Thursday, February 18, 2016

'Unlife' And the Unbearable Weight of Being a 20-Something Dude

I'm going to be totally honest with you here, chickadees, and confess something you might not know. Are you ready? It's earthshattering. Here goes: I don't actually know what it's like to be a twenty-five year old man.

Mind-blowing, right? I have no idea what the masculine experience is actually like because I am a lady with an obvious and identifiable lady shape and so I don't really know what life is like for all those dudes out there who seem, collectively, to view their twenties as a peat bog of failed dreams and frustrated sexual ambitions. You know what I'm talking about. Garden State. (500) Days of Summer. Elizabethtown. How I Met Your Mother. Movies and TV shows that remind us again and again how awful and disgusting and miserable it is to be an upper-middle class white man in his mid-twenties. Just horrible.

Unlife, a webcomic written by Josh Breidbart and drawn by Zach Turner, fits neatly into this noble tradition. Admittedly a comic about the zombie apocalypse (sort of), it's more a meditation on what it means to be young and unsure what you're really doing with your life. The thing is, I care a whole lot more about the zombies part of this story than I do about the quarterlife crisis aspect. And I'm guessing I'm not alone there. A comic about what it's like living with zombie-ism? Neat. A comic about what it's like being an upper-middle class man with no particular direction in life, lots of money, and an incredibly supportive family? Eh, not so much.

But I'm being hard on the comic. For the most part, it's an engaging and pretty cool story about zombies and what it's like to one of the zombies in a zombie outbreak. Sort of like a comic-version of In the Flesh, the tragically underrated BBC show that was cancelled a year back or so. Like that, but in America and a comic.

The story follows James, the aforementioned upper-middle class white man in his twenties, a zombie whose life has been thrown into chaos by his sudden descent into zombie-ism. While James is technically dead, a healthy diet of embalming fluid every night keeps him from falling apart and keeps his brain pretty sharp, allowing him to essentially continue living his life like he did before. Well, mostly. He was fired from his job as a librarian because no one wants a potentially contagious zombie working in a public building, and his girlfriend, Stacy, dumped him for obvious zombie-bite related reasons.

When the comic starts, James is living at home with his incredibly accepting and loving parents, Arnie and Doris, and his little sister, Jenners. Jenners is actually one of the most interesting characters, if only because she absolutely refuses to accept her brother's zombification complacently, and her progression through the storyline is a real highlight. Anyway.

James' unlife isn't much to write home about. He hangs out with his friend Bacon, another zombie, and Stacy, and spends the rest of his time trying to forget how miserable he is. But all of that changes when a rogue zombie outbreak in their town finds James captured and taken to a secure facility for zombies, Stacy bitten but not infected, and James' family desperately trying to find him. That's where the story really takes off.

The plot then becomes an exploration of a world in which zombies are an accepted fact. James has been captured by an evil corporation (is there any other kind?) and he and his fellow zombies must figure out what's being done to them and why an evil corporation has them filing paperwork and drinking "Diet Coke" all the time. Their bosses, Geoffrey and Dr. Lichtman Glass, are also beholden to the corporation and not necessarily loyal to it, so their journey becomes one of figuring out what's going on and trying to escape. James and Bacon even make some zombie friends on the inside, all while wondering what a modern zombie ought to do with his unlife.

Meanwhile, James' family gets political, forming an action committee to petition the government on zombies' rights. Jenners is less enthusiastic about this - though she has a storyline about how her beloved pet dog might be turning zombie - but it's a touching story about a family dealing with loss and a frustrating search while trying to speak truth to power. It's interesting. Stacy, on the other hand, does not deal well with being bitten and almost turned, and descends into a cloud of pot smoke to avoid dealing with anything. Eventually she's able to lift her head up long enough to realize she needs to get away and figure her crap out, but it's a long time coming.

Here's the thing: the plot of this comic is actually really engaging. The battle against the evil corporation, all the background machinations and political rumblings, the looming conspiracy, some stuff about the metaphysics of zombies and a possible spiritual side? Super cool and well done. Seriously. That aspect of this comic is fantastic.

