November 12, 2020

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Does Bionic Enhance the Coming of Age Story? An Analysis of Koren Shadmi's Latest Graphic Novel

 


From the fledgling sub-genre of cyberpunk adolescent romance comes Bionic, a graphic novel that aims to pose a series of hyper-relevant questions to the reader about the nature of technology in our near future. Koren Shadmi attempts to answer big questions about how our relationship with technology will change our relationship with each other. 

Bionic begins as you’d expect it to, almost a little too familiar, with Victor - a prototypical nerd, bullied and cast aside - longing for the attention of the proverbial attractive, popular girl, Patty. Early in the story, our protagonist seems to score some points with Patty when he stumbles into the pet store where she works to chat up her, emerging, quite unintentionally, with an adopted cybernetic cat. The foreshadowing is fairly clear. The book is called Bionic, after all. Shortly thereafter, Patty has a terrible car accident, one that likely should have ended her life, only to be miraculously saved by a series of bionic implants and prosthetics.

Being different in high school is a cardinal sin, and Patty returns to school the subject of some intrigue and curiosity, but with accompanying degrees of revulsion and drastically diminished popularity. Far from repulsed, Victor, a techie who spends his time working on the side with the slimy school AV guy to repair antique 20th century computers and gaming consoles, finds himself even more intrigued. Such intrigue kicks off the rising action of the story, and the resulting narrative centers on the push and pull of their relationship and the effects it has on each of them.

Shmadi muses on the topic of identity, and he draws on a major trope of young adult literature (though I don’t consider this is a YA book) of “the one and only outsider.” One of the reasons young people flock to characters who are iconoclastic or cast as saviors is because adolescents tend to feel some degree of isolation. And to whatever degree a teen might feel that way, the concept certainly has its merits. No one adolescent experience comprises a universal one. Patty, for her part, is certainly the definition of a complete outsider after her accident and subsequent transformation. She is the first cyborg, at least in the United States. Much of the book thus focuses on her reaction to the new status quo and the parallels of a typical teenage rebellion.

For a book about cybernetics, I found the level of natural texture a fulfilling contrast.

Shadmi's cartooning resonated with me because it felt like a natural juxtaposition to the core narrative. For a graphic novel that includes high tech cybernetic implants, most of Bionic feels muted and reserved. His storytelling skills are strong, and he uses character interactions to add emotional resonance to the story. As a result, the story is believable. Shadmi certainly sells both of the main characters well, and much of that comes down to the way he uses facial features as a layer on top of dialogue. His shading and color work are the most impressive aspects for me, though. The muted, almost faded color palette coupled with his occasionally scratchy shading adds an age to the art that I found charming. 

There are curious aspects of the setting in Bionic. Shadmi never offers a definitive timeline, but we get the sense that our story is set approximately twenty years into the future. There is one passing reference to the year 2037, and the 20th Century seems to be more of a distant memory that it is now (but most of my life was spent in the 20th century, so perhaps I'm off on this one). The future that Shadmi creates feels very much like our current world. Technology has obviously advanced if corporations are creating bionic cats and humans, but nothing seems incredibly far flung from now. Virtual Reality gaming is more prevalent, but malls - malls with arcade games - appear with more vitality than we'd encounter even pre-Covid. Despite the prevalence of VR gaming, people appear to use typical laptops, and the arcade game Patty and Victor play resembles Virtua Cop as much as anything else. Much of the story is set in the high school Patty and Victor attend, but outside of desk mounted tablets, nothing seems that advanced compared to today's schooling atmosphere (even less now as the one-to-one technology ratio becomes the norm). The class we experience the most is History, the catalyst for some of Victor's longing being his convenient seating assignment next to Patty. The students are studying the earlier portion of the Roman Empire. At one point, Patty recites a brief biography of Caligula. Perhaps Shadmi is trying to tell us something?

I thought a bunch about the type of characterization Shadmi utilizes, specifically how the typical, if not stereotypical, connotations of both Patty and Victory either work to lift the narrative or weigh it down. Is such characterization necessary to impart a universal message? Or, perhaps more specifically, is Shadmi drawing upon a typical narrative to layer an atypical concept on top of it? I wonder then how the all-too-familiar “geek without a chance pines for the hot mean girl” structure works either for or against his objectives as a storyteller. 

We see more growth in Victor than we do in Patty. Even in the early stages of the story, we get a sense that Victor is cut from a different cloth than his peers. Besides taking an interest in antique technology, he rides a throwback cruiser-style bike. Even though Patty is the one with the stark change, the book is predominantly about Victor's growth, or lack there of. Shadmi deliberately leaves enough unresolved that we don't entirely know who Victor is by the end of the story. He has certainly changed, but we don't know what is going to stick, and we are still a little uncertain about who he will become past the pages of the book. 

Because Patty’s accident and subsequent metamorphosis occur early in the story, we don’t have a firm grasp on her character before the accident, so it’s hard to see how she changes as a result of her new condition. Gradually, as the story progresses, we receive more background that helps to define her relationship with her family, and we begin to - quite understandably - grasp Patty’s frustration with not only her new condition but also the reason why she was transformed. However, some of those plot developments serve more to cloud our understanding of her. At numerous points in the book, Patty is downright nasty to Victor. It’s almost impossible to tell if that nastiness is a product of her change or is inherent to her character. We get the sense that Patty is confused and angry, and it seems like she takes it out on Victor by toying with him. She becomes increasingly nihilistic and rebellious, and at no point do we necessarily know if this is a result of adolescence, her accident, or some combination of both. I’d contend that Shadmi wants us to see Patty’s cybernetic change as a catalyst, one that exacerbates teenage frustration. But too much of Patty’s background appears typical. Hot, popular, and rich - it feels a little too convenient. 

Is that the point? Perhaps. I’m sympathetic to the idea that using archetypes to produce a polemic is more effective than developing nuanced characters. But I’m still left wondering about both the characterization of Patty and Victor and their subsequent relationship. How much does the incongruent nature of their relationship reinforce stereotypes about each of them? To what degree does a story like this demonize this type of girl, and thus allow an extrapolation to the typical misogyny we see from incel types who blame the female for spurning their advances as if they simply deserve her?

To be fair, I don’t believe Shadmi to be writing simp-advocate fiction here. And, without delving into spoilers, I think he works to provide some explanation for why Patty specifically pulls away from Victor despite his devotion and support. Nonetheless, he certainly puts Victor through the wringer, and it’s a challenging read as a result. There is one premature ejaculation scene that feels both realistic and cruel. Shadmi might be going for that, though.

But there is another way of looking at it. By becoming a type of machine, Patty transcends mere humanity, but she doesn’t escape it. Two prosthetic limbs and a facial implant don’t entirely rob her of her humanity, but they do set her apart, and it’s mostly to this otherness that Patty rebels. It’s easy to embrace nihilism when the basic rules don’t apply to you anymore. The typical trappings of youth seem trivial as a result. Is school important when your brain is a computer? Perhaps her nastiness results from her emergence as an outsider. She can’t relate to other people anymore; those feelings are passe. Still, I can’t help but wonder how the story would have fared if the two main characters weren’t hot rich popular chick and selfless nerd who never gets the girl.

On face, Bionic attempts to use a science fiction aesthetic to create a new version of the coming of age story, but it never truly embraces either of its identities enough to say anything entirely new about the trying times of adolescence. Koren Shadmi creates a visually impressive graphic novel, but one that relies on cybernetics as a device instead of metaphor.