Some weeks ago I discovered „Stand Still Stay Silent“, a webcomic set in a world that has mostly become uninhabitable about a group of young people exploring some of these uninhabitable parts, concretely Denmark. I binge-read it within a few nights, then joined the ranks of those who impatiently wait for the next page on Sundays, Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. (Normally, the author posts her pages during the night.) Maybe due to the change in reading-pace I got more critical of the story, most of all of recent developments which I was following page by page, and page 854 was barely readable to me. It left me with a feeling of emptiness and made me lose hope that the story would continue in a way that’s satisfying to me.
(Normally this journal is written in German. As I write this as a comment to an international community I write in English today. Also, I want to mention the Journal of a Freak, whose comments on Stand Still Stay Silent I enjoyed immensely. And for the rest: beware, there’s spoilers – and criticism)
I started to read the comic because of the prologue which seemed mostly humourous to me in spite of the horrible situation. Some deadly and contagious illness, „Rash“, is spreading throughout the world, but people complain about the government cutting down ferry transport so that they cannot get back home and won’t be in time for some important professional appointment, and those who are fleeing to their far off cabin still search for newspapers at gaz-stations, and the grandparents and the cat need pee breaks.
Also the idea of Icelandic becoming the lingua franca of the „Known World“ (with small areas of the other nordic countries as the rest of the known world), of cats being the only species of mammals unaffected by the ilness, and of the heroes searching for books as these are a scarce good in their world (and of them rescuing a kitten as their first heroic deed) gave me the idea that this was going to be a parody of a survival story, or maybe a story that works as an adventure story for children, comparable to the „Hobbit“’s first two thirds. (Just reread the first chapter – neither the dwarves nor the hobbit can be taken seriously.)
Then the planning team turns up: They have written a proposal to get funding for an expedition to the „Silent World“, but getting far less money than they had applied for, and far less than what they actually need, they cut down expenses: on the number of team members, on their qualifications, on their food and equipment… The result is that three youngsters and two team members who are in their early thirties, but no real experts either, start on that expedition. In addition, they get burdened by a civilian, Reynir, who turns up hidden in a food crate when they actually badly needed food. Another problem is the language barrier. Emil only speaks Swedish, Lalli only speaks Finnish, Sigrun only speaks Norwegian, Reynir only speaks Icelandic. Mikkel speaks Danish and Icelandic, Tuuri speaks Finnish, Icelandic and Swedisch. Luckily those speaking Scandinavian languages (Danish, Swedish, Norwegian) can understand each other.
(Through this comic I have learnt that Scandinavia means Denmark, Sweden and Norway while the the term „Nordic countries“ also include Iceland and Finnland. When I started to read the comic I was glad to learn a definition of „Nordic“ that’s not burdened with dreams of a Nordic race – now I am not so sure any more.)
All five team members are underqualified for their jobs (Reynir is not qualified at all and does not even have a real job in the team), though maybe Mikkel, the medic, has quite a lot of qualifications that have nothing to do with his job. (He is quite bad at stitches, but has a lot of formal education.) On the other hand, their job is one that anyone might be underqualified for: Exploring the „Silent World“, which even 90 years after the „Rash“-illness is a dangerous place as quite a lot of the humans and animals affected by the illness have not simply died but have transformed into trolls (sometimes into giants) and into beasts. Being bitten by those trolls, giants and beasts will transfer the illness – even getting in contact with them via some open would or through your mouth or nose will get you infected. Also, there’s a couple of ghosts following the heroes – ghosts not of the people who have died from the illness, but who have died from some medicamentation that was supposed to heal the illness.
Talking of ghosts: Just as in some apocalyptic roleplay game scenarios magic has returned to the world. There’s Icelandic and Finnish mages. Lalli is a well-trained Finnish mage, though Onni, his cousin (and Tuuri’s brother) is much more powerful, and Reynir has the talent to become an Icelandic mage, but is without any training at all – he starts to discover his mage powers just after joining the team. (Actually the whole story is like some roleplay game with the characters as first-level heroes.)
