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February 22, 2016

D.O.X. is Dead #10: Princesses and Layers

So a while back, I went out to grab a new mouse.  Found one, too; it’s pretty sensitive, but its battery life is much higher than my last one, and it’s got a cool design on it.  But I started looking around the store, and wouldn’t you know it?  I spotted a DVD box set of Adventure Time.  Well, probably a DVD set.  Could’ve been Blu-Ray.  I paid more attention to the fact that it was just Jake the Dog in box form.

The important thing is that I paid just enough attention to the box to notice that I would’ve grabbed the complete fifth season of the show -- which is a problem, because I couldn’t even tell you where the first season starts and stops.  So I put it back, in the hopes that one day I would know enough about Adventure Time to dive into any given segment of the canon.  That day has yet to come, unfortunately.  My loss, of course; I wouldn’t mind learning more about Finn, Jake, Ice King, Beemo, Fire Princess, Lemongrab, Marceline the Vampire Queen, and all the rest.  (Also, Cinnamon Bun is god-tier.)

So indulge me for a moment.  Let’s chat about Princess Bubblegum.

As you can guess, there’s a difference between knowing the names of characters, and knowing what they actually contribute to a story.  So my knowledge of Adventure Time is embarrassingly limited, to the point where I feel like I should apologize.  What I’ve seen of Princess Bubblegum, however, is still plenty entertaining.  Engrossing, even.  She’s a princess!  But she loves science!  She’s not to be trifled with!  She’s got strengths and weaknesses!  And so on, and so forth.  She seems pretty cool, is what I’m trying to say here.

In the past, I’ve wondered if there’s a genuine stigma against overtly-female characters -- princesses well among them, and feminine types following shortly behind.  Obviously there’s no conclusive or ironclad evidence of one preference over another, so I’d like to think that I’m just raising hell over a problem that doesn’t really exist.  It certainly doesn’t exist in the face of well-rounded characters like Princess Bubblegum, even if her appearance would be an instant red flag for princess-haters.  My assumption is that being a girl doesn’t have to mean being a failure of a character.

You may be wondering why I would bother to go on for so long about such a random character.  And the answer to that is simple: I don’t know a lot about Princess Bubblegum, but I know that her voice actress, Hynden Walch, would be perfect for the theoretical role of Kaylee Hazlett, the deuteragonist of Dead on Prime.

Well, if you ever wanted to see some of my “art” in its super-rough form…

Alright, so who is this girl?
She’s the number-two character in the story (and quite literally gets this designation at one point via magic cell phone).  As you’d expect, she’s the partner -- friend, confidant, comrade, and more -- to Arc Siegel, the story’s number-one character (pictured left in the above, in case it wasn’t obvious).  Likewise, the two of them are out to discover firsthand what happened to their high school -- which at the outset is basically a landfill for reasons yet unknown.  Well, to the untrained eye, at least; the truth is that Kaylee and Arc can both see the remains of the school have been swarmed by freaky graveyard stuff.  That, and floating numbers.

So you could say that they’re both driven by a sense of personal responsibility.  But there’s a slight difference in motivation; Arc’s out to solve the mystery, while Kaylee’s out to make sure no one gets hurt by something that could be dangerous (and it is, by proxy of the cause).  That’s kind of to be expected; Arc’s more or less a sourpuss who occasionally acts like he only tolerates the human race, while Kaylee’s the genuine altruist of the two.

No, really.  Who is this girl?
In the last post, I compared Arc to something along the lines of Batman (or an anti-version of him, at least).  If we’re sticking close to that interpretation, then Kaylee is something along the lines of Superman.  She doesn’t need a reason to fight for justice and love; she just does it, because that’s what a good person would do.  And she IS a good person -- kind, sweet, friendly, and a joy to have around.  That’s not to say she’s a pushover; hanging around with Arc has made her exceptionally good at tossing out the snark, and she’s more than willing to show off her iron will.

