On Wednesdays We Wear Ink: Possible Futures in Science Fiction Comics
Posted on May 6, 2015
May 6, 2015 | by Andy Waterfield
I’ve been somewhat pre-occupied with the future this week. You see, I’m writing this on the evening of May the 6th, and there’s a General Election here in the UK tomorrow. For those not clued into how UK politics works, the General Election is the one where we decide who the next crop of MPs (Members of Parliament) will be. They then spend the next few years sitting in the House of Commons arguing over how best to run the country.
Transmetropolitan by Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson
As you might imagine, there’s a great deal of arguing going on in the run up to the big day. There’s arguing on TV, in the papers, on social media, at work, and even in that most sacred of places, the pub. Now, some of that arguing is about vested interests trying to protect their power, but the bulk of it, the daily back and forth between ordinary people, is about competing visions of the past, present, and crucially, the future.
Ultimately, that’s what politics is all about. Sure, it’s informed by ideas about the past, and different perspectives on the present, but politics is all about working toward a better future. It gets complicated when your vision clashes with the visions of others, but the essential drive is the same. We look out on the world, we assess it, and we imagine different ones.
Science fiction, like politics, is also in the business of assessing the present, and imagining new worlds and futures based on those observations. Fiction is, at its most basic, a method by which we can exercise our imagination, and compassion, to try to make sense of and try to understand worlds and experiences beyond our own. Sci-fi ramps that notion up a notch, and invites us to imagine radically different, but oddly familiar realities. Sci-fi is a warped mirror, but somehow it allows us to see ourselves more clearly than we dared imagine. Sometimes it shows us better worlds, sometimes worlds far worse, and sometimes it’s a bit of both. And comics are really bloody good at sci-fi.
Now, were I feeling particularly pedantic, I could always make the argument that all superhero fiction is basically sci-fi, but that stuff gets enough bloody publicity, not least in this column, so instead we’ll be spotlighting non-capes sci-fi. Partly because I’m a bit burnt out on superheroes lately, but mostly because proper sci-fi is just bloody better most of the time.
Global Frequency by Warren Ellis and Steve Dillon
It’s hard to address sci-fi in contemporary comics without first talking about Warren Ellis. Ellis has, by his own admission, had something of a lifelong obsession with the future, and his interest in geo-politics, theoretical physics, and cutting edge technology inform his work enormously. From the optimistic rescue fiction of Global Frequency, which posited a horizontally organised, crowd-sourced, emergency service, to the stylised and altogether depressing examination of British racism and militarism that is Ministry of Space, Ellis’ work covers an extraordinary range and scope.
Transmetropolitan by Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson
Easily Ellis’ most lauded sci-fi work is Transmetropolitan, a scathing cross-examination of late ‘90s political culture by way of a near-future, cyber-punk dystopia, with heavy undertones of class-politics, media ethics, and, crucially, journalism. Its protagonist, the uniquely appalling but oddly principled Spider Jerusalem, has become an icon for a generation of righteously angry young things armed with nothing but the truth, a keyboard, and an internet connection.
Trees by Warren Ellis and Jason Howard
Ellis recently began a collaboration with Jason Howard, Trees. Trees is about a world where aliens arrived, plonked down colossal, fuck-off pillars (the ‘trees’ from which the book takes its name), and then promptly ignored us. We’re so used to science fiction stories where aliens are either trying to be best pals with us or wipe us out, but Trees shows us a world in which they don’t seem to give a shit. So far, anyway. If you like hard sci-fi which focuses on the human impact of major global (and existential) change and is front-loaded with phenomenal world building, it’s for you. The first collection, Trees: In Shadow, is out now from Image Comics.
Lazarus by Greg Rucka and Michael Lark
On an even more pessimistic bent is Greg Rucka and Michael Lark’s Lazarus. I could try to describe this stunning series, but honestly, the blurb on the back of the collections does it best, so here it is:
‘The world now lies divided, not amongst political or geographic boundaries, but financial ones.
Wealth is power, and that power rests with only a handful of Families. Those few who provide a service for their ruling Family are care for, lifted to the status of Serf, guaranteed a level of comfort and care for themselves and their loved ones.
All others are waste.’
If that doesn’t pique your interest, I don’t know what to tell you. Three collections out so far through Image Comics.
Ballistic by Adam Egypt Mortimer and Darick Robertson
Ballistic, by Adam Egypt Mortimer and Darick Roberton, is like nothing I’ve ever read before. Basically, it’s about a guy who fixes air conditioners for a living. Except he lives in a world where air conditioners, and indeed most other complex objects are not machines, but composed of living flesh. His car has wings, as do all the other cars, and his gun… Well, his gun is sentient, foul-mouthed, and has a drug problem. Oh, and its face is more or less a rounded scrotum. The whole thing is high-octane, absurd, belly-laughing fun. Unless the concept of a sentient gun getting high right before a bank heist doesn’t appeal to you. Pervert. Available in a charming paperback collection from Black Mask Studios. While you’re on their site, pick up Liberator and Occupy Comics too. Trust me.
Last but by no means least on this little rundown of the best of contemporary sci-fi comics are a couple of titles by Rick Remender. It’s no secret that I love Rick’s stuff, and why wouldn’t I? He’s an aging hardcore kid with a twisted sense of humour and a habit of writing characters who struggle with depression. It’s like he was raised in a vat to write comics I’d swoon over.
Anyway, Rick’s done some fantastic sci-fi stuff in the past (seek out Fear Agent if you haven’t already – for fans of pulpy sci-fi adventure, ‘80s hardcore references, and drunks in space), and his new stuff may be even better still.
Black Science by Rick Remender and Matteo Scalera
Black Science tells the story of The Anarchist League of Scientists, who used corporate cash to build the Pillar, a device capable of traversing spacetime, and the boundaries between this reality and countless others. Naturally, there’s a massive cock-up, the nature of which is super-spoilery, and the League, along with their corporate benefactor, and their leaders’ kids, are lost in the Eververse. Think Sliders, but waaaaay more out there, decidedly darker, and with more ideas in a single issue than that show managed in its entire run. It is the real deal. Two collections so far, out through Image.
Low by Rick Remender and Greg Tocchini
Remender is also the writer behind Low, an epic tale of human endurance set in a world where humans have lived in domed cities beneath the seas for generations, in an effort to escape the deadly surface conditions caused by an expanding sun. Using this high-concept to examine themes of enduring hope against seemingly intolerable despair, this is clearly an extremely personal work for Remender. In his introduction to the first collection Low: The Delirium of Hope Remender talks about the moment he realised he had, in the preceding fifteen years of his career, never written an optimistic character, and how writing Stel Caine, his protagonist, has become extraordinarily cathartic for him.
Hell, just reading about her helped me deal with a recent depressive episode. This comic deserves your time and attention, especially if, like Rick and your erstwhile columnist, you find that your brain isn’t always on your side when it matters.
Bitch Planet by Kelly Sue Deconnick and Valentine De Landro
I am conscious at this point of the lack of female-creator titles in this piece. I can only apologise for that, and will endeavour to seek out more sci-fi comics by women in the near future. I’ve heard that Bitch Planet, Kelly Sue DeConnick’s recent foray into ’70s exploitation prison fiction, by way of feminist sci-fi, is excellent, and I eagerly await the first collection. In the meantime, if you have any suggestions of titles you think I should be checking out, drop me an email.
I’m off to bed, because millions of people with vastly different perspectives on the present, and ideas about the future, are going to vote on mine in the morning.
Dystopian sci-fi is great as a thought experiment, but I don’t fancy living there. Here’s hoping for a brighter, more compassionate tomorrow, for everyone.