Sunday, 23 November 2014

Rain (webcomic review)

This is an unusual review for me, as it is an request. warrl, demonhunter and Zorua on the El Goonish Shive fan forums requested this, so now that I read the entire archives on their recommendation, lets hop on it. Also, here be spoilers. I'll avoid it, but it's inevitable.

Rain is a webcomic, written and drawn by Jocelyn Samara, about the title character, a teenage transgirl named Rain Flaherty. With the help of her aunt and guardian, Fara, she gets the opportunity to go through her senior year at high school as her true gender fulltime, something hitherto denied to her (Luckily, she passes very well as a woman). The comic is about her successes and challenges doing so, and about the various people she meets and befriends during the way.

The writing of the comic is rather good, despite being somewhat melodramatic at times, due to the drama being grounded in reality (including personal experience ), which gives it resonance and meaning. The characters are well-written and deep enough to be able to handle it. (1) The drama is also leavened with a lot of humour, which is needed in a comic like this, a self-proclaimed soap opera.

However, it shares a common problem with many of its brethren in the genre: there are too many unlikely coincidences for the sake of drama. The main cast consists with one exception of various sorts of LGBTQIA people (and the one exception's father is gay, because that's just how this comic rolls), which is somewhat unlikely in general and especially considering most of them go to and met at a Catholic School (2). To illustrate, the cast at the school includes one transwoman (Rain), two gay people (brother and sister too), an asexual woman and an pansexual woman, who all know of each other and are friends. Granted, most of them have valid reasons for going there and the school is quite large, but it is still rather improbable, especially as the comic recently added another transwoman to the cast, who has no reason whatsoever to be there.

It also turns out that the Dean of students just so happens to have a brother who is trans, which makes him more understanding than might be expected, thus he enables Rain to go to the school in the first place.  Outside the school, Rain and Fara  have a neighbour who is genderfluid. Yet another example is Rain's brother Aiken having a relationship with a woman, Jessica, who turns out to be transgender as well.

There is also some very unlikely relationships between the characters. Despite the characters moving around, somehow they always run into people from the past, having unknowingly moved into the same city as their friends did years before.
For example, it turns out that also at the school Rain goes to, is her old best friend Gavin, who she lost contact with moving many years before. Another example is Rain's therapist Vincent, who turns out be one of Aunt Fara's old partners (from 15 years prior) and  trans as well (granted, the latter isn't  improbable at all, considering he as a therapist specializes in trans issues).

This is just the most unlikely examples, but you get the point. The individual stories and characters are well-written on their own, but when you get them in bulk and connected together haphazardly like this it feels melodramatic and unlikely as a whole. One's ability to enjoy the comic relies on one's ability to look past these coincidences, to see the good writing that exists beneath them.

The art is not great and far from beautiful, but passable. It has the important (for me at least) quality of clarity. Every panel is clear and lacking in clutter. You never have to question who does what or what happens. This is an aspect of comics-making that even masters fail at sometimes, but is perhaps the most important aspect (3). There is much good and beautiful comic book art, which is sadly lacking in clarity, often due to an excess of detail. Rain may not look beautiful, but the art does tell the story, which is the most important aspect of good comic art.

So that is Rain, while it has many flaws, it also has many virtues. I suspect I would have been more impressed by it if I was a lot younger and hadn't read so much about this subject (4), so that it's themes wouldn't be so well-known to me. If I was fifteen, this would be a revelation. Now I can't help but compare it to the classic, but unfinished webcomic Venus Envy by Erin Lindsey, which is also about a teenage transgirl in high school. The themes of Rain are relevant, but they have been done before.

But despite this, there is much of value in the comic and the fact that it is fiction is very welcome. Transpeople seldom feature in fiction, at least not in a positive way, and it is a gap that needs filling.
They, as all people, deserve representation in fiction and culture. (5).


(1) There is of course some wish-fulfilment involved (the author is herself trans) in the scenario, but it never overpowers the story or is too unrealistic and it's hard to find fault with it. Remember that all fiction is wish-fulfilment of some kind, as fiction always reflects and confirms the author's world-view.

(2) It is expressly noted that being gay or transgender is regarded as a sin and worthy of expulsion. It just reminds me once again why such schools should be banned. It should frankly be illegal to treat minors that way, or even teach such rubbish to them. Frankly, private schools in general should be banned by law, for they do not place education foremost as a good school should: the only reason for most of them to exist is either to make money or push religious dogma. Exceptions should only be made for non-profit secular schools.

(3) Part of the reason Carl Barks and Hergé are held in so high regard is that their art always had that clarity.

(4) While not trans or gay, I'm not gender-conforming in various ways, something which led to me questioning my gender during my teenage years and reading everything I could find on transgender and gay people and issues. There was also sheer curiosity towards other people and a wish to understand in order to help some of the people who suffer the most under capitalism and the patriarchy.

(5)  Samara has talked about writing another comic with transgender themes, but this time a full on "magical girl" fantasy comic, called Magical. I can't help but find this even more interesting than Rain, as a fantasy story with (real) transgender people would be very original. Most decent fictional depictions of transpeople have been realistic dramas, and it would be nice if they could have a part in other genres.

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