Filed under "could not possibly be more relevant" given the current controversy in gaming, Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang's "In Real Life" is a beautifully illustrated and charming look at one young gamer girl's life. The messages and tone are heartfelt and entirely without cynicism, a welcome change from the Gamergate-related headlines that have dominated the recent news cycle.
Doctorow has crafted an utterly charming story about a relatable, average girl gamer who learns a lot when she encounters the harsh realities of the very real world though her unreal online gaming life. The book makes no issue of the fact that our heroine is a girl -- in fact the story has little to do with gender, and the ways in which it does touch gender are wonderfully refreshing. The story and its lead character, Anda, are sweet, but stay just this side of saccharine. There are lessons to be learned but Doctorow deftly avoids the "after school special" trap into which a lesser writer might have fallen.
Wang is the perfect artist for this project. An immensely talented illustrator, Wang has an obvious animation background that shows in the energy, craft, and movement she brings to her character design and storytelling. Easily at home both in Anda's real life and in her more creative game life, Wang maximizes the contrasts between the two worlds but also manages to root everything nicely so the book still feels like one consistent volume. Excelling particularly at character expressions and body language, Wang brings a real emotional heart to the story. Anda's design is a total breath of fresh air as she doesn't fall into the narrow traditional western beauty standard, and the design really helps in both Anda's relatablity and her believability -- namely as a girl that might want for some escape from real life.
Wang plays nicely with layout, keeping things just innovative enough to keep readers on their toes, but not overdoing it. As a result the storytelling feels simple and effortless. The colors are a vibrant and fluid watercolor look that is not only stunning, but also creates the best contrasts between Anda's two worlds. Anda's real world is an appropriately subdued palette and grounded in reality, whereas her game life is a vivid smorgasbord of reds and purples, greens and blues.
There's nothing cynical or mean about this book, it's a genuine and passionate comic, enthusiastic about its subject matter and devoted to its message. That said, it does feel like Doctorow could have dug a little deeper. Some added complexity and layers would have leveled the work up from merely great to exceptional or even important.
In the end, Doctorow and Wang have created a socially relevant, heartfelt and emotionally engaging story about a female gamer that will likely inspire and encourage generations of awesome girls.