Sunday, 23 November 2014

On Post-apocalyptic fiction, and a review of the webcomic Stand Still, Stay Silent

I never liked Post-apocalyptic stories, for several reasons. Firstly, most of the genre is mired in Mad Max-clichés, if the genre is not a cliché by itself. One tires quickly of endless wastelands, rust and leather. There is not much in the genre that can't be traced back to its foundational classics: Mary Shelley's The Last Man (1826), Richard Jefferies' After London (1885) and M.P. Shiel's The Purple Cloud (1901). The last real injection of new blood the genre got was the invention of nuclear weapons providing it with a new method for the destruction of humanity.  The only reason  Cormac Mccarthy's The Road could be taken seriously was because it was marketed outside of the Science fiction "ghetto" towards people who hadn't read enough SF to know that it used the most tired clichés in the genre (1).

We also have the honestly reactionary politics  of much of the genre. After the apocalypse society degenerates into a Hobbesian war of all against all. Altruism and cooperation is treated as a product of modern civilization, a veneer over humanity's true brutish nature. This is of course bullshit. Altruistic and cooperative tendencies are part of humanity's basic nature, as such exists and the war of all against all that Hobbes presumed never existed. It is actually the war of all against all of capitalism that is the construct of civilization. This is because, unlike what post-apocalyptic fiction presumes, cooperation is the best strategy for survival there is. (2) If the apocalypse happened, humanity would most likely survive in groups, not lonely survivors.

Most Post-apocalyptic fiction is in fact nothing more than a macho power fantasy, in which the lone male hero survives and fights against the inhuman hordes (for reasons of sanity, I won't even go into detail on the books that feature the white hero preservering towards hordes of black people, like Heinlein's Farnham's Freehold or Christopher Priest's Fugue for a Darkening Island.) The spectre of Nietzsche's pseudo-philosphy haunts this: the ubermensch against the weak and effeminate "last men".

There is a consequent contempt of democracy. When groups of people are depicted, it's always controlled by forms of dictatorship or autocracy. No one, even people supposedly having lived their entire pre-catastrophe lives in a democracy, thinks of organizing democratically. There are no thoughts given to the advantage the open criticism of decisions can give. It is dismissed as a frivolous luxury, unfit for the real, harsh world. The ultimate example of this attitude in Post-apocalyptic literature is probably Farnham's Freehold by Robert Heinlein in which the hero controls a small band of survivors as a dictatorship. He justifies this with "lifeboat rules" (always invoked while pointing towards his pistol), which means that just like a lifeboat captain, he must be unquestionably obeyed to protect the collective safety of the group (3).

Thankfully, there is none of this nonsense in Stand Still, Stay Silent, a webcomic by Minna Sundberg, a Swedish- Finnish comic book artist and writer. It tells the story of a world in which most of humanity has died from a horrific rash-like disease. The comic is set in the Nordic region 90 years after the cataclysm, where  250 000 human survivors hang on in very small quarantined safe areas, with the biggest being Iceland, due to its island nature. The rest of the world is the unknown "Silent World" dominated by the disease. Whether other humans live on elsewhere or not hasn't  yet been revealed. The comic is about an expedition into the Silent world of a multi-national team of explorers in order to get more knowledge about disease and recover knowledge from the old world.

The most interesting aspect of this post-apocalyptic world is that it has magic. The disease has created or returned the world to a mythological state, where Norse and Finnish mythology holds true. Magic exists and the old pagan gods are not only worshipped again, but even answer prayers. Trolls and Giants roam the Silent world. In this new world, nature is yet again, as in the time of Paganism, threatening and ineffable, making the return to the old religion understandable.
 This makes one of the most interesting worlds in Science fiction(fantasy comics. Sundberg avoids all of the clichés of post-apocalyptic fiction. In Stand Still there are no lone heroes surviving through macho bravery.  Instead it is the mundane, anti-heroic and bureaucratic process of quarantine that enables humanity to survive at all. This speaks to the more healthy attitude Sundberg has towards other human beings and democratic government (which basically save humanity here) compared to most post-apocalyptic writers. She has an awareness of the necessary dependence all humans have on each other and, in modern civilization, on the government.

