Originally published as a groundbreaking three-part Vertigo miniseries, User explores sexual identity and online role-playing in the text-based MUDs of the nineties.
Whether or not you are a gaming fan (I am not), this book is an experience to read through. Set in the 90s, this story about a young woman named Mel who discovers the whole world of MUDs (think MMORPG in text form) and initially drowns in the delight of that experience. In real life, she is the elder daughter, who is helpless to save her younger sister, but in that virtual world, she is a bisexual French knight in a medieval fantasy. It makes her feel more alive than her life, that she has a purpose over there, a cause to fight for and gets to be the knight in shining armor. It also speaks to her gender fluidity in a way.
At first, I had thought that the book would be a cautionary tale about losing yourself in your online persona. It happens to most of us – we prefer the virtual or online world than our reality, because there we can be something we are not. We can hide behind a strong personality, but this book takes a step further and shows that you can learn from what you built up as a persona. Mel eventually learns to emulate her character and be as valiant in real life as she is in the game, to take risks and be actionable than just living through life passively. She saves her sister from her abuser, and for herself, she finds a new relationship with someone who is as passionate as she about the game. (Side note: It does not, however, linger on the consequences of her getting lost in the virtual world, like her losing her job and her leaving her sister behind initially. Which, yeah, she is a flawed character and has to grow, but I felt wrong that she did not apologize for it)
As for the artwork, it is amazing. There are two styles – the real and the virtual. The real is done in exquisite detail, and you can see some amazing artwork in the lineart – expressions, body language, setting, as well as some beautiful shading even in the greyscale-ish rendering of her life. As for the virtual, it seems more rudimentary in lineart (to emulate the gaming atmosphere) but is vibrant in coloring. Both, however, have markedly impressive amounts of work and detail put into them – the best one I’ve seen since Monstress #1.
Overall, a feast for the eyes and an interesting story as well.
Content warning: The novel contains some sexual scenes, and mention of rape.
Received an advance reader copy in exchange for a fair review from Image Comics, via Edelweiss.