January 29, 2020

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Thumbs by Sean Chris Lewis and Hayden Sherman

Thumbs
Written by Sean Chris Lewis
Illustrated and Lettered by Hayden Sherman
Published by Image Comics

So when sitting down to write about Thumbs (written by Sean Chris Lewis and Illustrated by Hayden Sherman), I thought to myself, given the news these days, it’s a tough sell to read a story of an America racked by a form of civil war, with what feels like an irreparable divide between sides. And then I turned to my review of The Few, Lewis and Sherman’s collaboration from three years ago. Turns out, that was my reaction the last time I picked up a comic by this team.



By any reasonable assessment, the things that were problems in 2017 are even bigger problems now. However, from the very beginning of this story (which I read in individual issues as they were published) I was completely hooked. Lewis and Sherman have shown they have an incredible grasp of this particular genre, and as great as Sherman’s art was in The Few, it’s at a whole other level in Thumbs. What I’m saying is that Thumbs is a fantastic book and one that you should absolutely pick up, even if you’re wary of an “America is awful and terrible” story.

Charley and Tabitha are kids being raised by Mom. No, not their mom. Mom, a holographic AI program that seems to also have the ability to have a tangible form. They have parents, but they’re essentially a non-factor. They’re busy working and doing other things, and they’ve left the parenting to Mom. Mom is the creation of genius Adrien Camus, who i incredibly influential in spreading technology and interconnectedness to the people. Charley’s nickname is “Thumbs”, based on his video-game skill (but for clarity, I will continue to refer to him as Charley).


As a result of scoring at the top of a Camus-designed first person shooter game, Charley is invited to be part of a special training program run by Camus, where he meets and befriends Nia (who’s a potential recruit like him, but better than him at anything relating to actual combat). They’re working against the government, who has now come to start cracking down on the use of personal technology by Americans. Eventually Charley loses his sister who’s taken away by government agents. Charley operates as part of the “Fortress Victory” group created by Camus, until he’s seriously injured. Charley awakes from a coma only to find that things have changed a lot, for the worse, and his only real goal is to find his sister. Along the way he meets up with Nia again, and encounters a number of surprises.

In this future that Charley has awoken to, things have gotten really weird. Personal technology has been outlawed, as a result of some high-profile cases of doxxing and cyber-bullying that led to suicide. Those in control are now known as “The Power” and their ethos is anti-personal technology, as they secretly keep a close eye on all people. They spread a message of unity and thinking of the good of the whole, rather than selfish individual goals. But they’re not peaceful - far from it. They’ve been cracking down brutally on anyone who resists them by continuing to try to use personal technology. Another thing that’s happened in society is that some young people have found that it’s too hard to try to live their lives in society, so they just don’t. They spend all of their time connected to the online world, never disconnecting and just staying in place in their underground hideout. The rebels that still exist care for these people (known as “non-life”) and do what they can to fight against The Power.

Thumbs has a compelling story and some really interesting, thought-provoking ideas. But what really pushes it over the top as a great read is the incredible artwork of Hayden Sherman. Remarkably, Sherman is still pretty new to comics. I really loved The Few. But even just in the 2-3 years since The Few, Sherman’s art (which was already terrific) has gone up a whole other level. Sherman is doing work in this story that’s far more complex than The Few. And Sherman does something remarkable for me; he actually gives me the opportunity, on a number of occasions, to say “I’m looking at something I’ve never seen before” or “I’ve never thought of it that way”.


Sherman has this highly distinctive angular style that I’ve found really appealing since The Few. It’s often very spare in that book, which works well with the cold, desolate, wintry feel of that story. I thought of it as some sort of cross between Ronin-era Frank Miller and Japanese wood carvings. But Sherman’s art has continued to evolve and he’s got a ton of versatility. Another of my favorite books of the past few years has been Wasted Space, and in that book, Sherman really leans into the scratchiness of his style to tell a big, weird cosmic story. In that story, the colors (by the talented Jason Wordie) are big and vibrant, and Sherman has really shown his evolution and ability to move from the contained world of a woodsy-set post apocalyptic adventure, to a giant, worlds-hopping, sci-fi adventure (and has also done great work in Cold War and Mary Shelley: Monster Hunter). So what’s incredibly exciting about reading Thumbs is that while Thumbs may cover some of the same thematic content as The Few, Sherman’s art reaches a whole other level.

