The issue starts with the kind of ‘Tales of the Green Lantern Corps’ story that used to appear as a back-up strip in the main comic back in the 80s. Except this one ends with neither a neat clever twist nor a moment of poignant heroism. The first three and a bit pages of this issue tell the story of an unnamed female Lantern, naïve and altruistic, who is recruited by the Guardians to take the Universal Ring to the Planet of the Apes Earth. On trying to return to her own space and time, she realises that she has essentially been shafted by the Guardians (why anyone ever thought they were suitable beings to run the universe’s police force, I really don’t know) and decides to do her best to save this Earth from its nuclear-powered self-destructive tendencies. Fairly obviously, she fails and you can’t help feeling sorry for her. In the few panels the writers and artist Barnaby Bagenda give her, she comes across as a noble character. In terms of her function in the story, however, it seems to be only to enable Sinestro to take her Green Lantern ring along with the device that enables it to function in this reality. This section ends with Sinestro becoming a Green Lantern once more (for some reason, the ring is at full charge), which, let’s face it, no one wants to see at this point.
Then, the focus moves to Hal, Zira and her ape friends who are looking for Cornelius and the strange ring that he’s been analysing. Their search is interrupted by the appearance of Ursus’ army, who, demoralized and dishevelled, are fleeing from their battle with Cornelius and his mutant ring-slingers and, thanks to some rather nice Bagenda artwork, look thoroughly traumatized by their experience. Hal eventually meets up with Guy and the other Lanterns who have (just about) survived their encounter with the Reds last issue. Guy gives Hal one of the ring-enabling devices and Hal gratefully ‘lanterns up’. During this conversation, however, it turns out that Zira has disappeared, taking Nova and a couple of other apes with her, to continue the search for Cornelius.
They cross into the Forbidden Zone, encountering exactly the same kind of psychic ‘warnings’ that appear in the second film, and are finally confronted by a red mutant-lantern who attacks them before being warned off by Cornelius.
What follows is kind of touching, although also a bit confusing. When Cornelius first appears to Zira, he is on what appears to be a yellow construct gurney, presumably an indication of the severity of the injuries inflicted on him last issue. When he turns into a Star Sapphire (because he loves Zira and, you know, is pleased to see her), the gurney disappears never to be seen again. There are, however, signs that he is hurting, not least the thin cracks that are appearing on his costume(s) and his hands. I suspect that wearing the universal ring may well have some unpleasant side effects.
There’s a nice bit of conversation between Zira and Cornelius, who grants a universal ring to his beloved. Against her better judgement, she takes it and turns her attention to Ursus who is held captive (and presumably has been prisoner all this time) floating above them. It is at this point that the issue ends with the revelation that Grodd has taken control of the remnants of Ursus’ army and the Red Lanterns have allied themselves with him. I would imagine that we’re all extraordinarily shocked by that. No? Oh, well.
This was a decent enough issue, but, to use a phrase beloved of Weird Science‘s Jim Werner, it’s a lot of set-up. There are props and characters moving all over the stage. They’re dancing around each other for the most part and have yet to interact in any meaningful way. There are, as I see it, four key factions developing here. There’s Hal and the other GLs, of course. Their job is to try and stop Sinestro and (pretty literally) put the Universal Ring back in its box. Then there’s Cornelius, the current wielder of the Universal Ring, intent on bringing about a peaceful utopia through dishing out as many rings as possible to those he deems worthy. There are hints that this is not entirely his own idea. The Universal Ring, remember, does have a desire to reproduce itself. The third faction is Grodd and the Reds, bolstered by Ursus’ army. The Reds want the Universal Ring, too. What Grodd wants is unclear, but I’m guessing that bananas are not as high on the list as Guy seemed to think last issue. I would imagine escape, power and revenge are a bit more prominent. Then, finally, there’s Sinestro who kickstarted this whole thing and, four issues in, still hasn’t got what he wanted but doesn’t seem remotely bothered by that. Next issue is the second to last one, so I’d imagine these different factions will start to come together in interesting and hopefully entertaining ways then. We shall see.
