Sunday, August 7, 2016

Sunday Revue, August 7th: Area 42

Aliens. Demons. Robots. Oh My. 

Ladies and Gentlemen...

Welcome to the crazy world of Area 42!

Area 42 is created by Mike Podgor and tells the story of Charleston Charge, an amateur paranormal investigator, and Subject M, an alien crashed on Earth. The two of them are thrown together (in side by side jail cells) and become fast friends discussing Godzilla movies and other fandom, and because of their rapport, they become apartment roommates in Area 42, which appears to be some kind of government experiment. From there, the story follows an unpredictable and increasingly surreal trajectory that vacillates between the mundane day-to-day and extraordinary moments that include fighting a succubus, demons, robots, and even a wizard.


There's a lot of promise, but the plot vacillates wildly.


In Area 42, some of the smaller story arcs in the beginning of the comic were interesting when they were about Charleston and Subject M and their day-to-day lives. Charleston and M act like normal roommates for the most part despite M being an alien. They engaged in doing nerdy things -- playing D&D, binge watching Doctor Who (Portlandia-style), and forming relationships with the people in town.
Fezs are cool.

That was a progression of events that I was able to follow and that world was growing on me. I wanted to see the relationship with Imogene and Charleston develop. I wanted to know more about Charleston's interests in paranormal investigation.

I liked the creepy story about Michael Smith and his preoccupation with being normal. 

...on being normal.
Later in these first 70 pages or so, Charleston questions his own interests in hunting paranormal activity and this idea of what it means to be normal pops up again. Trying to be normal when propped up against the fantastical side of Area 42's universe, seems like an interesting thread to follow.

As I read through Area 42, I did notice some other neat worldbuilding things, things I'd love to do for my own work. The Fictosphere contains other stories that are based around Riverwood -- the town Charleston and M reside in. Subject M appears to be in another story. Events in the comic also seem to have auxiliary notes and plot threads that live on tumblr. It seems like there are a lot of different ways to explore the world of Area 42.


Over the course of the comic, as strange things happened to them to altered their slice-of-life existence, I began to lose the thread of the story. From a fantasy angle and a writing angle, it felt like everything and the kitchen sink was thrown at this story: robots, demons, wizards, a succubus, aliens, and clandestine X-Files styled government conspiracies. At one point M shifts into an alternate dimension dysoptia (or so I believe, since it's told to us through M's exposition) and then the comic becomes a reality TV show about interior design.

Finally, this all leads to this author note from April 14, 2015: Mike writes, "I have no idea what I’m doing or where this is going and I’m regretting my decision to make it about a reality show! Watch as I try to steer things back towards something resembling coherency, and hey, what’s more coherent than time travel?"

I stopped reading on that page.

My biggest problem with Area 42 after reading 100+ pages of it: I'm not sure where it's going or why I should care. 

As I read the comic, I also read some of the author notes, and it seems that Mike improvises pages of the comic the night before. This includes major and minor decisions about the story and it leads to some really awesome moments and plot ideas but it also leads to some big misses. 

When I was writing fiction, I remember folks talking about two main schools of thought for plotting your novel:
  1. The seat of your pants. You write it word-for-word and let it go where it will;
  2. You outline it and plan it out ahead of time. 

I always preferred method #1. It was fun and joyous. You put words down on page and a whole universe with characters sprang to life. You molded everything as you wrote it down. Conversations happened in realtime. It's exciting because you're in the moment of creation. 

But... it would also create some gaping plot holes. You don't really think through things in-depth -- it's all just lampshade hanging and hand-waving to move from one scene to another.

It's fun... for the writer. 

Not the reader, and I think that's Area 42's problem for me.

Whereas Area 42 might be fun to write for Mike, the whiplash from having the story change itself up so quickly really began to pull me out of it. It's like the story never found what it wanted to be and the author never stuck to it, so to fix it, why not add a new wrench -- an alternate dimension, a new character, or time travel.

It makes me wonder how much of it is thrown together as short-term filler without a longer term narrative goal in mind, and that's why I unfortunately dropped it. 


At best, Area 42 is a rough draft. There are plot threads and ideas that are interesting. There are some jokes that work. There are characters worth exploring and fleshing out, but the work needs a second pass, and that is no easy feat being a comic where hundreds of hours over multiple years have been spent to produce it. Hopefully as Mike continues to create the Fictosphere we'll get more polished pieces of work.


  1. You're completely right about the plot whiplash and I'm trying to tighten things up a lot more for my next comic projects.

  2. Mike doesn't "create" the Fictosphere. Perhaps this only proves a point I've been trying to make behind the scenes (regarding an "About" page on the site), but the Fictosphere is a collective multiverse created by a few writers/artists, of which Area 42 is only one aspect.

  3. Also, one more thing, while Area 42 is my creation, the Fictosphere is a group effort.


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