Meme Merging – Memetic Issue 3 (2014)

James Tynion IV and Eryk Donovan’s social media apocalypse tale steamrolls towards its epic conclusion and manages to raise some interesting philosophical questions along the way.

The tension bmemetic-003-000etween human beings’ desire to assert individuality while at the same time finding comfort and strength within a group remains both one of the fundamental conundrums of human nature and one of the most fertile inspirations for art. In the internet age, it is clear that the conflict between individualism and collectivism has been won by the latter. Individuals across the globe are able to find people with similar interests, communicate and share with them, form virtual communities and, perhaps more importantly, produce and replicate ideas through a dizzying range of publishing platforms including blogs, vlogs, message boards and online magazines. That said, we still experience the world as individuals. We are connected, but not identical. We co-operate rather than suffer coercion. But what if we could be persuaded to join the group? What if that group had its own agenda to which our own will and desire was inevitably subordinated? History is littered with examples of the power of the mob, the “tyranny of the majority” to use a phrase that has recently (and somewhat suspiciously) gained currency, resulting in the infringement of the liberty and rights of those outside the powerful group. This issue of Memetic addresses, plays with and sometimes skirts around these ideas. In the process, it finds moments of true horror that are rooted in and, to some extent, expose our sometimes overwhelming desire to fit in.

We open issue 3 following an older woman, one of the last remaining people unaffected by the meme (although, now that it’s mutated into a song, how she’s managed to remain unaffected is unclear), who meets a traumatized child and tries to keep him safe. Together, she and the child hide under a wrecked car, but are spotted by a ‘screamer’ who drags the woman out of hiding and, rather unexpectedly, kisses her before shedding his clothes, making his way towards one of the three pillars of people now climbing towards the sky, and joining it. The kiss is a curious moment in a comic series already full of them; it does, however, suggest a shift in the meme and the behaviour of those affected by it. We’re moving away from the destruction and murder of the ‘other’ to the assimilation and coming together of the group’s disparate parts. The ‘other’ is gone or at least so diminished as to now be irrelevant. We’re moving on to the final stage of the collectivist utopia – the plunging of the individual into the group, the ultimate surrender of self to the primacy of the whole.


The game of mass twister had taken a decidedly disturbing turn.

At this point, it’s hard to see a way back from this. The towers are too big, their component parts numbering in the thousands if not millions. Civilization is more or less over. And we’ve still got most of an issue to get through; the big questions – how did this start and why? – remain. So let’s get them answered, eh?

First, we need to find Aaron a reason to live on. Having seen his boyfriend fling himself off a building rather than become a ‘screamer’, he is contemplating doing the same thing. He is prevented from doing so by the unexpected intervention of a disembodied voice emanating from a walkie-talkie we (and Aaron and Ryan) haven’t seen before. The voice belongs to a young girl left by in a locked safe place somewhere nearby by a father already succumbing to the meme’s effects but retaining just enough of his individuality not to want his daughter to go through the same thing. It is possible, I suppose, that Tynion is commenting on the ‘do as I say, not as I do’ hypocrisy of the average parent, but I think it more likely that there is a simple narrative imperative at work here. Find something for the character in which we’ve invested two issues’ worth of energy to do or one half of the story simply becomes unsustainable. So we follow Aaron as he makes his way through streets and alleys, taking in the towers of singing human flesh along the way and also making contact with Barbara Xiang who is still waiting in her office for word from Marcus and the others. How he manages to do this really isn’t explained. The range on the walkie-talkie isn’t explained either. What is made clear, however, is that, in trying to find the girl, Aaron has found a sense of purpose that is utterly confounded a few pages later when, having located her, Aaron is told by the girl that she doesn’t want to be rescued but wants to be with her “mommy and daddy”. Her parting shot is to tell Aaron that she doesn’t “want to be alone anymore.” She wants “to be with everyone”. This whole section may, with some justification, be seen as a bit of a pointless discursion, but it reminds us that the larger the crowd, the larger its pull. And that the young are, in many ways, more susceptible to that pull than adults – not, it should be acknowledged, that adults are at all immune to it. It’s hard to argue with a little girl when she says she wants to be reunited with her parents and, although Aaron tries, it’s clear that his heart just isn’t in it.


Do you know what the most disturbing thing about this image is? That Meredith’s drinking the tea.

Intercut with this narrative is the Marcus storyline. Marcus and his team find the maker of the meme and their hopes of finding a ‘cure’ to it are, perhaps predictably, utterly dashed. This section is a bit talky, but it’s important. The meme’s maker appears to be a madly charismatic cross of Walt Disney and Mark Zuckerberg, a digital artist who believes he has been inspired by ‘angels’ to create the meme and transform humanity with it. It is during his conversation with Marcus and his team that he reveals the overall plot before, in a move that is as shocking as it is pointless, taking his own life. There are problems with this, which I’ll get to in a moment. For now, let’s look at the heart of the mad genius’ thesis, because it is, in fact, the philosophical heart of the series.

“This is what we’ve been building towards from the very beginning. This is what we’ve always been supposed to become. We’ve spent millennia perfecting the art of spreading information.. it’s our drive. It’s all of what we are…”

This is an interesting premise but I’m not sure if it really stands up to scrutiny. Is “spreading information” all that humanity is interested in? Tynion’s madman makes it sound like the signal is more important than the message it conveys; indeed, his plot hangs on it. In doing so, he has to dismiss or ignore centuries of political thought, scientific advance and bloody history. Now, it is true that the 20th and 21st centuries have seen an explosion in communication technology and Marshall McLuhan’s famous dictum that the “medium is the message”[1] may well, to some extent, apply here. But, the notion that “[i]ndividuality is a myth”, that “[w]e’re no more individual than the neurons in our brain” is one most readers would find truly horrific. (Which may, of course, be the point.)

