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 between 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.
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.
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” 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?
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.
 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.