So the heroes enter Denmark, officially with the aim of doing some research, inofficially with the aim of bringing scouring ancient libraries for books, as these are considered very valuable at home. (Apparently the „Known World“ has lost a lot of knowledge and hopes to find it in books from the „Old World“.) They rescue a kitten, they scour libraries and community centers, they search ancient hospitals for information about the illness – and they attract a couple of ghosts who pursue them and turn into the deadliest threat to our heroes.
Nonetheless they are optimistic: they find hints that there might have been a cure or at least an attempt to a cure, which might give new hope to research at home. In spite of having too little food they decide for a detour to Odense, but shortly after that detour their car breaks down, and while a first attempt to repair it gets them to the Danish mainland they have to do the last fifty kilometres on foot after the car’s final breakdown.
I enjoyed the story because it’s funny and because I loved the main characters‘ interactions: getting on each others‘ nerves, as they are quite different from each other in temperament and character, but also caring for each other and helping each other and comforting each other when one of them messes up, which happens quite often. My favourite character is Mikkel, who is well-educated and sarcastic, but also cares for the younger team members, which includes a couple of sarcastic remarks when they behave inappropriately. Also I like Emil and Reynir, both of them naive in different ways, but also doing their best to be helpful and caring for the rest of the team. I have a bit of a bad conscience that I like the female characters less than the males, but the point is, I like the male characters for their (traditionally) „female“ qualities, as caring and trying to help. Sigrun is mostly a fighter and quite intelligent as a fighter, knowing when it’s best to retreat, but else she is rather funny in her lack of formal education and her contempt for everything that might be learnt through formal education. Tuuri is the team’s „skald“, responsible for documentation and also for driving and for repairing the car. When the story starts, she is depicted as an adventurous young woman, craving to participate in the expedition even though she is not immune against the illness, and pressing her younger cousin Lalli into joining her. With time, she gets more and more boring, and then she conveniently dies about the same time as the car’s final breakdown. Well, and then there’s Lalli, the Finnish mage and night scout, a competent fighter, but very young, not good at communicating and even worse now, as nobody else besides Tuuri (whose behaviour towards him is rather problematic) speaks Finnish. The other team members, most of all Emil and also Sigrun, do their best to communicate, but not sharing a common language this is difficult.
So this is why I enjoy the story. (Another reason is the artwork, which is simply great.) I love its humour and I love the characters. I don’t take it seriously as an adventure story or a story about survival in an absolutely hostile environment, even though the Silent World is absolutely hostile. I enjoy tracking the team’s route through Denmark via Google Maps and I have even sought the places they stay at in Kopenhagen. I enjoy that the characters take time to rescue a kitten and to find a name for her.
There’s some other points that made me feel uncomfortable with the story, most of all its very premise: An illness that has been brought to Europe by refugees. Sorry, that’s such a common racist xenophobic cliché. It’s even an antisemitic cliché transferred to refugees. Illness brought by the Outsider, the Other. Only telling myself that this was not a serious story or that the story needed some reason why the „Rash“-illness decimated humanity made me tolerate it. Also, I hoped that with time this explanation might be undermined. After all, we learn about it only via the news on Danish TV and later via radio and via newspapers. And indeed we get some alternative with the story about the government distributing a „cure“ that kills the patients, effectively murdering part of the population. But that’s a conspiracy theory: those „above“ are against us, they hide the truth from us, they kill us. I mean, Denmark is a well-established democracy, maybe one of the oldest democracies of Europe. It’s not some evil dictatorship. Also, the conspiracy theory does not replace the story about refugees bringing a deadly illness to Europe but complements it: Refugees bring some epidemic plague, and the government, instead of protecting us, covers things up and in the end murders its own citizens. Taken seriously, the ideas Minna presents us in this comic are the world view of the people I consider my political enemies – the view of right wingers.
What comforted me and gave me hope that this was not the last word on the Rash-illness was indeed the treatment of gender in the comic. The treatment of gender is not right-wing. Women are not meant to stay at home while the men fight. The men succeed not because they are invincible fighters, but Reynir, who is no fighter at all, saves the team’s lives even twice by calling Onni for help. No one would have survived without Reynir, but no one seems to notice, or to thank him. What also gave me hope is the comic’s humour: Humour, irony, not taking oneself too seriously are not among the virtues of right-wing people. What gave me hope is the fact, that Sigrun, the tough fighter, provides us with comic relief when she is not fighting. Her remark about Denmark („how can people live in a place without mountains?“) is just stupid and self-centered.
