'Clique Refresh': Second lives

Escapism gets a bad rap in comics. Are they adolescent escapist fantasies? Well, yeah. Of course many of them are. There are exceptions, sure, but who doesn't want to imagine themselves as the super-strong dude who flies around and saves the day, or the guy who dresses up as a bat with the slick car and the grappling hook? What I don't get is why people who raise this criticism often see this as a bad thing.

After all, comic books aren't the only things trafficking in escapism. Movies, novels, games and the Internet provide people with elaborate fantasies to escape the mundane realities of everyday life. Maybe you're a world-traveling super-spy with a briefcase full of gadgets. Or perhaps you're a ordinary, everyday girl being fought over by a hunky werewolf or a vampire with immaculate cheekbones. The ability to inhabit a more adventurous second persona only gets stronger when you're on a computer. A graphics engine can fully render the world and its people, and your character is not hampered by a fixed storyline.

Amy T. Falcone gained some fame as a contestant on Penny Arcade's Strip Search, but she'd already been doing the webcomics thing with a humor strip called Citation Needed. I felt this webcomic was a bit of a dud: The wacky humor was a little undercooked, and characters, who were meant to be quirky, were more annoying than anything. The comic was put on "indefinite hiatus," however, as Falcone moved onto her new project Clique Refresh, which explores the positive benefits of escapism.

Clique Refresh allows Falcone to really cut loose with her style. Hanging around with other webcomic creators during Strip Search must've taught her a thing or too. It's bouncier and less restrictive. It also feels like something that hews close to the Mike Krahulik/Scott Kurtz school of art, which is emerging as one of the dominant styles for webcomics. Her only solace comes from reengaging with a virtual community brought together by an online role-playing game.

The main character Ellie has just recently relocated to Seattle; she's detached from everyone she knows. Apart from her ferret (who goes on his own adventures), she's alone in her empty apartment. She hasn't befriended any locals, quite possibly due to the Seattle Freeze. In the real world, she's a clumsy young woman who can't figure out groceries. Online, she's a powerful sorceress with the clearly defined goal of getting her guild to the top. Sometimes the life of escapism is more rewarding ... which is why it's so frustrating for Ellie when the Internet becomes briefly inaccessible.

It's a fairly lightweight comic thus far, and it's likely to be baffling to anyone who can't see the point of coming together and engaging in an utterly futile activity. I will say this, though: Ellie's alienation got to me. There's a great scene where Ellie pauses and wonders why she ever thought it was a good idea to relocate to a city of utter loneliness. Then she notices the Seattle skyline, which reminds her why she came here -- to make her own dreams come true.

More than a decade ago, that was me. I was clear across the country, with zero acquaintances in the Emerald City and my only friends being the unseen ones in a diverse smattering of Internet message boards. It's a case where the escapist life in the virtual world was more fulfilling than the frustrating desperation of reality.

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