Politics in Warren Ellis’s Injection

One year after their outstanding but all too short Moon Knight run from 2014, the team of writer Warren Ellis, artist Declan Shalvey and colourist Jordie Bellaire followed up with their own creation, the 15-issue series Injection. The following refers to its first volume which collects #1-5.

The backstory, gradually revealed in bits and pieces, is basically this: the “Cultural Cross-Contamination Unit” (CCCU), a British think tank, is tasked to predict the future, but they don’t like the predictions they come up with: “Everything slows down. Everything gets tangled up. Everything stops racing forward.” – “We reach a peak of novelty and innovation and enter a long trough.” – “The CCCU’s final finding was that innovation was going to flatten out and the future was going to be a slow and difficult time.” So in order to prevent the future from becoming “boring”, they decide to make it more interesting by designing a new kind of artificial intelligence and injecting it into the Internet.

But of course that goes terribly wrong. A few years later, in the present day, the AI starts killing and abducting people, and the former CCCU members try to stop it.

Which brings us to our protagonists: a typical Warren Ellis superhero team. Granted, they don’t wear masks and capes, but each of them has superhuman powers in a way. Robin is a John Constantine type occultist, Maria is a genius scientist who wields a sort of magical energy sword made by Robin, Simeon is a James Bond type special agent, Brigid is a hacker, and Vivek is a Sherlock Holmes type private detective.

So once more the fate of the world (or at least Britain) lies in the hands of a few people. However, in terms of politics, there is an interesting difference between the CCCU and other Ellis superheroes such as the Freakangels, Moon Knight, or Planetary: the former is co-funded by a fictional UK Ministry of Time and Measurement, a mysterious company called FPI, and the fictional Lowlands University (which could be either public or private). Thus the CCCU was created by an unholy alliance of the public and the private sectors, which continues to exert varying degrees of influence over the former team members. Despite the government involvement, however, the CCCU and its related institutions operate in secret, i.e. their actions are not accounted for to the tax payers who ultimately fund them.

In all of their interactions with the ex-CCCU members, the various government bodies and FPI come across as disturbingly evil and powerful (though not all-powerful – they still rely on the CCCU to fight the Injection). A more harmless example: when a victim of the Injection is found dead in Dublin and the Irish police can’t quite explain (or believe) how it happened, they decide to cover it up instead of publicly exposing the connection to the CCCU – “The boy in the computer room would be explained away as a freak electrical-fire victim or some such. There would be compensation and the like.”

A more drastic example: in the beginning of the comic, we are introduced to Maria as an inmate in a bleak mental asylum. We don’t learn much about her treatment there, except that she seems to be held there against her will, is tube-fed instead of given real food, and that the wardens wear masks. It soon turns out that the FPI is behind all of this: they are responsible for her being held at the asylum, and they let her out only to carry out work – investigating and neutralising paranormal threats – for them. And even then she is closely watched by another FPI employee.

Maria at the asylum. Detail of p. 2 from Injection vol. 1.

Thus Injection basically combines the ‘weak government’ trope (in which self-empowered individuals such as superheroes pull the strings; see above) with the ‘abusive government’ (as seen in Ellis’s Dark Blue) and ‘evil corporation’ tropes. But there is more to this comic. It is also a parable of the power and danger of science. When left unchecked and supplied with opulent funds, a handful of scientists can create a global threat by bringing about the Singularity, i.e. artificial superintelligence that eventually rises up against humanity. This Computer Science based threat is new and perhaps even scarier than e.g. the classic fears of scientists building a super bomb, or creating a black hole in a particle accelerator, because these latter ones require more resources, resulting in more political involvement and public visibility.

Injection seems to suggest that anyone with the right skills and Internet access could build such a superintelligence, and they could be doing it right now without anyone noticing. This is a new twist in Ellis’s politics: the self-empowered individuals here are not fantastical superhero characters – at least the CCCU are not overtly using their quasi-superhuman powers when creating the Injection -, they could be scientists and hackers that exist in the real world. Ironically, by establishing the CCCU, the government unwittingly undermines its own authority, transferring the responsibility for the maintenance of law and order from democratically legitimised institutions to individuals operating above the law.

