Sunday, May 17, 2009

Comics of Transhumanist Interest

You're a transhumanist, or you're fascinated by the possibilities of a future grander than the past. You're really smart. You may be uneasy about asking which comics/graphics novels are worth reading. It's for you that I present: "Everything you always wanted to know about transhumanist comics but were afraid to ask."

Transhuman, by Jonathan Hickman and J.M. Ringuet. Not great, but worth reading as a very recent work.

Transmetropolitan, by Warren Ellis. A dozen volumes following the gonzo future journalist Spider Jerusalem. The early issues include great treatments of cryonics and uploading.

Squadron Supreme, by Mark Gruenwald. Explores what might happen if a super-powered group (modeled on DC’s Justice League of America) took over running society, with a utopian agenda.

Lots of stuff by Warren Ellis, including

--the Planetary series, superbly illustrated by John Cassaday. Each story draws on a classic myth or literary figure or other classic trope.

--Ministry of Space: An alternate-reality Britain goes into space. Superbly illustrated by Chris Weston.

--Ocean: “Sometime in the future, the UN sends weapons inspector Nathan Kane to a space station above Jupiter, where an exploratory team has made an alarming and ominous discovery: beneath the icy exterior of the planet's ocean moon, Europa, are coffins containing members of a sleeping alien race and guns capable of destroying an entire planet. As Kane and the station crew investigate, they are threatened by the sinister representative of a powerful software conglomerate seeking to exploit the discovery for its own purposes.” Among other fun aspects of this story are the “corporate humans” with company-designed personality templates installed for the duration of their contract.

--Orbiter: Dedicated to the astronauts of the ill-fated Columbia on mission STS-107, this is the story of a space shuttle missing for a decade that mysteriously returns… covered in a strange skin, with Martian soil in its landing gear. If you love space and are unhappy at the end of manned space missions, you’ll enjoy this.

--Doktor Sleepless (mad scientist who uses mildly future-tech to disrupt the social order).

--Stormwatch: A cynical, clever modern take on technologically-advanced super-teams who take a ruthless approach to solving problems. Volume 1: A Force of Nature. Volume 2: Lightning Strikes. In Volume 3, Change or Die, a Superman-level, ageless man known as The High leads a team of metahumans determined to radically change the world, not just to solve problems as they arise. This includes using nanotechnology to create the Nevada Garden (where treelike devices grow anything you want) and the abolition of government and war. The second story in this volume involves a conflict with a radical offshoot of an American Cyborg religion, the Church of Gort—cyborg fundamentalists with shared minds. In Volume 4: Final Orbit, Stormwatch fights off the aliens from the Alien movie.

--The Authority. This is a continuation of Stormwatch, with some of the same characters, but with the concepts and settings turned up higher. The team includes the tough, gay couple The Midnighter (an enhanced Batman-like character) and Apollo, as well as The Engineer, whose powers are self-created through nanotechnology. Every super-group has their HQ, but the Authority’s is the most amazing. It’s an alien space-city-spaceship 50 miles long and 35 miles deep and powered by a caged baby universe.

From the introduction by Grant Morrison to the first volume, Relentless: “Because traditional superheroes always put the flag back on top of the White House, don’t they? They always dust the statues and repair the highways and everything ends up just the way it was before… But what “IF”? What if the superheroes decided to make a few changes according to a “higher moral authority”? What if they started to act the way WE might act faced with impossible problems? What if every problem was a solution in disguise? What if WE began to think like superhumans, on a scale we never imagined before?”

Warren Ellis engages in plenty of big concept adventures in his Authority adventures, including an invasion from an alternate universe and the return of Earth’s creator (who wants the planet back, minus all life on it). His writing is beautifully complemented by Bryan Hitch’s penciling, Paul Neary’s inking, and Laura Depuy’s coloring. It could have been a disaster when he left the title, but happily he was replaced by Mark Millar and artist Frank Quitely who set out on their controversial (and occasionally censored run). The transition is in the middle of the volume appropriately titled, Under New Management (starting with #13 in the single issues). Even more so under Millar, The Authority set out to change the world drastically, not just to save it from threats.

Book 3 is Earth Inferno and Other Stories, followed by Book 4: Transfer of Power in which the governments of the world attack The Authority, in fear of losing their own power to abuse their citizens.

