped and quite taboo sexuality, this will be brought up later in his relation to Amy.
[2] This can also be seen as a comment on the gender double standards we take for granted in society – James cannot physically confront the Girl in Blue without being called out as non-masculine, but if he confronts her in a non-violent way, he also loses his credibility as a male character.
[3] It would seem as though Jimmy is locked in a negative-feedback loop, where any attempt on his part to do a normal person-to-person interaction is met with a swift denial. This will, over the course of his life, inhibit him from attempting these interactions leading to a further inability to perform them.
[4] A generation that fought the Civil War in order to keep the country together
[5] As is usual, and especially so with young children, James would have still been made fun of, no matter what he did during school. Had he befriended the immigrant child, the kids at school would have found another reason to torment him. This fact, coupled with the idea that the kids looked up to and followed the Girl in Blue, adds to the idea that she is a stronger, more masculine character than James.

[i] See   and
[iv] Bennett et. al.
[viii]  compare this to:
[ix] Larson
[x] Ware
[xii] Front Cover of Jimmy Corrigan
[xiii] Marcuse, page 7
[xiv] Ibid., page 9

Works Cited
Bennett, Juda and Cassandra Jackson. "Graphic Whiteness and the Lessons of Chris Ware's
Jimmy Corrigan." . ImageTexT: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies. 5.1 (2010). Dept of English, University of Florida. 13 Dec 2013. 
Larson, Erik (2003). The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that
Changed America. New York, NY: Crown
Marcuse, Herbert. "The Paralysis of Criticism: Society without Opposition." Introduction. One
Dimensional Man. London: Sphere, 1968. 7+. Print.
Ware, Chris. Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. New York: Pantheon, 2000. Print.

Technology's Limitations on Narrative Interpretation

    Technology limits narrative interpretation. For each bit of technology included in the creation of a narrative, readers lose a bit of their own creativity, a bit of their own imagination. The less details we’re given throughout a narrative, the more holes we are forced to fill in with our own thoughts and our own interpretations. Technology is designed to enhance the narrative and therefore gives readers more information, more details, less room to imagine, and less space to create their own interpretations. The imagining that readers would have done is instead done on the part of the illustrators, the directors, and the creators of the technological “enhancement” to the narrative.
    Given the most raw form a narrative: typed black words homogeneously formatted on a white page, our minds have the most work to do. We aren’t given any images to base our minds’ creations on, or any sound to derive our characters’ voices from. We aren’t given anything but the printed, bound pages, sitting in our hands and our own thoughts. A world waiting to be explored - a raw narrative. As soon as we corrupt this narrative with any sort of technology, our interaction with the story itself dwindles slightly and we are left with more guidance for our thoughts to follow.
    The perfect example of a slightly technologically corrupted novel is Danielewski’s House of Leaves. Danielewski pushes the boundaries of printing technology but remains within the confines of his novel’s traditional bindings. Speaking on his own creation, Danielewski states in an interview, “books don't have to be so limited. They can intensify informational content and experience.” House of Leaves does exactly this. It pushes the limits of what a book can be and creates an experience for the reader rathe’r than just handing them a story to read. Danielewski has the power to change font, color, and orientation of words on a page to evoke a certain mood or reaction from readers. Don’t get me wrong, House of Leaves is one of those books that relies heavily on the reader to piece together what he is given, but, Danielewski makes use of his technological power to guide the readers through their experience with the book. If House of Leaves was presented as a novel in plain text without any formatting alterations, it would not only be less remarkable, but it would be more confusing. The formatting cues given to us throughout the novel guide us through the content. Without them, we would have to piece together the confusion of Danielewski’s words without visual cues. In this case, the limitations Danielewski’s technology creates help us decipher the abnormally vast interpretations the narrative has to offer.
    Deep both into the book and into the house, we find Navidson and Reston lost in the confusion in one of the many tricks of the house. The words on each adjacent page alternate orientation, forcing the reader to turn the book from upside-down to right-side up and back again until the sequence is over. By doing this, Danielewski creates a sense of confusion and disorientation for his readers that parallels the situation Navidson and Reston are experiencing simultaneously in the story. This creative use of printing technology forces the readers to have a specific physical experience with the book.
Danielewski, Page 289