From the get-go it feels like Sherman is taking on an ambitious storytelling style. It feels cinematic (in the best possible way) - in that it really feels like we’re following a point of view. The book begins with a panel showing an overhead view of *something* speeding along, and then moves in on the next page to show a view of what we now know is a truck, speeding on the road. And the panels move up and then into the truck, and we understand why it’s speeding. Someone’s been badly hurt (Charley), and someone else is over them, worried (Nia). From there the panels and pages move along with breakneck speed. Sherman uses constant changes of perspective, along with lines in the air, to convey a sense of speed and urgency. It’s very successful, as the reader can really feel Nia’s desperate, urgent struggle to get help for Charley.

As we move along those first few pages (with Sherman showing us varying perspectives), Sherman not only very clearly conveys Nia’s urgency, he also successfully shows the layout of this place, and the weird long hallways covered with huge repeating screens. On these screens Nia’s body-cam recording is being broadcast, and so all of the other fellow young people, and us the reader, can see what happened and what went wrong. It’s really skillful storytelling, as Sherman is able to show us both the immediate present and the past (i.e., the situation that went all wrong) simultaneously, without having to use separate pages to cover what happened. What’s also really great about these screens is that not only are we being filled in on what happened to Charley, we’re seeing it precisely as Nia saw it. So the story is really giving us an in-depth understanding of what Nia experienced and why she’s acting how she’s acting.


There’s that much care put into every panel of storytelling in Thumbs. Sherman does great work in using variety of panel layouts to seed up or low down action. And the color work here is really distinctive. Overall, this story is presented in some very muted colors, various shades of gray and beige. But throughout the story there are a number of parts of the story that are a furious hot pink. Computer screens and video footage, “Mom”, and even things like the sound effects lettering depicting the rumble of a motorcycle.

The effect of these very atmospheric color choices is a little jarring, but you quickly get used to it. The switch from a beige theme to a gray theme usually signals a switch from the past to the present, and pink typically means technology, or some sudden action. You very quickly get very comfortable with these color choices, and they provide an interesting juxtaposition for the visual storytelling, as there’s a muted color palate in this post-collapse world, but it’s juxtaposed with these jarringly bright bursts of hot pink; these seem to show the incongruous presence of sophisticated technology in this otherwise stagnating world.

Sherman also does something that I’ve never seen before in a comic. I mentioned previously that Sherman really effectively uses lines to convey motion and speed. But Sherman also has this effect sometimes where, when Charley or another character is closeby on a rumbling motorcycle, the feeling of that rumbling is portrayed by having almost every other object in the panel vibrating. This is depicted by drawing a city scene in this incredibly jagged way. It’s highly effective - it gives the sensation that everything in the world *other* than the motorcycle is vibrating, and is very effective in showing that sense of motion (in addition to just being a very cool visual).


There are a ton of interesting ideas in Thumbs. The idea of people being disconnected from the “real” world and only focusing on their online digital existence isn’t a new one, and it’s one that feels like it’s happening right now. But Lewis has an interesting twist on how it plays out in the future. These young people are addicts, and the thing to which they’re addicted is criminal. So now they exist in these underground places that have the feel of a 21st century digital Opium Den. As far as these young people are concerned, the “real” world holds no hope, no promise. So there’s no reason not to just drop out of society and live in a world where you can be whoever or however you want.

All of this feels very real. As a parent of adolescents, I can tell you I spend a lot of time thinking about how much time my kids spend online. But it’s not just them, it’s me too. The pull of our phones, of technology generally, is really seductive. And Lewis and Sherman are just pushing this to its logical conclusion, but in a way that feels very *them*. This isn’t a sleek, sophisticated future where people are plugged into sophisticated machines. These are strung-out people in underground tunnels, using equipment that looks like it was cobbled together. It’s really striking, and feels closer to the reality of where some of our possible futures could go.

Thumbs isn’t just a story with great visuals and interesting ideas about technology. Lewis and Sherman create some really compelling characters in Thumbs. There’s a struggle for family, and a sense of belonging that’s at the heart of Thumbs. And Charley, Nia, and Tabitha are all flawed, compelling characters just trying to find their way to people that will love and accept them.  Lewis also has a great handle on dialogue; the voices of teens and young adults in the story feel authentic. There's narration throughout the story, mostly from Charley. I find that too much narration in a story can bog it down, but that's not the case here. Charley's narration is almost always helpful, often poignant, and sometimes even poetic.

If you’re looking for a terrific, compelling story of a messy and all-too-real future, I highly recommend Thumbs. It’s smart, engaging, and has some really stunning art and visual storytelling.  Lewis and Sherman are a great creative team, and I'm so curious to see what they do (and what genre they decide to tackle) next.