“We’re a swarm of thought computers designed to receive a signal, and transmit that signal out to the heavens. Calling down our makers, and telling them we are ready to do what they need us to do.”

What’s interesting about this is the appeal to an external creator, albeit one with unknowable intent. The creative team does a great job of presenting this particular part of the argument, the mad meme maker’s words appearing in captions accompanying images of naked screamers/singers converging on and then merging with the towers of human flesh reaching to the heavens. The maker goes on to talk about “[i]nstantaneous unlimited knowledge. Singularity”, which sounds impressive, but isn’t what’s been going on in this series. The screamers ‘know’ nothing and their experience is limited to the song that they are compelled to sing.

The maker’s suicide is dramatic, but also strange, given that he talks about ‘joining the angels in their eternal song’. Suicide, as we’ve already seen with Ryan and are about to see with Meredith, is the ultimate assertion of individuality. If the maker was going to join ‘the angels’, surely he’d be better off becoming a screamer and merging with the flesh towers?


A new day dawns. The towers are waiting.

After his death, all that remains is an anti-climactic cleaning of house. Meredith shoots herself rather than becoming part of the group-mind; Marcus submits to the song because he thinks it’ll be interesting; Peter is left to wander around, all his expertise and snark ultimately rendered completely irrelevant. Which just leaves us with Aaron, who, by a quirk of genetic fate, is rendered immune to both the meme and the song, but joins the flesh tower anyway simply because he wants to feel like he truly fits in. If the issue ended on his manic euphoric blood-streaked face, that would be horrific enough, but the issue has one last shock for us. The only unaffected human left (that we know of – I have no idea what’s going on in North Korea right now and the issue never tells us), Barbara Xiang, is… somehow… monitoring the Earth’s atmosphere and sees ‘something’ (and then hundreds of somethings) entering the planet’s atmosphere. The following page shows the flesh towers falling silent, the faces embedded in their surface looking upwards with hopeful anticipation. The next page shows the arrival of some huge black starfish-entity that is suggestive of the creatures of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos. The final page is entirely black apart from the words ‘DAY FOUR’ scrawled across it in white lettering.

And that’s it.

So, how does Memetic stack up? Well, if Tynion and Donovan’s goal was to tell a story that would be both thought-provoking and disturbing, there’s little doubt that they succeeded. Memetic raises issues that should, in our current, increasingly social media-dominated age, concern us: the way rumours can outrace facts; the way ‘official’ news narratives are undermined or exposed as partial by one-man operations on the internet, which are, themselves, resistant to scrutiny; the way memes become substitutes for detailed argument. That said, Memetic itself is both inspired by and contributes to suspicions about new technology that have been with us since the age of steam. And, as I’ve already mentioned, it raises wider issues about the way we, as individual humans, relate to bigger groupings and structures. In this sense, Memetic is very good indeed.

In terms of its story-telling, however, Memetic’s success is much more qualified. Aaron is probably our best developed character and even he is somewhat anaemic, although Tynion and Donovan have done a good enough job with him to make his final decision at the end of this issue believable. Certain things happen (this issue’s magic walkie-talkie is a good example) for plot convenience; other things happen but don’t really lead anywhere. Then there’s the meme itself. At times, its influence seems impossible to resist, but, like the doctor in book 2 and the meme maker himself in book 3, if your mental coherence is required in order to advance or explain the plot, you become immune to its effects. This lack of what the guys on the Weird Science DC Comics podcast would call “rules” undermines the book at times – not fatally, but enough to make it less compelling than it could be.

Having said all that, I’m still glad I read the book. Donovan’s artwork is sketchy but kinetic enough to convey emotion well; some of his panels are very dramatic – or disturbing as the case may be – indeed. And, although Tynion’s script can sometimes be on the wrong side of loquacious, he has nevertheless crafted a thoughtful and, at times, very troubling tale. The collected edition is available from Comixology for £5.49 and I’d say, at that price, it’s worth checking out.

[1] McLuhan’s idea that media in and of themselves change the way, for example, stories are perceived, that media can effect structural changes that go largely unnoticed by consumers concentrating on content, may well have informed Tynion’s story.


Conway Shows How It’s Done – Justice League of America (vol 1) 251 Review

Can a well-plotted blast from the past shed light on where the current series is going wrong?

The Justice League of America has been with us in one form or another for over 50 years and I have both loved and been exasperated by the comic book in more or less equal measure ever since I first encountered it many moons ago. The book in its current form, Bryan Hitch’s Justice League, most definitely falls into the ‘exasperation’ category. While I’ll continue to bljustice-league-of-america-v1-251-page-1og it (as soon as I’ve caught up), I thought it might be useful to look at an example of Justice League storytelling from an era when I was buying the book regularly.
Issue 251 of the original run is interesting for a number of reasons. It comes towards the end of long-time writer Gerry Conway’s second stint on the book, although, in fairness, he didn’t leave the book for very long between his first run and his second one. The League featured in this book is effectively Justice League Detroit, although it had been forced to move to the ‘secret sanctuary’ outside Metropolis a few issues ago. The members include established ‘second stringers’ (a term here I’m using to refer to those members who did not have their own books at this point) Martian Manhunter, Zatanna and Elongated Man as well as ‘newcomers’ Vixen, Vibe, Gypsy and Steel. And Batman, who, after last issue’s anniversary original League get-together, has decided to stay on as team leader in order to try and lick the team into shape. As with the forthcoming Justice League of America Rebirth series, Batman’s inclusion may well be down to marketing, but either way it’s a savvy move for reasons I’ll get into in a moment.

