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Part 1: In which things fall apart

So it occurs to me that with the past two columns on religion in comics, which concentrated on superhero stories, and the last one about rebuilding superhero universes, I may have given a somewhat misleading view of my comic reading preferences. After all, there's a reason why, amongst my comic-book inclined friends, a conversation with me may start, “OK, so this week over in Sinestro Corps War . . . oh, why am I talking to you about it? You never read this stuff anyway.” Which isn't entirely true–clearly, I do read some superhero titles.  But the bulk of my reading is off on Image and Avatar and First Second and Archaia and Markosia and other independent publishers. I wanted to give a more accurate view of what I like and what I don't, and, to some extent, why. Never fear; we'll be getting back to the superhero stuff presently.

The future, near and far: mad, bad, and a dangerous place to be

Reading about dystopian near and distant futures has its own strange appeal.  There's the whole cautionary tale aspect, of course; if we don't change our ways, this is what could become of us.  There's the "well, at least things couldn't ever get that bad" aspect (except, clearly, they can). Well done dystopias are also exercises in world building, extrapolating from the here-and-now to a place where things have gone disastrously wrong. For stories that go on at any length, the creators have to branch out and show a bit more of the world at large.

Certain constants can be seen across dystopian futures.  Population effects differ depending on the type of dystopian future depicted. They tend to extremes, with either far too many people or serious depopulation. In the futures where there hasn't been some sort of cataclysm, either natural or man-made, population pressure drives people and their governments to draconian extremes; in post-apocalyptic settings, low population tends to make people aim for a certain uniformity and conformity. Economic class gets more apparent and more sharply divided; the lines between the haves and the have-nots can be seen very clearly, with the situation for the people who truly have almost nothing being so dire that they have no real hope for their future.  The middle class, the bourgeoisie, seem to be completely a product of modern, peaceful society, truly the middlemen. Remove the economy that made that sort of transitional class possible, and they completely disappear. Even so, change, if any, gets generated by those who have just enough to realize that life should and could be better for themselves and for everyone. Technology adds a certain unpredictability into the mix as well; it can make life much better for some, and much more difficult for others, or it can vanish entirely. The fun comes in seeing how different people pull those threads together to show different ways in which life goes to hell in a handbasket, and how, or whether, things get better, to see how people cope.

Recovering dystopias: still dystopic

Finder:  Sin-Eater cover

You can show just how bad a society has gotten by showing them in the process of getting better, showing aspects of where they’ve been and what they’ve still got left to endure. Finder, the graphic novel series by Carla Speed McNeil, shows a society in which the worst of the dystopian aspects have passed. The society appears to be North American–based on movies and literature and other things that survived, and when we see Jaeger's people outside Anvard, they appear to be Native Americans. (There is, for some reason, a giant statue of Ganesha in the middle of the desert.) Clearly something biological happened at some point; you have intelligent and articulate animals–some of which never existed outside a storybook previously–and you have families with people who start as humans and become animals or some sort of hybrid. Jaeger Ayers, a mixed race "finder" or tracker of sorts, is the major character.  He's not the main character of every volume, although he appears in all of them to date; in Finder: Dream Sequence, he appears only very briefly, and so dramatically changed that if it weren't for the author's copious footnotes, which appear at the end of each book, I wouldn't have been certain that it actually was Jaeger.

McNeil’s worldbuilding in Finder is comprehensive and specific. For example, whatever caused such social collapse and depopulation, it never reached the point that all of society forgot how to read and write. This meant that they never entirely lost their technology, although they don't know how all of it works–for example, they're not sure how the domes that cover their cities work, or why parts of a dome may suddenly fall off and dissolve. Society has even recovered to the point that reading and writing are considered quaintly old-fashioned; true sophisticates have jacks implanted in their skulls for getting information, and thus don't need to read. The technology they've kept and improved sometimes gets used in what we would consider appalling ways. The population has recovered, if peculiarly. Cities are highly dense and concentrated, while the outland areas are considered hazardous and polluted–though the outlands don't seem quite as damaged as the people in the cities believe. 

