What was once futurity, a matter of grim speculation, is increasingly present. Climate catastrophe is all around us, yet there remains a pervasive failure, if not active refusal, to call it by its name. As some have commented online, for instance, the environmental toll of America’s brutal invasion and occupation of Afghanistan is rarely discussed in the mainstream, let alone connected to the broader movement against climate change. Too many of us have been successfully duped into caring more about plastic straws and composting than about fracking and war. We are taught small, individual choices will save the future when earlier this year the ocean was literally on fire.
The Egyptian multi-disciplinary artist Ganzeer’s debut comic book series, The Solar Grid, could not have arrived at a more nerve-wrackingly appropriate time. Set between two phases of a post-apocalyptic future where humanity has failed to save our environment from corporate-driven climate crisis, the story is as haunting as it is confrontational, reminding the reader of how the seeds of our own destruction have already been planted. As of this writing, the story remains ongoing, with five chapters having been already published, and the sixth set to be released by Radix Media early next year. The story is a captivating, non-linear mystery box. There is no protagonist, per se; rather, we follow several characters across the world, and in different eras, as they attempt to make sense of the world around them, and maybe even change it. In addition to reading the issues released so far, I also had the pleasure of speaking with Ganzeer about the development of this project and the influences that guided him to it.
As we quickly learn in the first issue, the apocalypse in this story takes the form of a great flood that submerges the majority of the world underwater. Most of the story cuts between two time periods, the first being a few centuries after the flood, the second being about a millennium. In the wake of the flood, a massive network of satellites, the titular Solar Grid, is built with the purpose of concentrating the sun’s rays on Earth so that the water may evaporate. Obviously, this causes more problems than it fixes. We follow different characters across time and space, most of whom seem to be connected in some shape or form. The full extent of these relationships has yet to be revealed. The most consistent character thus far is Sharif Algebri, a billionaire scientist who believes he holds the key to reversing climate catastrophe. He is the archetypical CEO of a dystopian cyberpunk story: dastardly and mysterious, while maintaining the compelling performance of a man seeking human salvation.
Aesthetically, Ganzeer’s world is dense with influence and reference, often overwhelmingly so, but remains balanced and cohesive. It is alien and discomforting, yet familiar—the organic evolution, or rather decay, of the corporate-run planet we already live on. The influence of foundational cyberpunk works, especially Blade Runner and Akira, is present. Another 1980s title whose style is ingrained into that of The Solar Grid is Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. From the news panels and junkyards, to the vizors and contorted expressions of distressed or enraged characters, Ganzeer’s work bears many of the markers of the iconic graphic novel. Politically, however, it’s the complete opposite. Whereas The Dark Knight Returns, along with much of Miller’s work, has long been criticized for its fascist imagery and themes, The Solar Grid is an unambiguously and thoroughly antiauthoritarian work.
The first chapter is titled after the Fanonian classic, The Wretched of the Earth, and the influence is as clear as the eternal day wrought by the Solar Grid. This is a story that is acutely aware of how the incoming climate catastrophes of the twenty-first century, many of which are already here, will by no means affect humanity equally. Poor, global south countries, in particular, are set to bear the brunt of it. The colonial relationship between the global north and the global south is an absurdly rare theme in mainstream sci-fi and post-apocalyptic or dystopian fiction. We’re never at a loss for stories about how the empire or metropole would deal with an apocalypse, but rarely do we ever see a globe-altering event affect anywhere else, let alone demonstrate how the “end of the world” would never hit all of us equally. In addition to Ganzeer’s own politics, he also wanted to tackle this topic precisely for its pervasive absence from science-fiction media. “If I see a vacuum of some kind, and it’s so noticeable to me, it makes me think: wait, what the fuck?” he exclaimed. “Then I’m compelled to go ahead and fill that vacuum in, and create that thing.” There is, of course, a particular urgency to this specific vacuum. “If it’s a science-fiction comic about the end of the planet—it just makes zero sense for it to center on a handful of Americans or whatever we’re used to seeing in this sort of fiction.”
Ganzeer’s eco-critique of the current and presumably near-future world order understands a basic truth that is often missing from dystopian and/or post-apocalyptic fiction: it is not so much the planet that is at risk of dying, but us. In that sense, the horrifying adaptability of capitalism is not so much killing Earth, as it is killing our very selves. This is obviously not to say that we shouldn’t care about the environment, or our fellow living creatures, but it is to say the planet has had extinction events before and it has survived. Life on Earth has thus far found a way. We may not—especially if we let the same structures destroying our environment capitalize off of the inevitable need to (or at least attempt to) save it. “In killing the planet we kill ourselves,” Ganzeer remarked, frustrated. “And this idea of capitalism adapting is unfortunately something you see. The same companies that were once homophobic, they all sponsor pride parades now. You find the NYPD floats in … pride.” This cycle of the oppressor attempting to cash out on the solution to their own violence is thoroughly explored in the character of Sharif, whose story raises the question: what happens when billionaires inevitably try and profit from the apocalypse?
