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Sunday Slugfest: The Infinite Vacation #1

Posted: Sunday, January 16, 2011
By: Thom Young

Nick Spencer
Christian Ward
Image Comics
Mark lives in a world where alternate realities are up for sale, and buying and trading your way through unlimited variations of yourself is as commonplace as checking your e-mail or updating your social networking status.

Morgan Davis:
Danny Djeljosevic:
Chris Kiser:
Dave Wallace:

Morgan Davis:

The best sci-fi writers don’t predict future events and advancements so much as they tell us about our own situations through the lens of technological leaps and bounds--fantasy for the science set. Nick Spencer is one of those writers, and while The Infinite Vacation might not be his best work, it just might be his best idea.

Like Philip K. Dick before him, Spencer seems to have a genuine concern for the intentions of authority figures. As a result, Spencer’s writing, like Dick’s, often dwells on characters who reject normalcy or authority in favor of truth--even when it ends up hurting them.

The kids in Spencer’s Morning Glories are culled for this very trait, antagonized by adult mentors who seem to only be interested in their gifts as weapons or strategists. In his T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents Spencer’s characters give their lives to an organization that thrives on their expendability and passion for their talents. Now we have The Infinite Vacation, a dark, but not inhuman, take on the era of social networking.

Spencer appears to be arguing in The Infinite Vacation that Facebook, Twitter, and their ilk are the Huxleyean soma of our time--technologic drugs that cloud our judgment and keep us from really living our lives or asking questions. In a world dominated by a technology that allows people to hop across different realities and experience multiple life paths, the eponymous The Infinite Vacations, we meet Mark.

He is a typical twenty-something male. His life goals are nonexistent, and his ambition is dwarfed by his utter disgust with his own self; his constant statement that he knows he’s full of shit. In hopes of escape, Mark has basically become addicted to “lifeshares,” which are a type of The Infinite Vacation wherein you just hang out with your other reality selves rather than switch places with them entirely.

The problem, as one alternate reality Mark points out to our Mark, is that the users often become so infatuated with the idea of the best possible reality that they lose sight of the actual living part of life.

Sound familiar?

The Infinite Vacation is the status update gone meta. In fact, a key part of the story of book centers around Mark checking the status updates of other Marks and the related costs of their experiences. It’s a far-fetched, extreme idea to be sure, but the basic argument is sound. The Internet and our immediate access to each other has radically altered our way of life--so much so that we can likely never go back.

While that change has brought us innumerable benefits, it has also devalued personal relationships. Think about it: how often do you physically see your friends? Now, how often do you check their Facebook pages? Their Twitters?

When was the last letter you sent or the last time you spoke with somebody on the phone for several hours?

Now think ahead. Think of how quickly technology is progressing, the advancements made each day. Think back to less than ten years ago when Facebook was just an idea and when cell phones were still not quite ubiquitous let alone on the level of the iPhone.

Imagine that ten years from now Second Life, or something like it, has evolved to the point of The Infinite Vacation. Is it so hard to believe that 97% of the population would be on it? Or that a large percentage would use it as Mark does?

Those possibilities indicate the power of great sci-fi--the power of Nick Spencer’s words and thoughts.

The Infinite Vacation is just getting started, and despite some hiccups in the presentation (most notably the odd multimedia experiment from pages six to nine that is made all the more confusing by some jarring lettering errors) it’s already a book that should be generating quite a bit of conversation.

Maybe Spencer’s ideas won’t cross through to everyone, and it’s likely it won’t catch on the way some of his other works have, but ask me in ten years what work of art had the future figured out best and I wouldn’t be surprised if I told you it was this one.

Danny Djeljosevic:

Nick Spencer just stepped up his game.

It’s insane to say that about a guy who, just a year ago, was mainly known (if that) for a couple of underrated Image comics, but it’s true. A year later, he has a slew of Marvel/DC material, both published and upcoming, as well as Morning Glories, a high-concept ongoing series that keeps flying off the shelves at the comic shops. And now comes another creator-owned series, The Infinite Vacation.

To call The Infinite Vacation high-concept is--well, there needs to be a term for something that is a step above high-concept. I guess we’ll have to settle for “mind-blowingly high concept.”

It’s about a world where people sell their lives to alternate universe versions of themselves in order to improve their status in life. In other words, infinite variations of one person are trading their lives like baseball cards. You sell your position in the universe to an alternate version of you who wants it, and then you use the money to buy your existential real estate in another universe; then you sell that life and buy and sell again until you’ve found yourself somewhere that you want to be.

We follow one such participant in this program, Mark, who dresses like Shaun of the Dead and, despite the slacker signifiers (i.e., his goatee), is actually quite good at selling himself. Literally.