Taken on its own, this issue is a little disappointing. While Bagenda’s art remains very enjoyable and the story is easy enough to follow, its focus is almost entirely on characters meeting other characters and alliances forming and/or changing as a result. That said, I am looking forward to where we’re heading, not least because I want to see what Sinestro’s really up to. This meeting of the Planet of the Apes universe and the Green Lantern one remains intriguing and entertaining enough. I’m fully expecting things to pick up next issue.
Last issue’s introduction to this crossover series gave us some familiar elements from both franchises and enough hints as to the unfolding plotline to persuade me that reading issue 2 would be worth my while. One of the most sympathetic ape characters of the original movie franchise, Cornelius made a good viewpoint character and his transformation during that first issue (culminating in him wearing a Red Lantern uniform and killing a mutant) was both interesting and more than a little disturbing. Add in a de-powered Hal Jordan washing up on the shores of a ruined New York and there’s certainly potential for a good story here. Is that potential developed in issue 2? Let’s find out…
Issue 2 opens with Hal waking up on the aforementioned beach with the help of some less than tender prodding from one of Zaius’ apes. Hal reacts pretty much as you might expect and, without the power of his ring, is eventually subdued. What happens to Hal through the rest of this issue is almost identical to what happens to Taylor, Charlton Heston’s character, in the original film: the hosing with water, the beatings, the discussing him as if he’s a lesser animal. The differences are telling, though. Hal gets to keep his clothes on and, oddly, he gets to keep his ring, too – a concession whose justification (that removing it was too much effort) is less than convincing given the brutality and single-mindedness we’ve seen from the ruling apes so far.
The idea of Hal as surrogate Taylor is only reinforced when we realise very early on in this issue that Taylor is dead, killed by the mutants in an attempt to retrieve information from his mind. This confirms that the book is indeed set in an alternative timeline for both Lanterns and apes. With no Taylor to blow it up at the end of the second movie, maybe this Earth has a shot at survival after all. The sequence in which Cornelius finds the dead Taylor and manages to restrain himself from killing the mutants responsible is really rather affecting. The creative team take Cornelius through the gamut of emotions – from anger at what the mutants have done to Taylor, to the willpower necessary to keep himself from killing them, to compassion (although the colours wrongly show him as a blue lantern at this point, the insignia is that of the Indigo Tribe) for his dead friend. It’s a powerful moment in the book and leads to the next big departure from established Planet of the Apes continuity – Cornelius’ effortless dismantling of the nuclear bomb the mutants had been worshipping. For the best of intentions, Cornelius determines that he is going to make the mutants gods themselves and somehow conjures up additional universal rings to give to them.
Confused? Mystified? It’s a good job we’ve got a big massive infodump coming up then, isn’t it? Not a man to take ‘mind your own business’ for an answer, particularly when one of his friends has mysteriously disappeared, Guy Gardner pays the Guardians a visit and, after some initial wrangling, finds them in a considerably chattier mood than in the last issue. If, like me, you were wondering about the universal ring’s apparent similarity to the phantom ring, you’ll be happy (or slightly disappointed, depending on how you view the revelation) to know that the universal ring is, in fact, a cheap knock-off of the phantom ring, an attempt by guardians less skilled than renegade guardian Rami to replicate his creation. (And, presumably, sell them at street markets and car boot sales all over the galaxy.) This ring, however, is “alive” and has a desire to reproduce itself as well as “pacify”, although what exactly is to be pacified remains unclear. Apparently, the guardians decided this ring wasn’t going to pan out so they exiled it to an Earth that exists in its own time loop separate from the rest of “hypertime”. This is what is known as a ‘technobabble’ explanation and it raises as many questions as it answers, not least of which is the not unreasonably one of why can the Guardians not dispose of their crap properly? Surely, chucking the ring into the heart of a nearby star or black hole would be a better option? Then again, if the ring is, in some sense, ‘alive’ that would be tantamount to murder, wouldn’t it? Perhaps they could have just stuck it in the same vault as Volthoom? Hmmm. Maybe not.
The writers do at least attempt to answer the question of why the universal ring was banished to Ape-Earth and, while I don’t find it all that satisfying myself, it does lead Guy Gardner to do something very odd at the end of the issue, which we’ll get to in a moment. After explaining that Sinestro has used some kind of “sorcery” to locate and activate the universal ring, the Guardians helpfully provide Arisia, Guy and Kilowog with devices that will take them through the ‘chronoscape’ (no, I have no idea either) and will protect them from the universal ring’s “endless hunger”. Okay, then. (There’s a spare one for Hal, too.)