--Ultimate Human (the modern “Ultimate” universe versions of Iron Man/Tony Stark and the Hulk/Bruce Banner). Here they represent the triumphs of biotechnology and nanotechnology. The somewhat narcissistic but brilliant technology-inventor Stark gets the better deal; Banner is cursed with an insanely strong and id-driven alter ego whose physiology adapts to any environment.

Miracleman by Alan Moore (first 16 issues) and Neil Gaiman (17 to 24). Moore’s run culminated in the apotheosis or superhumanization of humanity. Both Moore's and (even more) Gaiman's issues ponder the implications for humanity of posthuman beings who can transform the world, "uplift" regular humans, and even (to a limited extent) resurrect the recently-dead.

X. Physical immortality.

Ultimates 1 and 2. For a thoroughly modern take on super-powered teams.

Ultimate Iron Man (written by Orson Scott Card; the Ultimate line is Marvel’s more recent line (starting in 2000), unencumbered by decades of continuity). This is a technologically-enhanced Tony Stark, whose body is genetically-enhanced before he even puts on his advanced armor.

Ultimate X-Men: Volumes 1 to 6, written by Mark Millar, and 7 and 8 by Bendis. These entertaining issues (the series goes downhill from issue 46/volume 9) has some transhumanistically interesting aspects, including Magneto’s war on homo sapiens. Some quotes: Prof. X: “But there aren’t nicknames, Storm. You’ve just been rebaptized as a post-human being.” “Post-human problems require post-human solutions, Peter. I teach rehabilitation at my school, not revenge.” Seville at the Hellfire Club on an article given him by Prof X.: “Oh, just some stupid article from the London Times. It’s a piece by Stephen Hawking about mutants being man’s last hope against the evolution of artificial intelligence.

Magneto (mutant, anti-human terrorist): “Do not be afraid. Evolution is merely taking place. Just as man replaced ape, so now must you give way to your evolutionary masters… We are not murderers, we are not terrorists and our attacks upon human decadence are far from evil. The Brotherhood of Mutants is simply here to take our place at the top of nature’s food chain. I will keep this message brief because I disliking speaking to you. It feels ridiculous, like conversing with a toad or a common earthworm… you have six calendar months to surrender your world to Homo Sapien Superior. During this time, we will prepare your new society and decide which of your races should be kept as slaves, which should be fuel, and which should be saved for our larder. Magneto has spoken.”

The Surrogates, by Robert Venditti & Brett Weldele <> I found the movie mildly entertaining, but not terribly engaging or intellectually stimulating. The original graphic novel is a little more interesting. I didn’t much like the illustration by Weldele, though it might be more to your taste (too lacking in detail for my liking). The strongest parts, for me, were the fictional ads for surrogate bodies (which seemed to have very much in common with Natasha Vita-More’s earlier “Primo Posthuman”) and related text on the ad campaign. We’re all extremely familiar with the idea of virtual bodies in virtual space.

Surrogates differs from the standard by envisioning a world of physical surrogate bodies that often look like de-aged and enhanced versions of people’s “real” physical bodies. The tone is lightly anti-transhumanist, alas. In reality, transhumanists might like to have such surrogate bodies, but surely they would also prefer to enhance their primary bodies, rather than to leave their sluggish, slobbish physical primaries stacked ungainly in the closet.

On religion and myth:

Garth Ennis’ Preacher series. 9 volumes; deeply offensive to traditional religions. “A tale out of Ireland, dragged through Texas with a bloody hard-on, wrapped in barbed wire and rose thorns. And it’s out to get you.” (From the introduction.)

Lucifer (volumes 1 to 11 by Mike Carey). An unconventional and engaging take on the Lord of Hell, who resigns that post."

Sandman (Neil Gaiman, books 1 to 10)

Other good comics/graphics novels, but not of specifically transhumanist interest:

Animal Man (by Grant Morrison--several volumes; lots of metaphysical fun)

Promethea, by Alan Moore. Delves deeply into magical and Kabbalistic symbols and systems and play with levels of mythic reality. I found the stories more turgid that other Moore work.

V for Vendetta, by Alan Moore.

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (Alan Moore). Far more than the later movie, Moore’s LEG does a marvelous job of casting his characters (including Captain Nemo and the Invisible Man) in the late 19th to early 20th century.