What gave me hope is the story about Pastor A: Maybe the team will survive not by fighting and successfully running away from the ghosts, but by finding Pastor A so that she may find a way to the place where the souls of dead people normally go.
The most recent pages made my hopes go down. Maybe the change is due to the fact that I changed from binge-reading the webcomic within a few nights to waiting for one page at a time on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, with a lot of time to think about it and to participate in the discussions in the comment section in between. Maybe it’s some real changes in the story’s mood. Maybe the change came in summer, when Tuuri died, but I did not notice the change, because I was binge-reading.
I had some issues with Mikkel’s pep talks and with his failure at shooting. He is my favourite character, cool, witty, intelligent, well-educated, and caring. I would not have wanted him to be a complete failure when it comes to using a gun. Also I hated that he told Sigrun that only the loss of some of her companions whom she is responsible for will turn her into a real captain – that she must learn to be a real captain even after the death of her companions. I mean, it’s normal to feel down after losing half of your team.
I have even more issues with the most recent events, that is, with what is happening to Lalli and Emil. Lalli has fallen into a coma, he has lost access to his safe space in the dreamworld, and he has found refuge in Emil’s dream – and in Emil’s head. While Emil is dragging his body through the snow, Lalli talks to him from within his head, telling Emil to show him the map, declaring that he has decided their route, telling Emil that he does not need to focus on trolls, as he, Lalli will do that: Emil’s job is to focus on walking. In the evening Emil finds a couple of houses and decides to look for shelter in one of them. It turns out that it is inhabited by a giant, and that the giant is speaking to Emil. All trolls speak, and if you look closely at their speech bubbles you may see that they call for help, but this giant speaks more coherently than any other troll we have ever seen, expressing their desire to be killed so that their souls are freed. Lalli warns Emil not to listen to them and continue walking, implying that this is just a trap and that the troll is going to kill him, and when Emil does not listen, he somehow hurts Emil from within his head, making him break down. After doing it a second time he threatens to do it again and again so that Emil won’t succeed. Emil finally understands and withdraws, and Lalli finds a better shelter for the two of them. There they meet again in Emil’s dream, and after some lame excuse from Lalli for not attempting to explain the situation („You would not have understood“) Emil admits that probably he would not have understood indeed, and then thanks him for saving his life.
I mean: „It’s okay that you tortured me, thank you for saving my life.“ Sorry, no, that does not work to me, it’s wrong on so many levels that I cannot explain it. Also I refuse to explain it. I think that every decent person knows that torture is always wrong. This implies that those who think that there are situations when torture might be okay are not decent persons.
Torture means to inflict pain on a person to make them do what they would not do without that pain. It means to push them to a point where they cannot choose any more, thinking only of getting rid of that pain. Torture means to break a person.
People compare this to other situations when force is needed to prevent someone from inflicting harm to himself or herself. The problem is: employing force is not the same as torturing a person. For example when a nurse tries to keep a patient who does not know what he or she is doing because of dementia or some mental health issues from inflicting harm she will hopefully do it without torturing the other person. In principal this is possible (if the hospital or retirement home is understaffed, there may be problematic actions, but that does not affect my point.) I have difficulties to imagine any realistic situation where torturing a person is the only way to prevent them from harming themselves. The situation in the webcomic is highly unrealistic: Lalli in Emil’s head, completely depending on him, and at the same time helpless with the exception of being able to torture Emil is not a situation that occurs in real life.
Maybe if Lalli and Emil were real persons we might come to the conclusion that there was really no other way of preventing Emil from killing himself in this situation. (Of course, if their interactions before this incident had created trust Lalli might have prevented Emil from getting killed by the troll without torturing him.) As this is a story, another question arises: Why did the author create a situation that puts the characters into a moral dilemma that will never occur in real life, because in real life people don’t get stuck in other people’s heads? Is that her only way of getting the characters into some meaningful conversation? (And why is Lalli attempting to eat the whole cake while they are supposed to have some meaningful conversation?) Why is it important to her to create this situation? Does she want us to believe that torturing Emil was the right thing to do?
