Afar is a graphic novel written by Leila Del Duca (better known for her artist work on Sleepless and, more recently, the Superman/Wonder Woman crossover), with art by Kit Seaton. It was published by Image Comics and came out in a one-volume TPB edition in 2017.
I don’t think this comic book is very good. The story ends a bit abruptly, although a few narrative nodes are solved by the end of the volume. The answers offered about the perils encountered during the story seem childish and simplistic, and yet they work as efficiently as a soothing morning cartoon. So, why pick it up for a full post? Well, for some reason, the story stayed with me. I forget a lot of what I read, because a lot of it is forgettable. But a spark of Afar remained, and I still find it my mind when I’m specifically looking for what it nailed so beautifully: the fundamental idea that you can be someone else in some other place. This is indeed one of the main narrative threads of Afar: one of the two protagonists, who has given her name to the series, suddenly discovers her ability to inhabit other people’s lives in her dreams through some kind of mystical astral projection. Although the story is set on Earth in some sort of post-apocalyptic far future which bears no cultural connection to the world as we know it, this ability allows Afar to visit other planets, interact with weird aliens, and eventually meddle with their lives.
There is quite often no particular point in these sequences. They are just fun, and rather beautifully illustrated. They often depict some ordinary piece of alien life. From time to time you get some grand mystical explanations, but they really don’t explain anything nor do they mean to: they are just there to give a greater setting, to put words into things, to make it more easily graspable. And so, through this fictional and convenient device, Afar illustrates wonderfully one of the hidden potencies of a story: to carry you away to worlds and people far off. Escapism, you might say. But I will follow Tolkien's example On Fairy Tales and invoke the Mooreeffoc effect. No, these ventures into otherness are fundamentally a way to show you that things you take for granted and normal might just be culturally entrenched, and would appear in a completely different light when seen from a different worldview. By giving you a sneak peek of different ways of life, fiction tells you that things could be otherwise. It’s like visiting the parameter space of a mathematical model. You’re bound to a given culture, a given path of life, a given value of the parameters that be, but through fiction, you may explore entirely different paradigms. And to know that, all of that, in much better clarity that I am trying to explain here, I just have to bring in mind a specific comic book.
It also does something else. This astral projection stuff is only one thread of the story. There is another thread, probably more prominent if less impactful. It’s a rather standard story of learning how to become an adult in a world that may be tougher than you would like. But it’s pleasant enough, and here again it does one thing right: it really offers you a setting that is afar from what you usually know. Future Earth bears little resemblance to ours. There are new cultural and social codes, and you need to get used to them. You cannot just arrive with your own set of values and moral convictions and expect everyone to comply. If I did enjoy this, it’s because of how it contrasts with other pieces of work in which Fantasy is just a game of dressing up, but the characters are still an American bunch of people facing a world with American values (or a chosen subset of those). This is literally the case in Kieron Gillen’s DIE – and at least it’s upfront about it: somehow it’s precisely the point of the story. This is also the case in Ladyscastle, Norroway, or even Heathen. These may be good stories, they may be fun, interesting, or gripping (or none of that), but in the end, and despite their alleged Fantasy/Fairy Tale/mythological setting, they don’t offer a new paradigm, a new vantage point on the world, they don’t twist your mind into a wholly different perspective. It’s all right –their purpose lies elsewhere, and not all stories serve the same functions. But I do like these out-of-body voyages, and this is what I expect from a story that is branded as Fantasy.
I’ll conclude with a brief note on board games, as is fitting. I love Fantasy board games. And when I play a Fantasy board game, I want very much to be able to embody characters that are nothing like me. I’m pleased to play the Lizard in Runebound. Or the old military dwarf in Aventuria. Or the triangle worshipper in Bullet. Because in the end, there isn't a more genuine exploration than exploring different ways of seeing the universe we all share, even though these are the paths the most remote to us. And I just wish I could astrally project into them.