Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Candy Crush Comics

A little less than a month ago, I finally jumped on the Candy Crush Saga bandwagon. For those of you who don't know, it's basically a puzzle game that's become alarmingly popular on smartphones and tablets round the world. There are hundreds or perhaps even thousands of levels, and every so often a new game mechanic is introduced, so that it becomes increasingly complicated to play. The basic premise of the game is that players have to move candies around on the board (or whatever you want to call it) in order to get groups of three or more matching candies to line up, thus eliminating them. The levels have different goals, like certain pieces that need to be cleared, requiring the player to get special "ingredient" pieces down to the bottom of the screen, a specific number of points that must be scored in a certain time frame, and so on.

Part of the genius of Candy Crush's design—aside from the bright colors and explosions and other visual stimuli—is that the levels don't necessarily get harder as they go up in number, so you never know what to expect or how long a given level will take to beat. Sometimes I clear three or four levels in a row with only one try on each of them, where other times it'll take me dozens of attempts over days of playing to complete a single challenge. This creates a weirdly attractive pattern of ups and down, of accomplishment and frustration. When I'm zooming through level levels like it's my job, I feel a strange and powerful joy. I get into a rhythm, a groove, and it's what makes me like the game in the first place. But when I hit a stonewall level that takes longer to defeat, the aggravation can be just as strong. I have at least one friend who deleted the game entirely after getting stuck for like a month on the same puzzle, and in the short time I've owned the game, I've already entertained getting rid of it more than once. No iPhone app is worth this! I think to myself. And I may be right, but just when I start to feel that way, Candy Crush pulls me back in.

Why am I talking about some silly game on this blog? Because emotionally, playing Candy Crush is a lot like writing about comics (or writing about anything). And it's a lot like being a comicbook fan as well.

Far too often, I spend too long working on something for this blog or elsewhere without making any visible progress. Sometimes, I abandon the piece entirely. Just this week, I gave up on trying to write about David Liss and Patrick Zircher's Mystery Men series for the second time. Somehow I can't crack that particular nut—I love the art but have major problems with the story, and I can never express those conflicting feelings in a satisfactory way. Or, well, I guess I just did, if only in a capsule-review-sized space. But my original point was that trying to write intelligently and honestly about comicbooks (or, again, about anything) can be frustratingly slow-going at times. I'll manage to produce two or three paragraphs I can live with, and then stall out completely, staring at the partially finished piece for a long time without adding anything to it. Sometimes this lasts hours, sometimes days, and when I do finally make the decision to abandon a column entirely, there's always a nagging doubt in the back of my mind as to whether or not I should ever bother writing about comics again. This desire to throw in the towel when I'm not advancing in my writing is a heightened version of the same feeling I get when I consider deleting Candy Crush from my phone.

On the other hand, once in a rare while, I feel extremely proud of something I've written or, even better, someone else will respond positively to it. Whether it's an attaboy from an editor at one of the other sites I write for, or a complimentary comment or tweet from a reader, there's nothing as encouraging as having somebody tell me they like what I've done. That's not why I write this stuff—I do it because I wanted a reason to write regularly, and because I'm reading and thinking about comics anyway, so what's the harm in committing those thoughts to Internet paper?—but having the outside world enjoy my work certainly keeps me going when I'm feeling worn out. Those occasional accolades are the equivalent of destroying a new Candy Crush level on the first try. The joy may be fleeting, but it's mighty enough to propel me forward for a good while.

I suppose by now what I'm going to say about the parallels between playing Candy Crush and reading modern comicbooks is fairly obvious. There's a lot of dreck out there, including too many single issues of typically strong series, and some weeks the sense of Why do I bother? is overwhelming. But man...when I read something truly fantastic, something that defies my expectations or pushes the boundaries of the medium or just delivers a damn good story, it's like falling in love with comics all over again. These moments are few and far between, but they show up with just enough regularity that, by now, my devotion as a fan and collector has been firmly solidified. The best issues stick with me forever, their greatness survives reread after reread, their art seeps into my dreams, their characters remain my favorites. Actually, in the longevity of the satisfaction, being a comicbook fan is nothing at all like being a comicbook critic or a Candy Crush player. The happiness the latter two activities bring me is enormous but impermanent, whereas a great comic can be read over and over without lessening its effect.