Identity and how society both dictates and affects one's identity constitute a major theme of Finder, especially as it involves Jaeger. Finder: a scene from  Sin-EaterIn Finder: Sin-Eater, we get introduced not only to Jaeger and the family he loves, but to the city of Anvard and aspects of its society. The principal story concerns Jaeger and his relationship to Emma, her children, and her husband. For all that Emma tried to rebel against Anvard society and its strictures, it still controls different aspects of the characters' lives. Anvard society dictates, for example, that men of the upper castes should present themselves as women, wearing dresses, breast implants, and so on. The social construction of sex in Anvard gets explained a bit more in Finder: Talisman and in Five Crazy Women–and it is quite highly constructed, at least when it comes to marriage and acceptable mates–and then suddenly, Sin Eater makes considerably more sense. It's easier to understand just how comprehensively Emma went against her social mores when she married her children's father, if not precisely why she did it. (Something of a side note: constructing sexuality as they've done means that homosexuality seems more easily accepted. After all, if you can't always tell if the women are with women, suddenly the entire concept seems no big deal.) The second volume of Sin-Eater also covers issues of identity; what happens when Emma's half-caste son is discovered not to be a girl by the people in school, but his mother's caste demands that one at least try to identify as one in public? What happenes when his mentally ill father wants him to be a man, but is himself not the sort of man anyone sane would want to be? Talisman uses the concepts of reading and writing to tackle these identity issues in a different way. Marcie, one of Emma's daughters, discovers the possibilities opened up by reading and writing, and how that can help her discover things about herself and others.  

The extent to which class issues truly debilitate Anvard society come to the forefront in Finder: The Rescuers. Kidnapping young children has, in fact, become something of an almost acceptable cottage industry in Anvard and environs, so most high-caste families expect to deal with it at some point. We find Jaeger working downstairs in a high-caste household, where he tries to work with a policeman to rescue a kidnapped child. As someone of mixed race/caste and with part of that mix being Ascian, Jaeger isn't socially acceptable, and the extent of his unacceptability is mind-bogglingly extreme. The policeman can't really use his help, because Jaeger wouldn't be able to testify to what he'd seen and done. The policeman is too honorable to fake it–but this means that the child dies and the kidnapper gets off without legal penalty. At the same time, the Ascians with whom Jaeger works in the kitchen deal with an unusual problem: the birth of twins to one of the maids. By Ascian tradition, this means one of the twins will need to die. They try solutions that would work, but they get caught at just the wrong times. Both upstairs and downstairs, infants need rescue that, for one reason or another, isn't allowed to be given, even when it's available.

Five Crazy Women shows how the strictures of both Ascian and Anvard society affect Jaeger directly. As a sin-eater, he's a social pariah in Ascian society, a bad boy for good girls to sleep with but never marry. As a mixed-race/caste Ascian, he's not allowed to have a place in Anvard society. Between them, the two societies generate some considerable psychological issues within Jaeger that he tries to run from. He winds up with some very peculiar women—as he says, "so shot-in-the-head"—most of whom either don't see him for what he is, or who want to use him as some sort of weapon. Oddly enough, some of what he says or knows about himself seems to contradict what we've seen elsewhere. In Dream Sequence, we see a much changed Jaeger, who appears to be a man with a family. In The Rescuers, he mentions having once rescued a daughter of his own, but aside from two or three panels in Dream Sequence, we've never seen him with any children that might be his own. The volumes aren't necessarily sequential–although Talisman clearly comes after Sin-Eater–so we're probably going to get all that filled in at some point.

Technology makes life both better and worse in this world. In Sin-Eater and Talisman, Jaeger and Emma argue about Emma having jacks implanted so that she can make money more easily. Emma's personal assistant hologram, which aside from the French maid uniform seems about the most convenient thing ever, periodically stoops to manipulating Emma's biology and sleep cycle both for her own good and to find out certain information. In Dream Sequence, a later volume, people pay for the privilege of wandering through Magri White's dreams, and even feel entitled to do so; he's connected to the city's network via the filaments connected to his head, so thickly implanted that he seems to have waist-length hair. When old issues arise out of his subconscious, people wind up getting incredibly sick, because they experience the effects of these nightmares very directly. And through all of this, you get the feeling that people know how to use all this stuff, but they don't really understand any of it, and so when things go wrong, they don't quite know how to isolate or fix them.