Irredeemable, written by Mark Waid, illustrated by Peter Krause: This is a new title, starting in April 2009. It’s the utterly convincing and terrifying tale of a Superman-like, extremely powerful superhero who goes bad in reaction to the ungrateful criticisms of those he saves. “Let me tell you the kind of world I live in. It is a world of miserable paramecium who lash out at you in a state of perpetual rage for not solving their problems fast enough.”

Alias (great characters, written by Brian Michael Bendis).

Powers, by Bendis and Oeming (super-powered detective thriller series with excellent dialogue).

Fell, by Warren Ellis. (The first issues just came out in trade paperback). A dark but remarkably fascinating series of detective tales set in Snowtown, featuring the exiled Detective Richard Fell.

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (Frank Miller -- most people like this more than I do, but it’s a classic)

Daredevil (about ten volumes written by Bendis). A sophisticated take on Matt Murdock/Daredevil.

John Constantine: Hellblazer. Lots of volumes, many by good writers, especially the Garth Ennis issues. For instance, the collection Fear and Loathing (#62-67). The grim runs by Jamie Delano are often excellent. Some good ones by Warren Ellis (Haunted, and Setting Sun) and Mike Carey. From Tainted Love: " You don’t accept death! You don’t humanize it!! And it’s not your frigging friend. “Old man death”! Listen to yourself! …I saw death. It’s not your friend. It’s a twisted, coiled, ugly little length of dogshit and you fight it to your last bloody drop- -- otherwise you’re nothing. Otherwise… why did you even bother in the first place?"

Starman (issues/collections by James Robinson, currently being put out in Omnibus editions)

All Star Superman (Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely). A 12-issue limited series that has lots of fun with the central themes of the Superman mythos.

Ex Machina and The Last Man (both Brian K. Vaughn). The first concerns the Mayor of New York, who can “talk” to machines. The second is about the last man alive in a world of women.

Fables. A nicely-done translation of dozens of classic myths into the modern world.

From Hell (brilliant story of Jack the Ripper by Alan Moore)

Joker (Brian Azzarello & Lee Bermejo). A beautifully-drawn graphic novel focused on Batman’s central nemesis.

Any Punisher collection by Garth Ennis (assuming you enjoy hilarious-but-violent), e.g. Welcome Back Frank.

The Walking Dead, by Robert Kirkman. An engaging apocalyptic zombie series that focuses not on the zombies but on the drama of the few remaining humans struggling to survive.

Red Son (what if Superman as a baby landed in the Soviet Union rather than Kansas -- Greg Burch loved this)

Fantastic Four: World’s Greatest (Millar/Hitch).

We3 (Grant Morrison; fantastic illustration by Frank Quitely). About a dog, a cat, and a rabbit, all hugely enhanced physically and cognitively for military purposes, who escape confinement and try to find home.

Doom Patrol (Grant Morrison). A bizarre, highly post-modern super-team with strange characters and entertainingly weird stories.

Amazon is a good place to get collections of these issues at low prices. If Amazon doesn't have an item, I can recommend this source:


Bill said...

Ever checked out Ellis' Doktor Sleepless? It's a little more pessimistic about the future, but like most of Ellis' stuff, it has some crazy/interesting ideas.

Anonymous said...

I really miss extropianism.

Why you declared an end to it when there is no need to declare an end to a philosophy?

It doesn't matter if you don't have time, just say extropanism is alive and people will make it alive again.

In Web 2.0 times there is no need to have a center, but it is difficult to make users give life to it if the creator of the philosophy has closed it as if he didn't believe in it anymore.

Meghan Wolf said...

Thanks for these suggestions!
Can you recommend any other works of transhumanist interest (novels, essays, etc)?
Thanks again...

Unknown said...

Dresden Codak is a webcomic with transhumanism themes, it also has a hilarious essay called "A Thinking Ape’s Critique of Trans-Simianism"

fenn said...


Taking cyberpunk to the limit, this manga follows trigger-happy Killy on his lonely quest through the ever expanding city to find humans with "network genes". Set against the background of a smouldering conflict between transcendent humanity's leftovers and jaw-dropping immense architecture, one wonders if Killy will ever reach his goal...

The plot only starts to pick up in chapter 9: