The Surrogates, Robert Venditti & Brett Weldele

Top Shelf, 2008, 256 pages, US$19.95 tpb, ISBN 978-1-891830-87-7

Good news, bad news: The Surrogates is a decently-imagined standalone Science Fiction story that deals with intriguing themes and stands alone away from superhero fantasies. On the other hand, the rough art is a tough sell in this era of slick computer-shaded photorealism, and the story has fairly embarassing plot holes.

As the mainstream comics publishing industry matures and tackles other things than the superhero fantasies that have been their backbone for the past few decades, one of the most promising developments has been the trend toward limited series later collected in trade paperback. The Surrogates was originally published in 2006-2007 by Top Shelf Comics, and this trade paperback collects all five issues of the miniseries along with extra making-of material.

The subject matter is intriguing: tackling the familiar SF idea of remote-controlled bodies, The Surrogates imagines a world where such technology has passed in common use: People purchase custom robotic bodies and stay home, living through their surrogates and their enhanced physical attributes. As the story begins, a masked criminal in Atlanta is destroying surrogates for reasons of his own. A policeman placed on the case quickly finds out what it means to live “for real” again when his surrogate is destroyed during the investigation. He suspects the intervention of a nearby preacher who cautions followers about mediated lives, but the truth is more complex than it appears.

The problem with comics tackling SF themes is that, bluntly speaking, they’re usually well behind the times in terms of genre sophistication. The Surrogates, as strong as it is in a few areas, is a perfect example of those issues. It’s never quite credible in making us believe that less than fifty years from now, everyone will be using surrogates whose components can be traced back to one company. Real technology diffuses into the real world in complex ways: there’s competition, multiple models, people who refuse to buy into the new technology and various other knots of complexity. I, ROBOT (the movie) was similarly dumb in its treatment of its principal plot device, and for the same reason: the plot hinges on One Way, One Truth and One Answer. Point out that, well, there’s an awful lot of iPod clones on the market today and the plot of these stories crumbles away.

Hence my dubiousness regarding the extrapolation in The Surrogates. From a written-SF fan’s perspective, it doesn’t help that the idea of surrogates have been explored in many stories for decades. It’s not an entirely original plot device. Anyone looking at the last decade alone can unearth Laura J. Mixon’s Proxies, David Brin’s Kiln People and (tangentially, but vigorously) Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon as examples of the form, and that’s not even going into short stories.

But it is new in the comic book universe, and what matters is what the writer does with it, right? Fortunately, writer Venditti does better when comes the time to makes his characters come to life: His lead protagonist is a credibly beaten-down policeman who learns to re-discover his outer humanity, and the plot involves a good variety of interesting characters. Preachers are often mis-used in SF and The Surrogates doesn’t escape that trap, but at least it does something unexpected with it.

But where The Surrogates will really divide readers is at the surface level of the art, which is an odd mixture of pen sketches and computer-enhanced coloring. I found it dreary, unfocused and unpolished, like being stuck in a nightmare —but looking at other reviews, I see that it’s an approach that has fans. It’s a good thing that the script is the strongest part of The Surrogates: careful buyers will flip through the book before purchasing it to get an idea of whether they’ll have an allergic reaction to the art.

Despite everything, The Surrogates is worth a look to see where the comics medium is going regarding authentic SF ideas. It’s not entirely successful, but it’s a great deal more ambitious than most SF graphic novels on the market, and when it work, it really works.

(You won’t be surprised to learn that the big-budget movie adaptation will feature Bruce Willis and come out in summer 2009.)

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