A related issue is the nature of the work that FPI does: they carry out archaeological excavations, a task traditionally associated with public research institutions or government bodies. But the FPI does it “to find new exploitable resources”, or, as Maria puts it, “poking at things for the greater glory of the bloody company”. Of course, private excavation companies are already carrying out archaeological digs in the real world, but they usually do so on behalf of the government who get to keep any culturally important finds (and openly publish the outcomes). The idea here is that ancient artifacts are heritage and as such belong to the entire populace, not only to the finder or the landowner. The FPI in Injection, being an evil corporation, obviously has different ideas. They are secretive about their operations, but at the same time the government appears to cooperate with them, so maybe this is a case of a public-private partnership gone wrong. Or is Ellis subtly critiquing the whole concept of the government outsourcing important tasks to private companies?


The best manga of 2016? Review of My Love Story and 1F

The publication history of My Love Story (and to some extent also that of 1F, see below) demonstrates the difficulties of determining the best manga of the year through the aggregation of year-end best-of lists: in 2016, the first volumes of My Love Story came out in Germany, while in the US volumes 7-10 were published, and in Japan the series ended with the final three volumes, 11-13. Thus, even though My Love Story was being published in all three countries in 2016, in that year it attracted some media attention in Germany only, while in the US and Japan the hype had already died down. More and more it becomes clear in this series of blogposts that when we’re looking at the year 2016 in manga history (from a Western perspective), we’re actually dealing with more of a 5-7 year window. For today, let’s start at the beginning with the first volume of My Love Story.

My Love Story!! (俺物語!! / Ore monogatari) vol. 1
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Authors: Kazune Kawahara (story), Aruko (art)
Publisher: Panini (originally Shūeisha)
Year: 2016 (originally 2011)
Number of volumes: 13
Pages: ~175
Price: € 7
Website: https://www.paninishop.de/serie/my-love-story-ore-monogatari (German)
ISBN: 978-3-95798-904-8

The story revolves around Takeo, a high school student who is not only unusually tall and strong, but also honest, kind, brave, and naive. When he meets Yamato, he thinks at first that she’s only interested in his good-looking friend, Sunakawa. But it turns out Yamato has fallen in love with Takeo, she becomes his first girlfriend, and so His Love Story begins.

A lot of people file this manga under shōjo, but if it is a shōjo manga, it’s an exceptional one due to its protagonist – as the title suggests, a male character is at the center of this story. I’d be hard pressed to name another shōjo manga in which a male protagonist dominates the story as much as Takeo (except perhaps for those that veer towards the boys’ love genre).

And what a character Takeo is. It’s refreshing to have a truly unique protagonist who defies all manga stereotypes. Just seeing Takeo’s face is a delight, as artist Aruko endlessly varies her style with new combinations of different kinds of outlines, hatching, and screentones when drawing him.

In the writer’s preface, an interesting anecdote is related regarding Takeo’s appearance: her magazine editor thought Takeo was ugly and put a slogan on the magazine cover to that effect, but the authors intended Takeo to look ‘manly’ and by all means attractive (though not quite as pretty as his ikemen friend Sunakawa). A misunderstanding that is almost medium specific – if the story was told not in comic form but as a live-action film, for instance, it would be easier for most people to assess the attractiveness of this character (and indeed, apparently there was a live-action adaptation of My Love Story in 2015).

If My Love Story has one flaw, it’s some instances of lazy storytelling when something unlikely happens to advance the story. In vol. 1 it’s a girder inexplicably falling on Yamato (will Takeo come to the rescue? Read it to find out!); in a later volume, a bird rips Yamato’s brooch off her shirt… There’s actually one more annoying flaw in the manga: the authors’ columns already give away that Yamato and Sunakawa are kind-hearted characters too, thus destroying any air of mystery that might have surrounded them. That being said, My Love Story is a remarkable comic and one of the best manga of 2016 (if you will).

Rating: ● ● ● ● ○

 

1F (いちえふ / Ichi efu) vol. 1
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Kazuto Tatsuta
Publisher: Carlsen (originally Kōdansha)
Year: 2016 (originally 2013)
Number of volumes: 3
Pages: ~185
Price: € 13
Website: https://www.carlsen.de/softcover/reaktor-1f-ein-bericht-aus-fukushima-1/74017 (German)
ISBN: 978-3-551-76107-1

1F (full German title: “Reaktor 1F – Ein Bericht aus Fukushima”; English spelling: Ichi-F) got a lot of press, but not in the context of 2016 year-end reviews – in the US, it was published only last year. As can be expected from a manga about the Fukushima nuclear disaster, people deemed it “moving” and “important”, but not explicitly good. Is 1F any good? Could it even be the best manga of 2016?

