A prequel to their debut s-f graphic novel, The Surrogates, Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele's The Surrogates: Flesh and Bone (Top Shelf Publications) takes us back to July 29, 2039, as the robotic body shells known as surrogates are still being test marketed to consumers.
Set in the southern city of Central Georgia Metropolis, the story opens on the murder of a black street person by a trio of young men in suits who call their battered victim a "boner." Though they appear to be adult men, the threesome turn out to be young punk rich kids who've ventured into the streets for some rough fun. "I know what he needs," one of the trio says, "a beating, you know, like the maid does with the rugs."
The killing, "racially charged, pitting rich against poor," winds up violently dividing the city. Patrolman Harvey Greer, who has just taken his detective exam, is pulled into the case by Detective Vince McEvoy and charged with tracking down an informant named Chattie who witnessed the attack. Once he becomes involved in the case, Greer is given a quick lesson in the difficulty investigating a murder case where suspects can commit a crime while joyriding in their parents' artificial bodies: one of the boys' fathers initially tries to take the blame for the act, claiming self-defense.
When he arrives home that night from his first day in the "big leagues," he returns to see his wife has herself purchased a surrogate, a blond and shapely figure who keeps him up all night. Though still pricey ("Do I even want to know what the payments are?" Greer asks his wife), the artificial bodies are clearly becoming more a part of the mainstream culture.
If Flesh and Bone just focused on Greer's police investigation, it'd be entertaining enough, but Venditti is after a richer speculative fiction picture here, taking us into the boardroom of Virtual Self, the corporation responsible for surrogate; into the world of police and city politics; and into the Church of the Prophet, a street-level church run by an ex-con named Xavier. Each has their own stake in the outcome of the investigation, and Venditti has a keen ear for the kind of hard-edged dialog that goes with no-nonsense under-the-table deal making.
Venditti fleshes out this graphic novel with fake magazine articles, religious tracts, and market surveys. One of the issues that are brought out by the surrie-committed murder, for instance, is whether there needs to be an age-restriction on surrogate use. The three rich kids who went slumming in their dads' units, for instance, had zero sense of responsibility for what they were actually doing; they act, as Chattie notes, like kids playing a first person shooter videogame.
Yet one of the book's supplements, a market survey aimed at parents of the potential youth consumer, makes it clear the corporation is looking toward tapping into the parental desire to protect their kids from harm. And as readers of the first GN know, surrogates will become ubiquitous in the further future.
To be sure, the use of surrogates can have its practical advantages. In the book's climax, our hero Greer himself connects to a surrogate body for the first time to protect himself when the city erupts in riots. The repoed unit he's been given turns out to be black, a pointed thematic touch in itself.
Artist Brett Weldele blends sketchy pen and ink lines with painterly washes and tones to good effect. It's a suitably noir-ish visual style that doesn't sacrifice visual clarity for moodiness, evoking the GN's urban milieu without overwhelming it. If his visual characterizations at times look a bit too beholden to modern teevee cop shows, it's not a serious flaw. Bet it helped when they sold the first Surrogates as a movie to Touchstone Films: I can see Bruce Willis as Greer, and so, I suspect, could Venditti and Weidele.