Greetings, Maniacs, and welcome to The No-Fly Zone, where we explore the many weird and wonderful corners of comicdom. We shun most superheroes around here, but we talk about every other comic, from horror to humor to biography. In this week’s installment, we’re going to look at another comic on its way to the movie theaters. Robert Venditti’s 2005 miniseries The Surrogates premiered from Top Shelf Publishing to instantaneous critical acclaim, with news of a film adaptation making the rounds in 2007. Now, the first trailer has just been released, with the film scheduled to hit theaters in September of this year. Jonathan Mostow (Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines) will direct, with Bruce Willis as Lt. Harv Greer.
In the year 2054, the United States has disposed of a numerous societal ills through the use of Surrogates—robot replacements that allow the user to sit at home and control in his or her place. Virtual Self produces the robots and provides the network through which people control their purchased selves. The Surrogates look however the user wants. They are far more durable than the comparably fragile human form. They don’t get sick. They can eat, drink, and smoke whatever they want. If someone destroys one, it isn’t murder—just a property crime. From the safety of their own home, people send their better robotic selves into the world to work and play. Most people own one, and it’s considered awkward and a bit rude to bring your actual self outside.
Lt. Harv Greer of Central Georgia’s Metro Police must investigate a crime involving two Surrogates fried by lightning. At first, it doesn’t seem like a big deal—just an unhappy accident. But, it happens again. The assailant is a mysterious black figure with glowing eyes that beseeches his victims with a single word: “Live.” Greer and his partner investigate the “murders,” but the issue quickly grows more complicated. The figure has stolen a crucial piece of hardware that could be used to generate an EMP and disable thousands of Surrogates in one fell swoop. The anti-Surrogate sentiment directs the Metro PD straight to the radical Christian Prophet—
Zaire Powell, a man guilty of three murders as a child, and who instigated a violent anti-Surrogate riot years before the story begins. At the riot’s conclusion, the Prophet was granted a reservation for those that would live without Surrogates. But, Greer doesn’t quite believe that Powell is behind the fried Surrogates or the stolen hardware. In pursuit of the criminal—dubbed SteepleJack—Greer’s own Surrogate is damaged, and he must approach the Prophet man to man. And, though the Metro PD would provide him with a temporary replacement, he declines and continues working on the case using his true self. Greer’s decision upsets his wife and further strains his failing marriage. Unlike her husband, Margaret Greer isn’t ready to embrace her true self. Greer’s search for SteepleJack leads him back to Virtual Self, where he—and indeed, the rest of Central Georgia—will learn the consequences of living virtually in the most extreme sense.
The premise of The Surrogates is both brilliant and elegantly simple: if people assume simulated identities online, what if they could one day extend those identities into the real world? The Surrogates carries that idea to its logical consequences, both positive and negative. In several pages of supplementary news articles and advertisements culled from the story’s world, the reader learns that many illnesses—especially STDs and those related to smoking and drinking—have subsided, and that violent crime has all but disappeared since the end of the riots of 2039. If no one is actually outside, it’s difficult to hurt them. Damage to a Surrogate constitutes a simple property crime, and the user can always disconnect in the middle of a particularly traumatic experience.
And yet, Vinditti never defaults to moralizing about the evils of technology with a simple please to live authentically. The Prophet despises Surrogates, but he does so out of religious fanaticism and not from a sense of humanism. And, though Lt. Greer even has issues with the replacement robots, his job forces him to pursue SteepleJack—one who seeks to dismantle the Surrogates, but does so without regards for the wishes of individual users. Greer ultimately serves as the most sympathetic character for readers—he admits a degree of discomfort with the Surrogates, but he doesn’t side with the extremists that would wipe them out. The inauthenticity of the virtual life rears its head most in Greer’s failing marriage, in which he tries to coax his wife away from her Surrogate. He pleads with her and tells her that he loves her the way she is. She rebukes him, and says it’s not about his wishes. But Greer realizes something that many people have forgotten—that life means suffering on occasion, it means enduring heartbreak, and it means accepting change.
Ultimately, though, Vinditti leaves the reader to decide the best position on what constitutes a real life—because, to many people, if you still experience everything on a sensual level, it might as well be?—but he never shies away from the consequences of either position. He even deals with the most obvious question about a system breakdown. While pointing out the obvious philosophical and ethical quandaries of the idea, he also explores its benefits. But, then he asks what happens when it fails catastrophically. What do you do when many people controlling Surrogates aren’t able-bodied themselves? Should real people be fired upon by Surrogate police officers in defense of the law?
The Surrogates is one of those rare works that raises some philosophically touchy issues without handing the reader a solution. It would be easy to write a simple polemic against virtual identities via social networking, MMORPGs, and the like, but Venditti never falls in that trap. He understands the inhumanity of living through created identities and what that says about the users, but he leaves the reader to decide if and when that’s a bad thing—and if it is what response such a condition merits.
Artist Brett Weldele draws The Surrogates in a sparse, jagged style reminiscent of Ben Templesmith and Ashley Wood. In close shots, it looks fantastic. It brings the cyber-noir world of the story to brilliant, grimy life. In the distance, much of the art looks like quick sketches. One can make some sort of argument about the art paralleling the diminished humanity of many of the characters, but to many readers it will simply look too abstract. Weldele’s art serves the dark mood of the story well, but it also withholds detail in a world that has clearly been very fleshed out. Still, it’s not a bad thing—just a mixed bag.
The trailer for The Surrogates looks like the film begins with a slightly different turn of events that may alter the conclusion of the story. How it compares to the comic remains to be seen, but be sure to check out the graphic novel before the film arrives in September.
Kurt Amacker is the writer of The No-Fly Zone, Mania’s weekly alternative comics column. He is also the author of the comic miniseries Dead Souls, published by Seraphemera Books. Dead Souls is available from the Seraphemera Books website, Amazon.com, and at comic shops everywhere. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.