The Surrogates [Buy Now]

By Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele

Top Shelf Productions

208 pages, $19.95

110 Per¢
[Buy Now]

By Tony Consiglio

Top Shelf Productions

136 pages, $12.95

Today, technology and entertainment offer an infinite number of ways to escape from the dull drudgery of daily life. Whole virtual worlds like Second Life exist where avatars interact with one another — buying and selling, walking unfamiliar streets, even slipping into the shadows with strangers for a quick romp — with no fear of physical consequence. No hangovers, pregnancy, STDs, or getting knifed, and no concern that you, as you are in the flesh, acne, love-handles, razor-burn, and all, will fail to measure up.

But how much escape is enough? At what point do online living, reality television, and celebrity worship no longer amplify or distract from but, in fact, replace our actual lives? At what point does the real you become less important than the fantasy? That’s the anxiety shared in two very different — but also rather similar — new graphic novels from Top Shelf.

The Surrogates introduces us to a near-future world in which Atlanta has bloated outwards into one huge sprawling Central Georgia Metropolis. It’s a world where people, often correspondingly bloated, hole up in closet-sized apartments and send youthful-looking, physically flawless, cybernetic surrogates out into the world. Sensory data is collected by the surrogates and fed back to the owner/operators. The experience is seamless. You see, hear, taste, touch, and smell in realtime along with your surrogate (advanced models even offer record and playback mode for reliving the good stuff).

A lone vigilante leaping between rooftops in the rain — nicknamed SteepleJack by the police pursuing him — is out to change all that. His modus operandi is swooping down on unsuspecting surrogates and frying their circuits with sufficient voltage to leave their owners with nothing but people-sized paperweights. It’s a sad day indeed when the police have to break the news to one owner that his top-of-the line surrogate is beyond repair — totaled. The poor guy hasn’t even made the first payment and was holding off purchase of an insurance policy until his next paycheck. Worse, he traded in his old surrogate for a down payment on the new one and now has no “body” to live his life in except his own. This, of course, is SteepleJack’s intent. “Live!” is the last word uplinked to operators before SteepleJack destroys their proxies.

The creepiness of living in a society where any attractive stranger you happen to meet at a club not only could be, but probably is, some ruined husk rotting before a computer console far away seeps through in every panel of the story.

Savannah College of Art and Design grad Brett Weldele augments the effect with sketchy pencils evocative of old school Frank Miller and a brilliant use of color, literally soaking each page in moodiness.

Throughout the graphic novel the tale is punctuated by artifacts from the dystopia portrayed, such as academic papers on the sociology of the surrogate, classified and personal ads, and advertisements from surrogate manufacturer Virtual Self (their tag line is Life… Only Better).

Writer/artist Tony Consiglio takes a different approach to the idea of living outside oneself in 110 Per¢. Here he explores celebrity culture through the lives of a handful of members of a fan club called “MoFo (Mature Older Fans of) 110 Per¢.” 110 Per¢, of course, is the boy band they’re obsessed with: hugely successful, their pictures slapped all across the internet, playing for sold out stadiums of squealing pre-adolescents (and several MoFos, of course).

The story begins with a recognizable absurdity. Gerty, among the most obsessed of the MoFos, follows the band’s tour bus and digs the remains of half-eaten fast food, ketchup packets, and napkins from the trash they left behind with the view to parade the prizes before her friends.

Gerty’s husband and children are forgotten as she stares into a computer monitor for most of the day, downloading 110 Per¢ videos, feeding her obsession further on eBay, and losing herself entirely in fan sites and chat rooms.

The local chapter of MoFo 110 Per¢ includes Gerty, Cathy, who is lonely, overweight, and without the self-confidence to stand up for herself, and Sasha, a 50-something wife, as well as many other women and a small handful of men. One of those men, Eddie, harbors nothing but contempt for the band and their devotees but attends the meetings religiously in search of women who, in his words, are “…starved for attention and some much needed banging.”

It’s the mix of the ugly and the sad with the touching moments that makes the book hit home. Pathetic as lonely and longsuffering Cathy’s devotion to the boy band may be, it doesn’t make her coworker any less of a dick when he sexually harasses her (she dismisses it as “they don’t mean anything by it when they do that stuff’) while his friends laugh behind a cubicle.

The question of what is so great about how humans interact in the real world arises alongside the question of what is the attraction of living vicariously.

In both The Surrogates and 110 Per¢, there are characters who, in moments of clarity, are able to see themselves clearly, and are snapped back into reality by exactly that. There are also characters who outright refuse to return to the unpolished world of here and now, no matter how obvious the fact that they are deceiving themselves may be … kind of like in the real world.

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