Meme Mines and Meanderings – Memetic Issue 2 (2014)

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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