It's easy to see how something like Anvard and the Ascians could spin out of our own society. We have all sorts of unacknowledged classes and castes that need only a small nudge to become public; we discuss working class and middle class and lower class and upper class all the time without ever quite acknowledging that they function as (admittedly much more fluid) castes as well. We have all sorts of technology that most people put in the category of "Just tell me how to do what I want to do, and I don't need to know how it works." Mind, I'm really not certain that any caste or group on this continent currently could be convinced that having men present themselves as women is a really good thing . . . but other than that, it's not difficult to see how we might one day wind up with something like Anvard. At the point we see things, the world of Finder constitutes a fairly gentle dystopia, as these things go. The worst of it seems to be behind them, and what they’ve got, albeit intensely dysfunctional in spots, still kind of … works. After a fashion.

Fractures internal and external

Borderline vol 1 cover

By contrast, the society in Eduardo Risso and Carlos Trillo's Borderline, published in translation, seems to be in freefall, or at least to have fallen much much farther. Strangely, despite the grim and gritty setting–or maybe because of it–Borderline seems to be closer to our society in many ways than Finder is. The world is fractured, and society along with it. One cause of the fractured society seems to be something called the Void.  It's never really explained what it is, or how it's done what it's done.  All you can tell is that it divides the world, and nobody seems to be able to tell whether or not anything exists on the other side.  People use the Void as a way to commit suicide, jumping into it and apparently vanishing forever. Now you really can fall off the edge of the world. Another cause was "the Emanation War" between the Commune and the Council. It may even be that the Emanation War caused the Void; the relationship between them, if any, isn't clear. All that can be told is that as a result of the Emanation War, the Council and the Commune rule what's left of the world, ideally with absolutely no contact between them, their agents and their peoples.

Whatever the Void and the War did to the world, people seem wear out quickly, and need internal organs replaced. The very wealthy create clones of themselves for this very purpose. The only slightly wealthy purchase organs harvested from the poor on the black market. The merely Borderline, page 12well-off–for certain values of “well-off”—and the people who work for them, jack into computers and experience pornographic hallucinations and apparently die whenever they wear out or get killed. Epic disease and ironically-named drugs permeate society. The Council sells drugs to the populace to cause and alleviate their suffering—it effectively addicts the poor to a drug in the food without their knowledge or consent—while the Commune exhorts people not to take drugs, that the reward for their suffering in the here and now will be given to them in the hereafter. Lisa, called Crash by her employers and the main viewpoint character for volume 1, was a victim both of organ bootleggers and of her boyfriend Emil, who was himself addicted to Hope. Lisa's rescued from her situation by the Council, who trains her to work as their “captive agent” (read: assassin and general havoc-causer). A side effect of what she's endured is that the language center of her brain no longer processes information correctly; both hearing and speech are gibberish unless she's plugged into a special computer. Emil has also been damaged by the drug Hope; he's apparently schizophrenic, and the other voice in his head is narrating his life, forcing him to relive past horrors, and mocking him as it does. He was rescued and de-toxed by the Commune, although he doesn't really seem to believe in whatever it is they believe, and he works as their captive agent, running missions and conducting the odd small massacre, just like Lisa.

Borderline contains interesting takes on just what constitutes sanity in an insane world. Emil's ruminations are up front and obvious, since his schizophrenic voice keeps telling him he's not quite all there. Lisa's been badly damaged by her experiences, and it's not clear how much of the problems with her speech center and hearing are due to incomplete or ineffective repairs after her rescue, and how much may be that she just doesn't want to know or understand. Jack and Mike, the two women control agents who run Lisa, walk an interesting line—Jack is madly in love with Lisa, who is too damaged to notice or realize what's happening with her. Mike understands what's going on with Jack, and the jealousy is making her just a little crazy. The men who run the Council and the Commune go to bizarre extremes to maintain their position, and when that fails, start having peculiar hallucinations about the things now going wrong with their bodies. The world of Borderline seems to be a place where sanity can only be loosely defined, and may not be of particular use at all.