Thing is, he sucks at life--everytime he ends up in a new universe, he winds up in the same exact tailspin of dead-end jobs and failed relationships. To make matters worse, alternate universe iterations of him keep dying.

This first issue sets up the world, as many first issues do, and leads to an intriguing cliffhanger, but it doesn’t have that pre-credits sequence feel that so many first issues have. This quality is not only because of the amount of information and scenes that Spencer packs into this first issue, but also due to the myriad ideas he comes up with to round out his crazy peer-to-peer multiverse--people can hang out with their alternate versions via “lifeshares” and Google Alerts inform people of what all their counterparts are up to. The minority of people who refuse to take part in the program are called “Deadenders,” and they are treated like pariahs.

High-concept existential swapping sci-fi isn’t new territory for Spencer (see: Existence 2.0 and Existence 3.0), but the execution is much bigger--ambitiously approaching Grant Morrison levels of cosmic craziness while anchored by the use of social networking as a touchstone for universe-hopping.

Mark buys and sells lives via an app on his iPhone, and he basically gets Tweets about what his other iterations are up to. He spends most of this first issue interacting with himself (tech support and his psychiatrist are both versions of Mark)--which is a great metaphor for the way social networking becomes insular and we spend more time being self-indulgent on the Internet instead of living our lives.

Honestly, how many of us have thought weirdly of people who refuse to take part in Facebook and Twitter just as Mark likens Deadenders to the Amish?

This setup all comes to the front in a great scene where Mark sees a cute girl in a coffee shop and, instead of chasing after her when she leaves, tries to find a universe where she stayed in the coffee shop longer. He may as well have tried to add her on Facebook. That scene is the big climax of the issue--where Spencer drops the curtains and reveals that the seemingly desirable, utopian program is, actually, quite stupid. You can go wherever you want in the world, but you’re still unequivocally yourself.

All of this, by the way, is drawn by Christian Ward, who has a painterly watercolor, David Mack thing going on in his art style--but confined to more traditional methods of comic book storytelling (which isn’t to say that the art is conventional). Ward isn’t afraid to render crazy Brendan McCarthy psychedelic two-page spreads.

the colors in this book, by the way? Gorgeous.

And throw in elements of collage and M.C. Escher recursiveness. Ward even cleverly uses straight photography for a sequence. Photographs can often make for very stilted comics, but Ward uses them for the sake of what amounts to a cheesy infomercial.

Spencer has received a ton of attention over the past few months, and his work thus far--including this opening chapter--prove that it’s all deserved. The Infinite Vacation is easily the most exciting, mind-blowingly high-concept comic to come out since Chew.

Is it too early to start compiling that “Best of 2011” list?

Chris Kiser:

At their finest, comics are a seamless blend of words and pictures with the power to lift you out of the dregs of everyday life and into realms of limitless wonder and imagination. In other words, they’re exactly like what Nick Spencer and Christian Ward have cooked up in The Infinite Vacation.

Right off the bat, the pair draw you into the world they have created--one where stepping into the life of your preferred alternate universe self is as effortless as tapping your smartphone touchscreen. It’s an outlandish concept for sure, but it couldn’t be sold more convincingly than it is here.

It all starts with another dose of superb writing by Spencer, who dazzles with his singular ability to churn out a strong and engaging voice for his lead character. Mark, our resident vacationer, narrates his unorthodox exploits with a snappy wit and a self-loathing despair--a carefully crafted combination that somehow endears him to us by the end of page one.

Perhaps a fair share of his likability is due to the way in which he serves up a quick and efficient explanation of the book’s central premise--the product of a heavy dose of imagineering that might have otherwise left many a head spinning. The basis of The Infinite Vacation is a heady concept that could give films like Inception a run for their money, yet we are oriented to it from the get go.

Of course, none of this would be possible without Ward’s art, which makes the madness come alive at every juncture in all its techno-trippy glory. Ward brilliantly mixes a watercolor style with a set of computer-generated effects to create psychedelic imagery worthy of depicting the fruits of Spencer’s mighty brainstorm.

In contrast, however, is the grounded human element to Ward’s work that opens the door to the heart of Mark’s personality. His facial expressions convey a perfect sense of boredom and despondency, and his striking shock of bright red hair proves to be a useful tool in recognizing the character across a myriad of multiversal variations.

Bonus points go to photographer Kendall Bruns, whose photo panels depicting the smarmy pitchman of an in-story ad threaten to move right off the page. Rarely has the necessary act of story exposition been so unabashedly fun.

