Stranger Things Comics: Review and Reflections from my Recent Reading and an ICFA Panel
Stranger Things fans, have you ever wondered what happened during season one from Will’s point of view? The series of four comics issues by Jody Houser, Stefano Martino, Keith Champagne, Lauren Affe, and Nate Piekos give fans of the show an opportunity to find out. Comic readers experience "the upside down" from Will’s perspective, a narrative strongly influenced by inspiration from gaming, music, and the camaraderie of friends and family. On a deeper sociopolitical level, the comics ask an important question: are we going to help others, or are we only going to save ourselves? (Warning: This blog post contains spoilers).
At ICFA (International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts) in March, I heard three excellent papers about Stranger Things on a panel for the Children’s and Young Adult Literature Division entitled “Stranger Things, the World of Yesterday, and the World Yesterday Made Today.” As someone who was born in the early 1980's and does not remember that time period, I felt more enlightened about the cultural and sociopolitical factors that influence Stranger Things. In particular, I was intrigued by the paper entitled “The Game Is World, the World Is Game: Roleplay, Reality, and the Mediation of the Ruleset in Stranger Things” by Dr. Simone Caroti of Full Sail University. I personally do not engage with gaming fandoms, but I have several friends who regularly play Dungeons and Dragons, so I am fairly familiar with the practices. After hearing Dr. Caroti’s paper, I realized that there are extended metaphors throughout Stranger Things that relate to playing Dungeons and Dragons.
As I read the comics, I was even more convinced by Dr. Caroti’s argument. I believe that Will’s entire experience in season one of Stranger Things, as further exemplified in the comic, is a metaphor for trying to beat a game, which in my opinion could be Dungeons and Dragons, a virtual reality game, or a real life challenge with gamifying attributes. Issue one of Stranger Things shifts back and forth between Will returning to a house that has been invaded by a creature of the upside down and a flashback to the boys playing a game of Dungeons and Dragons. As this occurs, the reader sees pictures of wizards, soldiers, dragons, and other Dungeons and Dragons characters as related to lessons of both the game and of Will’s quest: “The first truth he he learned about adventure still stands. The party that fights together survives together. Splitting the party can have disastrous consequences. After all, on their own, an adventurer is the easiest of prey.” Much of Stranger Things is about friendship, community, and camaraderie, as shown by the friendships of the boys and Eleven. Part of how the boys have built friendships is by gaming together, even though gaming is not considered a “cool” practice among middle school boys. However, even though he is vulnerable once alone, some of the skills that Will has learned through Dungeons and Dragons help him on his quest to beat the upside down monsters.
Issue two continues the extended metaphor that issue one begins. The scenes flash back and forth between Will trying to contact his mother and the boys playing Dungeons and Dragons in the past. In the gaming scene, the boys are having a dilemma about whether to stop and rest, since Will has used his spells against a wood golem, or whether they should persist and try to help the village people who are in trouble. Will’s closing comment is “if you don’t help them, then who will?” This persistence that Will has helps him as he continues to work on communicating with his mother through Christmas lights. Even though many people thought Joyce was crazy when she bought the lights to communicate with Will, she clearly has the persistence that she passed along to her sons. She was convinced that Will was alive and would not stop until she brought him home. Through reading the comics from Will’s perspective, I as a reader gained an even deeper appreciation for Joyce’s intelligence, in addition to her refusal to give up. On the television show, Joyce came across as a character who some people discount, in part because of her status as a working class single mother. Yet, from Will’s perspective, Joyce is a highly intelligent woman who fights for her family.
In issue three, the light panels of the boys playing the Dungeons and Dragons game juxtapose the dark images of Will being lost in the upside down world woods. Will hears the voices of his brother Jonathan and Nancy calling out to him, trying to find him. He almost connects to them, but then he finds an injured man in the woods and stops to help him. As a result, he loses Jonathan and Nancy and, once again, is alone. In the upside down, just as in Dungeons and Dragons, Will struggles to find a balance between keeping himself and his loved ones safe and wanting to help others.
Issue four flashes back and forth between Will trying to find his way out of the upside down infested woods and a wizard known as “Will the Wise” trying to find his way back to safety in a fantasy world, with the same lightly colored panels as the boys’ gaming scenes. Although the stories of fantasy worlds of games and stories seem light-hearted, they also teach important lessons about persistence and morality that relate to Will’s real-life struggle. In addition to his gaming memories, song lyrics help Will on his quest for survival. The carefully chosen song words pair nicely with the foreboding scenes of Will struggling for life as a dark creature of the shadows descends upon him. The song lyrics are that of “Should I Stay, or Should I Go” by The Clash, a song that is also important on the television show. The song could be a metaphor for Will trying to decide whether to struggle against the upside down or to let it overtake him. Additionally, I believe the song could represent the struggle some gamers might have between wanting to constantly escape to fantasy worlds and remaining within the real world in order to maintain responsibilities.
Eventually, Will’s mother and Sheriff Hopper rescue Will, and the last scenes of the comics show Will reunited with his family and friends in the hospital. However, the lighter scenes of the hospital and “Will the Wise’s” rescue juxtapose Will’s perspective of the hospital scene, and he’s left to wonder, “is it really over?” Light and dark is a recurring trope of the comic, as shown by the coloring. Pop culture inspiration and the desire to reunite with loved ones help Will to persist in reconnecting with his mother. But will he be able to escape the upside down unscathed?
I believe the upside down world is particularly important in our current political climate. Sadly, some groups who do not fit the norm are treated as second class citizens, just as some characters in Stranger Things are cast into the upside down with little explanation. Will’s mother does not give up on him, and neither do his brother and friends. These bonds, combined with Will’s persistence learned from gaming and music, save his life. But what about those who are not rescued? Are there people who are cast to the upside down who do not have Will’s support system?
And if so, are we going to help them, or only save ourselves?