The book opens with a full-page splash of this issue’s world-threatening menace Despero – an old JLA villain whose appearance here has been trailed and teased for several issues – along with the kind of writing that makes you long for the return of third-person narration in comic books. “Rage seethes inside him, as constant as a heartbeat.” While my inner pedant wants to point out that heartbeats aren’t technically constant, my inner fanboy loves this kind of stuff. Comics are a form of culture open to a range of styles and tones, but the form of grim high melodrama remains one of my favourites. Conway takes time, too, to show us just how grimly driven Despero is at this point. On the second page, he introduces us to The Torq, an amorphous alien entity that has drifted peacefully through the universe observing things and absorbing information. Despero flies his ship right through it and, as Conway’s narrator spells out for us, “a billion years of wonderment are snuffed out in an instant”. This is followed by the almost unbearably clichéd “He has places to go, things to do. People to kill.” But that is, I think, the point. The vengeance that drives Despero is as petty and banal as it is mindlessly destructive.


See that gooey stuff hanging off Despero’s ship? That’s billion year old proto-matter, that is. That’s going to take an age to clean off.

The book’s title is “Hunters and Prey”, a phrase we’re about to hear and will hear again before the issue is finished. Batman is putting Vibe and Vixen through their paces. Vibe is having a rough time of it, but, as Batman says, “without concentration, you’re not a hunter… you’re prey.” Well, I’m glad that’s clear. It’s difficult to avoid the fact that Batman is making the same mistakes with Vibe as Aquaman made with Steel during the Detroit run – and for much the same reasons. And with much the same results. Vibe doesn’t appreciate the constant lecturing, but the scene does lead to a nice follow-up scene between Vixen and Batman that bears fruit later on. The one difference between Batman and Aquaman would appear to be that Batman is at least willing to listen to criticism.


“Ridin’ me like your own personal donkey”??? There’s an image it’s going to be difficult to scrub out of my brain…

Batman’s inclusion as team leader makes sense here for a number of reasons. Firstly, the ‘new’ League had been controversial (some of those letters pages in the early Detroit run are well worth a look) and having Bats leading the team raises its profile in a way that having Aquaman leading never really did. Secondly, Batman is the archetypal loner and that instantly guarantees the kind of conflict with the younger more impetuous characters that, indeed, we get here. Thirdly, no one does ‘grim’ quite like Batman and ‘grim’ is what we’re heading towards. The tone of the book begins to change subtly this issue. Batman is both serious and astonishingly competent. And Conway gets the character very well, having written him in his own series in the late 70s and early 80s. Batman’s presence also frees up Martian Manhunter to take more of a mentor role with Gypsy, more of which later. I can remember at the time being rather grateful for the return of Batman to the team. Reading this issue again, I still get that sense that the team just went up a level in quality.

A couple of observations here: nothing like either the introduction of Despero or the character interaction between Vixen, Vibe and Batman has appeared in any of the six issues of Rebirth-era Justice League I’ve read to date. In the Hitch League there doesn’t appear to be much ‘down-time’ and the restricted narrative choices available to current writers preclude something as on-the-nose as the Despero intro. (There are ways around the third person narration taboo, of course, but none of them are quite so… satisfying.) None of Hitch’s villains have yet displayed as much drive and motivation as Despero does in those first two pages. Unlike, say, the Kindred or the Purge, Despero’s motivation is not a mystery here – how his vengeance against a League that no longer exists will play out is, however. And Conway is in no great rush to get to that point. And, yes, that is another way in which this issue differs from the Rebirth ones.

Because issue 251 is a character issue. While the Gardner Fox days in which League members would formally pair up to fight disparate threats before coming together to solve the overall ‘case’ are gone, Conway effectively revives the format by having Gypsy and Martian Manhunter informally team up with Gypsy using her camouflage powers to tag along as J’onn tries to get to the bottom of a mystery that was introduced a few issues ago. This is Conway indulging in a slow burn which, while short on plot development (it takes us three pages to find out something that could have  – and nowadays probably would have – been revealed in a handful of panels), is rich in characterisation. The developing friendship between Martian Manhunter and Gypsy is beautifully handled, although the decision to have J’onn narrate this section in character gumshoe-style is a little odd, especially when he drops his John Jones persona once outside the office of the PI he’s nominally working for. His pride at Gypsy taking off on her own, though, is a nice touch. With her mix of vulnerability and trusting nature, it’s hard not to like Gypsy and J’onn, too, comes across as very likeable here. It’s a very effective bit of writing.


Look, no fingerprints! And for my next trick, I shall be doing my best Philip Marlowe impression during the next section of the book.

And it’s not the only sub-plot in the issue either. Sandwiched in the middle of the J’onn-Gypsy storyline is a sequence that features Zatanna, who has been abducted by the mysterious Adam and subjected to some nude experimentation – complete with conveniently placed restraints to preserve modesty, naturally. Adam is an interesting antagonist, not least because his superpower appears to involve playing on the insecurities of intelligent, well-educated people who, in the mid 80s, find themselves talented in a range of fields but deeply unsure about whether that talent will lead to the kind of material success promoted and glamourized in American culture at the time. In a decidedly weird moment, Zatanna’s erstwhile tenant (who’s been instrumental in capturing Zatanna) delivers pretty much the same ‘hunter/prey’ line as Batman earlier. The difference between the two moments is that Batman wants Vibe to find the strength within himself to be the ‘hunter’, while Adam’s acolytes are looking to Adam to provide the strength they need. Adam is a compelling but decidedly creepy villain. We’ll have to wait a few issues before we get to see him receive his comeuppance, unfortunately.

