Humanity’s complex relationship with the technology it creates, relies on and arguably becomes subservient to is fertile ground for sci-fi/horror hybrid parable. SelfMadeHero’s anthology I Feel Machine explores those ideas in a collection of comics stories brought to us by no less than six renowned creators, including Box Brown, Erik Svetoft, Shaun Tan, Tillie Walden, Julian Hanshaw and Krent Able. It’s the brainchild of Hanshaw and Able who developed the idea after working together on the similarly themed 2016 broadsheet one-shot BadTwin Presents Krent Able & Julian Hanshaw for Safari Festival that year (and reviewed here at Broken Frontier).
What is immediately striking about the stories herein is that Hanshaw and Able’s curation has given us a set of sophisticated Future Shock-style shorts that are appealingly diverse in visual style, pacing and narrative approach. Box Brown opens the book with ‘Uploading’ (below left), a darkly humorous extrapolation of modern living. In a future where individuals archive themselves in a central server to escape death it asks us to consider the rich irony in its characters abandoning their humanity in the service of prolonging it. Brown’s cartooning style is as accessible as ever here, bringing the reader directly into a complex existential issue with clarity and wit.
Erik Svetoft presents a “cyber noir” virtual heist comic ‘#STHLM# Transfer’ set in a near(ish) future where even old data like chatlogs, image files and mp3s are considered a valuable commodity. It’s a tale that feels at once somehow both subdued and yet vivid; the distorted organic qualities of Svetoft’s art a neat counterpoint to its more clinical subject matter.
Shaun Tan’s ‘Here I Am’ (below right) takes us to the surreal incongruity of a science fantasy world that has the enticing deam-like logic of a children’s book. A young girl living with her bizarre alien family has her worldview turned on its head when an astronaut from another dimension arrives to rescue her and take her home. At first its connections to the overarching theme seem tenuous but the gradual build in this tale of identity and belonging is delightful in its revelatory surprises. Tan provides us with more world-building brilliance in 20-ish pages than some fictional universes manage in their entire existences. Every inviting panel feels like it could spin off another story in itself.
Equally affecting is Tillie Walden’s ‘Contours’ (below left), a contemporary fable that explores a relationship against the backdrop of a world where the technology we rely on to communicate has suddenly and irrevocably ceased working. Walden’s visuals are a masterclass in pacing and symbolism, sweeping over us and immersing us in the themes of the narrative to the degree that there is little need for expositional elaboration. It’s a story that, paradoxically, is economical in its intricacy, and it’s perhaps the most perfect embodiment of the collection’s central motif of the interdependence of humankind and tech.
Rounding out the book are the two editorial hands. Julian Hanshaw’s layered ‘Be Little with Me’ (above right), which merges the existential with the epistemological in its twisting account of a projector that gives access to multiple realities, rewards re-reading. One of the strengths of Hanshaw’s comics is that he is never afraid to make his readers work that little bit harder to gain the most from his stories and this intriguing tale of perception and reality is no exception. Finishing up, Krent Able’s ‘Bloody Kids’ (top banner image) is a cautionary piece that sees holidaying families come a cropper thanks to the all-pervading influence of social media. It’s a brutally uncompromising horror story in Able’s customary “take no prisoners” style that makes full use of his gruesomely visceral artistic approach to ramp up the terror.
While it’s admittedly disappointing that I Feel Machine only includes one female creator in its page count it’s a strong compilation of stories that feel perhaps not so much thought-provoking as thought-affirming. A confirmation of every niggling fear you may have had about our over-reliance on technology at the expense of our connections with each other and ourselves, it’s also the perfect introduction to the sequential art styles of the six creators involved.
Box Brown, Erik Svetoft, Shaun Tan, Tillie Walden, Julian Hanshaw and Krent Able (W/A) • SelfMadeHero, £14.99
Review by Andy Oliver