Thursday, February 27, 2014

Back Matter #3 - The Surrogates & Concrete Celebrates Earth Day

With the “Back Matter” series of posts, I am reprinting my initial writings on comics from roughly 2006.  A more detailed explanation can be found here


            There are two kinds of science fiction - straight-ahead, bull in the china shop adventures that start in fifth gear and just accelerate from there and the more cerebral idea-centered ones, which do not necessarily lack for adventure or suspense.  Whereas the first type is wildly entertaining and doesn’t ask a lot of its readers, the second type uses a science fiction milieu or idea to speak to the present and requires its audience to think.  These latter science fiction tales rely much more on character and emotion rather than plot and will often dredge up questions about humankind and the world that people generally wish to avoid but cannot.  And although each type has its merits, I am thankful that TopShelf’s first foray into mainstream science fiction, The Surrogates, falls into that latter category. 
            With the opening page writer Robert Venditti and artist Brett Weldele drop us right into the middle of the Central Georgia Metropolis, 2054, a time when 92% of the American population now own surrogates – manufactured bodies that move and act like the human body without its inherent fatigue and physical shortcomings.  Thanks to a patented VR Link headset the owners are able to control and experience all that the surrogate experiences, living a more exciting and more fulfilling life than might have been afforded these people prior to this technology.  Having radically changed the societal landscape like nothing else of the past half century, this technological advance has set mankind on the course to making the world a better place in which to live.  Workplace discrimination – gone (women can buy male surrogates and be judged on their ability not their gender), social rejection – forgotten (just purchase a physically attractive  model), occupational hazards – a thing of the past (the movement to all-surrogate police forces did away with this and other professions’ inherent dangers).  These, along with many other benefits including mobility for the physically challenged and the decline of smoking-related illnesses are all attributable to the buffer offered by the widespread use of surrogates.  But at what cost did humanity accept this brave new world full of promise and vicarious pleasures?
            For fifteen years things have been peaceful, but in the past two days that has all quietly begun to unravel.  Someone is targeting surrogates, completely frying the internal circuitry of two random surrogates one night and then taking out two guards at Clark Technologies the next.  What police Lieutenant Harvey Greer and Sergeant Pete Ford hoped would be an open and shut case has become something much more.  This realization is only aggravated by the discovery of what was stolen from Clark Technologies – a developmental processor chip that would allow an Electromagnetic Pulse to target specific frequencies rather than disrupting all circuitry within the EMP’s radius.  Luckily, the software needed to put the chip into effect is still housed at a subsidiary of Clark Technologies, CDV Laboratories.  That’s where this mystery man, one glimpsed on a recording from one of the first victims’ surrogates, will strike next if he intends to wipe out the entire surrogate population of CGM as police now suspect.
            In his pursuit of this mystery man, dubbed Steeplejack, Lt. Greer begins asking himself questions about his life, questions for which he apparently does not like the answers.  When his own surrogate is destroyed by the perpetrator in a skytube altercation he foregoes a replacement and works the case himself, wanting to see if he still has what it takes while at the same time testing the waters for a new life without a surrogate as a crutch.  In the course of the investigation Greer goes to see the Prophet, Zaire Powell III, the leader of the Dread movement.  A religious fanatic who vehemently opposes surrogates as an abomination of God’s will, he incited his followers to protest against their use fifteen years earlier, setting off four deadly days of rioting throughout the city.  The bloodshed only ended when an agreement was reached ceding a small reservation of land to Powell and his followers where the Prophet could govern and preach as he wished as long as they did not return to the city.  The Lieutenant believes Powell is behind this targeting of surrogates, and Powell of course denies the allegations.  But Lt. Harvey Greer is exceedingly familiar with the first rule of any police investigation: everyone lies.  And regardless of culpability, Greer’s visit and its subsequent disclosure to the news media acts as a wake-up call for the Dreads who return to Central Georgia Metropolis in order to spread the “word of the Lord.” 
With the Dreads on the move and the continuing investigation getting closer to the truth, things are quickly coming to a head and all the scenarios look bleak.  How will the police be able to turn away the Dread mob?  Can Steeplejack get the software he wants and put his plan into action?  Will the police discover who this terrorist is, or will they be too late?  And does Lt. Greer even want to stop him now?    
            Venditti and Weldele have crafted a tautly suspenseful thriller with twists and turns that will keep readers on their toes, and they have done it in an intelligent way that does not speak down to their audience.  The ideas and problems posited by The Surrogates are as relevant and important as ones found in any science fiction tale, comic and prose alike.  And it is the humanity and the relationships, particularly those of Lieutenant Harvey Greer, that elevate this story above your typical thriller.  Greer is at a point in his life where he is now closer to the grave than the womb, and although he may be older, his use of a surrogate gives away nothing of that fact.  He can stay as young as he wants, as fit as he wants, for as long as he wants, and never have to worry that he might get hurt, become incapacitated, or – heaven forbid – embarrass himself with the way he looks.  This is the beauty of the surrogate, but Lt. Greer also discovers that this is its curse as well.  Because if people remain sealed off from the world and only enjoy its pleasures through a virtual reality interface, is that really living?
            The answer, as Lt. Greer sees it, is no.
            Throughout the series Greer is trying to snatch back the humanity he gave up so many years ago.  Early in the story he asks his wife, Margaret, if she will have dinner with him – the real him, the real her – but she doesn’t even consider it, becoming angered with the idea and with him.  Surrogates have become such a common facet of life that having to interact without that buffer and reveal one’s true self, one’s imperfect image, isn’t even a consideration for many.  It just isn’t done.  Why be plain Jane when you can be a supermodel and never have to worry about age lines and that receding hairline?  And this is exactly where our society is heading today with the escalation in breast implants, liposuction, Botox, and tanning salons.    
In the end this story is about life, and how it is lived.  In the end it’s about living life to its fullest and whether one is afforded that full life through the use of a surrogate or by standing on the edge and experiencing everything firsthand.  Which would you choose?
            I need to make note of the art from Brett Weldele here.  This is the first time I have been exposed to his work and I was very impressed.  His style was well suited to this story.  Moody and dark, his art is full of an emotion and energy that is often lacking in some artists’ work whose styles may appear slicker and more refined.  He also benefited greatly from the fact that this was a color book and not straight black and white.  The digital paint he laid over his line work added another dimension to the storytelling and enhanced the feel of the book.  Very reminiscent of what Ben Templesmith is doing with Fell from Image, a similarly dark and moody book, I look forward to future work from Weldele and hope he gets more opportunities to color his own art.
            This was TopShelf’s first mini-series and as with all of their other products it was well crafted, not just the story but also in the way it was packaged.  They didn’t do anything different with the basic format of the “single,” but it is the way they utilized that format to its fullest potential that most impressed me.  With the exception of the extra-sized final chapter, which encompasses all 32 pages, each of the chapters is 24 pages long, leaving eight extra pages to fill.  Venditti uses part of this to give us some of the back-story that would not fit neatly within the main narrative, and he does this in imaginative ways.  The first issue includes a “journal article” detailing the major benefits that have come from the surrogate movement, while subsequent issues include a news transcript from 2013, a copy of the Daile Tablet, “America’s Most Downloaded Paper,” from 2039, and a Virtual Self brochure, all of which give us background information on important aspects of the story only hinted at in the previous chapters.  Also included are pinup pieces by artists, including Steve Lieber, Becky Cloonan, Duncan Fegredo, and Greg Ruth, depicting characters and scenes from the series.  I’m a sucker for other artists’ interpretations of stories I enjoy and this fits the bill.  But perhaps the coolest aspect of these comics is the back covers, which carry Virtual Self advertisements that look as good as any marketing firm’s ads.  In fact, the very first time I read issue #1 I was left wondering for a second whether the ad on the back was real or not.  The attention to detail given this series is impressive indeed, but I should not have expected anything less from TopShelf publishers Chris Staros and Brett Warnock. 
            Back in the vault this time we find Concrete Celebrates Earth Day: 1990 in recognition of this annual observance April 22nd.  As one might expect, this is a comic with a message and it does not shy away from that fact.  Luckily, there are three very able guides waiting within: Paul Chadwick, Charles Vess, and Moebius.  When I first saw this book sixteen years ago I already knew it would be worth my money before I even took it off the rack.  How can you go wrong with these giants of the field? 
Anyone who has read any of Chadwick’s Concrete tales is familiar with his environmental stance, for which he should be admired.  Thankfully, he is also that unique artist who has a message he wants to convey but is still able to create an entertaining story while staying true to his convictions.  Comics that are fun, entertaining, and can help you learn something new.  What a novel concept.
            Within the Earth Day special are three Concrete tales, two of which were produced especially for this volume.  “Like Disneyland, Only Toxic” is a 6-page short in which Concrete is practicing an environmental speech for an upcoming event.  In any other comic – most any other story – this would feel like a forced ploy used to get across the point of the story in an unimaginative manner.  But with Concrete it works because of the background of the character.  Concrete is an anomaly and thus afforded celebrity status in this world.  He is asked to speak at many functions, on many occasions, and these have been referenced before in other stories.  Also, in his former life as Ron Lithgow Concrete was a speechwriter for Senator Douglas.  It all fits within the continuity of Chadwick’s character.  And as long as it does not fall into cliché, which is not a worry with a creator such as Chadwick, then it works perfectly. 
            The second original story is “A Billion Conscious Acts” in which the reader follows the secret wars going on underneath our feet and in our backyards every day, initiated by Concrete’s heavy footfall, which cracks open an acorn.  From there we learn how a white-footed mouse was transporting the acorn when it was suddenly snatched up by a barred owl and had to watch the tiny seed fall to the Earth as its own life was quickly slipping away.  Through the course of the next five pages we are introduced to – and learn something interesting about – weevils, filbert worms, springtails, wolf spiders, starlings, wasps, Lord Byron, and Walt Disney.  Though it could possibly sound very dry and antiseptic, for those readers with active and fertile minds this will be wonderfully appealing.  And the horror of the last page, where Chadwick uses Concrete’s decimating trail over the tiny landscape as a metaphor for the destruction of our rainforests via a quote made by Al Gore in 1988, really hits home.  The writing is on the wall, and Chadwick gets that across masterfully in this short story; it’s too bad more people are not paying attention. 
            The final Concrete short story, “Stay Tuned for Pearl Harbor,” is a reprint that was seeing the light of day in full color for the first time here.  While driving through the countryside on their way to the city Maureen, the doctor assigned to study Concrete, is daydreaming about what it might be like to experience the world in a manner other than the way we humans do right now.  What wonders could we know if we were connected to a plant’s root system?  How might we see the world if the infrared and ultraviolet spectrums were visible to us?  Would we have a better understanding of the world around us?  Could we cherish this Earth more, and would we finally do something about the destruction going on all around us?  If we could feel the pain inflicted upon the Earth when a large bulldozer scrapes across its surface, might we stop?  This daydream is coupled with Concrete’s monologue on the population boom, all of which is summed up nicely by Larry, Concrete’s assistant, when he tells his boss “You know, you could really depress me if you felt like trying, Ron.”  But what is the answer?  Why don’t we see these problems and do something about them?  This, ultimately, is what Chadwick is asking through Concrete.  It’s scary.  These stories are scary.  But they make you think and they give you information that is necessary, even if the politicians want to shy away from the truth for the “greater good.”
            In between these three Concrete tales are the contributions from Charles Vess and Moebius.  First, we have four gorgeous paintings by Vess accompanied by quotations from Henry David Thoreau.  These pieces are breathtaking.  If you are familiar with Vess’s delicate line work, but have never seen his paintings, then you are in for a real treat.  I cannot say enough good things about these pieces.  They should have been collected as a limited edition portfolio – if they were not at the time – and would be at home in any fine art museum. 
            Second, is a 23-page silent story from Jean Giraud, better known as Moebius.  Considered to be the preeminent comic artist extant, Moebius’s storytelling and beautiful artwork are on full display.  Stel and Atan, characters from other works by this master, land on what appears to be a dead planet and make their way to the ruins of a large religious monument where the remaining population walk around in a stupor, zombies lost to life.  The two make their way inside and awaken a deity that had lain dormant for what must have been eons.  This ‘touching’ brings the natives out of their stupor, and also brings the planet itself back to life.  Stel and Atan struggle back to their transport through the quick-growing foliage making its way up from within the planet itself.  They just manage to release the small ship from the dense flora and are given a fond farewell by the inhabitants, who find themselves able to fly above the brightly colored, verdant world now lying below them.  Having finished their work the two aliens return to their ship and launch back into space, off to find others that might be in need of their help.

            This is a great book with an important message that many should take heed of.  If you see it in a comic shop or on ebay, I would recommend you pick it up.  Not only will you be entertained but you will be educated as well.       

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