The questions of identity, reality, and who the individual actually is and how they choose to perceive the world has been a consuming passion of scholars, writers, and artists. Peter Bagge’s Other Lives is an interesting contribution to that ongoing dialogue. Examining the multiple lives of four interconnected people, the story takes place at the nexus point where identity, reality, fantasy, and escapism all collide. It is an exploration of the mediums and mechanisms that keep the riddle of the individual dancing between who we think we are, the projections and assumptions of others, and who we want to be.
The primary characters in the series are easily recognizable archetypes emerging from the collective unconscious of modern culture. There is the neurotic writer, the cutesy girl rebelling against her parent’s expectations, the loser whose fantasy life is far more stable then his real one, and the socially inept computer geek who lives with his mom and dreams of being a hero. While hardly original in their constructions this is clearly Bagge’s intent; as cliches they serve as perfect vehicles for his story’s examination of the alternate lives we lead. The story follows the way their various “lives” overlap and influence each other.
The Internet and a fictional game called Second World (clearly inspired by Second Life) are the main tools in which Bagge discusses the way we shape and construct our fictional realities. In Second World the character Woodrow sheds his real life as a broke and divorced degenerate gambler, and becomes a powerful lord with his own castle guarded by a digital dragon. Ivy, the cutesy girl, tries out the game, exploring the world’s ability to change your look and species and begins a secret relationship with Woodrow. These two characters represent the two polar extremes of this type of escapist fantasy manifesting in a digital medium. For Woodrow the world of the game is an empowering place that allows him to be who he wants to be; everything there is filled with meaning. For Ivy however, the world is simply a place to play around in, a realm without consequence where nothing you do, be it cybersex with your fiance’s friend’s avatar or getting married online, matters in the real world. The entanglement of these two characters, and the tension caused when one takes the events far too seriously and the other takes them far too lightly are the principle driving force in the narrative.
Yet the contention that some people have a hard time differentiating reality from online fantasy, and that others use the new universe of digital interconnectivity to behave in ways divorced from repercussions is hardly revolutionary or ground-breaking. Anyone who has ever had a friend play too much Warcraft or been called a racist name while playing Halo on Xbox live knows that this is true. Fortunately, that point is only one aspect of Bagge’s nuanced discussion of his theme.
The other characters who are not pulled into the fantasy of Second World are still fraught with their own internal, yet equally powerful, issues. Javy, whose drunken lie about fighting terrorists as a government agent begins the story, has mental issues that cause him to have paranoid and self-delusional fantasy’s. Vader, the writer, is so guilty about a mistake in his past that he has convinced himself that all his subsequent works are compromised and that he is fraud. He learns an important lesson on memories impact on identity. After learning new truths about his father and his grandfather, he learns that people have other lives distinct from and in some ways irreconcilable with our own perceptions of them.
The main argument of Other Lives rests on two primary discussions, the question of identity, and the examination of the mediums with which we construct our alternate lives. By the story’s end it would be easy for Bagge to blame the latter, the online world, for the problems of the former. However, these questions are not that simple and the book would lose much of its thematic impact if it were to simply condemn the Internet as being the culprit of our existential dishonesty and self-delusion. Bagge instead appears to argue that even though the digital reality, with its avatars and fictional worlds, has brought the means of reconstructing our identities to a level of greater cultural awareness, that people are ultimately prone to to this behavior regardless of the medium. The things that obstruct your identity, whether internally or externally imposed, will be there regardless of its your real life or Second Life as both are equally arbitrary.
There is hope however. The conclusion of the story seems to argue that underneath all the fictions and obfuscation, there is an underlying truth, and ultimately it doesn’t really matter where that truth gets expressed, in the real world or some digital medium, so long as it comes out. Furthermore, the more aware we are of these realities, the less likely they are to have power over us.
Other Lives is an interesting story that confirms why Peter Bagge has become a acclaimed name in the art comic world. The story is complex in its message, carefully constructed, and is an excellent read for anyone who has ever pondered the nature of identity or created a character on some digital world and temporarily lost sight of which one was actually real.