Words Without Borders is showcasing international graphic novels this month. Excellent stuff.
I was turned on to Jeff Smith’s RASL by The Best American Comics of 2011. RASL is much different than Smith’s famous masterpiece, Bone. Where Bone is a epic lighthearted fantasy adventure, RASL is a dark and gritty sci fi noir. RASL, the main character, is a hard drinking art thief with a mysterious past. His girlfriend is a prostitute, but he has another girl’s name tattooed on his arm. There’s time jumping, a history lesson on Tesla, a government conspiracy, and a bad guy who looks like a lizard (think Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) chasing RASL across parallel timelines. Of course, RASL is not his original name, and I’ve yet to figure out what it means.
The overriding theme is the need to make things right with the past, but the harder RASL tries the higher the cost to himself. There is some Native American imagery regarding life being a maze, and the time jumping lends to the theme. There is the recurring image of a pebble being dropped in water and the resultant ripples. It reads like a blend of Raymond Chandler, Hunter S. Thompson, and LOST. Good, dark fun all around.
The series is steeped in mystery, and Smith is a master of cliffhangers. I don’t want to give away much of the plot because the mystery of it all is what drives the series. Rumors are circulating on the interwebs that the series will come to an explosive conclusion in 2012 or 2013. Issues 1-11 have been collected in three volumes. You can check out the hardcover volume here.
Like most people these days, I came to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and Philip K. Dick through Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner. I knew the film was based on the book and always had it on my to-be-read list, but that list grows faster than I keep up with it. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep kept its spot as other books piled on. Then I stumbled onto this comic adaptation by Tony Parker and BOOM! Studios. It’s word for word from the book with panel-to-panel continuity. I couldn’t resist.
If you like Blade Runner, you really owe it to yourself to read the book or comic. Both the film and novel are excellent, but they are really two different animals (pun intended). The film is very character driven and its thematic focus is very narrow. It’s good, but it’s narrow. The novel is idea driven and is much more complex than the film. Philip K. Dick was as much philosopher as storyteller. There are some crucial scenes and ideas in the novel that make it superior to the film, because they add so much more depth and meaning to the story.
For example, one crucial element in the novel is Mercerism, a religion that uses technology to give people a sense of connectedness. People can plug in and feel connected physically and spiritually to Mercer (and all humanity as a result) as he eternally struggles up his hill, like Sisyphus. As his invisible persecutors throw rocks at him, everyone connected feels the pain. They actually bruise and bleed. This is a human need that androids do not understand. The film doesn’t have enough time to develop this idea, and it is too far removed from Dekker’s primary mission.
The Mercer idea also leads to Buster Friendly, a media personality constantly broadcasting on TV and radio. Everyone loves him. Everyone watches. He has a cast of silly characters that join him similar to variety show and late night TV. The idea of Mercerism and Buster Friendly are just two examples of Philip K. Dick’s prescience. They also contribute to the development of Deckard’s character and the difference between humans and androids.
I’m not sure if the comic adaptation now constitutes a third animal in addition to the film and traditional novel. It includes everything in the novel, and readers who know the film will recognize elements of it in the comic as well. Tony Parker’s illustrations are brilliant and flow seamlessly with the text. I had to keep reminding myself that I was actually reading a novel that was written in 1968. Everything fits and looks perfect in this adaptation.
Parker’s illustrations also illuminate Dick’s underlining themes and the bigger questions at play. What does it mean to be human? If the androids are more than human, what does that mean? What is empathy and why do we have it? Deckard feels like he is increasingly becoming dehumanized by the hunt for the escaped androids. During Deckard’s internal monologue, Parker often illustrates him imagining that he is killing the androids. By the time that moment comes in reality, Deckard has already done it in his mind repeatedly. There is a sense of anti-climax. It doesn’t mean that much anymore. He has lost some of that empathy.
In addition to the great adaptation, the comics also include an essay at the back of each issue by the likes of Warren Ellis, Jonathan Letham, James Blaylock, TimPowers, etc. The essays are very different from one another. Some discuss the book and film from an academic perspective. Some discuss Philip K. Dick in general. Some are like memoirs. I found all of them illuminating after reading the respective issue.
In short, the comic adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is fantastic. I loved every second of it. I managed to use the internet machines to track down all 24 issues of it, but BOOM! has issued 6 volumes that collect the whole series. I will close with a quote from Gabriel McKee’s essay at the end of issue 21:
Dick’s universes have shaky walls and insubstantial foundations. But throughout it all—and this is where I think many of Dick’s academic admirers get him wrong—he never abandons hope that an authentic ultimate reality exists. At the core of all of that anxiety… there is a faith that something real is hidden beneath the veil, and that it can and will break through that veil to help us. And it is that hope, more that the surface anxiety, that gives his stories such power.