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How Visualization Becomes Poetry: On Halloween and “Do Androids Dream…?”

It will be Halloween soon enough. Soon, many of us will decorate our houses with spider webs, jack-o-lanterns and gravestones. This ancient holiday blends the pagan with the Christian, traditions that come to us visually, yes, but not initially. Oral tradition became written tradition. Our decorations, even our traditional costumes, bloom as a physical manifestation of words.

Words open themselves to interpretation, and when that interpretation includes the transformation of the verbal into the visual, how the interpreter sees the world, and how he or she chooses to portray that world pushes roots into a creative synthesis that drives comic books, cinema and other visual interpretations.

Select nearly any set out of Ridley Scott’s 1982 Blade Runner and you end up with a wonderful haunted set. The Eyeball Manufacturer. The dilapidated LA high-rise in the films climax. Even the vaguely Chinese street restaurant offers a steamy gooeyness that would set modern digestive systems on edge.

But Ridley Scott’s world isn’t the world Philip K Dick created in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, it is too clean, its problems too controlled. Although moving to the “outer worlds” acts as the backdrop one doesn’t get the sense of rampant evacuation caused by the aftermath of nuclear war. In fact, Scott’s world is well populated with genetic engineers, headlight wielding cyclists and people running around with glowing umbrella’s, despite its decay. Scott’s world appears much more one of opportunistic departure driven by climate change than the aftermath of nuclear disaster (his Los Angeles seems to be as drippy as Dick’s Seattle).

But Scott and Dick aren’t the only ones to venture into this world. The BOOM! Studios comicbook series Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? offers artist Tony Parker’s interpretation of Dick’s world, one that is as closely tied to the original as possible given that it replicates the novel word-for-word.

Parker’s art and Blond’s colors (the colorist is mono-named Blond) unlike Scott’s, offers near merciless grays with an excruciatingly pale color palette. Scott at least introduces neon everywhere and many colorful interiors. Parker and Blond under-develop (in the photographic sense) a world from which color has found itself nearly burned off, not from the eyes of the beholders, but from the very pigments that reflect particular wave lengths. All except Buster Friendly, who maintains a pastel, yet colorful tone as he hawks the future.

Of course, Halloween is a holiday where spirits co-mingle with humans, and increasingly, alternative forms of humanity, from super heroes and their foes, to imagined-future-space-travels providing a modern twist what we fear and what we honor. In Dick’s world what humans fear are humans that aren’t exactly human: the “andy” or in Scott’s terminology, the replicant.

Despite the excellent interpretation of androids fighting for freedom and life at the end of their measured existence, the androids one imagines in Dick’s novel prove perhaps scarier because they force humans to confront a fate so common to the near extinct animals around them, namely, being replaced with an artificial version. Imagine a future the consists of only what humanity has made to comfort itself after all of humanity has died off. Imagine further that all of that automation is emotionally bereft and has no way to relate to itself as a symbol of a lost civilization. Dick doesn’t take us all the way there, but this is about interpretation, and that it where my mind ended up.

Set designers and graphic novelists get to play all of the time with science fiction-themed ideas, to create horrific environments, rooms replete with flashing lights and some combinations of the two. Unless you are a counter-culture aficionado who has done up your flat with a Star Trek theme, then Halloween is the only time you get to physically interpret the agony and shock of alternative realities at home.

The interpretation of words falls to you this holiday, to entice and surprise, even to innovate and inspire. Interpretation is not analysis, not callous, not distant, but an act of creation. Graphic novelists fill out scant descriptions and craft scenery where none is described, even in novels oozing with descriptions of character and place.

Filmmakers have an even more difficult time, as they must figure out what they can interpret from the words that remain after they abandon large chunks of narrative to fit a story into a two-hour or less running time. Few films contain the entirety of the story (even in the ever more lengthy, it seems, Lord of the Rings trilogy with its multitude of endings, beloved scenes from the book, like the journey with Tom Bombadil, find themselves completely excised from the screenplay). Sometimes the reinterpretation of place fills in for the missing pieces.

So here is what I suggest you do this Halloween (and the next for that matter). Tell yourself a horror or science fiction story. It can be an original story or a story you edit. This story takes place at your home (constraints and choices also help drive creativity, as Dick’s Northwest, including Seattle and Oregon became Scott’s now rather iconic Los Angeles). Think about the setting. Don’t just randomly place cobwebs and gravestones. Make every element part of a narrative that starts in your driveway and extends to the inside of your home that can be seen with the front door open. Interpret the story. Re-imagine it for the props you own (or are willing to go out and buy) and the space you have. Figure out why they are there, what they are for (or were used for) and how they relate to the little goblins invading your turf. This year, think about Halloween as a learning experience.

As much as I love Blade Runner (I have owned every version, from VHS to multiples on DVD, and purchased tickets for many a theatrical release or re-release) Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep ultimately instantiates a richer, spookier future. I could probably live in Scott’s future, but I have no desire to visit the broken world of Dick where people are rewarded with androids as they depart mother earth, a dying shell populated by increasingly fractured humans. The bleak, subdued tones of Parker and Blond’s interpretation don’t make me want to visit any more than Dick’s words do, perhaps even less so. But the artists offer a compelling visualization of a sentient species attempting to get by after nearly destroying itself. They create a solid context for the human species exploring the edge of humanity’s demise. You could do worse than mimic Parker’s android-populated world when creating your Halloween decor. Use a lot of black lights and force people into deep, existential conversations. That’ll scare them more than the U.S. fiscal cliff that awaits a future, regardless of whom is elected this November.