By Sabadino Parker

Would You Like to Create a New User Identity?

In a day and age of shoddy comics, one can almost always count on DC’s Vertigo line to produce quality work in the medium. This subdivision of the powerhouse publishing company is geared toward a more mature audience and responsible for bringing such comics masterpieces as Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and Garth Ennis’s Preacher to light. The trend continues in Vertigo’s User, a three-part prestige-format miniseries featuring the writing of Devin Grayson (known for her work on Batman: Gotham Knights) and superb artwork of Sean Phillips and John Bolton.

Very few people can claim true happiness with their current lot, least of all Meg Chancellor, a young professional whose mother has s just run out on the family. Meg’s left to deal with an ineffectual and distant father, her troublesome sister Annie, and a family friend who harbors perverse intentions in regard to Annie; all the while, Meg’s forced to spend her days in the dreary world of corporate America cubicles. It’s no wonder she seeks an escape, and, when the new company computer network allows her to assume an alternate, virtual identity, she plunges headlong into a world of fantasy.

Online, she discovers the world of role-playing chatrooms. For those unfamiliar with this form of entertainment, such chatrooms involve scrolling series of in-character (IC) and out-of-character (OCC) dialogue. A player assumes the role of an imagined character and describes what he or she does and says. The roll of computerized dice dictates the outcome of events and chance happenings. It can be an absorbing and addicting pastime, one which Grayson nails with uncanny precision—unsurprising, considering Grayson herself has regularly participated in online RPGs.

Meg, already fascinated by Arthurian legend, slips into her role as Sir Guilliame de la Couer, a French Paladin, and meets a wide array of personalities enacting an ongoing medieval war. She winds up leading two very different lives, one of reality and one of fantasy, rendered by the contrasting styles of Phillips and Bolton. In the real world, as painted by Phillips, the colors are muted and dimensions clear-cut. Bolton portrays Meg’s imagination as full of color and focused on character, there being hardly any background. Guilliame’s world is distinctly more cartoony and surrealistic, whereas Bolton’s work is stunningly realistic, though consisting almost entirely of blues, grays, and black. Thematically, the two worlds are equally as different yet complementary - in the online universe, Meg can act on her subconscious wishes for a world of positive masculinity and idealistic rules of chivalry, qualities that seem particularly lacking in her humdrum and disappointing reality.

The most obvious—and telling—difference between Meg’s two worlds is herself. It is not uncommon for RPG players to alter their identity, opting to fantasize as the opposite sex. It allows for our repressed aspects, embodied in the opposite gender, to engage in activities that we’d normally not pursue when donning the too-often-restrictive mask of our day-to-day egos. For Meg, becoming a man—not only a man, but the pinnacle of positive manhood, a knight—provides a double purpose: it allows her to immerse wholly in a world of fantasy while also becoming the very figure she desperately seeks in regular life. Her reality lacks such men, who can act with honor and courage. Grayson’s story comments on morality and gender issues in modern, technological America, where a lack of any defined (and honorable) roles can affect a wish for an imagined time of long-ago simplicity and ideality.

Oddly enough, User‘s most realistic and autobiographical facets occur in the fantasy segments, which Grayson lifted from her own RPG experiences as Dallian de Valios. Sir Guil, an echo of Grayson’s online character, is recruited to fight as a lieutenant in the Allies of Vhydon, a militia doing battle with the forces of darkness. As opposed to the bland and corrupt characters that fill Meg’s world, those in Sir Guil’s are individualistic and loyal. While at first Meg uses her fantasy as a means of escape, she eventually comes to realize that her two worlds aren’t as segregated as once believed.

The boundaries between reality and fantasy blur, and Meg takes on more of Sir Guil’s noble traits. Conversely, much of her anxieties and desires play themselves out in dreamlike world of role-playing fiction. The merging of these two worlds also signals the personal synthesis of the person Meg would like to be with the one she is in reality. It is the archetypal theme of the quest for identity performed through a vicarious surrogate, here the use of modern technology.

User isn’t the most ground-breaking story to come from the halls of Vertigo, but it’s Grayson at her best, unhampered by the strict editorial reigns that come with working on a licensed character such Batman. She weaves a tale as absorbing as the role-play is for Meg. And, ultimately, we find a reflection of ourselves in Meg. We realize that we are all damsels in distress as much as we are all knights in shining armor. The wedding of these natures is the aim of any process of self-development. User depicts just one of the many forms in which this ancient quest can reveal itself in the modern age — an age in which we find ourselves continually creating new identities to cope with an sometimes disappointing existence.

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