There is also a refreshing optimism in her depiction of the human survivors. While there is a sense of humanity hanging on a thread, the human settlements nevertheless  keep civilization and technology alive to a large extent and actively try to create a new world for humanity to live in, by trying to come up with a vaccine for the disease and expanding their settlements through "cleansing" the Silent World. It's something that is almost non-existent in standard post-apocalyptic fiction and very heartening to see here.

The Nordic setting is wonderfully done and really makes this comic something unique. There are no Mad Max style clichéd wastelands here. For me, it makes the comic much more powerful and immediate, as it is set in places I have actually visited. When yourself have crossed the Öresund bridge, seeing it in ruins in the comic is chilling.
The use of Nordic and Finnish mythology is very well done and creates along with the setting a powerful atmosphere. It has much of the same feelings which echo throughout Scandinavian folk music, lore and mythology (4).

This feeling is in part due to Sundberg's beautiful art. Her backgrounds and environments are drawn with a painting-like detail and technique, yet filled with charm and the aforementioned atmosphere. It's frankly contains some of the most beautiful art in a comic I have ever seen, with its lush winter landscapes.

Using what Scott Mccloud calls the "masking effect", she contrasts these detailed environments with more simple "cartoony" (Mccloud uses the word "iconic") character designs. In her art, she takes influence from both manga and Franco-Belgian comics (she has explicitly mentioned Moebius, Herge and Uderzo as influences).  In her explicitly "Nordic" style, she reminds me of the old national romantic painters from the region, of which she has explicitly names Akseli Gallen-Kallela as an influence (5).

Her writing is also up to the task. She provides her well-built world with well-written and likeable characters. Even minor characters are given surprisingly full personalities, like the ancestors of the main character we meet in the prologue.

Sundberg also has a fine sense of humour, which despite the bleak setting is central to the comic. This is not surprising considering her influences, like the aforementioned Franco-Belgian creators and Don Rosa (6)

The comedy eventually gives away to it's opposite: horror. The apocalypse in Stand Still, Stay Silent has the for post-apocalyptic fiction rare quality of actually being scary.  The comic actually reminds me of Lovecraft at times. And like him, Sundberg knows the value of mystery in creating horror and suspense and deliberately keeps many aspects of the apocalyptic disease and the world it creates hidden from the reader, who must make their own conclusions. I won't spoil the comic by burdening you with my own explanations, but let me say that the rash disease is one of the most frightening fictional diseases I ever read about and the implications of the "trolls" and "giants" are truly horrific.

This speaks to the greatness of Stand Still, Stay Silent: It's apocalypse is human in every way.  Most post-apocalyptic fiction has a very limited view of humanity, one that doesn't makes sense. For Sundberg however, life after the apocalypse is just as human as life before it. There is still love, comedy, horror and, above all, myth.


(1) I have a burning hatred of Cormac Mccarthy. That his cowardly and reactionary tripe is more successful than Thomas Pynchon's daring prose is a severe indictment of modern culture.

(2) Biologist Frans De Waal has talked much of how so-called "Veneer theory" of morality is not borne out by the scientific evidence. Here's a good interview with him which touches on the subject.

(3) For more on the politics of Post-apocalyptic literature, I can recommend Paul O'Flinn critique of Golding's Lord of The Flies here and Cory Doctorow's takedown of Heinlein's Farnham's Freehold in this article. On Nietzsche, there is no better takedown on the net than Sator Arepo's Wagner contra Nietzsche on his blog Think Classical: Part I and Part II. The essay require some foreknowledge of both Wagner, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, but is nevertheless brilliant.

(4). This feeling is perhaps best conveyed by music and not words. Here are some swedish bands which have this unique "nordic" feeling: Änglagård and  Sagor och Swing 

(5) As sources for Sundberg's influences I have used this interview for the Webcomic Alliance and this other interview on Artagem

(6) Like most Finns, Sundberg is of course crazy about Rosa. Combining the two great cultural touchstones of Finnish culture: Donald Duck and The Kalevala has really paid off for him.


This comic was recommended to me by ScifiterX on the El Goonish Shive fan forums, who wished for me to review it.

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