Security Blanket: Previewing Robert Venditti’s ‘Homeland Directive’

Is it possible to have enjoyed 2009’s Surrogates a little too much?

There certainly is a younger, blonder Bruce Willis filling up much of viewers’ screen time. At least he seems younger and blonder. And for those moments when an older, grittier Willis is made to look even scruffier than usual, there’s a leaner, lovelier and somehow even blonder Radha Mitchell. So it really is hard not to keep watching. The visual tennis match between blonder and grittier (both persons and locations) is intensely engaging, emotionally captivating even. But even more engaging is the idea that lies at the heart of the original graphic novel conceived and scripted by Robert Venditti–that a coffin can become a lifesaving device.

The idea carries through to the 2009 motion picture flawlessly. The idea that technology can extend sociocultural rather than biological longevity. For all any of his colleagues might know, Greer, the younger, blonder, scruffier hardboiled cop played by Willis in the film, might be bed-ridden and waiting for his last bell finally to toll. Or a hyper-intelligent 12-year old who graduated cum laude, only the detection elements of police training at the academy.

What makes Venditti’s The Surrogates so completely engaging, whether in graphic novel or on silver-screen, is the question of what 4chan founder m00t refers to as “persistent identity”. It is the model that Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook espouses, a model where your “true” identity (it’s not really your “true” identity of course, it’s just a place-marker, in practice you can still be differing things to different people) persists over the course of your web-browsing. But is this really an improvement on the model espoused through the earlier sensibilities of the Net?

The BBSs of the ’90s were of course completely different. The pragmatics of a then only-emerging technology prevented widespread use of such techniques as IP traces and identifying specific users with specific user-names. Internet Relay Chat was more of an Old West Medieval Kingdom. The real trick to navigating them was forging sustained and credible online personae and relationships. If you were going to be ‘Wild Bill the Thane of Storm-On-Sea’, it would befit you to do so in a logical and consistent way.

Art from the forthcoming ‘Homeland Directive’

Venditti’s genius, subtle, but stark once it is noticed, is to afford his collaborator on The Surrogates and The Surrogates: Flesh & Bone (the sublimely gifted Brett Weldele) an opportunity to interpret the dilemma of persistent identity, visually. The dilemma being that persistent identity, rather than solve the dangers frequently decried by ’90s internet commentators, simply ushers in newer, perhaps even uglier dangers.

The problem, Venditti alludes elegantly to in his closing, is more basic, more biological. Perhaps even evolutionary stemming from the strange shift that aggregated our species into super-large groups far exceeding Dunbar’s Number. Venditti seems to evoke a sense that while our biology is hopelessly under-evolved to deal with super-large social groups, all we’ve actually done with technological evolution is re-map the same dilemma.

It’s with this cogitation that Venditti breaks free from even the meditative classics of science fiction like H.G. Wells’ The World Set Free or PKD’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Like Matthew de Abaitua’s Red Men or Salvador Dali’s Essays on Immortality (or his sketches of Don Quijote, for that matter), Venditti transgresses into the realm of pure philosophy; Hobbesian, Humean, Cartesian wrestlings, but set against a backdrop of fiction.

Art from the forthcoming ‘Homeland Directive’

Venditti’s The Surrogates and The Surrogates: Flesh & Bone is that rare thing then. That moment when, out of nowhere, the artist excels, producing a work their audience could rarely have thought skilled enough to do. It’s Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, Marty Scorecese’s The Aviator, Shakespeare’s Hamlet. But in a cruel twist (think of Eliot Ness never being able to earn money off of an authorized biography of his days in Chicago), success often hems its authors in. How does Robert even begin to approach, let alone surpass, the magnificent scope of The Surrogates?

It’s hard to believe without actually reading it first (that’s a pleasure you’ll have later this year, come May), but Robert actually manages to exceed the precedent he set with his Surrogates series. Where do you go after persistent identity? To the present, to the post-911 condition, to the grapplings between the State and the Self for control of identity.

Art from the forthcoming ‘Homeland Directive’

Homeland Directive is a lush, sleek thriller that expands on Robert’s engaging philosophical cogitations around human agency in relation to power and its structures. It is the story of Dr. Laura Regan, the dissolution of her world and her incapacity to interdict the spread of a virulent virus she may have been the designer of. This last turn is especially distressing for her, as her position at the CDC has always been more of a calling than a profession.

But more than the story itself, Homeland Directive is pure performance art. This is Robert thinking in public, like a one-man theater show, and it is wildly seductive. The overall design of the thriller-vector itself is flawless. Once you get through with the actual story, you’re going to want to reach for something to help you understand the innovative method used to disperse the bioweapon. Reach for Thomas H. Greco Jr.’s The End of Money and the Future of Civilization, it will help. But more than the innovative storytelling and the white-knuckle thrill ride into fear, the notion of post-surveillance society is Robert’s true contribution with Homeland Directive.

Core to the graphic novel is BOCA, the Bureau of Consumer Advocacy. BOCA, according to the conceit of the graphic novel, is a federal agency that tracks every trace you’ve ever made in this world. Applied for credit and got rejected? There’ll be a paper trail of that and BOCA will have a copy. That girl you weren’t actually dating but took to the prom anyway? BOCA will know about her relation to you by way of the cash slip for the corsage you bought her.

Art from the forthcoming ‘Homeland Directive’

Homeland Directive’s narrative arc closely resembles in tone the recent and superbly immersive AMC show Rubicon. And going further back, 90s-era movies like Enemy of State and the Sandra Bullock vehicle, The Net. And going even farther back, the impeccable Redford masterpiece Three Days of the Condor. But in Robert’s immensely capable hands, these become something else, simply a starting point, simply the entrance exam. Sure our band of heroes is on the run from unseen powers, but that’s just how the scene opens. What’s really at stake here is BOCA and how to outwit it. What’s really at stake is how human beings break with biology and reconstitute power at the site of the Self.

Actions speak louder than words.

What BOCA actually is though, Robert seems to articulate, despite the agency’s immense command of highly detailed information about the nation’s citizens, is ultimately a security blanket. Warm and pacifying, it is theatricality that gestures at security.

Distraught over the effects of articulating the science behind the atom bomb, Einstein often lamented not having become a watchmaker. The internalizing of responsibility, the outpouring of grief in this way is also the suspension of leadership. President Kennedy, in the speech he did not give, suggested that today we find ourselves watchmen on the walls of freedom “by destiny, rather than choice”. The two men offer diametrically opposed views on identity and culpability. If Robert offers readers anything with Homeland Directive it is their own elevation, showing in-depth the great complexity that underpins the seemingly opposed views of Einstein and President Kennedy.

Homeland Directive goes on sale in May and is up for pre-order today through Diamond. At first glance you’ll push it back until later. You’ll pick it up around Labor Day weekend and you’ll start reading slowly. You’ll take your time. The story will be good, some unexpected plot twists. You’ll put it aside. You’ll begin to forget about it. Then everything will begin to change. You’ll feel unsettled, warm, in love, at peace for the very first time in your life perhaps. You’ll become unraveled in your day-to-day. You’ll sleep early or wake early. Something is gnawing at you. Loose ends about the story itself. Then you’ll pick up Homeland Directive again and you’ll begin to read it like an essay on free speech and the pursuit of happiness. And liberty. And life.

And that’s the ball-game. Homeland Directive will stay with you, and grow with you. It will make demands of you. And it will allow you a rare glimpse not of what can be, but what ought to be. Homeland Directive changes things, and it will change you too.

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