Of “Here”, Chris Ware, and transcendence in the graphic novel.

There are numerous developments that have traversed my inbox this week, so it was a bit of a debate with myself as to whether I would blog about technology or a new graphic novel that is hit the streets this week. Moved by my artistic side, I decided to comment on a glowing review, by none other than Chris Ware, of the graphic novel Here. The “game-changing” graphic novel is the work of artist, illustrator and apparent bass player Richard McGuire.

According to Ware’s review which appeared in the guardian, the idea for the book originated with a short story in the pages of RAW in 1989.

“Across six black-and-white pages, it simply pictured the corner of a room from a fixed viewpoint, projecting a parade of moments, holidays, people, animals, biology, geology – everything, it seems, that defines and lends human life meaning – on to windows of space labelled by year (1971, 1957, 1999, 100,097BC). Birthdays, deaths, dinosaurs. In 36 panels, the universe.”

After putting down the magazine, Ware says, “It was the first time I had had my mind blown.” In other words, in those few short pages, in what was for all intents and purposes a comic, the author was able to transcend time and space by evoking the thought of the reader to probe deeper into their own existence. Ware continues,

“You could say it’s the space of the room, the arbitrary geometry imposed by a human mind on a space for reasons of shelter and as a background to this theatre of life. But you could also claim it is the reader, your consciousness where everything is pieced together and tries to find, and to understand, itself. This is a big step forward for graphic novels, but it is so much more than that. With those first six pages in 1989, McGuire introduced a new way of making a comic strip, but with this volume in 2014, he has introduced a new way of making a book.”

 

Here by Richard McGuire
Here by Richard McGuire

Wow, what a review, and by a legend no less! I will have to get it this book, but it also made me think—again—about the power of visual narrative and perhaps the power of art in general. I admit that at times i can get so wrapped up in moving my story forward and completing each panel with all the technical 3D gyrations and rendering passes, that I might forget about the potential power of the narrative itself. Ware and McGuire are visionaries in the field of comics and visual narrative. Ware breaks the boundaries of time and space continually in books like Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, and most recently with Building Stories. He engages readers to stop not only to think but to touch and even to make. This takes the already multi-modal experience that is so unique to comics into new dimensions literally and conceptually.

I believe that the highest achievement of any literary form is to make you think about your world and your place in it—maybe even your purpose in life. Having your “mind blown” seems too lofty a goal, but as I creep toward the midway point in The Lightstream Chronicles, I think about the day when it may be in print, hardbound and laying open while nestled in the lap of a reader. As they turn the page, they pause, look across the silent room—and think.

Nice.

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The synthetic human may be closer than we think.

It seems like a trope, but the synthetic humans of stories like Blade Runner, and Prometheus are not that far-fetched. We’re tinkering with this everyday and the march toward a synthetic human is already underway. While we may still be many years away from the T-Class model that is featured in The LIghtstream Chronicles , it looks like it could happen long before we get to 2159. On page 101 we see a warm, breathing, touchable, figure that for all intents and purposes could be human. It begs the question, in the future, whether or not we will be able to tell or not.

There are some interesting developments in humanoid synthetics already on the table, so to speak. The University of Arizona at Phoenix recently began using synthetic cadavers with a beating heart, flowing blood and a liver that makes it’s own bile.1. The company that manufactures the cadaver SynDaver™ Labs also has a skinned version which has “…the ability to control arms, legs, jaw, eyes, respiration, and pulse using a separate wireless tablet.”

The synthetic cadaver.

On the potentially scarier side of the equation is DARPA the Department of Defense research group. These are the people that brought us robotic mules that can outrun a human, robotic soldiers and warrior drones. But that’s old hat now, and DARPAs new focus is on biotech, stuff like living tissues, and artificial DNA. According to web site Motherboard, “The goal is to create man-made, living supermaterials that can be used for next-gen mechanical and electrical products, self-repairing materials, renewable fuels, solar cells, and so on.”2

In the April 2014 article Motherboard continues, “Just last week researchers manipulated DNA to engineer the first synthetic, custom “designer” chromosome, “designed on a computer and made from scratch in a laboratory,” as the Economist explained it. It’s being heralded as the first step toward a man-made artificial organism.” You might want to check out an earlier blog that paints a bleak picture of what could go wrong here. Of course, DARPA paints this as “all good” and all designed to benefit mankind. After all, what could possibly go wrong?

Out of Vancouver, BC, comes The Synthetic Human Project or Synthius project. This is a huge endeavor that brings together people like Autodesk (they guys who make my 3D software) and the University of British Columbia to, “…fully simulate the organic whole of a real human.”3

There is actually tons of research going on in all aspects of synthetic humanoids, humanoid robots and artificial life. And of course there are sex robots, too. And people think I make this stuff up.

 

1. http://ktar.com/22/1673453/UA-College-of-Medicine-cuts-deal-for-synthetic-cadavers

2. http://motherboard.vice.com/read/darpas-new-biotech-unit-will-try-to-create-artificial-life-forms

3. http://grand-nce.ca/newsandmedia/news-container/2014/the-synthetic-human-project

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A Science Fiction Graphic Novel About Design and the Human Condition

Page 100

We’ve reached page 100 and in some cases, The Lightstream Chronicles is already longer than many graphic novels. Nevertheless, as meaty as the author has worked it to be, there is so much more in the developing story. I was asked recently, “Where is it going?”

Expect some intrigue, angst and an action packed climax, but as with most science fiction and even design fiction, it is about people.

If you know anything about the author, you know that I’m a designer, heavily ensconced in research in the area of Design Fiction, Speculative Design, and Design Futures. The Lightstream Chronicles is a foray into a future world where we, like it or not, have been changed by the design and technology that we have embraced over the years. We are different. Our behaviors and expectations have changed. This is what design does to society and culture. Don’t get me wrong; it is not necessarily a bad thing. Design is a product of which we are as human beings. It is a reflection of humanity. Hence, it will reflect both bad and good, something that I believe is not a “fixable” tweak in our DNA. It is the essence of our design. In many respects, without it, we cease to be human. We have the choice between good and evil and depending on what we choose, our design and the various manifestations of it will reflect those choices.

As I wrote,

“In The Lightstream Chronicles, the author creates a science fiction graphic novel and asks that the reader ponder the same self-rationalizing tendency as it applies to slick new enhancing technologies and the “design” decisions that fostered them. It looks at not only the option to make the decision, but the ethics of whether the decision should be made, as well as society’s competency to choose wisely.1”

Perhaps then, it becomes a graphic novel about the human condition. In a way then, it is like most fiction, but it is that and more. It also examines where we find meaning, especially when most of what we would consider our greatest fears—of death, disease, physical or mental decline, of enough food and water, sustaining the environment or having enough energy—have vanished. Is it enough to satisfy us, to fulfill us, and give us meaning or does it leave us wanting?

The only thing that seems to have survived the grasp of man and his ability to wipe it away is evil. The perfection of synthetic humans would seem to be the answer, though even then, man has found a way to twist them. And if we become the creators are not our creations still made in our image?

What do you think?

 

1.Denison, E. Scott. When Designers Ask, “What If?”. Electronic MFA Thesis. Ohio State University, 2013. OhioLINK Electronic Theses and Dissertations Center.
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