The part that I have trouble with is the emotional angle, because when you get down to it, I do not care about James. Like, at all. I think a big part of this is because when you meet him as a character he's depressed and unhappy with his life. He doesn't really do anything because's struggling with a massive life shift. I get that. I understand why he's listless and uninterested in anything. But that doesn't make me like him more, unfortunately. And as the story goes on, James doesn't end up giving me any real indications of who he is as a person.

For the most part, the story just happens to James without him giving any real input. He's taken to the evil corporation's facility and once he's there he's chosen for a super secret special experiment. Then he's given a super special job. And he's allowed more freedom in roaming the facility. These factors combine into James being the one to figure out what's going on and that the zombies need to escape, but very little of it is because James is the right person to figure it out. It's mostly just handed to him on a plot-shaped plate.

In fact, it's not until a flashback well into the fifth chapter of the comic that we get any indication of James' possible interests in, well, anything. It's a flashback where James and a former girlfriend go visit his grandfather in the hospital. That visit reveals that James used to want to be a painter and that he was/is very talented. But even in that flashback, James has given up on this dream and is already floundering and passionless. In the comic's present we know that James was a librarian, but he doesn't seem to read much or really like books. He's just sort of there.

And I get it. I know that people like James really exist, men and women who are utterly adrift in their lives despite having had every advantage thrown at them. But here's the thing: I don't like those people in real life either. In fact one of my breakups can be flat out attributed to me being incapable of relating to this emotional state of listlessness. So while I accept that this is a real thing people really deal with, I don't get it and I don't particularly enjoy reading about it.

Maybe that makes me a bitch. Probably. But I maintain that in good storytelling you need your characters to want things - it's what gives a story shape and color. A protagonist whose defining feature is his lack of passion and drive is not a good engine for telling an action-packed, compelling story.

The other thing, though, is that I can't help thinking this story would be better if James had more struggle to deal with. In pretty much any way.

See, James already had a lot of privilege before he became a zombie. He is an upper-middle class white able-bodied man in his twenties who went to college without having to take out mondo student loans and who got a decent job shortly after graduating. Then he becomes a zombie, which is a setback, sure, but he's still a zombie who is almost entirely intact, has no obvious physical deformities besides being blue, and still has the privilege of a family that can afford to treat his condition. His family is supportive and loving and willing to go to bat for him and he never has to worry about not having a place to go.

Now imagine that we tell this same story, with the zombies and the evil conspiracy and all of that, but James is poor. Or non-white. Or he's an immigrant who doesn't speak English comfortably. Or his family has abandoned him and refuses to admit their son isn't entirely dead. That would raise the stakes and also set the stage for some more interesting plot turns and developments.

This isn't about spooning diversity in where it doesn't belong, it's about realizing that diversity makes stories better. I know the story about the well-off white guy who isn't sure he's happy enough. I want stories about people who are already being left behind by society facing another, bigger challenge, and possibly turning it to their advantage.

There's a reason why the aspect of this story that I respond best to is Jenners' part. Now, she's still an upper-middle class white ablebodied character, but she's clearly struggling. Jenners has passions and frustrations and agonies and refuses to put them aside even when her parents clearly ignore her in favor of focusing on her brother. I get Jenners. I feel her actual pain and I love her for it. I love her because she's difficult and she bites and she's not comfortable to read about. James is almost too relatable. He's so bland, so clearly written as an everyman, that he's hard to swallow.

Then again, there's a possibility this is just me. I stare at pop culture for a living, so there's a strong possibility that I get sick of stuff well before you do. For what it's worth, the plot of Unlife really is pretty interesting - there's a solid conspiracy going on and some super shady stuff building up in recent chapters. Admittedly it's very white (there's only one explicitly non-white character and his race is referenced uncomfortably often) and there is an uncomfortable correlation between the only plus-size female character being the most lascivious, but the plot is cool. Really, your mileage is going to vary a lot on this one.

My larger point here is this: I'm looking for stories I haven't heard, and unfortunately this one is a tale I know all too well. That's all.