 On this page, the reader can visualize the stairway stretching and expanding, just based on the way the words are printed on the page. This way readers experience words rather than just read them. Though still only using the original written word, Danielewski creates a visual representation of how the word feels and what it represents. The actual
s   t       r           e             t                 c                      h.   
    To further dilute the narrative, illustrations or images can be added to accompany the words of a narrative. Lynd Ward’s illustrated edition of Frankenstein inserts illustrations throughout the novel to give readers various visual representations of Shelley’s descriptions. Images given to the reader by a third party seriously distort any preexisting imagined creations the reader may have had before beholding the the rendition. Given the same description, two different people will create two different images in their heads, simply because they do not have they will not process the description in the same way. In addition, any artist who depicts a subject has the power to alter an image not only to reveal the artist’s style, but also to convey some sort of message or evoke a certain reaction from its viewers. “Ward was known for his social consciousness throughout his professional life and often incorporated political themes dealing with labor relations and racial equality in his illustrations” (Wepman).
    The description we are given of the horrid monster, written by Shelley, reads:
“[h]is limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features so beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same color as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shriveled complexion and straight black lips” (Shelley, 54-55)
Given this description, each reader can create his own version of Frankenstein’s monster. However, as soon as the reader finishes up this description, Ward’s depiction of the monster is revealed:
Shelley, Page 55

This dark, zombie-like depiction of the monster may not have been what the reader had in his mind, but now that the image has been revealed, Ward’s rendition of the monster will be taken into account in the reader’s vision of the monster. Thus, the provided image limits the possibilities the reader can create. Without the image, the possibilities for the monster’s countenance are limitless, but, with the image, the reader restricts his imagination to match up with that of the art with which he is provided.
    With the advancement of technology, we can achieve the most extreme perversion of the written narrative - a movie, wherein there lies virtually no imagination left for the viewer to dream up. If we simply compare the term for a person experiencing a written narrative with the term for a person experiencing a film, we see an inherent difference in their meaning. A reader actively participates in the unraveling of a narrative by reading each and every word an author writes. A viewer simply witnesses the action of the narrative occur as the director has designed it to occur. A reader is able to create his own world inside his head whereas the viewer is given a world to work with, within the confines of a movie screen.
    A written narrative allows readers to have personal experiences with the text. For the most part, people read independently and experience the narrative of a book inside their heads. The experience is internal. When viewers watch a movie, they share the experience with the rest of the audience, an external experience. Part of the enticement of reading a novel is the personal experience the reader shares with the book. Readers develop relationships with their novels because they become dependent on the words to keep building the narrative inside their heads, their world of creation continuously expanding as the novel unravels. On the contrary, viewers never get the opportunity to build worlds in their heads or develop relationships with movies because all the information they need is explicitly given to them on screen. Movies can only provide one perspective on any given situation at a time, limited by the single image produced by a single camera. When reading a book, thousands of images from infinite perspectives can flash through the minds of the readers. There are limitations to creating a movie while there are no limitations to writing a narrative. Thus, in the experience of a movie, the possibilities, images, and interpretations are limited as opposed to that of the experience of a book, with which the possibilities, images, and interpretations are infinite.
    The film is diluted so many times from the original narrative as it progresses from the original text to the screenplay manuscript, to the director’s angle on the manuscript, to the actor’s performance and portrayal of the character, through the point of view the director of photography chooses to shoot from, through the actual lens of the camera, and finally onto the screen that a viewer witnesses the action of the film upon. There are so many filters that the story has to travel through to reach the viewer that by time it is presented, it is in its most watered-down version. There is no imagination left to apply to the film because everyone has had a hand in its creation.