In a way, you could think of Kaylee as the more basic, more well-known type of hero -- main character material in her own right.  You know the sort: just a normal guy or girl who gets swept up into something big.  But he or she pulls through thanks to a faultless resolve and enduring virtue -- as you’d expect.  That’s not to say Kaylee’s ONLY the basic hero (and I’ll explain why in a bit), but to put it a different way?  If they were fighting game characters, Arc would be a technical rushdown-type.  Kaylee would be a shoto, or at least more well-rounded.  (Albeit with a lean towards power.)  

Thinking back, it’s a hell of an improvement over her previous incarnation.  When it was Dead over Two -- and to a lesser extent, D.O.X. -- Kaylee (then Katie) was practically a non-character.  Sure, plenty of lip service was paid to her; she was Arc’s girlfriend, and formed the backbone of his motivation.  And sure, that relationship ended up getting deconstructed over the course of D.O.X., to the point where A) Arc came within inches of dooming the planet because he couldn’t quit her, and B) the culmination of his character arc led to him giving her up.  But I said it once, and I’ll say it again: she shouldn’t have had to be the fall guy in that situation.

That’s especially true, because back then she didn’t get the “screen time” she desperately needed.  Pretty much every time I made an edit to D.O.X., it was to crowbar in a scene that helped build Katie’s character.  (I have a list of added scenes written in a spiral notebook somewhere, but gut instinct alone tells me a huge percentage of those scenes focus on developing her.)  I’d bet, then, that a savvy enough reader could intuit the hack job at work; even if Kaylee ended up as a stronger character, she was built on a weak foundation.  She was barely a cut above the stereotypical Disney princess, reduced to her worst traits.

So who is she now, then?  It’s not enough for her to just be good at fighting -- especially since she’s going up against enemies with supernatural powers and forms by the third chapter.  I suppose the best way to describe her, at least on a surface level, is to call her a good person.  Though you could say the emphasis is on her being a person -- a fourteen-year-old girl who has friends and family that she cares about deeply.  Her friends count on her to be sweet and full of cheer, while her family knows her as a mood-maker with a taste for burgers -- well, that, and being the runt/baby of the Hazlett troupe. 

Arc may be “the cool one” -- person-to-person, and in the cast at large -- but by no means does that make him a joy to be around.  Kaylee is.  True, that’s partly done by making her out to be the average high school freshman (sans high school), but I don’t think there’s anything grievously wrong with that.  If there was, then I’d imagine that there are a lot of women out there who’d be pretty cross with me.  Prior to the story, Kaylee’s a person trying to get the most out of life in the usual means.  There’s nothing reprehensible about wanting to hang with friends, or enjoy family, or have school days go smoothly, or any of that day-to-day stuff.  In fact, that kind of gives her a natural edge over Arc; she has the foundation and reason to be a hero, and he…well, doesn’t.

I’m sure that won’t play into anything later on, though.

Bold words, but is he any good?
She’s a lot better than she was, that’s for sure.  Katie was barely even in the story -- excised from most of the action, and thus denied the chance to synergize with the rest of the cast or develop her character (even after getting extra scenes jammed in).  Kaylee, on the other hand, is the second member of the core eight introduced, and stays within yards of Arc almost entirely throughout the story’s first act -- or at least from Chapter 2 to Chapter 9.  After that?  Admittedly, she gets “kidnapped” by certain forces, but Arc points out later that half the cast ended up getting “kidnapped”, with two of them being directly responsible for it to further admittedly-reasonable goals.  Then other stuff happens, because plots, amirite?

In any case, the important thing to remember about Kaylee is that even if she’s got that basic nature, there are indeed complexities.  She has an arc of her own, and goes through highs and lows on the way to the endgame.  Since her school is a pile of rubble -- and she’s campaigning to help reverse her city’s ill fortunes -- she doesn’t usually get the chance to pal around with her friends or worry about science tests very often.  She’s forced to stay strong in the face of an impending ghost apocalypse, and fight her hardest against the inevitable.  Though in this case, “inevitable” includes “come to terms with the worst parts of your heart”.