Meanwhile, Hal escapes with some help from some nice apes, Sinestro shows up unexpectedly (he doesn’t twirl his moustache evilly, sadly) and Guy and his two fellow Lanterns go to Belle Reve to pick up this issue’s surprise guest star… which doesn’t really make a lot of sense except in the most broad thematic way. For one thing, if Guy and his fellow Lanterns are successful in rescuing Hal, they have no way of getting the guest star back home. For another, the guest star is not someone I would trust as far as I could throw him. Which is not very far at all. But, this is Guy, this is comic books and crossover comic books at that. We’ll see what happens.
All in all, this is a decent issue. Bagenda’s art remains good. His depictions of Cornelius are particularly impressive, although his Hal looks just a little on the young side at times. The script is generally good, too. We needed some background on the universal ring and that’s what we got, but the revelation that it’s a variation of a superweapon only introduced in the regular Green Lanterns book a few months ago is kind of disappointing. In a way, though, it’s entirely consistent with the approach of the writers so far. We’ve been presented with a quick whirl through some of the more familiar elements, moments and tropes of both series, and this does imbue the story with a rather unfortunate sense of déjà vu. That said, there are indications that we’re about to veer off into more unfamiliar territory and that alone suggests that the series is worth sticking with.
NB: This review first appeared on the Weird Science DC Comics website.
DC fans are experiencing something of a crossover renaissance at the moment. Batman’s hanging out with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on what seems to be a semi-regular basis. The Justice League is currently teaming up with the Power Rangers. Heck, even He-Man and the Thundercats are getting in on the team-up fun. Already in the middle of a sequel to last year’s well-regarded adventure in the Star Trek universe, the Green Lantern gets yet another slice of the crossover pie – this time dipping his toe into the world of one of the most iconic sci-fi movie franchises of all time. Yes, it’s the Planet of the Apes/Green Lantern crossover. Is it a bright shiny ring of a series? Or more of a banana skin? Let’s find out…
Before we do, though, that cover… Ethan van Sciver has long been a fan favourite and it’s not hard to see why. There’s a raw power to the image of the ape hand thrusting towards the sky, the ring glowing on its finger, that is really impressive. The GL corps members hovering in the background look great too – even if their number appears to include a disco ball and a giant onion in a sweater. That the internal artwork doesn’t quite reach van Sciver’s level is a little disappointing but not deal-breakingly so. Barnaby Bagenda’s art is impressive enough, although it is, I would suggest, less polished than his work on Omega Men, although that may be down to colouring issues. On the whole, though, it’s dynamic when it matters and faces are expressive and consistently drawn.
The issue opens with a scene that manages to be dramatic and portentous, while simultaneously raising some troubling questions. On a barren planet, a mysterious hooded figure is engaged in some kind of ritual, apparently drawing on the power of a number of differently coloured Lanterns, each bound and gagged by glowing yellow-orange chains. Now, I’m not a massive Lantern fan, but even I recognise Munk, Saint Walker, Bleez, Gnort, Arkillo and Larfleeze along with a Star Sapphire who is probably Fatality, but it’s difficult to be sure. Whoever this hooded guy is, he must be wielding some pretty impressive power – particularly if he’s captured Larfleeze who, remember, wields the power of an entire corps in his orange ring. What happens to these captive lanterns at the ritual’s climax appears to be fatal and we later see their bodies with smoking holes in their chests. Are we in some kind of alternate reality for the Corps here? Hmmm…
The action shifts to the Planet of the Apes-era Earth where a silent Nova (there is no other kind, I suppose) stands at the edge of a huge crater caused by the impact of what turns out to be a mysterious glowing ring. She’s met by Cornelius who just happens to be out searching for Taylor. This, I think, means we’re somewhere between the first and second movies (the original ones, that is – not the recent remakes). Cornelius takes the ring back to Zira, but already the ring appears to be exerting an influence on him, briefly turning orange at precisely the moment Cornelius is expressing that he can’t leave something as “precious” as the ring lying in a hole in the ground. Aside from being a perhaps ill-advised call-out to The Lord of the Rings, it does hint at the nature of the ring, which seems to amplify (or instil?) the emotions of those near it. There are further hints in the conversation between Cornelius and Zira that follows. As Cornelius expresses his dismay at the warmongering of Zaius and his determination to prevent the general from acquiring the ring, the ring begins to glow a distinctly redder shade of orange.
