It’s rare that you can call a reading experience an “unboxing”. Perhaps the only comic creator who is well known for creating such an experience is Chris Ware in his Building Stories. However, at the intersection of comics and interactive narrative stands gaming, and with a renaissance in the popularity of tabletop gaming, there are intriguing connections to be made between the two.
The definitions of mixed media are also changing–books and games have interactive apps that unlock material and meta material to core narratives can take a number of forms. TV shows now have interactive game-like apps with a narrative component–like the hacker drama on AMC, Mr. Robot, whose mobile Telltale Game extended the narrative of the show. None of this happened over night–these cross-pollinations have been happening for decades, as we can see in the meta-material contained in the seminal graphic novel Watchmen. However, these new avenues feel less like a flash in the pan or an oddity now. Multi-layered narratives are here to stay.
That’s not to say that anything really compares to what Jon Chad has done with Bad Mask, the box of narrative components released by Boom! Studios. Chad has been a remarkable designer as well as comic artist for some time, and his sense of experimentation and humor really characterizes the entire “box”. It takes an amount of effort that is difficult to easily imagine to produce a large number of printed documents, each in a different style and design, often in different mediums, too, which together create a non-linear narrative and world.
The major thing to keep in mind, too, is that Chad has aimed this at a younger audience than has ever been targeted for such complex narrative play before. My guess would be ages 8 to 14, though much younger readers could participate with the help of a group.
I’m going to walk through the contents of the “box” for Bad Mask:
Opening the box, we find a broadsheet newspaper on top, the “Central City Journal”, printed on heavier stock than usual newspapers, which will no doubt contribute to the longevity of the experience for kids.
The newspaper is composed of prose stories, adds, and images, but a significant element inside is also broadsheet silent comics.
This is an interesting choice–in a document heavy on prose, the comics are suddenly silent. Needless to say, this part could be passed to a younger reader, easily, too.
Heavier prose, with more complicated interpretation, is to be found in this official missive from the Bad Mask “Army” to Brasso Mask. It feels and looks like a government memo, and is bound to bring a certain thrill to readers, particularly kids who would never have held such a grown-up looking document before. But its contents outline the box for the opener of the box, moving through each item in brief.
This leads on to a substantial and fairly heavy stock printed comic book, “The Real Adventures of Metal Metro”. It’s a lovely comic completely drawn by Chad, introducing us to an important character through the lens of comics.
Everything in the comic is fully designed to be part of the world of Bad Mask, including adds for foods and other kid-friendly items. Older readers, like parents, might appreciate the nostalgia references to comic ads of their youth.
Here’s our “Meeting Transcript”, spiral-bound for full effect. It reads very much like a screen play, actually, with other elements thrown in, including illustrated visuals.
If you aren’t floored by Chad’s work on this box by now, wait until you get to the copy of “Newspress”, a completely rendered composite of Time Magazine and Newsweek set within the Bad Mask universe.
And by complete rendered, I mean completely rendered. The headlines, the font, the presentation of images will all feel very familiar to older readers. But this is also a world with international scope, drama, and things like the U.N. at work. Making the subject matter even more in line with its real-world inspirations.
As a sidenote, this is such a fabulous way to introduce younger readers to the idea of more mature forms of reading, like political commentary.
However, the “Case File” that’s also contained the “box” veers into genre fiction, too, and government conspiracy stories like The X-Files. This file is simply awesome in design and contents, full of loose pages that can be studied individually. Some are even comics pages.
Getting toward the bottom of the box, we find one of our most seminal documents, a “Battle Book” from Bad Mask, as if Army issue. It’s an instructional handbook for operations. It also guides the reader through key characters within Bad Mask, and helps build the world. So far, many of the documents have not been from the organization Bad Mask’s perspective, but this one is, so it’s more of a “primary” source. This reinforces the idea that narratives have different voices, and there are biased and unreliable narrators to take into account when building an understanding of a story. Always a salient lesson for young people in our media-heavy age.
If I sound at this point like an educator, yes, I have a background in education, and having worked as a college professor, I would easily have used this entire box on a group of college freshman to illustrate how we construct narratives as a form of participation, and how multi-layered every “story” actually is, whether fiction or non-fiction. It also might have gotten some of them reading comics! Which is always my endgame.
But let’s not forget the trading card set, which is going to make those young to middle grade readers go gaga. Each one conveys both images and information, and can lead to a gaming experience as readers exchange cards.
As you can see, with so many components in this box, it begins to feel like it’s been designed for a group experience. While one element per day or week could be isolated for someone to quietly read on their own or discuss with an adult, it could also be dumped out on a large table with a group of “players” circulating the material and constructing theories on how the story moves and what it all means.
I’m intentionally stating what we known of the story of Bad Mask last, since I think opening the box while fairly clueless highlights how impressive the project is, but here’s the gist: a young girl has joined a “mysterious” but supervillain-based organization called Bad Mask. In fact, they might even be called “terrorists”. They exist to oppose an intelligent robot called Metal Metro, who is hailed as the world’s savior. But the mystery lies in the true motives of Metal Metro and of Bad Mask. Maybe things aren’t as clear cut as they might seem to the general public. Our protagonist, Gaby, has to get to the root of things, and the reader gets to reconstruct the truth along with her. That questioning attitude is also very interesting to introduce to young readers.
In short, you have a challenging and highly interactive narrative experience here suitable for individuals or groups, something that’s going to generate conversation and potentially bring young people together, as well as stimulating a sense of agency in analyzing a story. And it’s rife with comics sensibilities, so that’s an even bigger win for the medium.
I highly recommend you check out Bad Mask for yourselves. It is on sale now in comic shops, has an official age rating of 10+, and retails at $39.99, a price tag which seems more than fair once you start examining all the carefully crafted contents.
Some of the other people who worked on this great project are: Luke Healy, Cassie Hart, KIeran Quigley, and Marie Enger, on colors and tones, and Jillian Crab on design.