Borderline also shows just how far people will go to hold and maintain power in tenuous situations. For example, the state–either the Council or the Commune, depending on where you're located and who you choose to follow or believe–has an absolute monopoly on the use of energy; even small-time pirates must be tortured and killed. The state distributes food to the poor, which looks like a majority of the people. . . but the food distributed by the Council is permeated with Hope, so as to induce an unbreakable addiction. Addiction is thereby used as a means of control; people will do anything for a little bit of Hope, after all. (How the Commune's adherents avoid taking drugs they don't know they're being given is left as an exercise for the reader.) The Commune tries to interdict shipments of Hope from the Council's moonbase; the Council attacks the agents trying to stop them. We see how the people in power use others to further their own ends, and the small ways in which their agents fight back. Emil is especially and peculiarly effective at thwarting his masters' goals. Power appears as a multilayered chess game, pawns moved by and fighting against the opposing kings.

Borderline’s society may be in more dire straits, but at the same time, you can still see how, with just a touch of change here or there or especially there, things could get just that bad. Even without a Void cleaving the world, it’s not hard to see how fights over resources could produce a society as fractured as the Commune and the Council, fighting over scraps. For example, what’s going to happen in the Middle East when those oil resources are so far past peak oil that it’s no longer economic to try to harvest them? That day’s not far off. When big oil collapses, it’s going to take most of the energy sectors and plastics manufacturers with it. What about water? Even now, in this country, the Great Lakes North is–fairly civilly, to be sure–telling the rest of the country, “Keep your mitts off our water.” What happens when the response of the rest of the country is no longer, “Oh, all right, you greedy bastards,” but becomes, “Um … no. No, we just don’t think so.” What happens when the North American grain belt gets shifted north into Canada due to global warming? What happens when most of the lower 48 south and west of the Missouri becomes the new version of the Dust Bowl?

The crash begins

Y The Last Man cover

Y The Last Man (Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra) and DMZ (Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli), both from DC/Vertigo, show near-future dystopias here in these United States, or what used to be them, more or less just as things begin collapsing. In Y, a virus kills off all males of all species with the exception of Yorick and his monkey Ampersand. We follow Yorick, his fellow travellers 355 (super secret Culver Ring agent extraordinare) and Dr. Alison Mann as they try to find out what happened and why and how to fix things. Needless to say, 355 and Dr. Mann both have their secrets, which complicate the search. In DMZ, the U.S. has fractured into the right wing and the extremely far right wing, and a civil war results. The front stretches across New York City, and the battle stalemate has produced a defacto demilitarized zone across the city. In the way of unfortified cease fire zones, the war seems to be ongoing in one way and another.

Y The Last Man first issue

Y The Last Man takes on gender issues, exploring how different things might be if women ran things without male interference. There's considerably less war, in part because the women are concerned with other things, like trying to keep things running and people fed, but primarily because most countries didn't allow women into active combat, so the bulk of women simply don't know how to do it–Israel being a notable exception, and that gets worked into the story. To a certain extent that Y tries to comment on gender issues, it isn't always successful, because the only man around is Yorick, and Yorick . . . well, he ain't that bright sometimes. Unrealistically stupid, in many cases; he survives two months on his own without revealing his existence to anyone, and then suddenly, he's revealing himself right, left, and center, especially to people who'd be perfectly happy if he'd died with the rest of the men and who are willing to correct that small error. Yorick frequently doesn't think about what he does before he does it  He's very determined to get to his fiancee, whom he thinks is in Australia where she was when the catastrophe struck. He does have reasons, of a sort, for this behavior–in a couple of notable issues, he's forcibly walked through what he's done and made to justify it, and he does improve as the story goes on. Nonetheless, the combination of the terribly stupid-acting man and the very strange women rob the narrative of a lot of its force at times.

