What motivates someone to scar their body? To tattoo and pierce and brand oneself? Is it a desire to belong? To be different? To make oneself more beautiful? More ugly?
Mysterious motivations are at the center of Warren Ellis’ MEK. The three-issue mini-series from Homage Comics, a branch of DC’s Wildstorm imprint, peeks into the subculture of body modification and the motivations of those within.
Tattoos and piercings are passé. Biomechanical modification, or “Mek”, is in. Why get an earring when you can have a cell phone implanted directly in your head? A tribal tattoo on your arm is nothing compared to laser pointers in your eyes, a TV in your chest, or a complete skeletal realignment that allows you to convert from biped to a canine-like cyborg. This is the world of Sarissa Leon, a founder of the Mek movement, and central figure of Ellis’ tale.
Sarissa is a powerful figure in the Mek movement. She helped start the scene on Sky Road, the Haight-Ashbury of high-tech. She lives in Washington, DC, where she writes books and appears on television and before Congress, lobbying to protect Mek. She is the biggest name in the scene, revered by many, considered a sell-out and out of touch by others. Now she has returned home to Sky Road, years after she left the infant Mek culture she helped nurse. Her former lover, and fellow Mek pioneer, R.J. Coins has been murdered, and she wants to find out why. But she also finds out that things have changed dramatically in the last few years, and she isn’t happy about it.
The story is ostensibly a conflict between art and violence, between beauty and death. Sarissa is a visionary writer, artist, and pundit, defending legitimate Mek users against the impact of “Bad Mek”, military body enhancements illegally adapted for street use. Certainly, this is a theme of the series. If you are a member of any political group or subculture, you probably know that it is the fanatics, the fringe whackos that give you a bad name. Sky Road is loaded with Bad Mek. Sleazy businessmen sell needle-guns to implant in your arms, guns for your tongue, buzz-saws that pop out of your shoulders. Violence is on the rise, and the legitimate Mek users, those who use it for personal expression, for art, for entertainment, bear the brunt of the bad publicity and government repression.
As I’ve said, the story is, on the surface, about the ability of humans to twist something beautiful into something destructive and dark. But at its heart, the story is really about power. What are Sarissa’s motivations to come back to Sky Road? Is it love for her former boyfriend? Is it to protect the artists from Bad Mek? No. It is about power. She no longer runs Sky Road. She isn’t the defining force on the street. She mentions that the Internet was started as a military network, but it was adapted by the people, by the streets. The streets find their own uses for everything, and the uses that the street has found for Mek are not what Sarissa envisioned. Her lack of power and control fuel her search to find R.J.‘s murderer, the man who believed in her ideas and her leadership. Her ideas are no longer currency on the street, and that fuels her desire to redefine the power structures that control it. She wants to be in control. She wants the power.
Warren Ellis’ vision is convincing, and despite the fantastic nature of the subject matter, he makes it seem very human and very real. Assisted by Rolston and Gordon on art, he makes Mek look like the next step from current body art culture. Despite his talent, however, Rolston’s work seems a bit out of place. His art has a certain cartoon style to it, and its soft, simple quality doesn’t quite fit with the high-tech subject matter. The covers have a certain charm, though. The juxtaposition of a flower and a broken mechanical hand on the cover of issue #1, the combination of the natural and the technological, has a minimalist beauty to it that sets the stage for the entire series. Although brief, Ellis’ tale gives the reader an intriguing glimpse into a strange reality that is as human as it is futuristic and fantastic.