Monday, December 11, 2006

The Surrogates
by Robert Venditti & Brett Weldele

I don't think I was the only person who was surprised when Top Shelf first announced The Surrogates. Over the last decade or so the company has made its reputation with creator-driven, primarily non-genre projects of a similar bent to those of Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly (albeit with a slightly more earthy focus than either of those estimable companies). Even if you allow for occasional departures, The Surrogates is, on the face of it, still much more in line with what you'd expect from a "new mainstream" company like Oni or AiT / Planet Lar.

After reading the book, I still don't know how The Surrogates fits in with the wider spectrum of Top Shelf releases -- save to say that, like much of the company's output, the book is very good. Good science-fiction is exceedingly rare in comics, for a few reasons. Much of what presents itself as sci-fi is either superhero stores in drag, fantasy stories with sci-fi pretensions, or straight action-adventure with sci-fi trappings. Anyone looking for decent examples of contemporary hard sci-fi or speculative fiction in the medium is pretty much on their own, with a few notable exceptions. The Surrogates doesn't quite escape these problems: there is, as you might expect from a quick glance at the cover, a kind of costumed adventure around whom the book revolves. But Steeplejack is less a character than a presence: he kicks the plot into gear, manipulating events from a distance while remaining an figure of enigma. Much like V in V For Vendetta, the character is less a character than a motivation, an idea personified and converted into a catalyst through action. Unlike V, he doesn't speechify, leaving the characters around him to assume his motivations after the fact. It's an interesting choice, one that invites the reader to make his own decisions about the chracters' morality and motivations.

If anything, I'd say The Surrogates is far too short. The one thing the book does unmistakably well is to create the context of a real and believable sci-fi world in which the characters interact and situations occur. World-building is one of the most important aspects of sci-fi, and once you get past the initial high concept (robot "surrogates" controlled by remote allow people to live, work and play while remaining within the comfortable confines of their homes) Venditti and Weldele's world is a plausible one. If anything, it's too plausible: the necessary focus of a scant five-issue miniseries is just nowhere near enough to give anything but the briefest sketch of the most fascinating aspects of this "Brave New World".

The ostensible plot -- kicked into motion when Steeplejack begins killing surrogate robots and burgling expensive prototype computer chips -- is really only a sideshow on the way to explicating this larger world. The mystery of Steeplejack's identity isn't even really a mystery: the perpetrator isn't introduced until after the book is half over, at which point they're the only serious suspect. Perhaps with more space Venditti could have spent more time elaborating on the kind of elaborate Chinatown-esque layers of political and social complacency which are only barely hinted at here. In the end (and unsurprisingly), the only real "villain" is the corporation that manufactures the surrogates. While great pains are taken to show the unavoidable benefits of the surrogate presence in society, the inevitable downside of dehumanized interactions and anti-social reliance on proxies is unavoidable. Regardless of the occasionally cursory nature of the plot*, the story's true focus remains firmly on these human dimensions. It is to Venditti's credit that the reader actually wants to stick around, to see the plot play out at greater length and with added depth, such is the world he has created.

As I said, sci-fi is hard work, and it's pretty impressive to reflect on the fact that The Surrogates is actually Venditti's first graphic novel. Despite the flabby plot in the book's second half, this is really an assured debut. He nails the characters and the setting, and in sci-fi those are the two most difficult landings. It would be tempting to blame some of the book's abruptness on the format. As I said, this could easily have been a lot longer. But perhaps its better to err on the side of caution your first time out the gate?

I was initially leery of Weldele's work -- he's got one of those slightly abstract, elaborately designed styles that brings to mind Ashley Wood. But there are only a couple of places where the book suffers from a lack of clarity, and only inasmuch as there are a couple of fairly complex action setpieces that require a bit of work to digest properly. As is pretty much standard for an artist of this type, I am anxious to see where Weldele's style takes him in the future, once his influences become a bit less pronounced and a more individualized perspective becomes clear.

Despite some qualifications on the book's construction, I wholeheartedly enjoyed The Surrogates. There's been a lot of care put into the book's presentation and preparation, with ample bonus materials adding to a substantive reading experience. For a journeyman work this shows a great deal of promise for both Venditti & Weldele, and on its own merits it is still one of the better sci-fi books I've read in years.

*My question is, how does Steeplejack generate the gigantic EM pulse at the book's climax? Don't you need a dish or a tower or something with which to generate that kind of energy?

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