Steel gets a nice moment of down-time too as he inadvertently displays his strength in front of a date. Then we return to Batman and Vixen with the latter offering the Bat some sympathy and advice. This has been an unusually low-key issue, but by no means a boring or empty one. It is most assuredly not the template for JL issues past or present, but it is the kind of useful one-off issue that allows readers to catch their breath and be reminded that our heroes are not just power sets and costumes but living, breathing characters in their own right. And that that’s why we love them.

When Despero reappears at the end of the issue, touring the wrecked shell of the old JLA satellite, we understand more clearly just what’s at stake. While it seems somewhat perverse to suggest that it’s more than ‘just’ the world, there is an important truth here that, for all its spectacle and threat, the Hitch Justice League has yet to understand: it’s the relationships between characters that are important; it’s the sense of those characters being in danger that at least partly engages us in the story. The Despero arc is a classic, but this issue is in no small part responsible for its success precisely because Conway has taken the time to make us care about the characters who are about to be put through the wringer.


It occurs to me that I’ve said virtually nothing about the art up to now. Let me rectify that oversight here. Luke McDonnell and Bill Wray are an excellent team. Their style may not be to everyone’s taste, but every so often they pull off something gloriously spectacular. Like here, for example.

Of course, it’s perhaps easier for Conway to do that with those second-stringers than Hitch can with the current League, the members of which all have their own series. That doesn’t mean he shouldn’t at least try, though. There are plots within plots here and, although you can argue that this issue is purely a ‘set-up’ story for the big event to come, the sense of a multi-faceted ongoing narrative is actually quite satisfying. Arguably, this is a large part of the appeal of superhero comics. Readers are treated to an unfolding multi-layered narrative in which, when it’s done well, character and plot combine in generally affecting and sometimes unpredictable ways.

It’s that sense of numerous sub-plots moving at different speeds that can give a team book a lot of its richness. That’s certainly the case here. I’m not suggesting that this kind of issue would necessarily work for the modern League – it is pretty much entirely ‘set-up’ for the next few issues – but at least some attention given to meaningful character interaction[1] (and, perhaps more importantly, the development of relationships between team members) and a more considered  approach to plotting would certainly help. Next issue sees things get a lot hairier for the JLA and, for that matter, some random dude out hunting with his dog. See you soon.

[1] I know I’ve not made much of the Batman/Superman/Lois/John interactions in the first Justice League story arc. They are, of course, the exception that proves the rule, although even then, the John “cookie” line notwithstanding, those scenes’ dialogue is a little awkwardly phrased. (Although, to be fair, nowhere near as poor as everyone else’s dialogue in that story.)

Meme Mines and Meanderings – Memetic Issue 2 (2014)

Things get worse in the second issue of Boom!’s social media apocalypse.

Memetic #2 (of 3) (2014) - Page 1.jpg

The middle child is always the tricky one, so they say. And the middle book or film of a trilogy is often the most difficult to pull off successfully. Unable to produce the excitement or intrigue of an opening or the satisfaction of a resolution, the middle book has an inbuilt structural disadvantage to overcome. It can be done, of course. The question is whether the second issue of Memetic manages to do it.

And the answer is… maybe.

We start off with perhaps the first serious misstep of the series so far. The situation we left last issue was one in which the President of the United States had ordered the shut down of the internet in order to halt the spread of the happy sloth meme that appeared to be turning everyone into screaming zombies. The first page of this issue appears to suggest that those people who have seen the meme and not yet succumbed to its effect are compelled to disseminate the image by other means. We see a young man painting the image on a wall. He gets beaten up by riot police. As dramatic as this is, it raises a number of issues.

Firstly, will the image have the same effect painted on a wall compared to being seen on the net? An image painted on a wall is different to one replicated perfectly and transmitted from one computer to another. The latter is always going to be more accurate a reproduction than the former. Even if the painter is astonishingly good at reproducing the image as this one is, there are bound to be some variations in the painted copy compared to the original – and, indeed, Eryk Donovan’s art suggests this. The implications of this aren’t addressed in the comic; it appears we are meant to assume that an analog reproduction of the image is going to have the same effect as a digital one, which is logically questionable.


Disturbing imagery for a variety of reasons.

Secondly, how are we supposed to feel about this? The painting man is black; the lead police officer white. Perhaps inadvertently, this moment has been framed along racial lines. Ordinarily, we would be on the side of the black man, but the circumstances here deprive this image of much of its effectiveness as social commentary. After all, the painter is effectively propagating a virus that has been shown to be incredibly dangerous; the policeman’s nightstick represents the desperate attempts of authority to preserve that order. Of course, perhaps that is the point – that the meme apocalypse is an equal opportunities disaster, that, regardless of the differences between us, we are all as susceptible to media panic as anyone else. Fair enough, but the waters are muddied here and made more so by the fact that the painter looks genuinely alarmed when the police attack – not ‘blissed out’ as so many of the other meme-affected people in the last issue have been.

In any case, what should be a fairly straightforward bit of scene-setting becomes more uncertain and more problematic. That feeling of things not being quite right – from a narrative point of view, that is – continues as we return to Aaron and his boyfriend Ryan.

