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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Freakangels In Arcadia: Haunt The Future

It's about time.

We might as well take time seriously in Freakangels because the comic's characters take time very seriously.

Our first wider description of "lol dies"--the world-ending cataclysm the freakangels created--comes from massive wanker Luke, and while there's some reason to be distrustful of the source (he claims he's broadcasting his "lecture" into the minds of Whitechapel residents he hopes to sleep with) the content of his lecture is worth addressing.

For Luke, the uncertainty of the future is horrible not because it has infinite possibilities but because of the possibility that the future is inescapably fixed, that Time is something you can simply pick up and look at like a solid object, already determined from beginning to end. The big crash changed all that, Luke avers. Now, time is all messed up, apparently--pockets of fast and slow time and, it's implied, even stranger distortions. While we never get much of a look into these breaks in reality, unfortunately, we do get a sense of the liberation Luke's so interested in.

After comprehensively fucking up time itself, the freakangels really put paid to the idea that time was this absolute, fixed thing.

We find this out first hand a little while later when Luke is confronted directly with a possible timeline where he assaults his ex girlfriend and is killed by the other freakangels. 

Yeah Luke's not a great guy. And his not-greatness should tell us something about the nature of the temporal liberation he's so interested in. The flip side of this freedom is domination--the gulag of the Grand Inquisitor sitting inside Eden as Ursula Le Guin describes in "A Non-Euclidean View of California as a Cold Place to Be". Le Guin notes at one point: "One of our finest methods of organized forgetting is called discovery. Julius Caesar exemplifies the technique with characteristic elegance in his Gallic Wars. “It was not certain that Britain existed,” he says, “until I went there.”" The freakangels have "discovered" time and its new freedom, but only by flattening down time--history and geography--to make new room for their toy colony of Whitechapel.

Nevertheless, the freakangels can carry out organized forgetting but not completely. The ruins of London still stand, the scaffolding on which they build. And Luke can't make his ex un-break-up with him, he can't reverse time itself... he can just turn her into a puppet so it doesn't matter.

The problem with Luke's attempt to impose "organized forgetting" on his ex is that the freakangels have agreed not to use their powers to control people in Whitechapel, and they can detect when their peers use the Package. In one timeline, Luke uses his powers and is discovered and in the ensuing fight he is killed. 

That's not the timeline we see, though, because the freakangels' resident psychic cosmonaut Arkady intervenes.

What can we say about Arkady? She's firmly in the tradition of perky, spacey, mystical girls in comics. Gaiman's Death and Delirium are part of her DNA. So is Morrison's Ragged Robin. She walks around in a see-through skirt garlanded by naked barbie dolls, she's never been the same since a near fatal overdose when she was a teenager, and she's trying to see into the future.

Oh, and of course her name is a short hop away from "Arcadia." That's deliberate. Her parents were trying for that but were too high to manage more than "Arkady." "A child of Arcadia" she is, though.

Arkady sees at least the outlines of Luke's future and intervenes, disabling him with one second of her overdose experience psychically pumped into his head (stunningly realized by Ellis and Duffield by whiting out most of the page). This, she tells him, has rendered his future unknown to her, rather than known and finite. She gifts him with the possibility of the sort of unknown time he expounds upon earlier in the comic. (He does not, unfortunately, take the lesson to heart.) Without her intervention Luke is simply not as free as he thinks. He can flatten down history all he wants--that's not an escape from his hangups and shitty coping mechanisms. History is still possessing him.

This is something all the freakangels will have to learn.

Arkady takes responsibility for ghosts, in a sense. For Derrida, a ghost isn't necessarily something from the past. We're haunted by, and must be accountable to, specters of both the past and the future--to those who are not now present. To bridge the divide between now and not-now we need something that can be simultaneously here and not-here. Arkady helps bridge this gap.

Arkady is interested in pushing the Package further than any of the others and, in fact, by the time the story has started she has already been "upgraded" once. By this I mean: she's already died once, during her overdose. That's the thing about the freakangels: they cannot actually die. If they're going to, instead the Package upgrades, expanding the scope of their abilities. Perhaps this is an automatic biological defense mechanism. Perhaps this is someone else intervening.