DMZ trade covers

In DMZ, we see wartime Manhattan through Matty Roth's eyes. Matty started out as the assistant to a journalist in the war zone, but the journalist seems to get killed almost immediately, forcing Matty into that role.  He discovers that he can be a good journalist, reporting on the reality of wartime life in the city and what people are doing to survive. The story is as much about Matty's self-exploration and discovery as it is about exploring the society in this post-apocalyptic world. In an odd way, it seems to be a sort of love letter to New York–only, you know, with occasional bombs. The idea, as expressed in the introduction by Brian Azzarello to volume 1, seems to be that even in the midst of civil war, New York would find a way to remain distinctively itself; Matty gets to observe its fight to retain its character . . . and, honestly, I don't think it would. I’m not sure that anyone would think that fight worth fighting, right at that point in time, and I don’t know that they would succeed if they were. Not then, anyway; surely people would be too busy fighting simply to survive to worry about saving the character of the city. Ask the people of Sarajevo if it feels now like the same city it was before the war, never mind if it felt like that during the Balkan war. Ask the people of Baghdad if it feels like the same city–or if they'd even want it to. (Though, given the choice between civil war and comparatively placid but severely deprived dictatorship with a savage case of The Disappeared, it would be at best a difficult choice.)

DMZ: Manhattan in wartime

I have to admit, despite the fact that they're entertaining and periodically engrossing reads, neither Y nor DMZ entirely works for me.  To be sure, Vaughan and Guerra show that being the last surviving male would not be the sex-filled porno fantasy that some people might expect.  On the other hand . . . one-breasted Amazons rampaging across the country? Really? Amazons? Even if there were enough lesbian separatists and militant women to make such a thing doable, at the very least, I suspect most of them would balk at chopping off a breast as the price of admission, especially given the acute lack of bows and arrows. Many of the women in Y don't entirely come across as believable, even allowing that the sudden death of all things male would produce profound changes and dislocations. The tone of Y The Last Man seems to veer wildly between pointed satire and grim horror, and it doesn’t always manage that swing successfully. As for DMZ . . . honestly, I think it may just primarily be too grim for my tastes. (And yes, I am perfectly well aware of the utter absurdity of saying, "I can handle civilization going to hell in a handbasket just this far and no farther; like this, but not like that.") I can handle dystopias and apocalypses elsewhere, elsewhen, or even a generic "somewhere in these disunited states" sort of way, but the nuts and bolts of civil war Manhattan are a little much. This isn't a knock; it's clearly meant to be too much. To be sure, I'm not at all sure that the city would fight to remain itself, to keep the character of New York, even as much as it does. That it does should be some sort of leavening, should make things better, but somehow . . . it really doesn't.

To reboot or not to reboot?

In indie comics and some of their big-business relatives, nobody’s out there yelling "Reboot!" You don’t have to worry about ruining the characters for later generations, since they sort of come pre-ruined anyway. The stories aren't part of a broader comic universe. If you don’t want to, you don’t have to “fix” anything. Y The Last Man and DMZ, as long(ish) running series, need to worry about internal continuity, but they don't need to speak to each other or any other series. Other indie comics can tell discrete stories, with defined beginnings and endings, or at least without trying to relate to anything else. They don't have to worry about interlocking continuity with an entire line, with stories at various stages, and you don’t have to worry about a fallen civilization as a commercial property, with spin-offs and merchandise. Whatever happens in these stories, the apocalypse usually sticks, and you have to scratch and claw your way out of it … if you can.

Iain Jackson is a big ol' comics nerd who lives and writes in Chicago.
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17 Jan 2022

The land burns so hot and high tonight that Let can see its orange glow even from the heart of The City of Birds. It burns so thick she can taste the whole year’s growth of leaves and branches on her lips. It burns so fast she can almost hear the deer and cottontails scream as flames outrun them and devour them whole.
I writhe in bed with fever, chills, chatters and shivers. The near becomes far as the far comes close.
No one gets married before going to space.
Wednesday: Unity by Elly Bangs 
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