guttergeek the discontinuous review of graphic narrative

September 2009

Robert Venditti & Brett Weldele,
The Surrogates: Flesh and Bone (Top Shelf, 2009). $14.95, paperback.

By Jared Gardner

Today is opening day for the new Surrogates movie, and what better day to celebrate Venditti and Weldele's second book in the series. Flesh and Bone, a prequel to the original book upon which the film is based, fills in some of the details on how we got from here to there. (Of course, there is an equally fascinating story to tell in how Robert Venditti, working in the mail room at Top Shelf, a comics company better known for black and white meditations on bad relationships, job hunting, and other 20-something adventures, ended up publishing the company's first "mainstream" adventure comic, which ended up getting picked up by Disney and is now starring Bruce Willis... couldn't happen to a more deserving young writer, or a more deserving comics company.)

For those who haven't read the original Surrogates book (which you must do before seeing the movie), it describes a future in which we have the ability to purchase surrogates to go out in the world and do our living for us: our jobs, our romance, our adventures. And meanwhile our sad, fat bodies can stay safely at home, plugged in, enjoying all the sensations with none of the unpleasant downsides. Heck, you even get a digital recording for private re-viewing later. Not surprisingly, as the nation got fatter and sadder, the idea of having a sleek, sexy avatar to present to the world became more and more appealing; and as we became more and more paranoid and litigious, so did the idea of the safety involved (when your surrogate dies, so long as you have insurance, you are fine). Needless to say, Virtual Self, Inc., the company behind the surries, is right there to help folks see all the ways in which having an avatar can make life, oh so much better.

The first book (and the movie) is at its core a mystery: someone is killing surrogates, upon which the entire society is now fully dependent, and the cops are desperate to find out who and why (the entire police force is surrogate by the time the story begins). Flesh and Bone goes back in time fifteen years before the action in the first volume to enter the world in the early stages of surrogacy. So far, for the most part only the rich and powerful have surrogates, and as our story begins a group of prepschool brats have gotten ahold of their father's surries and have taken them out for a joyride--ending in their brutal murder of a homeless African American man. Unlike the first book, Flesh and Bone is not built around a mystery, but focuses instead on the ways in which various forces in the emerging sstructures of this brave new world react to and seek to capitalize on the horrible crime. The story allows Venditti to focus his energies as a writer more on the social and political aspects of the world he has created, and to flesh out the ambiguities and ambivalences driving the central characters.

One of the fascinating aspects of these books is that there are few clear bad guys (well, aside from the murdering kids and their lawyers), no clear blacks and whites. Venditti does not describe a dystopia here: he does not preach to us about the evils of turning our lives over to technology or the fate that awaits us as we become increasingly disconnected from nature, including our own bodies. He has someone to do that sermonizing, of course: a major and fascinating character in both books, the Prophet, who is himself an ambiguous character: is a conman or a man of God? is he manipulating anti-surrogate hysteria for his own selfish ends or is he a savior come to redeem us? Even the company, which in any good sci fi of this genre (Robo Cop, Minority Report, etc), should be pure evil—ideally using their corporate greed to cover up an even more dastardly conspiracy—is presented in terms that make us, if not sympathetic, at least able to understand what motivates them. Venditti leaves the questions about whether this is a desirable or a frightening vision of the future very much in the reader's hands, and his ability to inhabit all sides of the ethical issues he raises is one of the book's great strengths—even more so in Flesh and Bone than in the first volume.

Perhaps my favorite part of the book is the intrachapter material. As with Watchmen, Venditti offers here a multi-media array of texts and images designed to allow us to more fully inhabit this universe. In The Surrogate, for example, he created a remarkably convincing ad campaign from Virtual Self that frankly had me stomping my feet with frustration that I couldn't get one for myself. And in Flesh and Bone these intrachapters allow Venditti the chance to more fully explore the various sides of the issues that arise as surrogates first begin to capture the pubic's imagination. The first entry, for example, features a point-counterpoint debate in a newspaper about the pros and cons of surrogacy, along with cartoons and letters from readers that show how fully the world is being transformed, even in these early stages. The second installment is a brochure from the Prophet's church, itself also in its earliest stages, setting the stage for the confrontations to come. But my personal favorite was the consumer questionnaire from Virtual Self asking us to give our opinions on what they hope will be their next big market: Youth Models. Because what helicopter-parent wouldn't feel better knowing that her baby was safe at home while his surrogate was going to school where all kids of scary people might hurt him?

A good deal of what made The Surrogates special was Brett Weldele's art, which adds to the ambiguity and texture of the writing through the innovative use of a sketchy pen and ink style, overlaid paint textures, and subtle use of digital imagery. I did not find Weldele's work as thick and thoughtful in Flesh and Bone as in the first volume: it feels somehow more rushed, thinner. But it still works, and I am a confirmed fan of his work having discovered it for the first time in The Surrogates.

I had the chance to interview Venditti recently, and he passed on the great news that there will be more Surrogates volumes to come. I can't wait to find out what happens next, what happens then, and maybe, finally, to decide which side I will be on when the time finally comes (and this book has me convinced that one way or another, it is a'comin').