[7 January 2009]
Traditionally, the backdrop for most comics is a post-human world – the sort of place where seeing a spandex-clad Übermensch punched through a building courtesy of a humanoid reptile doesn’t warrant so much as a second glance. And while readers are treated to umpteen origin stories about individual heroes and villains, the larger question of just how artificially enhanced humans ended up on every street corner in these stories is largely ignored. It’s this period of passage from human to more than human that’s addressed in Jonathan Hickman’s Transhuman.
The four-issue miniseries from Image explores the fact that the world of the super-human won’t appear overnight. It will be a series of smaller steps towards something greater, some of which have already been taken. Post-human society isn’t just artificial limbs and laser eyes—it’s the fact that you don’t need to remember your friends phone numbers or who played Mr. Belvedere anymore because your iPhone does it for you. We live in an age where we’ve cracked the human genome, and with advances in stem cell research, modern science is on its way to making human traits line up in ways nature never imagined or intended.
Transhuman takes a guess at what we’ll do with this technology as it becomes available. On mankind’s way to a genetically and cybernetically enhanced future, there will inevitably be some broken eggs, and this book explores how the sausage of an enhanced human society may be made. It also takes a look at who the winners and losers may look like, and what they look like is you and me. They are people who just want to be better, and are willing to risk and sometimes lose everything for it.
The scientific aspects of making a new humanity aren’t as important to Hickman as the societal ones, and it is here that Transhuman lands it strongest punches. Instead of occurring under the auspices of some shadowy government agency that popularly spearheads post-human evolution in fiction, Hickman assumes that the enhancement of humanity will be a business just like any other. Technological advances and consumer demand will be the forces that drive humanity to the next level, and for better or worse, corporations will likely be the ones to take us there.
It’s to Hickman’s credit that he can make the search for venture capital as entertaining as the act of imbuing people with superpowers, and both these stories are driven by Hickman’s realistic, cynical and often hilarious characterizations. From test subject to financier, Hickman’s characters are ambitious, arrogant and grasping individuals, obsessed with improving themselves, or being known for improving the world.
The filmic, documentary style of the book is beautifully reinforced by the artwork of JM Ringuet. Its integrity in its approach to realistic lighting and the use of subtly different frames in sequence, along with images presented as photographs, security camera footage and archival interviews, all make for a consistent and effective impression of handheld, digital camerawork and an engrossing reading experience. It’s almost enough that you forgive the omnipresent ink spots that dot each frame, trying to recall grainy footage but instead giving the book an unbecoming uniformity.
While it’s a fun and interesting read throughout, Transhuman isn’t without problems. Primary among these is the fact that while Hickman is trying to address a subject that would affect global change, his focus is distinctly narrow. In a thriving global marketplace and with unprecedented profits at stake, asking readers to accept that only two American companies were involved in the birth of post-human technology stretches the boundaries of believability to which the book otherwise adheres. Though the narrowing of the story is a necessity of the mini-series format, a nod to the fact that corporations across the globe would be players in the race to revamp humanity would seem appropriate.
Also unnerving is the book’s devolution to obscene jokes and dirty gags toward the end of the series. Where Hickman initially seems to trust in both his own ability to get a laugh and in his readers’ ability to get a joke that doesn’t knock them over the head, the final act is replete with mean spirited fat jokes and frankly ugly sight gags that leave a reader wondering where the Hickman of the series opening has disappeared to.
Warts aside, Transhuman tells an age old morality tale, warning that technology won’t end infighting, or grudges, or petty squabble or greed. But we know that. What Hickman posits is that technology will eventually lead to the transformation of humanity into something else entirely. In stories past, we’ve seen humanity replaced by replicants, transformed by star children and supplanted by damned, dirty apes. In this sense, Transhuman isn’t exactly breaking new ground, but the book’s smart, funny and nuanced handling of this well worn subject matter makes for an inspired and entertaining story, if not one entirely free of flaws.