The robots have taken over, there’s a swarm of genetically mutated gnats approaching, and I can’t run away because my mind has been hooked into a super computer for so long I’ve forgotten how to use my body. For years people have speculated and fretted about the future, imagining all the ways our technological advantages will lead to society’s destruction. Each new invention is fodder for crazier, more elaborate horror stories. So far we’ve survived pretty well though, making it through Y2K and not yet experiencing the singularity. However, the recent portrayal in comics of how technology could shape our future is some of the most terrifying sci-fi I’ve ever read. It’s subtle and clever with enough basis in reality to really make my nerves a jangle. I’ve found that the way technology has been handled in comics recently has been so intelligent and well thought out that I’m starting to wonder what our future really will hold.
One of the things that really interests me is how two visions of the future can go in completely opposite directions, but seem equally as plausible. Take for example The Private Eye by Brian K. Vaughan, Marcos Martin, and Muntsa Vicente and The Surface by Ales Kot, Langdon Foss, and Jordie Bellaire. In The Private Eye, the Cloud has burst and everyone’s personal information was accessible to the world. (Yes, I know the Cloud is not a real cloud. Looking at you, roommate, who felt the need to explain to me that information is stored in servers and is not actually raining down from the air.) Lives are ruined as search histories, emails, etc. go public. Fifty or sixty years later there is no internet, people assume multiple identities in an effort to protect their privacy, and the law is enforced by the press. Everything in this world is focused on privacy and keeping all personal business hidden from others.
The Surface has the opposite approach. In addition to the world possibly being a hologram, which is important, but not the most intriguing part of The Surface, privacy barely exists in this universe. Instead of choosing to share your life on social media, in this world you have to opt out of having your whole day live streamed to the world. Everyone is plugged in always and you’re the odd one out if you choose not to participate.
So how do these two very different views on technology’s future both read with such resonance? I think the thing that sets many futuristic comics apart from other sci-fi is the connection to reality that is careful maintained in these issues. In The Private Eye, the main character’s grandfather is an aging millennial whose dementia makes it hard for him to remember that he’s not living in 2013. He has tattoo sleeves and spends much of his time complaining about how glitch his wi-fi connection is and how impossible it is to play X-Box Live with such a faulty signal. Though his grandson tries to explain to him that there is no internet, the grandpa continues to google things on his iPhone and connect with his friends online. Everything about this character is so similar to what we experience on an everyday basis. Even his clothes are pop culture references – one has the Facebook F on it and one features a weirdly popular design from a few years back of an upside down tree. Instead of having the grandpa be a typical old person, fretting about technology ruining the future and being electronically inept, the grandpa is instead a typical millennial, giving readers a reflection of themselves and making this world seem so much more plausible.
The Surface maintains its realism because it reads as an accentuation of the trajectory our world is already on. Unlike in The Private Eye, no big event changes everything and teaches lessons about the past in the aftermath. Rather, The Surface takes experiences we are already used to and pushes them just a little bit further. The idea of choosing not to share your life rather than choosing to share it does not seem like something very far removed from our lives right now. While I could choose not to use my Facebook, email, phone, or Twitter, I would have a really difficult time navigating my life. My email is essential for contacting potential employers and keeping much of my life in order. It would have been impossible to graduate college without the internet as online assignments, quizzes, and syllabi were integral in my courses. Social media dictates my social life and I often miss events or gatherings if I don’t pay attention to my Facebook notifications. An online presence is practically impossible to live without at this stage in my life so the idea of every moment of my day being streamed online doesn’t seem too implausible. The relationships and interactions in The Surface also feel familiar. Parents frown on their kids romantic partners, text messages look like text messages, and friends get coffee together in their downtime.
The problems presented in both The Private Eye and The Surface are not only realistic, but they’re new and unique, making them even more terrifying. The Cloud is a relatively new concept and I know for a fact that people are already freaking out about it. (And by people I mean person and by person I mean my dad. ‘Well, I’m not putting any of my information online so it can go up in that cloud thing and get grabbed by anybody.’ Maybe he needs to talk to my roommate and get some things sorted out.) Yes, there are all sorts of safeguards and what not to keep this from happening, but who really know, you know? And as far as having our lives shared online, the ability to do that effectively is also pretty darn brand spanking new.
The Private Eye and The Surface are not the only comics using this winningly frightening combination of realism and scary unknowns to create the perfect horror story. Take Memetic by James Tynion IV and Eryk Donovan for example. The idea of a meme taking over the world?? That is so frightening because it seems so possible! We all see memes every day. It’s really hard to go on the internet without coming across a meme, or I guess now a viral video, at least twelve times in one sitting. The instantaneous nature of our communication means that in the event that someone actually does manage to make something deadly begin from a picture, we could all be dead in seconds. Like yikes. Arcadia by Alex Paknadel and Eric Scott Pfeiffer is an interesting example of modern future sci-fi horror as well because the technology it would take to get everyone’s consciousnesses uploaded online seems further away, but the way the world is built in Arcadia still feels real and close to home. That one I’m not really sure how to explain just at this moment, but whatever is going on with it is absolutely astoundingly phenomenal.
Another huge asset to telling these stories through comics is that the medium fits so well with our increasingly visual society. We’re used to seeing things in bright bold color. We’re used to having multiple things going on at the same time. Comics are perfect for this. The pairing of images and words allows creators to develop the story’s connection to reality and keep readers involved. A major example of this is when comics use text messaging or social media as a way of moving the story along. By seeing parts of the comic told in a format that we’re incredibly used to, we’re even more able to form the connection between what we see on the page and our own life. Although it is not a comic about the future, No Mercy by Alex de Campi, Carla Speed McNeil, and Jenn Manley Lee is a perfect example of this. The way that comic integrates speech, technology, art, and narration is incredible. Reading that book feels like living that book. Another cool thing about comics as a visual art form is that they allow for the suspension of disbelief that goes along with reading, but also allow you to see characters and events as other people imagine them. Reading a comic is different than watching a movie riddled with CGI because everything in a comic is drawn and therefor it doesn’t look out of place to have a dragon next to a human. When the art all comes together to let fiction and reality mix, it just seems natural.
Alright, time to wrap things up. The combination of realism and burgeoning and unique fears, as well as the assets of the visual medium of comics, make for a collection of really wonderful, really terrifying new futuristic sci-fi comics. I know I’ve been throwing around the words sci-fi and horror a little willy nilly in this article, but that’s because these comics do an amazing job of being both at the same time. If you’re looking to be scared of your computer for a few days, please pick them up. But actually, the comics I’ve mentioned here as well as many others are stunning works and some of the best literature I’ve read in a while. Do yourself a favor and get lost in a sci-fi comic!