I must admit I’m having a hard time sympathising with Ryan. Aaron is pleasant enough, but his conversation with Ryan veers from emotionally affecting to business-like plot-progression in strange ways. The second page is actually pretty good – Aaron is too relieved to have Ryan back to notice how spaced out he is. Asking the question “What’s wrong?” to a guy who’s only just told you that he’s seen his insane screaming brothers tear their mother’s stomach open is gloriously crass, but makes sense given how insecure about the whole relationship Aaron’s been up to now. (Donovan’s art is excellent here, focusing on the faces of the two characters, while reminding us how screwed up the world is through the reflections on the window through which they’re looking.) What doesn’t make sense is how Ryan replies and how that reply then segues into Aaron talking about himself and how he needs to keep his medication stocked up, which in turn leads to what to do next. I understand that Tynion needs to get the pair out of the apartment somehow, but this dialogue feels too flat and functional at a time when both characters should be positively brimming over with awkward emotion.

While it’s entirely possible that Ryan’s presence might have injected Aaron with newfound positivity, Aaron’s attitude here seems implausibly optimistic. The intention may be to show wishful thinking on Aaron’s part, but, in comparison to his attitude last issue, it’s all rather jarring, coming across as mostly a less than skilful attempt to move the plot on.

As with last issue, transitions between Aaron and Marcus are punctuated with panels showing the effects of the meme on wider society, so we get, amongst other things, a rapturous church congregation ‘praising’ the sloth and a crowd of sloth-hippies outside the Pentagon, where Barbara Xiang is introducing Marcus Shaw to his new team.


Ah, the team. There has to be a team in a disaster story like this, doesn’t there? Otherwise there’s no one to kill off in order to ratchet up the tension. Plus, without a team you don’t get any comic relief. Comic relief in this issue comes in the form of Dr Peter Klein, a bearded academic from Georgetown University (although, if his exposition later on is anything to go by, he could well be from Georgetown community college), whose idea of humour appears to include pretending to be a soldier in front of a visually impaired Colonel. In the middle of a zombie apocalypse. Okay. Maybe there’s nothing especially wrong with that, but the remainder of the team is filled out with the black tough guy and the token female officer, who may, in fact, come into her own in issue 3, but I’m not holding my breath. Both characters appear horribly flat in comparison with Dr Chuckles, largely because they opt not to engage with him, instead just explaining who they are.


How not to do exposition. Probably.

This section gets bogged down in exposition that, attempts to provide levity notwithstanding, never really rises above the level of an infodump. This page might be the worst page in the series so far. I’ve enjoyed Donovan’s art up to this point, but we’ve quite literally got a talking head here and the background images that are meant to illustrate his rather earnest explanations are too faint and simply not interesting enough to connect properly with the dialogue. Then there’s the dialogue itself. Firstly, there’s an editing mistake in the main panel’s first speech balloon. Secondly, by mentioning brain scans, Tynion reminds us of perhaps the most important revelation from last issue that is completely ignored in this one: namely, that the screamers are, to all intents and purposes, brain dead, something that is flatly contradicted later on. Other issues are raised by the line that tells us that the screamers kill everyone not like them – including people who were affected by the meme at a later point than those who have been turned into screaming zombies. Isn’t the meme encouraging its earlier recruits to wipe out the later ones? Does that matter? If not, then why not?

Quinn, a taciturn sergeant, handily reveals that they have investigated the meme and, presumably before the internet had closed down, found it originated in Oregon. So, both our main protagonists have been handily given reasons for getting out of their current settings and venturing into the zombie-infested outside. It’s inevitable that the pace of the story is going to take a hit at some point, but this feels alarmingly stodgy compared to the previous issue.

We shift perspective back to Aaron and Ryan at the medical centre, but not before we hear an anonymous broadcaster (?[1]) describe the screams of the zombies becoming more like a melody. Which is interesting. Aaron knows the code to the secure entrance to the medical centre and gets him and Ryan inside. It’s deserted and Aaron assumes, not unreasonably, that this is because the staff wanted to stay away from the outer walls where they’ll be more vulnerable to attack. The pair find Aaron’s medicine reasonably quickly, but things take a distinctly disturbing turn when, on their way to find Dr Crowne, they find a room piled high with bodies and discover that the screaming appears to be coming from speakers somewhere. Then they finally meet Dr Crowne.

Every horror story needs at least one insane scientist, although this one is considerably more tangential to the plot than most. Not (yet) a screamer himself, Dr Crowne has become so enamoured of the sound the screamers make that he’s decided to keep a few of them in the operating theatre so he can pipe their dulcet tones through the medical centre’s PA system. This has a potential for creepiness that is never fully realised – even when Aaron sees that his parents have been corrupted by the meme and placed inside the operating theatre. We’ve already been told that Aaron has issues with his parents but surely the sight of his mother turned into an eye-bleeding screaming zombie would provoke more of a reaction than “Why are my parents in there, Dr Crowne?”

Then again, the good doctor is obviously bonkers at this point. Perhaps it’s a good idea to try and avoid provoking him. But, he is insane. And a doctor. And, while it may be a good idea to humour an insane person, that is only a short term measure at best – particularly if the insane person in question possesses a skill set that includes ‘handles sharp knives very well’. Eventually, you’re going to get to the “let’s operate on your eyes so you can feel as amazing as I do” part of the conversation and then you’ll have a decision to make. Aaron decides to hightail it out of there and smashes the operating theatre window with a trolley, thereby releasing the screamers contained within. I’ll (just about) give him the adrenaline-fuelled strength pass for the throw which does a pretty comprehensive job of demolishing the window. The screamers begin to climb out through the shattered window and descend – not on Aaron and the almost entirely useless Ryan[2] – but on the good Dr Crowne[3]. In probably the weirdest moment of the series so far, Crowne as he is being eaten flips on the intercom just so Aaron and Ryan can carry on hearing his mad scientist monologue as they’re running away. It’s probably a good job that the screamers didn’t start with, I don’t know, his larynx or something, isn’t it?