Which is appropriate, because the next thing we see is the Red Lanterns attacking Oa (which, in itself, is a massive clue that this story does not take place in current continuity) because they believe the Greens have taken Bleez. The Green Lanterns respond as you would expect them to. There’s some nice action here as well as some entertaining banter between Guy Gardner and Hal. Bagenda’s artwork is pretty impressive here, particularly in the panel in which Dex-Starr attacks Arisia. The Green Lanterns deal with the threat of the Reds easily enough and then we’re back to our mysterious hooded figure who reveals himself to be… Sinestro. Of course he is, complete with evil chuckling. We find out that the ritual that started this issue was intended to lead Sinestro to the “universal ring”, presumably the object Cornelius is currently studying. Despite the fact that he still doesn’t possess the ring, he seems pretty happy with himself, the implication being that he knows where it is.
Back to Cornelius who wonders if the ring, now glowing a bright ruby red, is reacting to his voice, before deciding to put it on his finger. Dramatic things happen, including Cornelius crying out in pain and, back on Oa, Hal’s ring telling him that a “cross-chronal disruption” has been detected. The Guardians turn up to reassure Hal that it’s absolutely nothing to worry about, although they do refer to a “relic of an ancient security system”, something that sounds like it just might be worth worrying about. Hal, of course, isn’t satisfied with that and sets off to locate the disturbance and finds out that it’s coming from…. Earth.
On arriving at his homeworld, Hal gets attacked by Sinestro, who tells him that he has found a “true path to victory”. As their battle unfolds, Cornelius is out in the desert struggling with the ring’s energy that, in a rather nice double-page spread, leaps out of his ring and across universes to disrupt Hal’s fight with Sinestro. Things get weird as Hal’s ring loses power, he plunges into New York harbour and struggles to shore only to find himself on the desolate beach made so famous by the first film’s ending, complete with a half-buried Statue of Liberty. This would be a perfect moment to end the issue, but writers Robbie Thompson and Justin Jordan have one more sting in the tail. Cornelius encounters a group of the underground mutants from the second movie who have been drawn to the power of his ring and the issue ends ominously with the mutants bowing down to him in subservience.
Well, that was fun. There are a few issues with this story, but there’s enough going on here to persuade me that picking up the second issue would be a good idea. I suppose the main problems with the story are how it might fit into GL continuity and the overwhelming sense that we’re experiencing a “greatest hits” of the Green Lantern Corps. Oa? Check. Hal and Guy banter? Check. Guardians acting like tremendously unhelpful authoritarian dicks? Check. Hal fighting Sinestro? Check. While I’m not overly concerned about how this fits into GL continuity, I do feel that, on the GL side at least, we’re not really getting much new here. At the moment, it’s the Planet of the Apes elements that are hooking me. I was delighted to see the mutants from the second film make an appearance and I’m very intrigued to see where Cornelius’ meeting with them goes.
Another issue is that, for readers of the current Green Lanterns series, the concept of the ‘universal ring’ might be just a bit too close for comfort to the phantom ring encountered by Simon Baz and Jessica Cruz in recent issues of their book. How enjoyable you find the issue may ultimately boil down to how irritating you find this and/or the portrayal of the GL Corps.
Personally, I enjoyed the issue and think there’s enough impetus here to take the story forward into some interesting places. Bagenda’s art is dramatic when it needs to be and Jordan’s script is easy to follow and, on occasion, witty. The task of bringing two very different fictional universes together is not a straightforward one, and I think, on the whole, the story manages pretty well. Above all, it’s a fun, if not especially challenging, read. It’s worth checking out, particularly if cross-overs are your thing.
NB: This review first appeared in a slightly different form on the Weird Science DC Comics site. Check them out for a whole host of comic reviews.
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.
Things get worse in the second issue of Boom!’s social media apocalypse.
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.
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.
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 (?) 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 – but on the good Dr Crowne. 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?
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.
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.
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!
 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.
 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.
 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.
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?) 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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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!
 ‘Reddit’ is actually mentioned later on, oddly enough.