The Surrogates: Flesh and Bone
Writer: Robert Venditti
Artist: Brett Weldele
Top Shelf Productions
It’s July, 2039 — and if you thought the Nineties and Oughts saw America at its most confused, socially-disconnected, and cruisin’-for-an-evolutionary-bruisin’, just wait until you get a load of what author Robert Venditti has in store for you per the projected timeline of The Surrogates: Flesh and Bone.
You, dear reader, might just live to see this. And if that notion creeps you right the hell out, it’s at least some measure that you have preserved what we may laughingly call your "humanity." Let’s see how long that lasts, shall we?
In his original comic series/graphic novel The Surrogates, author Robert Venditti showed us an all-all-too-plausible near-future America where humanity’s self-image disconnect is already well and truly into a bad case of the skateboard-wobbles. It’s a place where the commonly-accepted lifestyle involves tooling around the so-called ‘real world’ (via sensory-feedback telepresence) in perfected, idealized (and exclusive/expensive) artificial bodies called Surrogates — and where only the disadvantaged have-nots, the stubbornly old-school, and/or the rabidly-technophobic demure.
The sequel is actually a prequel, set some 15 years before the events of The Surrogates. It finds protagonist Agent Greer a younger, less experienced (and notably slimmer) Central Georgia Metropolis cop investigating an apparent back alley hate crime involving three well-dressed, white male perps attacking a single homeless black man named Zachary Hayes (He is hospitalized as a result, and soon thereafter dies). The Man beats down a brother once again, so it would seem — and it’s all the spark the muggy July streets of Central Georgia Metropolis needs to light the fire under techno-social mistrust, fear and anger.
Quickly revealed to the reader: Skin embedded in the threads of the pipe the homeless man used to try to defend himself turns out to have come not from a human assailant, but from a Surrogate unit registered to an odiously wealthy businessman named Newcomb. And guilty or not, Newcomb is one of those men with the money and legal firepower to take on a charge of Surrogate-born murder-by-telepresence.
Despite the glaringly prevalent, crucial science fiction element, the arc of Flesh and Bone quickly spools out into a surprisingly straight-faced police procedural, laced with elements of societal boomerang-comeuppance that would make Tom Wolfe cream that little white suit of his.
Brett Weldele’s spare-yet-evocative art style is the perfect compliment to Venditti’s dialogue, which is still as deliberately snappy, dry and cynical as the most form-perfect film noir (Grizzled detective to green cop outside the interrogation room: “You called me out here to tell me that? Of course he’s lying: That’s what suspects do.”) The crime-drama tropes that stubbornly hang on in this sci-fi procedural nevertheless have their own deft cyberpunk spins. Consider Venditti’s new school notion of a brothel madame’s ‘menagerie’ — a set of five female Surrogates, all fantasy staples — the stocking-and-garter blonde bombshell, the sultry ebony fly-girl, the pigtailed Japanese schoolgirl — animated in rotation, sometimes finishing each others’ sentences as they circle, caress and tease their gentleman caller. How can the genre-staple, world-weary, man-scorned Whore With A Heart of Gold hope to compete with that?
The halfway-alert reader will instantly distrusts the couple’s mutual, spousal, end-user satisfaction with their new vanity-project bedroom toy.
Because this is a prequel — and Venditti damn well knows that the reader knows it — there are multiple tracks of looming unease set up in Flesh and Bones that come to pass in The Surrogates. So we see Greer’s wife waiting for him at home in her new Surrogate body — a trite, stockinged-sexpot-model from a lingerie catalog. He likes it, and she likes that he likes it… but the halfway-alert reader will instantly distrusts the couple’s mutual, spousal, end-user satisfaction with their new vanity-project bedroom toy.
It’s not all doom and gloom, however. We’re treated to a few moments of comic relief. If your police-issued Surrogate goes offline, just imagine how your wife might react if you rolled into the apartment at 2AM piloting the hastily-reassigned surrogate of some random, unshaven man.
As with The Surrogates, Flesh and Bone bookends each chapter with in-depth supplemental materials that bring Venditti’s 2039 America to documented life. Venditti provides daily dispatches and editorials from the e-newspapers of the day; customer-base inquiry surveys from the Virtual Self Corporation; and pamphlets from the technophobic Church of the Prophet (they will cause plenty of trouble in years to come), each written with as much careful attention to detail and straight-faced believability as the entire graphic novel they punctuate. Robert Venditti has shown us a future that is, in the vernacular, “not pretty” — even if it seems like (and that’s the important word) every other inhabitant is.
On the outside, at any rate.
Addendum: The Surrogates, Flesh and Bone is a prequel to a five-issue comic book series collectively known as The Surrogates. A film based on the comic series — called simply Surrogates, starring Bruce Willis — is scheduled for release September 25, 2009. h+ will be publishing an interview with author Robert Venditti about the original comic series and the film during the week of September 21.
Chris Hudak (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a former San Francisco Zoo penguin recorder, a marginal Japanese-language student, and protagonist of the Harlan Ellison short story ‘Keyboard’ — no, really.