There’s nothing quite like a zombie apocalypse for encouraging medical innovation, is there?

This section is… not the best. The conversation with Crowne temporarily plunges us into B-movie territory and Aaron’s encounter with his zombified mother is a bit of a damp squib. Without any additional information about just why their relationship was so poor to begin with, it’s difficult to know exactly how we should feel about their meeting or Aaron’s decidedly low-key response to it. It’s a good job we’ve got some grown-up action coming up, then isn’t it?

Marcus’ team is trying to get to Oregon, which is, of course, the other side of the continent to Washington DC. This necessitates a visit to the airport. Here the storytelling picks up again. The departure lounge is a meme minefield; the happy sloth is everywhere on a variety of screens both large and small. Quinn has seen the images – just for a second – and already they are working their ‘magic’ on him. This is pretty nice writing, reminding us again just how terribly dangerous the meme is. Quinn’s fear about ‘turning’ is a chink of vulnerability in his armour of taciturnity that humanises the character rather well. All things considered, it’s a bit of a shame that Quinn dies as quickly as he does, bitten in the neck by a screamer while covering the rest of the team as they make a desperate – and ultimately successful – blind-folded dash for an empty plane. Nevertheless, we do at least feel that his death means something and there is a genuine sense of pathos when Marcus radios Barbara back in the Pentagon to tell her what’s happened.


One of the better moments of the issue. Donovan’s artwork effectively communicates the absurd mix of cuteness and menace that maybe this series should have made more of.

We head back to Aaron and Ryan, who seems to have developed an odd fixation on staying the night in a plush apartment, left empty after, presumably, its original occupants had succumbed to the meme. The reason for that fixation eventually becomes clear: Ryan has seen the meme earlier this morning; he knows that he’s going to turn and wanted a last moment of happiness with Aaron before that happened. It’s pretty late in the day, but this is where the issue finally hits it stride. Tynion just about manages to make the character of Ryan work at this point and we’re left with a genuinely powerful moment when Ryan, afraid of becoming a screaming bloodthirsty monster, throws himself off the apartment balcony.


It’s taken a while but Ryan finally does something interesting.

From a dramatic point of view, this is perfectly fine. In terms of the overall story, though, it is somewhat frustrating. We’ve only got one issue left in the series and it is still, at this point, unclear why we’re focusing on Aaron so much and what, if anything, he might bring to the story’s resolution. Of course, the issue does leave us with some hints. The meme appears to be evolving, the combined screams of the infected becoming an audio meme that has the same potency as the image. Flying over rural Oregon, the Pentagon team hear it and are affected. Time is running out for them to find a ‘cure’ which seems to consist of finding the person responsible for making the meme and asking/forcing him or her to make an antidote. This is a plan so full of holes that it seems almost insane to attempt it, but I suspect there will be some sort of twist in the tale at the end. How Aaron ties in with the wider plot is unclear, but Tynion reminds us that Aaron can’t hear properly, so, of the few characters still alive and functioning like regular human beings, he is the only one still immune to the meme’s effects.

On the whole, this issue is very much a mixed bag, bogged down by exposition that is neither as precise nor as interesting as its writer evidently thinks. The visit to the medical centre is an interlude that could have provided an emotional impact, but instead provides only a mildly diverting moment of B-movie madness. The airport sequence, on the other hand, manages to use the meme images in a fairly innovative way. Ryan is an anaemic character who, like Macbeth’s Thane of Cawdor, manages to attain a degree of memorability at the very end of his life, and the issue ends well enough to, if not leave the reader positively begging for the next issue, at least leave him or her interested enough to pick it up.

Structural and conceptual issues persist, however. Tynion’s dialogue is generally engaging, but, as of yet, he hasn’t quite found a way to deliver important information in pithy and interesting ways without taking his eye off the personalities of the characters involved. The intercutting between the different plot strands is handled pretty well, but the Aaron/Ryan sequences and transitions come across as somewhat forced at times. Then there’s the whole concept of the meme. If the meme works on its victims straight away, encouraging them to disseminate it as frequently as they can, how was Ryan able to fend off its effects as (apparently) effortlessly as he did in this issue? Why does the meme create screamers and killers? Are the screamers brain dead or not? What are the realistic chances of the meme’s creator being (a) still alive and (b) willing to stop his or her own creation?

Whether we’ll get the answers to these questions remains to be seen. Middle instalments of a story can indeed be difficult. This one suffers from some of the more common afflictions: incident that doesn’t advance the plot very much; lack of clear purpose (particularly true of Aaron) for some of the characters; the sense of things escalating but no real idea of what the endgame might be. This doesn’t mean the issue is completely without merit. There are moments that are powerful, and Tynion’s dialogue and Donovan’s art are generally fine. The overall concept of the weaponised meme also remains intriguing. In short, there’s enough here to keep this reader interested. Roll on issue 3!

[1] This is an assumption. It isn’t explained who is speaking, whether they are in fact broadcasting, how they’re broadcasting or whether anyone is listening if they are. This is what I suppose we could call a ‘vestigial trope’ – a storytelling device that is so powerful that it lingers past the point in the plot at which it logically makes sense for it to be deployed.

[2] Ryan really is pants. His single contribution to this section of the comic book has been to state the obvious twice. And that’s pretty much it.

