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Friday, September 25, 2009

The Surrogates


via Comics Should Be Good! @ Comic Book Resources by Greg Burgas on 9/24/09

I figure with the movie coming out tomorrow, I should look at the comic that inspired it!

I own the fancy-schmancy $75 hardcover version of The Surrogates, which includes both the original five-issue mini-series from 2006 and the new graphic novel "prequel" that was released this summer. I wasn't planning on buying it, as I bought the mini-series in "pamphlet" form and pre-ordered the graphic novel, but Robert Venditti (the writer) and Brett Weldele (the artist) very nicely knocked it down to $40 when I met them at San Diego. How could I say no? Well, I suppose I could have, but it's such a nice package that I decided to splurge. This is a Top Shelf comic, by the way, and costs 20 bucks (for volume 1) and 15 bucks (for volume 2). Or you could get the fancy version for $50 right now at Top Shelf. Or possibly less on Amazon.

I reviewed the original series back when I bought it, naturally, but I figured I'd do it again, and add my thoughts about the prequel. Venditti and Weldele take us to AD 2054, a time when people rarely get out of bed, living instead through "surrogates," robots that look human and through which people can experience the world via a virtual reality link-up. As you might expect, this has benefits out the wazoo - violent crime is almost non-existent (if one surrogate bashes another surrogate, it's "property damage," not assault), people in high-risk careers are safer (police and firefighters, for instance), and disease has decreased as people don't actually interact with each other. If the lack of human contact sounds slightly depressing, that's kind of the point, as Venditti does a nice job linking this idea back to our own Internet-connected world, where we communicate with hundreds or thousands of people without actually interacting with them as humans (but you know I love all you guys, right, even you, Dan?). Surrogates may be creepy, but they at least offer the operator a chance to "feel" everything the surrogate does. Not everyone is happy with surrogates, of course - a self-proclaimed "prophet," Zaire Powell III, lives in a "reservation" near Atlanta (where the story is set, even though it's not called Atlanta anymore, but the rather boring "Central Georgia Metropolis") and preaches against surrogacy as an abomination against God. Venditti tries to set up a rich/poor dichotomy between those who use surrogates and those who don't, but in a country where 92% of the population uses them (as the book claims), it doesn't ring true. Yes, only the poorest of the poor can't afford surrogates, but obviously, a lot of people who aren't rich use them too. But Venditti doesn't push the point, so it's not that big a deal.

Into the mix comes a mysterious figure, a surrogate that can emit large amounts of electricity from its hands and which begins "killing" surrogates. Harvey Greer, a veteran cop, gets the case, and Venditti follows him as he tracks the bad guy, learning that whoever is operating the surrogate has big anti-surrogate plans. The mystery itself isn't that big a deal, as Greer solves it fairly easily, but Venditti isn't concerned about that. He's much more concerned with looking at the way the case affects the people involved and what it means for humanity itself. Early on in the book, Greer's surrogate is destroyed, and instead of using a replacement, he solves it "as himself." This surprises everyone he comes in contact with and scandalizes his wife, who wants to remain young and beautiful and doesn't have Harvey's self-confidence. Harvey meets with Powell, who wouldn't have done so if he had been a surrogate, and discusses his philosophy with the cop. Throughout the book, we learn about what happened 15 years earlier, when surrogates weren't as widespread, and how Powell got his "reservation." In 2039, three surrogates beat a black man to death, and when the operators - three kids using their parents' units - got light sentences, Powell led a riot in Atlanta that was only stopped when he demanded space to live with his followers, hence the reservation. Powell, obviously, is a big suspect in the crimes.

I don't want to spoil too much, because although Venditti himself doesn't keep us in the dark - he lets us know fairly early on what the vigilante's scheme is - it's still nice to be surprised by the way the story goes. Mainly, like most good science fiction, this is a philosophical treatise draped in a thriller. Venditti shows us every side of the argument and gives both good and bad effects from the rise of surrogates, and even though we identify with Harvey and think he's doing the right thing by giving up his surrogate (and, ironically, it helps him quite a bit to solve the case), his partner, Pete, is a counter to that, showing us the benefits of remaining linked. The extreme anti-surrogate characters in the book are not terribly sympathetic, which makes their arguments less easy to swallow. And when the villain is revealed, Venditti does a fine job showing how he arrived at his conclusions about surrogacy. It's a very thoughtful book, and the ending is devastating because, in one page, Venditti sums up the way surrogates can be both very beneficial and very harmful. It's tough to do that in a few panels, but because of the way he's set the entire story up, it works extremely well.

The prequel isn't as successful, mainly because we already know everything that's going to happen, thanks to the first series. It fills in some of the blanks, certainly, but it's fun mainly for reading about these characters 15 years before the events of the first series and seeing them make statements about things that we know are going to happen. It's more of a straight thriller than the first series, because surrogates haven't become ubiquitous in society yet and therefore the ethical dilemmas of the first series are a bit more vaguely defined. One event does occur that reveals a great deal about Powell and makes a scene from the first series that is a tiny bit confusing clearer, at least from Powell's point of view. Other than that, the second story, while a good solid thriller, lacks a bit of the bite of the first story, because we already know how so much turns out.

I have heard some smart people bash Weldele's art, but they're simply wrong to do so. Well, I guess they're allowed to bash it, but I don't think they have a leg to stand on. Okay, yes, it's occasionally sketchy, but not as much as people who bash it say. He does a wonderful job creating a mood with very little effort, using colors very well in conjunction with the pencils. I admit that his action scenes are sometimes stiff, but then he gives us very nice pages of "frozen" action that look gorgeous, like when the vigilante surrogate (Greer calls him "Steeplejack") crashes in on Greer right before he destroys his surrogate. Weldele is very good making the surrogates just slightly inhuman and "different" from the operators, which is part of what Venditti is getting at, so it works very well.

I don't have any idea if Surrogates is going to be a good movie or not (it hasn't been screened for critics, which is worrisome). I'm going to go see it on Friday, when I have some free time, so I'll let you know. However, I do know that just from the commercials, it appears they've made it more "thriller-ish" than the comic, and I hope very much they don't lose the philosophical dilemmas that Venditti brings up in this book (I'm not holding my breath, as the other recent comic to make it to the big screen - Whiteout - also ditched some of the more subtle stuff on the page in favor of more action, because everyone knows comics can't have anything deep on their minds). Even if the movie sucks, the comic is very good. If you have to choose between the two series, get the first one. But why not get both?

Tomorrow: A Stephen Colbert pull quote? What's up with that?


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