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Book Review: The Surrogates, Vol. 1 by Robert Venditti

>Genre: Graphic Novels, Science Fiction
Authors: Robert Venditti, Brett Weldele
ISBN: 1891830872
Pub. Date: August 2006
Format: Paperback, 208pp
Publisher: Top Shelf Productions

“Life…Only Better,” says the slogan of VSI, maker of surrogates. And who wouldn’t want to improve their life, to make it better, or to make it what they had always dreamed it should be? Such is the basis for the science fiction graphic novel The Surrogates. Written by Robert Venditti, with art direction by Brett Weldele, this novel brings a unique take on the established rules of science fiction.

Set in Atlanta (now called the Central Georgia Metropolis) in the not too distant future, The Surrogates tells a tale of mystery, vigilantism, and politics. The Surrogates are robots who can mimic normal human life. Through the technology of Virtual Reality, people are able to stay home and use their mind, through headsets, to control their surrogates. These surrogates perform all functions outside of the home for most humans, and in most cases replace real human contact. The story is told from the point of view of Detective Harvey Greer, a battered policeman of the old school, the story moves from a simple property damage case into the search for the lightning wielding terrorist Steeplejack. In the meantime, Bible quoting religious cult leader Zaire Powell III (also known as the Prophet) leads his own charge against what he sees as the abomination of the surrogates.

The story is distinctly southern in character, yet filled with issues near and dear to our own hearts. Anyone raised in the south will find echoes of the civil rights movement in the rhetoric of the prophet. Greer is an everyman; a married man seeking a true life, not the false one provided by the surrogates, and Steeplejack’s enigmatic behavior and vigilantism is something we find ourselves cheering for towards the story’s end.

In addition to the standard panel by panel comic book style of other graphic novels, The Surrogates fills in back story by providing such things as a newscast transcript, an e-newsletter, promotion materials for the surrogate products, and an essay on the benefits of surrogacy. Each of these appeared at the end of the original comics and while not driving the plot forward, did help explain the world that Venditti and Weldele have created.

The art is gritty and dark. Very few color tones were used, and the artwork’s tenor adds greatly to the undercurrent in the story of the false life provided by the surrogates. I did not like the unfinished feel of the art, but it did enhance the tone of the book. I didn’t like the artwork mostly because I couldn’t tell the difference between the surrogates and real people (but perhaps that was the intent), but at least in the case of Greer, it would have been helpful to have made the dichotomy between himself and his surrogate more obvious.

The future world created by Venditti has a great deal of potential. In creating the concept of the surrogate, Venditti has shown that even when race and gender are no longer factors in decisions, our innate prejudices still rise to the top. Additionally, remove race and gender as social factors, and you are left with religion. While the religion in The Surrogates is extreme and cultic Christianity, it could just has easily have been any other religion’s fanatics. For the location and time frame of the story, Christianity makes the most sense.

I also found it daring to set the story in Georgia rather than the traditional big cities of New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago. Those cities have been used often, their unique cultures explored through science fiction. Science fiction has failed to tap into the strange and unique culture that is the Southern States. In doing so, The Surrogates has broken new ground. The story has found ample material for evaluating existing culture, and challenging our preconceptions.

The Surrogates is a fine graphic novel, and I hope that Venditti continues to write in this world. I recommend this book to all science fiction fans, cultural theorists, and comic book fans. The artwork is provocative, the story compelling, and the setting unique.