[3] There’s a Walking Dead Season 2 kind of lesson to be learned here, I suppose. No matter how much you love them, look after them and generally let them know you think they’re great, zombies will end up eating you in the end. No one ever learns this lesson, apparently.

Meme Magic – A Review of Memetic Issue 1 (2014)

Given that we live at a time in which a presidential candidate’s website has warned against the dangers of a cartoon frog and a bunch of devotees of the aforementioned frog believe that they have ‘memed’ another presidential candidate into the White House (various recounts notwithstanding), it’s probably worth having a proper look at Memetic, James Tynion IV and Eryk Donovan’s adroit and (probably) hip examination of humanity’s current obsessions with, on the one hand, social media and, on the other, the zombie apocalypse.


The opening of the first issue of Memetic is suitably grim. We silently follow a young man, deaf or hearing-impaired if the hearing aid is anything to go by, as he trudges down an alleyway littered with the remnants of civilization – an empty can and a cracked mobile phone on which the young man, perhaps significantly, steps – before we see dead bodies and blood-splattered walls. Something has gone seriously wrong with the world. The opening page tells us that this is Day Three so whatever has happened has done so reasonably quickly.

The next double page spread is really quite impressive. The top half of the spread reveals the world as it is on Day Three – wrecked cars, dead bodies hanging out of windscreens or strewn across the street, fitful fires blazing on the road. And, in the background, hovering over the scene are three pillars of black smoke or ash feeding up into some kind of whirlpool in the sky. Whatever’s going on, this is frightening stuff. Even more frightening, in its own way, is the scene on the lower half of the spread. It’s exactly the same street drawn from exactly the same perspective, but here everyone is going about their daily business, blithely unaware of the apocalypse lurking just a few days away. What is especially significant are the various texts and tweets we see hovering over people’s heads. They are a forceful visual reminder of the way various devices and the social media they enable have insinuated their way into and subtly changed our lives. That this change leaves us uniquely and terribly vulnerable in ways that would have been unthinkable without that technology is one of the main themes of the story.

In any event, this is an intriguing and oddly unsettling way of opening the series. The creators don’t give us much time to dwell on its implications, though, as we quickly move on to some character development with Aaron, our young hearing-impaired hero who is having boyfriend trouble. While he’s trying to deal with his boyfriend Ryan blanking his texts, he starts checking message boards (‘raddit’? Really?[1]) and comes across the kind of hyperbolic fluff-fest you tend to find on social media – someone enthusing wildly about an image that “will change everything”. Being a curious young man, Aaron clicks on the image and the ‘happy sloth’ is revealed in all its mesmeric glory.


This sloth is just… great.

In terms of its function in the plot, the ‘happy sloth’ doesn’t need to be either happy or a sloth. It could be anything really. It was Alan Moore who revealed (perhaps mischievously) that he was once told that comics with either apes on the cover or people crying tended to sell well, a trend he subtly sent up in Promethea with the Weeping Gorilla comic. Something similar is going on here. The ‘happy sloth’ is just that – an image of a sloth apparently smiling with its arm raised across its body, one thumb extended in the universal ‘thumbs up’ sign. The hypnotic circles behind it are weird to be sure, but the image itself is totally innocuous. Its effects, however, are considerably less so.

Aaron doesn’t respond to the image, but his friends do. They talk (or text) about a ‘tingling’ sensation throughout their bodies, a sense of euphoria, an overwhelming and unaccountable feeling of positivity. The reason for Aaron’s lack of response to the image is explained in a somewhat clunky piece of dialogue between Aaron and his friend Sarah – he is effectively colour-blind. The rest of that conversation is nicely done, though. Sarah feels somewhat upset that she can’t share in the experience of viewing the image with Aaron, while, with an outsider’s perspective, Aaron begins to get some serious misgivings at just how quickly the image has spread.

We then get the obligatory TV news spot on the image. I’m honestly not sure if the American TV news would pick up on something like this quite so quickly, but the creators do a pretty good job of conveying how completely useless the mainstream media are at handling anything outside their experience, while simultaneously projecting an almost entirely specious aura of ‘expertise’. The meme itself is set up to take advantage of this, of course. It’s up to our next protagonist to analyse the phenomenon more sceptically.

Marcus Shaw is a retired Pentagon officer whose eyesight is deteriorating to the extent that he can’t make out much more than the rough shape of things. Which is unfortunate if you want to see, say, photographs of your family, but invaluable if you’re dealing with a mysterious meme that’s being spread virally through the internet. Shaw’s retired Army buddy has seen the meme and is powerfully affected by it – as is the Colonel that Shaw calls as, suspicions aroused, he tries to find out more about the meme. We leave him as he asks to be connected to Barbara Xiang, a consultant who’s published a paper on ‘weaponised memetics’.


The sloth is everywhere.

Okay, so we’ve got two characters who, for different reasons, can’t see properly and are thus not affected by the meme. So far, so good.

The sense of things escalating grows as Aaron walks past a college noticeboard plastered with printouts of the happy sloth, the words ‘praise him’ scrawled underneath each image. Aaron’s isolation from the rest of the world is almost complete at this point. In a knowing nod to the way we tend to isolate ourselves from face to face interactions, Aaron walks past groups of people glued to their phones, lost in a collective euphoria from which he is excluded. His texts to Ryan continue to go unanswered.


Things are getting a bit… intense.

