The Surrogates is a moody tale set in the not-so-distant future when the majority of adults interact with the world through surrogates: realistic androids that allow them all the benefits of being outside in the real world with none of the mess. The movie (starring Bruce Willis) comes out on Friday, so I thought it would be a good time to review the graphic novels that inspired it.
I came across the first volume at a bookstore shortly after I’d heard that a movie was in production, so the title sounded familiar as I was scanning the shelves. It looked promising after a quick flip-through so I decided to give it a shot, and I enjoyed it enough to buy the prequel, The Surrogates: Flesh and Bone, on a recent bookstore trip.
The original story is set in 2054. Virtual Self, Inc., originally developed surrogates for people who were physically handicapped. It was a way of being able to experience the world without limitations. Gradually, though, the technology found other uses: safety in the workplace, avoiding racial discrimination (or, in some cases, purposely confronting racial prejudice), upgrading appearances for vanity’s sake. At the time of the story, surrogate use has become widespread in America, with adult usage around 92% of the population.
But then, a mysterious figure appears on the scene, zapping surrogates and frying their circuits. (Unlike in the movie, this kills the machine but leaves the person unharmed.) There’s sort of a Fight Club-ish motivation, as this android-killer commands people to “live” before he zaps their surrogates. Detective Harvey Greer works to track down this criminal-activist, and in the process is challenged in his own thinking about surrogates and the role of technology in our daily lives.
As with Watchmen, there are non-comic sections interwoven between the chapters, providing more historical background and narrative details that don’t quite fit in the main plotline. These range from excerpts from the “Dail-e Tablet” online newspaper to journal articles to an advertising pamphlet from VSI. It works well, building the atmosphere and environment of the story without just spelling it out.
The writing by Robert Venditti is great, particularly in the supplementary material where the style changes to fit whatever medium he’s using. The dialogue can get a little heavy-handed in some spots but overall was good, telling the story without dumbing things down for the reader. The artwork by Brett Weldele is a combination of hand-drawn sketches, digitally inked and then colored, and it really matches the story well. It somehow just looks like a science fiction story, but the analog touch keeps it grounded in reality, too.
The first volume also includes a lot of extras: the script for a scene that ended up getting cut, a brief explanation of Weldele’s technique, more VSI ads that originally served as the back covers of the comics, and a pinup gallery by various comics artists.
The followup book, Flesh and Bone, is a slimmer volume without any extras, but is still worth a look if you enjoy the first one. It’s a prequel, taking place fifteen years before the events in The Surrogates. It fleshes out a story that’s referred to briefly in the original book, about three teenagers who murder a homeless man using surrogates, and the subsequent lawsuit, attempted coverups, and societal consequences. Again, it’s a fascinating discussion of the role of technology, and questions the idea that more technology is always better (but without denying technology altogether).
The Surrogates reminded me a little of “The Matrix,” a little of Philip K. Dick, with a touch of hard-boiled detective thrown in. If that appeals to you, you might want to pick up a copy yourself.
And in time for the movie, Top Shelf Productions has released The Surrogates for iPhone and iPod Touch. For $.99, The Surrogates App contains the first two issues, with additional issues available for $.99 each. Or, if you want to just try it out, you can download the first issue for free.
Note for parents: The books, like the movie, are about PG-13 level. There’s some sexuality but nothing really explicit, quite a bit of action and violence (mostly with robots, but some real people), and some language. However, I think the level of the subject matter will also weed out younger readers: little kids won’t really be as interested in the whole man-vs.-machine debate.
Cover images used by permission from Top Shelf Productions.