Corporate Conflict and Homicidal X-Monkeys: Hickman and Ringuet’s ‘Transhuman’ (a semi-critical review)

The trade paperback cover

This is the second in an ongoing series of reviews aimed at persuading people to try comics/graphic novels for the first time; hopefully it can also be of some use to those who already enjoy this tragically underrated art form.

Transhuman is a cautionary satire about two corporations pitted against each other in a race to dominate the emerging market for human modification. Written by Jonathan Hickman, and illustrated by J.M. Ringuet; it was originally released in four parts before being collected into trade paperback form in 2009 and is published by Image Comics.

I feel obliged to warn you at this point that Transhuman is an adult comic and there are a few scenes which aren’t suitable for children or anyone who might be easily offended. Now that’s out of the way we can proceed with the review:

One company, ‘Humonics’, strives to create the first ‘post-human’ through cybernetic/mechanical enhancement of the body, while the other, ‘ChimeraCorp’, seeks to do the same through the use of genetic engineering. This is a controversial area of scientific research which may have alarming or exciting consequences, depending on your point of view, and Hickman’s choice of subject matter may seem particularly prescient when you consider how quickly these fields are expected to advance in the near future. Irrespective of how these sciences are likely to progress in our lifetimes, their relative merits in Hickman’s science fiction are clearly defined within the story: The genetic engineering approach to becoming post-human is portrayed as being inherently risky but yields the most exciting, if somewhat imperfect, innovations; while the cybernetic method is far easier to apply, with fewer risks and is more obviously viable as a commercial enterprise – though its products feel gimmicky and altogether less ambitious when viewed through the lens of human evolution.

Test Monkey 12287 aka 'Rick'

The story is told retrospectively, in a quasi-documentary style which features interviews with individuals who were important to the development of these technologies; including the scientists, their test subjects and the exploitative financiers who back the competing businesses. There are no easily identifiable heroes in Transhuman, only victims and villains – and I shall leave it up to you to decide which characters (or corporations) might fall into what category.

The art is, like in Hickman’s other creator owned works, outstanding. However, unlike Pax Romana or The Nightly News, where Hickman as both artist and writer chose to abandon the convention of panels in favour of  full-page graphic designs, the layout of Transhuman is generally that of a typical comic. This approach suits the documentary style of storytelling used in this comic better than Hickman’s usual layouts would, with each panel being equivalent to a camera shot, following the narrator (who is, as ever with Hickman, identified by black speech bubbles containing white text) around Miami or focusing in on an interviewed character.

Dr Anton Rebere explains the meaning of "transhuman" to Hickman's narrator.

Throughout the book Ringuet’s panels are mottled with black flecks, as though he flicked a brush dipped in ink at the finished drawing, emphasising the murkiness of the world we are being shown. It also adds a grainy quality to the images which helps to reinforce the idea that the panels are individual stills from a documentary film, similarly the clever use of colour to achieve a realistic lighting quality within Ringuet’s spiky lines is also conducive to this effect.

The most obvious interpretation of Transhuman is to see it as a warning about the possible direction transhumanist technologies might take humanity in the context of our consumerist society. If the evolution of homo sapiens becomes commodified then its future will not be determined by what is best for us as a species but instead by what appeals the most to the whims of consumers or which can successfully navigate a convoluted legal battle. It is a frightening thought: that the evolution of humanity could be shaped by a PR campaign, and that is precisely what Transhuman invites us to contemplate. Such an interpretation of the book would therefore be justified, however it does ignore a deeper message, one that is implicit in the various interviews throughout the book and in the outcomes revealed to us in Chapter Four: that human beings cannot be trusted to control their own evolution. The primary motivation for virtually all the characters, be they scientists, financiers, corporate CEOs or volunteer test-subjects is almost always money, fame or something petty and venal, while those few who do lay claim to any kind of higher purpose are obvious hypocrites. When transhumanist products are finally brought to market the public, who as passive consumers are absent from the story until this point, completely fail to understand the potential of what is being offered to them and make selfish, cowardly choices which have potentially disastrous consequences for their species.

Can you guess which popular Marvel character this chap is based on?

Ultimately, in spite of Hickman’s remarkable insight and ambition, when compared to many writers in comics, it is useful to remember, when considering the implications of the story, that Transhuman is a humorous take on serious science. The inclusion of implausible super-powers in the story (such as Athena’s ability to fly, or Test Monkey Rick’s ocular force-blasts), parodic references to other comics like the X-Men and We3, and the savage mock-foreword provided by Anton Rebere (a character within in the comic) should serve as reminders for us to take the scientific content with a pinch of salt, though Hickman’s observations about society remain valid.

In fact, I would argue that the entire comic is one long, dark joke at humanity’s expense, with an unexpected and brilliantly delivered punchline waiting for its readers at the end.

All the more reason for you to put aside any lingering reservations and give it a try!

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Note to readers:

I have tried to limit your exposure to plot spoilers in this review, though doing so unfortunately inhibits the article’s capacity for critical content. In future I may write spoiler-free reviews and separate spoiler-tastic critical pieces for your delectation.

As always, any feedback you could give would be greatly appreciated.

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