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“The first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention man need ever make.” Statistician I.J. Good said that in 1965 in an early attempt to define technological singularity, or the moment when a machine’s independent intelligence first genuinely surpasses a human’s. (Think Skynet from the Terminator movies: machines run the show and humans are detritus; or, at best, slaves to their creations.)
Good’s quote is the first thing readers will see nestled inside the front cover in Nanoman: The Post-Human Prometheus. Opposite the text is a panel, drawn by “rising star” Jon Reed, depicting a mechanical man dressed like Matlock sitting at a writing desk…on the bare surface of the moon.
Planet Nerd has plenty of people who believe in Singularity with all their hearts, minds, bodies, and souls; and also people who think the theory makes for great comedy fodder, like the Mayan Calendar or the Book of Revelation. Arthur Delaney, a frequent Washington City Paper contributor and the editor of Nanoman, seems torn between the two. He insists that the powerful technology in his comic book isn’t all that far-fetched, and emphasizes that it’s definitely not a joke. “Everything in here is fanciful, but they aren’t things that don’t already exist.” But when pressed, he retracts the emphasis on “not”: Delaney’s trying to sell a graphic novel, not convince me that he’s insane by ranting about the robot men on the moon and the mechanical spiders that can recall a person’s life history by viewing him or her through a special camera (quick note: In real life, Delaney on cameras is Delaney on fire).
As far as openers go, allusions to the future enslavement of the human race by their televisions/dishwashers/MacBooks don’t make for novel comic-book epigrams. While I could only come up with two examples off the top of my head—the Divine Right mini-series, which features a pizza boy who gains God’s powers by chatting up a BDSM goddess through the InterWebz, and The Ultimates Three, in which Hank Pym’s “Ultron robot drugs him and leaks a sex tape of [Tony “I Am Iron Man”] Stark and the Black Widow to the Internet”—everything in comics has been done before, including luddite-inspired creation anxiety. The question is, Does Nanoman do it better?
Turns out, the threat of a machine uprising in Nanoman is peripheral—at least in this first issue—to the emphasis on conflicting ideas about national security. Nanoman’s stock Pentagon characters are loyal to the mission and believe that they’re doing good by designing ever-more invasive mechanisms for homeland protection. Lt. Col. John Burden, one of the story’s principle characters (Nanoman has a limited ensemble cast instead of a main protagonist), is one such character. An urban antiterrorism pioneer and a strong believer in good ole’ fashion crime cameras and phone-taps, Burden is fighting obsolescence as the Pentagon invests more resources in surveillance-capable Nanospiders. The first issue’s climax occurs when Burden and company find out (using an old-fashioned phone tap with a human monitoring it) about an impending terrorist attack on a New York shopping mall. The final scene of the issue, in which Burden is tasked with recruiting a nano-tech wunderkind to work for the Pentagon, suggests that Burden’s ambivalence about new technology will be the prevailing conflict of the graphic novel.
In addition to mirroring a real-world struggle between civil liberties advocates and statists, Nanoman also jabs at consumer culture. In the “Mall of Manhattan,” large-screen billboards feature U.S. troops endorsing “True Patriot Cola,” the “only cola that supports our troops.” The mall also contains a “sanctuary,” which basically serves as an electronic personal buyer. To enter the sanctuary (which looks like a steampunk’d Stargate portal), shoppers have to “speak with a credit counselor at a hospitality kiosk.”
Nanoman’s plot is engaging and easy to follow, and Jon Reed’s drawing is very fine: gray-scale Neo-noir pen lines played against City-of-the-Future scenery (made famous by early Judge Dredd comics). The first issue’s weaknesses—confusing panel placement in some scenes, arbitrarily emphasized words that don’t replicate real speech patterns, and the pedantic (and frequent) Arabic exchanges between the story’s Muslim terrorists (I suppose it was only a matter of time before everyday phrases like “salamalaikum” and “Allahu Akbar” made their way from stock CNN footage into the fictional terrorist’s character profile)—are easy to overlook, especially since the end of the first issue left me wanting to know what happens next. Cliffhangers used to be a regularity in the comic book world, as they were one of very guaranteed ways to get pre-Internet nerds back in the comic book shop month after month, or—in the case of publishing houses who can’t manage their artists—every six months. (My first letter to a celebrity, written when I was 12 years old, began: “Dear Joe Madureira, please go fuck yourself for ruining Battle Chasers…”) But Delaney and crew are putting out a graphic novel, which means fewer installments and a definitive end to the storyline; and as of right now, the comic is only available online.
Is now a good time to launch a graphic novel? Delaney swears up and down that Nanoman can’t lose, not with Jon Reed drawing; not with Delaney’s brother-in-law Luigi Cicala writing a storyline that’s equal parts The Siege and I Am Robot ; and certainly not with Delaney editing. And it helps that the sales of graphic novels increased by $20 million from 2007 to 2008.
In short, Delaney says, Nanoman “is too big to fail.”