Minor quirks aside, Kaylee is the most normal member of the cast.  And she wants to be normal -- live a normal life, in a normal world, with normal people all around her.  And indeed, her goals are comparatively normal; Arc’s got ambitions and wanderlust that don’t always sync up with Kaylee (i.e. the usual “protect the innocent” end goal).  But even if we take the plot out of the equation, the question remains: would Kaylee be happy if she didn’t have to worry about the potential end of the world?  Alternatively, would she be happy without Arc?

Maybe.  Maybe not.  But they’re both issues that she has to sort out as the story progresses.  Like it or not, Kaylee is an abnormal person living amongst normal people.  Since she’s the type that genuinely cares about people and the bonds she shares with them, she doesn’t want a wall to be between them and her -- and by extension, between her ideal life and her real life.  It’s to the point where, despite her airs of sweetness and honesty, Kaylee’s actually kind of a liar.  A hypocrite, even.

She’s a competent fighter -- stronger and tougher than most, for reasons revealed in-universe -- but the only one who really knows that is Arc.  Her friends can only guess that she’s strong because she’s never lost to her peers at arm wrestling; they have no idea that she knows how to fight.  And remember what I said earlier about Kaylee being sweet and cheery around others?  One could argue very successfully that it’s all an act.  She only does it because it’s what people expect of her, or because that’s how she should be.  That might explain why she’s different around Arc and other cast members.  There’s an inherently fierce side to her, but she can’t bring it to the surface on a whim.  Why?  Fear of rejection, or repulsion, or any of those things.  And yet she asks others to trust her, and lay all their secrets bare.

Kaylee has a social advantage compared to Arc, but in turn, Arc enjoys an inherent level of freedom and honesty.  He’s open and plain with everyone around him, even if he does things that confirm how much of an asshole he is.  Kaylee doesn’t.  She’s a pretender who tries to do what’s expected of her, not what she wants -- and she has to come to terms with her dark side or face the worst. 

Well, I say that, but she has to deal with more than just her inner turmoil.  Eventually, everything comes crashing down -- up to and including a reconciliation that leads to blood being borne.

Not like that, though.

Okay, so why should anyone care?
I don’t want to jump to any conclusions, but if I had to guess?  I’d say “projection”.

It’s not like I’m saying every teenage girl in the universe will glom onto Kaylee because she’s “identifiable”.  But compared to Arc -- and the other six members of the core cast -- she’s a lot easier to grasp.  Again, she’s a good person deep down, and she wants to do the right thing.  That’s admirable.  Respectable.  When the other cast members are freaks, idiots, and madmen, someone like Kaylee helps keep things anchored and easily digestible.  And really, who wouldn’t want to fight for their friends?  And family?  And home?  And future?

I’d like to think that the struggle is dense enough anyone to want to jump in.  Kaylee’s pushing against something well beyond her depth, and despite her best efforts things get progressively worse.  How will she deal with that?  What will she do when the chips are down?  That’s what’ll help decide her worth as a character, and whether or not she can ascend to the pantheon of the fabled “strong female characters”.

With all that in mind, I don’t think it’s worth stressing about the basic details of Kaylee’s character -- i.e. if she’s allowed to be girly, or cute, or want normal things.  What matters is that there are more aspects to her than what’s on the surface -- and I think I’ve managed to provide.  She might change the most out of any single character in the entire story, which is made possible thanks to her inherent flaws and fears.  The clash of ideals and reality -- of her light versus her dark -- takes her to some unexpected places, and unwanted by Little Miss Hazlett herself.

Every single aspect of her life comes into question, and how she deals with each determines what sort of person she becomes.  And rest assured, she does change; in fact, I’d go so far as to say that -- for a little while at least -- she becomes the darkest character in the entire story, independent of what Arc says or does.

Speaking of?  It’s likely that those two are going to have to pound out their differences.  Literally.

Because I’m me, and I can’t help myself.  But if I do this just right, then that’s exactly what anyone would want to see.

But I could be wrong.  Believe it or not, it’s happened before.  I AM the guy who tried to see if it’s possible to slip on a banana peel, after all.  (Spoilers: it is.)

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