    To illustrate specifically the limitations that technology creates in the film, we can utilize the example of Frankenstein. The 1931 theatrical adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein diverges greatly from the original narrative, but that is besides the point. In the scene shown, we witness the “birth” of Frankenstein’s monster. Each detail of the mise-en-scene takes away a detail that we could have created on our own. The set, the actors, the costumes, the makeup, the lighting, and the props make up the mise-en-scene. Every detail of this sequence was already specifically planned out by set-designers, make-up artists, lighting technicians, actors, and directors. Our brain and imagination contribute nothing to create the image of the mad scientist’s laboratory. Not only do the visual components of the film leave nothing to the eye’s imagination, but the auditory components also of the film evoke a very specific mood from the viewer. Victor Frankenstein’s voice is full of emotion when he speaks of his own insanity at the start of the sequence and again later when he realizes his creation is alive. Colin Clive, the actor who portrays Victor Frankenstein, fills all the holes and answers all the questions of how Frankenstein feels at the first signs of his monster’s life, simply by dramatizing his emotions on the screen. In addition, director James Whale takes advantage of the opportunity to overwhelm the audience with an abundance of sound effects to create the perfect, ominous, horrific lightning storm. Between the carefully though out visual and audio components, the viewers is a step away from being in the world of the action. All the viewer has to do is keep his eyes and ears open.
    Herbert Marcuse discusses the dominance of advancing technology in relation to art in his work One-Dimensional Man. Marcuse states, “[t]he developing technological reality undermines not only the traditional forms but the very basis of the artistic alienation-that is, it tends to invalidate not only certain "styles" but also the very substance of art” (Marcuse, Ch. 3). Marcuse’s statement testifies to the fact that the art of the original written narrative has been lost in the advancements of technology. Our culture has become so obsessed with developing new technology to enhance the experience of a narrative, primarily in the film industry. A standard movie is no longer good enough, it has to be a 3D movie to keep audiences interested. DVDs just won’t do it anymore because the picture isn’t as crisp as a the picture from a BluRay disc. With each advancement in technology, we lose some of the narrative, but we also lose some of our own personal identity. We give in to our “false needs” and succumb to the pressure of the commercial world.
    The argument in opposition to the idea that technology limits narrative interpretation would of course be that technology enhances narrative interpretation. It is true that technology can enhance the experience of a narrative with visual and auditory components, but this does not further any interpretation on the narrative itself. The audio and visual effects of an interactive narrative or a film do not stimulate individual interpretations of the narrative. They simply provide a different interpretation on the subject through the eyes of the director of the film or the designer of the game.
    In playing Dear Esther, it is true that the virtual world at the tip of my fingers was captivating, enticing, and at times even mesmerizing. The beautiful landscapes and eerie music created an environment in which I was given a narrative, but these attributes of the game did not stimulate my thinking in terms of interpreting the narrative. In exploring the world of Dear Esther, I felt as though I was exploring someone else’s world. I felt as though I was experiencing the narrative through the eyes (and ears) of the creator. The story does not change each time a player experiences Dear Esther, which further proves the idea that the player is not given any creative decision making abilities. The conclusion of the game is always the same no matter which route the player takes. Dear Esther is a limited world drawn down to the very details of the leaves on the bushes. There are no corners of Dear Esther’s world the player cannot explore, thus nothing is left to the imagination.
    Dear Esther creates the illusion of narrative interpretation because it gives the player full control to wander around in hopes of creating a new narrative or discovering some uncharted territory. This is not the case, however. The world has its limits and the players are subtly cued to take specific paths throughout the game. Even if the player diverges from the path, the road less taken will not lead to a mysterious end or an unknown corner of the world. The player will be disappointed by a dead end or he will end up on the same path that the other choice would have taken him on.
    In the final analysis, technology limits interpretation of a narrative because with every advancement in technology, we discover new ways to deliver information to an audience. The more information that is divulged to the audience, the less magic our minds have the chance of creating. Every technological aspect added on to a narrative results in more knowledge about the narrative. The holes that an original written narrative leaves are filled and the experience is no longer as full. Readers become viewers and instead of taking an active part in the narrative, they become bystanders witnessing the story as it unravels. We are informed of more details of the narrative through sound, voice, imagery, illustrations, or motion pictures, each of which is thanks to an advancement in technology.

Works Cited

Danielewski, Mark. Interview by Sophie Cottrell. Random House. Random House, 2000. Web. 12 Dec. 2013

Danielewski, Mark Z. House of Leaves. 2nd ed. New York: Pantheon Books, 2000. Print.

Frankenstein. Dir. James Whale. Perf. Colin Clive, Mae Clark, and John Boles. Universal Pictures, 1931. Film.

Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon, 1964. Web.

Pinsoff, Allistiar. “Review: Dear Esther.” Destructoid, 13 Feb. 2013. Web. 12 Dec. 2013.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein: The Lynd Ward Illustrated Edition. Mineola: Dover Publications, 2009. Print.

Wepman, Dennis. “Lynd Ward.” American National Biography Online (2008): n. p. American National Biography Online. 12 Dec. 2013.