First of all, it’s worth restating what other reviewers already have noted: this isn’t a manga about the nuclear disaster per se. Don’t expect to see any giant waves or reactor explosions (though there are one or two flashback panels that show an explosion): this is the autobiographical story of Tatsuta coming to the Fukushima Daiichi power plant long after ‘3.11’ to work there as a ‘cleanup’ worker, i.e. to help in the tedious process of decommissioning the radioactively contaminated power plant.

There are two interesting aspects to Tatsuta’s story: one is the business side of the cleanup work, the shady companies at the bottom end of a subcontracting chain who exploit the mostly unskilled labourers coming from different parts of Japan (Tatsuta himself is from Tokyo, not from the Tōhoku area) for different reasons. The other, more fascinating aspect is the actual work in the highly radioactive power plant, even though Tatsuta’s job there consists of only janitorial tasks at first. The depictions of layers of protective gear, radiation measurement devices, meticulous security procedures all help to visualise the invisible, yet potentially lethal, threat of radioactivity.

Tatsuta’s art style lends itself well to this task of visualisation, as he relies mostly on clear outlines with little or no shading, and occasionally interrupts the comic narrative with diagrams such as floor plans. The flip side of the coin is that human figures aren’t as convincingly drawn; all the characters have a somewhat mischievous expression on their face.

Another flaw of 1F is that the story jumps back and forth in time, which is perhaps due to the haphazard creation history of this manga. It looks like the chronological order of events in the first volume would be: chapter 3, chapter 6, chapters  4-5, prologue, chapters 1-2. Still, overall 1F is a rare gem of an exciting non-fictional manga about science and technology.

Rating: ● ● ● ● ○


Some keywords from the 2013 ComFor conference

ComFor 2013 conference logo by Thomas GilkeIn comparison to last year, the 8th ComFor conference (full title: „Comics und Naturwissenschaften“ – 8. Wissenschaftstagung der Gesellschaft für Comicforschung), which took place in Erlangen this month, was less international with only one out of 22 talks in English. On the other hand, there were two papers on manga – a small step in the right direction.

Here are some terms that I’ve heard at this conference for the first time and found noteworthy, in alphabetical order, with the paper in which they were mentioned added in brackets.

  • apocalyptic riskscape – a place where impending doom is tangible, e.g. New York City in Watchmen. (Mentioned in Laura Oehme: Alien Science and Risk Technologies in Dystopian Science Fiction Comics)
  • “basic”, “qualified” and “technical” media – categorisation of aspects of mediality by Lars Elleström, described in his text “The Modalities of Media: A Model for Understanding Intermedial Relations” in 2010. (Lukas Wilde / Kay Kirchmann et al.: Wenn Comics Medien erklären – Google-Werbung vom Paul McCartney der Comictheorie)
  • euchronia – the “good time”; a golden age, usually bygone. (Markus Oppolzer: Utopie und Dystopie im Werk von Shaun Tan)
  • jadarite – a mineral discovered in 2007. Its chemical formula is similar to the fictional formula of kryptonite as shown in the film Superman Returns, prompting headlines such as “Superman beware, kryptonite is real”. (Markus Prechtl: Chemie & Comic – Grenzgänge und Herausforderungen)
  • MAC-10 – a machine pistol, or submachine gun, designed by Gordon Ingram for the Military Armament Corporation (MAC). Its unrealistic use in popular media is criticised by cartoonist Marion Montaigne. (Rolf Lohse: Die Naturwissenschaften im Blick der französischen bande dessinée)
  • mechanomorphism – here: turning something into a machine, e.g. turning a human into a robot by means of cybernetic implants. (Markus Oppolzer: Utopie und Dystopie im Werk von Shaun Tan)
  • “strong” and “weak” images – distinction made by Gottfried Boehm between images that are merely mechanical reproductions (weak) and ambiguous images that require some interpretative effort (strong). (Jens Meinrenken: Comics als Archiv historischer Wissen(schafts)formationen und -entwürfe)
  • Titor, John – name used by an internet forum user claiming to be a time traveller from the future. Appears as a fictional character in the video game Steins;Gate. (Kristin Eckstein: „Beyond the 1% barrier“: Die Zeitreise und ihre Funktion in Sarashi Yomis Steins;Gate)