While Ganzeer didn’t model Sharif after any particular celebrity billionaire who presents themselves as a genius with insight into how to solve our biggest problems, he did write the character as an indictment of the problematic faith that so much of the mainstream puts in such figures. “A billionaire who has made their billions through the mechanisms of capitalism is not about to question those mechanisms,” Ganzeer said. “And any ‘radical’ solution they might come up with is going to, by definition, miss the point.” This failure to interrogate the material interests of the rich and powerful is also tied to the failure to interrogate the purpose of “science.” “Lately, we’ve seen stuff like ‘believe science,’” he exclaimed. “I understand you need to face science deniers, but that doesn’t address historical issues that ‘science’ has been involved with.” In other words, you can’t frack without “science.”
Integrating such political incision with a distinct and visually arresting story required looking to a wide variety of media, both in and out of comic books. Though this was his first foray into creating comics, the medium has long been a dear staple of Ganzeer’s reading. In our conversation, we discussed various works from Warren Ellis’s The Wild Storm and Fell to Jeff Lemiere’s Black Hammer and Barry Winters’s Monsters. Having both grown up in Cairo reading both Arabic and English comic books, we also discussed how the difficulty of acquiring single English-language issues shaped our reading habits and preference for collected volumes.
Ganzeer started writing the book in 2016 and primarily looked to other black and white comic books for inspiration. He stated that he knew from the beginning that the story needed to be (mostly) in black and white, primarily so that the visual focus remains on the illustrations. “If you look at someone like Jim Lee’s original art, for example, it is kind of unreadable because he renders it to a degree where you have no idea where to look,” he explained. “Everything is just hyper, hyper-rendered. It’s all a blur. There’s no point of focus.” In mainstream comics, this lack of legibility is offset by colorists, who can then use saturation and color temperature, among other techniques, to better guide the eye towards the most relevant information in the image. “But when it’s black and white—that’s it.” This requires an emphasis on balance and clarity from the beginning, a challenge Ganzeer welcomed. Additionally, he wanted The Solar Grid to represent what he himself finds most compelling about the medium. “Part of the reason I like comics is that I like to appreciate the craft that goes into them,” he said. “When you strip away the color and the image is done in only ink … you really, really see the artists’ lines. Those are the comics I like and I wanted to make something like them.”
As an experienced visual artist, Ganzeer’s approach to illustration balances the sequential form necessary to comics, while still containing many a panel and page that are distinct works and statements in and of themselves. Posters and mock ads, for example, are featured heavily throughout the series, at once enriching the worldbuilding and delivering discrete moments of singular artistry. The use of street art, in particular, is inseparable from Ganzeer’s history, particularly in his native Cairo. “It’s far from an autobiographical story,” Ganzeer shared, “[but] I think as a writer it’s natural that things from your life find a way into what you write even if it’s entirely fictional.” This is most apparent in chapters 3 and 4, in which we see Aya, a young Egyptian woman in Cairo, get harassed and attacked by both a street gang and the cops for putting up street art. “Her poster is a reaction to something, to this proposal of constructing the Solar Grid, and it’s a way of critiquing it, commenting on it,” Ganzeer said. “At the same time, that very poster—even though in her lifetime it doesn’t really get much mileage—does survive the test of time and reemerges again in the far, far future and plays a role.” For the sake of avoiding spoilers, he asked me to wait and see what that role is.
Each issue features backmatter developed collaboratively with various artists and writers. “I was really interested in including people who are outside the realm of comics,” Ganzeer explained. “I see this work as something that exists in conversation with the world we live in, and not in its own little vacuum, so I wanted to include people whose work I like and respect.” The range has so far been breathtaking. Collaborators on The Solar Grid’s backmatter have included such names as Molly Crabapple, Hesham Habashi, Sherif Adel, and James Harvey. Future collaborators include Josh MacPhee and Elliot Cola.
One of the mast fascinating results of these collaborations is an article Harvey wrote and illustrated for chapter 5 about the Beatles. Having been cut off from so much of the past, the fictional author of this piece, which is presented as an article from a futuristic magazine, speculates that the world-famous band from Liverpool was actually comprised of persecuted Zoroastrian singers. The author confidentially writes: “the Beatles had always been a Zoroastrian band, and were pioneers of preaching the Zoroastrian gospel to the West with such parables as ‘Mazda’s Silver Hammer,’ renamed ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ by an oppressive, censorious government.” The idea that an ultimately trivial piece of knowledge—who were the Beatles—that we currently take for granted could be so hopelessly lost within a few centuries is as haunting as it is hilarious.
The play between these two adjectives is perhaps the most impressive balance Ganzeer strikes throughout The Solar Grid. The book often surprises you with moments of humor and tenderness, presenting a scope that never loses sight of regular, vulnerable humans even as it attempts to chart the next thousand years of our collective existence. It is a feat that could not have been better suited to comics. It is a tragedy that kept me laughing, and waiting for more.