October 12, 2020

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L.A. Stories: A look at 3 Satirical Scifi Comics


Last year I was reading Crowded, Friendo and The New World all around the same time, and I noticed some plot and thematic similarities. Each is a distinctive story, but they are all near-future social satire stories set in Los Angeles. They are all skewering different modern phenomena like the invasiveness of marketing, the gig economy, and reality TV. And they are all stories where the messy overlap between business and government is pushed (in varying ways) to its logical conclusions. 

THE NEW WORLD - The New World tells the story of a post-nuclear attack America, where 5 major cities (including Washington) have been destroyed as a result of the “Second Civil War”, and what was the US has re-formed into 4 separate nations, the most prosperous of which is a larger, more powerful New California. The story focuses on Stella Maris, one of the stars of a very popular television show in New California called “The Guardians” which is essentially a combination of Cops, The Running Man and American Idol. Guardians are bounty hunters/law enforcement that are given a target and a week to track that target down. Stella also happens to be the granddaughter of Herod, President of New California. Stella’s a popular Guardian but she’s not the most popular Guardian; audiences get to vote on whether the Guardian executes the captured fugitive. Unlike other Guardians, Stella never kills the fugitive. Her next assignment gets very, very complicated.

CROWDED - The government allows Reapr (a crowdfunding assassination app) to exist. It started when some cabinet members were assassinated and it was traced back to a crowdfunding campaign. The government couldn’t stop it, it became popular. They tried everything but couldn’t shut it down. Anyone can start a campaign on anyone, and if you get a second person to fund it you’re in business. Anyone can collect on a campaign by killing the target. But after the campaign is over, you can’t start another one against the person. Law enforcement couldn’t stop it so now they just allow it and penalize it with red tape. In Crowded, everyone is trying to kill Charlotte Ellison (Charlie). Someone has started a Reapr campaign against her and the total is quickly over a million dollars. Charlie finds Vita on Dfend to hire her as a bodyguard. Charlie lives entirely in the gig economy. She drives for Muver and Drift. She rents out her car to people on Wheelsy. She rented an old dress out to someone on Kloset. She walks dogs on Dogstroll. She babysits on Citysitter and loans money on Moneyfriender. She tutors calculus. She spends time with folks on Palrent. And everyone wants to kill her. All sorts of craziness ensues.

FRIENDO - The Bernays Act is now law, in the near future. It re-defines the planet Earth as a non-stop, completely immersive marketing environment in which all global citizens are participants. Consent for any and all marketing activity worldwide is granted, and it is no longer possible to mount legal challenges against brands and media agencies for any privacy violations or injuries sustained during promotional activity. Rachael surprises Leo with a present, the new Glaze smart glasses, which include the “Friendo” VR search engine/best buddy. The Friendo avatar is created by the glasses by asking a person just four questions (from which they can infer a scary amount about a person). Leo answers the questions and then his new buddy Jerry shows up (who weirdly reminds Leo of his college roommate). Jerry’s ethical protocols are erased in the power surge, and The Manufacturer decides not to recall them but instead to see what Jerry does. Leo and Jerry rob a Cornutopia store but the manufacturer bails them out on the basis that this was marketing activity on behalf of the Glaze smart glasses, which is protected by the Bernays Act. The Manufacturer then agrees to sponsor them if they keep robbing the stores while Leo is wearing the glasses. Things get weird and messy.

 

While there are some substantial differences among all of these stories, they're all excellent reads, and they all have some common themes. They all involve abdication by government of essential functions such as protection of citizenry, a merger between government and entertainment industry which, among other things, allows companies and major industries to function with impunity, outside of government regulation. They also delve into surrender of individual privacy and autonomy (the right to be left alone) by people in exchange for the opportunity to be famous, or for convenience, or for safety. The big driver in these situations seems to be a lack of economic security. This leads to individuals constantly needing to work as part of “gig economy” in order to survive, and the willingness of people to put everything they have up for sale or rent, and be willing to sacrifice their safety and well-being for money or notoriety.

They're also all set in Los Angeles. That setting makes sense to me. L.A. is the capital of entertainment, including reality television which wrings entertainment value out of anything and everything, including human suffering and misery. So it makes sense that in L.A, you'd have (in The New World) a reality show that's like Cops and The Running Man, hunting down fugitives.  In Crowded, you've got people paying more and more to be part of a crowdfunding campaign to kill someone, and it becoming a huge media sensation.  And in Friendo, Leo goes and his bonkers interactive marketing AI go crazy and rob a series of stores and everyone makes a successful viral marketing campaign out of it. All of these stories make sense as media spectacle, and demonstrations of the ways in which economic insecurity can lead to all sorts of issues, and the media and government response is not to try to solve those issues but instead to monetize them for more spectacle.  L.A. also conjures images of trendy, hip, technologically advanced people. Lots of creative types living as part of the gig economy. A city that's incredibly car dependent (hence the need for Uber or the equivalent included in comics). 

What you might also notice about all of these ideas is that they are all pretty reflective of our reality right now. And that's what some of the best sci-fi does - it puts a mirror up to our current society by pushing the absurdities to the extreme. Honestly, these stories don't have to push very hard right now. The theme of "abdication by government of essential functions" feels even closer to home in 2020 than it did when these stories came out a few years ago. These are all excellent reads, and interesting thematic parallels. Art is a reflection of the times we're living in, so it definitely makes sense that these ideas would make it into comics, as they are very much part of the zeitgeist.

 

The New World by Ales Kot, Tradd Moore, Heather Moore, Clayton Cowles, and Tom Muller, published by Image Comics

Crowded by Christopher Sebela, Ted Brandy, Ro Stein, Triona Farrell and Cardinal Rae, published by Image Comics

Friendo by Alex Paknadel, Martin Simmonds, Dee Cunniffe, and Taylor Esposito, published by Vault Comics