Better yet, Spencer and Ward don’t stop once the stage is set. Though this first chapter serves mainly as an introduction to the character and concept, the book is also loaded with thematic subtext, ready to strike as a parable for our tech-saturated, virtual age.

With one supremely excellent issue in the can, I couldn’t be more excited to see what Spencer and Ward have in store for the remainder of this series. Get your “Best of 2011” lists started now, folks, ‘cause The Infinite Vacation is going to be on them.

Dave Wallace:

When I first heard about The Infinite Vacation, I was a little skeptical. The idea of traveling between different parallel realities is hardly one that's new to comics and science fiction, and there have been so many memorable and successful uses of the concept that I've enjoyed* that anyone telling a new parallel-worlds story has to come up with a fairly novel take on the idea to distinguish themselves. However, to an extent, writer Nick Spencer manages to do this.

By making the ability to jump between different realities and live different lives as commonplace and mundane as a smartphone app, he places the focus of the book on smaller, more personal, everyday concerns rather than the cosmic shenanigans and Earth-shattering occurrences that you might usually expect to result from such a concept.

As we meet our protagonist, Mark, we quickly learn that his use of the concept is limited to adolescent wish-fulfillment fantasies, sexual exploits, and dull matters of convenience (like being able to swap his life with that of a person who popped out to the shop for a loaf of bread or a bottle of milk half an hour earlier). Although it might sound less exciting than some reality-jumping stories, it helps to ground the book in a believable world, whilst also making an interesting point about how the ever-evolving, cutting-edge technology of the real world seems to only end up serving the same base human interests that we've had for millennia.

Artist Christian Ward helps to add a level of excitement to the book with a brightly coloured and bold illustrating style that really pops off the pages. I was only familiar with his work from reviewing the first issue of his Olympus book a while back (which I wasn't hugely taken with), but his art here is far stronger. Characters and locations are better-defined and less sketchy, and there's a real confidence in his use of vivid colour and attention-grabbing design--with the book's best images coming when Ward gets the chance to really cut loose with a psychedelic geometric splashpage or two.

The book's visuals are only undermined by a slightly jarring fumetti section that sets out the rules of reality-jumping in The Infinite Vacation--although to be honest, it's not particularly helpful.

Some of the rules mentioned are more or less contradicted by the events of the issue (if the app insists that you have to swap with a genetic match when you jump realities, how is it possible to visit a world in which your counterpart is still present?), and some key questions--like where the money that funds each jump comes from (your “home” reality, or the reality that you're currently occupying?)--are left unaddressed. Still, these probably aren't going to be particularly big problems unless the series starts relying on them as key plot points.

If the comic has a real flaw, it's that Spencer seems so keen on throwing out the many possibilities that are offered by the book's core concept that he never really explores any of them in sufficient depth. Instead, he hints at all sorts of possible avenues that the story could go down, without ever committing to one (which is ironic, given the way that Mark is characterised in the issue). Questions of social class, sexuality, and identity are all introduced in subtle ways, but the book seems more intent on setting up a fairly conventional action-adventure mystery than expounding on these themes.

Additionally, the focus on Mark's story means we never get to see how the The Infinite Vacation concept affects wider society as a whole--such as how businesses, families, and all kinds of relationships with other human beings can function if people are constantly swapping with their multiversal counterparts. There's an interesting nod towards the idea that some people have rejected the dimension-hopping trend altogether, but it's more of a throwaway remark than anything else at this point.

We also don't really get a sense of how Mark feels about his various misadventures--perhaps due to the flip, glib tone of the narration that makes the central character feel fairly detached from his own experiences. That said, perhaps this shallowness is intentional and is more about building character than getting us to empathise with him just yet.

Indeed, the most successful parts of the book are the ones that suggest that Mark is so hung up on the buzz of reality-swapping that he's lost sight of the important things in life, and that he's so keen on keeping his options open that he can never really commit to anything or anyone. I have had close friends with similar personalities, and those sections of the book definitely rang true for me.

As I look back over the criticisms I've raised in this review, I realise that most of them stem from a wish that the book had gone into more detail in exploring its multiversal-travel gimmick and its central character--and that problem is not a terrible one to have at this point.

It's worth bearing in mind that this is only the series' first issue, and it's one that does a good job of setting up several reasonably interesting plot strands (including a love interest and a murder mystery) whilst also pointing towards the myriad possibilities that are opened up by the book's central conceit. There's definitely potential here: let's hope the rest of the series lives up to it.

* Off the top of my head, there's DC's Final Crisis, Red Dwarf's Dimension Jump and an old 2000AD “Time Twister” by Alan Moore called “The Startling Success of Sideways Scuttleton.”

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