She starts the story, then, already somewhat in touch with a deeper truth about the nature of the Package, one that remains mysterious for the readers until Luke really does fuck up enough to get himself killed. The hints are all over with her. Consider her powers. The ability to look into the future seems pretty straightforwardly wrapped up in all this Hauntology stuff. There's also the ability to forcibly transfer her experiences to others. That seems to fit as well. It is a kind of weaponized empathy, making someone else know her experiences, bridging the gap between the Self and the Other. And there's the teleportation. She zips around all over the place, and her teleportation is marked, in the one panel where we see the in-between space she apparently travels through, by the same whiteness that marks her OD experience (weaponized against Luke) and the light of the Future. She steps out and away--moves backward--to look forward.

Tying such a character so closely to the notion of Arcadia seems significant. Arkady is the most future-oriented of the freakangels in a broad sense, the most engaged in attempting to figure out where they're going. Well, perhaps besides Mark, before he got hurt and scared and angry and broke the world. Mark recognized as a teenager that the Package could be a powerful force for good in the world. One of the great tragedies of the comic is that his fear and pain twist him into an authoritarian, seeking only to build a   wall to keep the rest of the world out. He moves backwards, and keeps retreating, like punching a hole in the world, digging deeper and deeper and never looking out from the dark.

Luke digs his own hole when he finally does assault someone else. Alice shoots him in the chest, then Jack shoots him in the head. I haven't mentioned Jack. He has a boat. He's in a relationship with Sirkka, who has an orgy room. I don't have anything to say about them, really. Anyway, Luke dies.

And then Luke comes back to life, after seeing the future. The Package sends out a distress signal of sorts that gives him a line to the future, and there waiting for him is the whole squad of freakangels, watching him, talking to him, healing him, and giving him shit. He staggers back to life and immediately seeks medical attention for the massive hole in his skull, announcing to the others that neither he nor any of their number can actually die. "We are standing in the future and watching ourselves suffer," Luke dramatically declares, hole through his head. And then KK hits him with a chair.

He's right, though. The freakangels are haunted by their future selves, by the apparently much weirder and more acausal nature of the Package. They are Freak Angels of History, standing outside time and watching all the disasters of human progress accumulate in a massive heap behind them, unable to reverse the flow. They can only attempt to send messages back, temporal phantoms, to communicate the need to change to their past selves. 

And they've got to try, because they can't die, so they've got to try to make their lives better, and the lives of everyone around them.

The great cosmic horror waiting for the freakangels beyond time is themselves, and the maddening realization that for them, the world will not, cannot, end, and they've got the responsibility of fixing it.

Well that. And the US Military.

Freakangels is 144 updates long. It's 12*12, get it? This is the kind of mechanical approach we might expect from a writer like Warren Ellis, who is very concerned with the mechanisms of comics storytelling. He's certainly working in the tradition of folks like Alan Moore here. It all adds up to 864 pages total (6 pages per update, natch) of content spread across 6 volumes of 24 updates, or 144 pages each. Wow. Oh and each page is itself based on a four frame grid, which allows Ellis and Duffield to do cool shit like break that grid when it's convenient for them--like, to show the boundary-breaking, uncanny power of the Freakangels. Luke's monologue after returning from the dead features repeated panel breaks, for example, to heighten the uncanny horror of both his zombielike body and his strange revelation. The manipulation of this grid means that it's not 3456 panels exactly though that obviously would have been pretty rad. Anyway, like I said, this is a very Alan Moore style, carefully planned and executed comic.

This is pretty helpful for a webcomic. Webcomics infamously have the tendency to sprawl and spread and take on plot hook after plot hook and eventually become so vast that no one has any idea what Agnes is even trying to accomplish anymore what the fuck is she doing in LONDON but I digress. Ellis's restraint here meant that Freakangels, unlike SOME steampunk inflected comics we could mention, actually finished eventually.

I'm not sure that's a good thing.

Well, I mean, I'm glad it's over in the sense that I don't need another two decade old webcomic to follow. Nevertheless, the downside of Ellis's maniacal adherence to numerology here is that the story is compressed into a pretty small space, constrained to only grow in the spaces a pretty rapid set of story beats leaves vacant. This worked out pretty well as a serial narrative but it is, I find, a little weird on reread. Outside of Alice all the muggles in Whitechapel are so much wallpaper. There's almost a sense that they're simply what the Freakangels have claimed as their project to tinker with more than real people.

Which, fair enough, that's actually pretty much exactly what the people of Whitechapel are. That's specifically what the Freakangels ultimately admit they are--just a thing for them to noodle around with while strenuously not thinking about having ended the world or about what they're going to do with their future. They're the present not communicating with its past and future ghosts, cut off from all responsibility for "learning to live, finally".

I don't know that that excuses some of the odd pacing of things. It all feels terribly rushed at times. Things like Mark's villainous plan end up being a bit rubbish compared to all the buildup, and all the juicy tidbits dropped periodically about time sinks and broken gravity and vague talk of things going "weird" aren't really explored much at all. Still, it does feel at least somewhat thematically justified.

The comic Freakangels is bound to the characters and they are the negligent gods of its narrative. Their numerology is stamped in the very fabric of the comic's layout, reflected in fractal tessellation through the whole project. It shouldn't be that surprising I suppose that their whims constrain the narrative, some of its most interesting moments emerging only in the cracks.

This is also somewhat fitting for a solarpunk comic. Some of the most interesting aspects of the aesthetic come from an interest in reclaimed space, ecological and physical niches, rebuilding within the ruins of existing structures. In a sense Solarpunk's fascination with Art Nouveau and other such aesthetics reclaims an underused space in history, something where the time wasn't quite right, something that can be recycled.

The end result though is that Freakangels, as a Solarpunk comic, expresses its Solarpunk in its gutters. It's a bit of a frustrating experience, even leaving aside the weird time compression one experiences reading it in archive vs serial form. (Luke's degeneration from asshole to monster happens to the archive reader in a couple of hours when it happened to serial readers over the course of a few months, for example.) The potential is there, but not fully actualized. It is cut short, and retreats out of time to a point where it can grow, just as the freakangels do.

Alice is the first person besides Mark to spot what's coming. What's coming, the pressure bearing down on the freakangels' Favela Arcadia, is the US Military, waiting off shore, slowly feeling their way into the ravaged timespace of England with helicopters. Mark, terrified of this approaching reckoning and the war he sees as inevitable, seeks to turn Whitechapel into a psychically buttressed fortress staffed by drone humans.

The freakangels respond by digging a moat in time around Whitechapel temporarily, and settle in to finally all talk, as a group, about what they should do next, now that they know they can't die and they need to figure out how to stop brutalizing each other and the world around them. It's an awesome act of inhuman power... but it's also not violent but defensive, a move back into a crevice of their own making, where they can take the time needed to reconstruct their whole approach to Utopia building, and/or to their own way of looking at the world.

In the meantime all the drones that Mark set up are freaking the fuck out and Alice, because she's the one left on the watchtower, and because she's wearing a Freakangels shirt, and because someone needs to take care of it, takes care of it. 

This is rather interesting. Alice is the one non-freakangel with agency in the comic, really, and while some of that is the frustrating result of the comic's fairly rigid constraints, it does make her an interesting case to look at. Alice has agency because she is a kind of honorary freakangel. She becomes that because she's got the shirt, for sure, but also because she takes the initiative to become an honorary freakangel. In other words--she steps into the void left by freakangel interpersonal angst and takes care of the people who need taking care of.

So, we've got two things going on here, as the comic winds down to a close. The freakangels go backward and begin the process of healing themselves--in particular, taking the first steps toward rehabilitating Mark and Luke, but also resolving some of their other interpersonal bullshit. Alice moves forward, because life keeps going on the outside and people need to be cared for. In the spaces left by the retreat of Freakangels, the story continues. Is this too heavy handed? Well, fine, I'll tell you how the story ends.

The freakangels realize that if they continue to exist in this time they'll face the kind of conflict Mark fears, leading to the suffering and death of the people they're looking after. Instead of directly fighting the oncoming military, they instead undertake a great work of reversal, combining their now upgraded powers to raise England back up, desalinate the water, fix the broken timespace and magnetic fields, and, basically, un-punch the face they punched to begin with. This done, with the last of their strength, they catapult themselves into the future, becoming the watching ghosts that have been guiding their past selves.

With that ending, we're left on our own to decide what to do with Solarpunk.

Neither Freakangels nor Omelas contain utopia within themselves, just a kind of exhortation, each in their own way, to approach a utopia better than they do. They aren't, it turns out, so locked in disagreement after all, but a kind of conversation that I've just happened to transcribe.

Perhaps Solarpunk will be the story of what happens next.

This Has Been

Freakangels Of Arcadia: Haunt The Future

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