Thursday, 21 November 2019

Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? The Comic

Look Before You Sheep

Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?
The Comic - Boom Studios
24 issues 2009-2010
Art by Tony Parker, Adapted from Philip K. Dick

Wow. It’s not that often I get on board with comic book adaptations but this one is absolutely amazing in the ways it’s both faithful and unfaithful to the original source material. Hopefully when I elaborate on the various qualities of the comic, that comment will become clearer.

Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? is probably my favourite novel. I read it maybe ten times over the decade after I first discovered it which was, I’m sure to nobody’s surprise, the week after the movie adaptation, Blade Runner (which is my favourite movie and which I reviewed here) was released in cinemas here in the UK, back in 1982. The first time I read it I had a hard time with it, in some ways (although I loved Dick’s way of expressing himself in words right off the bat). My biggest criticism of the film after first reading it was that it was nothing like the original novel. It wasn’t too long, however... and after a couple more read throughs... that I realised that, actually, the novel was only different in specific sequences of what is actually going on in a scene from moment to moment. There are literally, if you take adaptation as purely that, only two scenes from the novel translated in the movie.

However, by the time I’d finished my degree course in Graphic Design and wrote (and completed a year before deadline... I was that into it) my final major thesis on the specific ways in which the movie actually was, in spirit, a very faithful adaptation to many of the concepts inherent in the original novel, I was completely sold on both the film and the source and how well they complemented each other.

Of course, that still left me with the concept I found the hardest thing to fathom the very first time I read the book... Mercerism.

The empathic religious union which is one of the main concerns of the novel, where people grip the twin handles of their ‘empathy box’ and ‘merge with Mercer’... an old man who rises from the ‘tomb- world’ and tries to reach the top of a mountain while stones are lobbed at him... was nowhere to be found in the movie. Or was it? I think it could be argued that the Voight-Kampff test based on both empathy and the other driving force of the novel - the responsibility to look after the last surviving animals on the planet or, if you can’t afford one, then to pretend you have one by buying a cheap, electronic simulacrum of one so you don’t seem like an uncaring individual - is as much about the point of Mercerism as anything else.

I’m not going to get in to that argument here though because I’m not talking about the movie version... I’m talking about this comic book version which is, I have to say, pretty much on the nose in terms of capturing the spirit and style of the novel. Of course, half the battle is using a lot of the writer’s original words in both the speech bubbles and in the long stretches of narrative used in the comic but... this rendition really is the closest you can get to reading the original novel if, for some reason, you’ve never read it.

Now the look of some of the characters is interesting here. Many of the those in the movie are not quite the same as in the novel but what the artist, Tony Parker, has done here is to give some (by no means all) equivalent characters a very similar look to what they had in the film. So, for example, even though Deckard is married and a slightly different kind of person in the story, he’s made him look very much like the Harrison Ford version in terms of his dress and hair style etc. Similarly, although genetic designer J. F. Sebastian was originally J. R. Isidore, the low IQ ‘chickenhead’ character and humble employee of the maintenance team who service the electric animals under the disguise of a veterinarian hospital... he looks quite similar here to his movie counterpart. Other characters like Roy Batty look considerably less like those in the film but the artist has definitely gone out of his way to cross pollinate the two worlds - the world of the novel and the world of the film - as much as he possibly can, at least in terms of the visual look of the piece.

And the text is really faithful (just basically taking Dick’s words) with layouts that are simply brilliant. The way vast numbers of narrative panels will butt up against each other and also overlap with speech bubbles is ingenious and he uses the shapes created by these overlapping elements as a way of giving the reader a visual pathway to the order in which to read and decode the page, so to speak. Despite some quite cluttered and beautifully artwork which is quite complex in itself, you never really find yourself getting confused in the narrative space of the thing, even in the specific sections dealing with Mercerism.

In fact, the Mercerism stuff as the artist has chosen to render it here is, if anything, even clearer in terms of how the fusion works because you can see it happening as characters are superimposed or half drawn as Wilbur Mercer in those sequences. And this is what I mean when I say that even where the artist has been unfaithful to the concept, it still ends up retaining the spiritual levity of the original. For example, when I first read the novel back in 1982, the empathy box I visualised was some kind of large cabinet and, to be fair, there were only so many ways to imagine it in those days. In this comic book, Parker has used a TV screen to project the image of Mercer and... a stroke of genius this... where the characters go to ‘grip the twin handles’ of the empathy box, here he’s reimagined it as a kind of modern gaming controller like something you’d find connected to a Playstation console... with the twin handles being the two obvious bits you grip on those controllers. This isn’t something Dick in his time (nor I when I first read it) would have been able to predict or confidentally guess (they didn’t even have the first computer or arcade games when this was written) but it really updates the concept visually so it’s easier for audiences to buy into it. This is complementary, visual storytelling done right.

Similarly, there’s a lot of imagination in the way the worlds, characters and situations are rendered. For example, when the androids in the book are talking about the thriving, black market trade, off-world for pre-colonial fiction, you could only really guess at the kind of thing this could be. Here though, it’s lovingly rendered in allusions to science fiction tales across a range of media from our own past in close parodies showing, for instance, the stratosled rockets from the Flash Gordon serials, a scene from the movie version of The Day The Earth Stood Still and a typical pin-up illustration inspired by Edgar Rice Burrough’s John Carter of Mars novels. Which is a really nice touch and the whole comic is full of these lovely little shout outs.

The artist also comes to a certain kind of compromise as to the make up of the androids. They are kind of a cross between the flesh and blood of the movie versions of the replicants but, again, cross-pollinated with the hard, synthetically wired mechanical Andys of the novel. At first I was a little annoyed about this but then I realised that, while Dick was talking about some quite specific machines here... he was also talking about having to give them bone marrow tests as an alternative way to tell if they were androids so, if anything, the artist has tried to clarify Dick’s thoughts into one, stylistic vision. So, in reflection, I don’t really have a problem with it here.

All in all, then, an absolutely brilliant comic book adaptation and a reading experience which was, almost, as moving as the original novel. Okay, so the other bounty hunter from the completely unknown police department, Phil Resch, was envisaged much harder nosed than I recall him from the book but that’s fine... the points he makes and the ideas that he or Deckard or both may actually be androids (something which is definitively disproven in the novel and this comic because, after all it’s about empathising with them, not becoming them) are all here and the androids, unlike the film, never ultimately come off as superior in their ability to empathise with other beings (or rather, their inability). Arguably, this is one of the elements that makes the film great, the fact that the replicants seem to be morally superior to the majority of the humans that populate the movie but Dick’s original intent... the 'absence of appropriate affect' which he was inspired to write about as this novel after reading an excerpt of a journal of a Nazi prison officer complaining that the noisy screams of the people in his concentration camp were keeping him up nights... is equally as powerful and it’s been faithfully adhered to here.

If you like the original novel, you won’t be disappointed with the comic book version of Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? If you’ve never read it and are only familiar with the movie version, I think you’ll find this is a fascinating read which will probably make you want to explore the concept further in the book. Either way, this is an excellent attempt at depicting the world of a novel with some pretty hard to adapt sections. Give it a go if you have some time.

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