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.

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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.

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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’.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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”.

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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.

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