Also the incident leaves us with Lalli the competent mage who knows everything about trolls and magic and Emil the complete idiot when it comes to magic, justifying Lalli’s insults („idiot“, „stupid“). It also leaves us with Lalli being correct that trolls are always evil, even when they beg for help, meaning that Emil, who was compassionate and wanted to help the trolls, was wrong. What kind of message is this: „Trolls are evil, don’t help them even if they appear to need help.“
I mean, there might be creatures or even people who are beyond help, meaning that avoiding them, fighting them and running away from them is the only sensible course of action. However, this does not give you an interesting story, it’s just a nightmare scenario. I mean, I enjoyed the movie „Alien“ where you get such a nightmare scenario, but the heroine has not chosen that scenario. (Also, this scenario fills a movie of ninety minutes. For a webcomic with several hundred pages, running over the course of several years, it’s not enough.) But in „Stand still stay silent“ all characters maybe with the exception of Lalli have chosen the nightmare scenario. (Lalli was more or less bullied into it by Tuuri.)
Only by making fun of it, only by not turning it into a real nightmare can you avoid hating the team who organized the expedition, sending the team members, even their own nephew, into certain death. Only by making fun of it, only by not turning it into a real nightmare can you avoid the idea that the expedition team deserves what they get, as they have agreed join that crazy expedition.
When I started to read the story I did not expect such a nightmare scenario. I expected a light-hearted story with a lot of fun, with the heroes succeeding because they help each other, because they are witty and intelligent and most of all because they are compassionate, e.g. rescuing a kitten. I hoped for a story where Reynir will find Pastor A and thus will finde a solution to the problem of the ghosts that’s more than just running away.
Also, if you think it’s stupid to long for a light-hearted story set in a postapocalyptic world because it’s just not realistic, you should also hold in mind that the premise of the story is not realistic. I don’t care about magic. What counts is that the story’s premise, the idea that refugees might bring a contagious deadly illness to Europe, is not realistic at all.
And there’s the link between the present situation and the situation in Year Zero, the year of the Rash-illness. The trolls are people who got infected by refugees, and thus they became a deadly threat. What kind of message is that to people who try to help refugees?
Maybe the message can be put like this: Outside, there’s only evil, and also, evil can only be found outside. That’s Lalli’s and Onni’s attitude, and they are presented to us, the readers, as those who know about the dangers of this world.
It’s just that this idea is completely wrong. Evil can be found inside as well (whatever you call „inside“: your family, your people, your own person) and not everything outside (your family, your people, your own person) is evil. The idea that evil is only outside is highly pathological. (One of the problems is that this idea will make you think that everything is okay in order to fight this evil that’s outside – including torturing your friend.)
We are presented with a world where closing the borders and fleeing to some lonely place belonging to your family, far away from civilization, is the correct decision, because everything else means certain death. That’s not realistic. We are presented with a world where not listening to creatures that beg for help is the right decision. That’s also not realistic.
I want to read a story, where Emil, not Lalli is correct. I want a story where helping, not refusing help, is the correct decision. I want a story where Reynir manages to help the ghosts find peace after ninety years, not a story where they keep running until they arrive at the pick-up point. I want a story where it turns out that the Rash-illness was not brought by refugees but just happened.
Don’t tell me that my attitude is not realistic. The author’s premise, refugees bringing a contagious deadly disease to Europe, is not realistic. It’s the nightmare scenario of a right wing person. I hoped that at some point the author would make clear that what we heard in the news during the prologue was wrong, but somehow the most recent incident, where Lalli, who tends to be pessimistic and cautious about everything outside, was right, and Emil, who was attempting to help the trolls was wrong, made me lose my hope. Lalli torturing Emil made me lose my trust that the author’s moral values are basically the same as mine. (Also, keeping the story not very serious, might have made it easier to me to overlook that the story’s basic premise is a rightwing horror scenario.)
I could hardly read the most recent page. I guess I will continue following the webcomic for some time, until I have completely lost hope, but I won’t comment any more and I won’t stay awake until half past one waiting impatiently for the new page to be uploaded. I think I should have taken the warning signs more seriously instead of overlooking the fact that the basic premise of the story is one that I abhor. I am just glad that I leave the story before I wasted too many emotions on it.