While Tynion uses Aaron as our main viewpoint character, it’s Marcus and now Barbara who provide the exposition. This division of labour is fine up to a point, but it is noticeable when Marcus gets a visit from Barbara that the word count increases dramatically. That said, Tynion’s dialogue is actually pretty good – even when he has Barbara explain what a meme is to someone who should already be very familiar with the idea. During their conversation, however, we get a picture of Marcus’ neighbour crying uncontrollably in his yard, a strange smile fixed on his face. We’ve already seen someone crying at the image a few pages ago; the sense of things changing, of escalating, is uneasily clear.


There’s a lot of crying in this issue. Not all of it blue.

This is reinforced by the following panels of television spots about the meme, which include a smiling President Obama revealing that, yes, his daughter had shown him the meme earlier in the day. One of the panels is in Chinese; another in Russian. The meme is a world-wide phenomenon.

But it’s the next section that sees things come to a disturbing and bloody head. Aaron, Sarah and a couple of other friends meet in a café and, as you might expect, they’re talking about the meme. One of the friends has just been to a philosophy lecture that comprised staring at the meme for a full hour. He’s excited about both the ‘lecture’ and that he was one of the first people to see the happy sloth. The perils of being an ‘early adopter’ become horrifyingly clear, however, when, right on the 12 hour anniversary of seeing the image, he starts bleeding out of his eyes and screaming incoherently, and killing one of his friends with his bare hands. Horror, panic and further violence ensues.  The apocalypse has begun.


See what I mean?

This section is handled pretty well. The speed with which a conversation turns into a murderous rampage is terrifying and Donovan’s art proves to be especially adept at conveying raw violence. My one minor quibble is that it’s not immediately clear precisely how the ‘screamer’ has killed his erstwhile friend. The blood spurt suggests some kind of knife, but closer inspection reveals that the ‘screamer’ is killing with his bare hands.

Aaron is a low-key hero, fending the killer off with a chair while he and Sarah make their escape. There are, to be fair, some standard horror tropes on display here. 911 is constantly busy; news site headlines are used to demonstrate how widespread the crisis is. There are one or two curious moments, though. Would you really stop to take a photograph of your homicidal brother, complete with a bloody trophy in each hand, and then upload that photograph to the internet?  An expert in a TV studio reveals that one of the ‘screamers’ has been subdued long enough to scan its brain, where no activity was found. While his plaintive reply, when asked what that meant, of “I don’t know” works from a horror point of view, it doesn’t really ring true. Most experts would at least discuss the potential implications of that admittedly extraordinary revelation. “Well, it means that, to all intents and purposes, these ‘screamers’ are dead, can’t be cured and need to be shot on sight” would be a start, but maybe that’s just me.


As an expert, you’re rubbish. Make something up. Waffle. You’re on TV for crying out loud!

We switch back to Marcus, though, who has problems of his own in the form of his kindly neighbour turned eye-bleeding lunatic. Marcus should have more difficulty staying alive than he does here. I know he’s seen combat, but he can’t see properly and his opponent is powerful enough to break through a wooden door with his bare hands. To be fair, this sequence is cleverly intercut with both a conversation between Sarah and Aaron and a press conference from the President, who is deciding to shut down the internet. Again, this is very effective – although, after a particularly unpleasant election campaign in which Obama said a number of times that Trump would never become the President of the United States only to be proven wrong, the sight of him turning into a slavering zombie may not now have quite the impact it had in 2014.


I guess there’ll be no more tweets from the POTUS account, then…

Sarah arguably acts selfishly in ditching Aaron in order to go and see her mum (but not before telling Aaron that she had “always” loved him – a revelation that is neither powerful nor, under the circumstances, particularly helpful), but her function in the plot was always as a placeholder for the mysteriously incommunicative Ryan who does, in fact, turn up at the end of the issue, providing Aaron, with a hug, the emotional support he needs, while with his words delivering the intellectual killer blow that circumstances might not dictate, but the ending to this issue definitely needs: “It’s The End of The World”.


We waited all issue for Ryan to appear – just so he could say… this.

Except it isn’t. At least not yet. This is only the end of Day One, as the caption helpfully reminds us. We have already seen Day Three, after all.

You may have detected that my engagement with this issue waned a bit towards the end. You’d be right. Tynion is a good writer, but not (quite) yet a great one.  There’s lots to like in this issue – the idea of the killer meme is original and it’s explored well here. There’s already been some scientific research about how regular engagement with social media through handheld devices is ‘rewiring’ the human brain, and most of us have probably been scolded at one time or another for cutting ourselves off from people with which we are physically present in order to interact with people whose presence is digital. The viral or cult-like way certain ‘fads’ take off and spread around the world is also used here to good effect. As an introduction to the threat, the issue works. By the end of the issue, we understand the nature of the threat well enough. What we don’t understand is its origin or how to stop it. Fair enough. We’ve got two more issues for that.

Where the issue falls flat is in its characterisation and pacing. Both Marcus and Aaron are engaging, but Aaron is just a little too ‘generic’ (and I know that’s an odd thing to say about a gay, hearing-impaired, colour blind college student) to truly grab the imagination. He spends the issue alternately moping, questioning and running away. These activities have admittedly kept him alive, but they’re yet to make him a compelling protagonist. Marcus, on the other hand, is almost too perfect for the story – the eyesight-impaired intelligence man who has the connections and knowledge to (maybe) get things done. As his main function in this issue has been to help the reader better understand the nature of the threat, it remains to be seen how engaging a character he’s going to be, but to be fair to Tynion he does do dialogue pretty well. That has certainly been the case here.

So, this is a good – but not perfect – start to a series that has the potential to be very interesting indeed. Does the series fulfil that potential? Roll on issue 2!

[1] ‘Reddit’ is actually mentioned later on, oddly enough.