Upgrade Soul is a thought-provoking science fiction comic about Hank and Molly Nonnar, an elderly couple who are deciding how to be remembered by the world; and how they can use their lives to make an impact. This leads them to the Upgrade project, a not-so-official science experiment that aims to not only restore organisms to their peak performance, but to test the limits of human capabilities altogether. Concurrently, Ezra Claytan Daniels’ narrative tests the limits of our notion of identity, asking: what makes us unique, and at what point do we begin to lose ourselves?
When Hank and Molly Nonnar decide to take part in the Upgrade project as a way to, hopefully, secure their names a place in the history books, they believe this is an opportunity to start fresh in younger, healthier bodies. Although willing, and in fact quite eager, to be the first humans to trial this procedure, they are not kept fully informed about some fairly life-changing consequences it entails. Daniels’ story is absorbing from start to finish; its delineated structure constantly keeps aspects of the plot hidden and drives the reader on, both with an inquisitive thirst for answers and resolutions, but also a with a primal urge to gawk at the abnormalities of science fiction.
One of the most outstanding visuals in the story is Daniels’ use of hands and their gestures. The expressiveness of these hands tells a story of their own; where others may need two or three panels to express emotions, for example, Daniels can do the job in one panel. It is through hands that we pick up a character’s exasperation, bargaining, reproach, or terror. Upgrade Soul is inundated with beautiful linework. This linework is often minimal and reserved, but other times gathers up in intricate creases and folds. Indeed, the otherworldly elements and more traditional science fiction visuals are played in stark contrast to the aspects of realism portrayed by Daniels’ astounding attention to detail. One moment we are shown the yellow embryotic figures of the ‘enhanced’ Nonnars filling a panel, creased and staring, and the next we have a floral paper towel so heavily rendered we can see each spot upon its textured surface. This juxtaposition acts to ground this story in its imagined reality and lifts up the science fiction content to new levels.
Daniels’ questioning of identity also addresses issues of race. For example, when Hank is discussing the adaptation of his father’s ‘Slain’ novels with the media representative Darius, there is an unflinching acknowledgement of the racism within the media industry. Hank addresses this anti-racist narrative when Darius argues that “this isn’t the forties anymore”, insinuating that times have changed and racism has been eradicated, whilst simultaneously asserting the counternarrative that a black lead actor would not sell as well. Darius epitomises the dichotomy that results from ignoring systemic racism. He is only able to give the feeble attempt at an excuse by blaming the bigger system – “from the Network, not me” – and thereby allowing for the removal of personal responsibility and culpability. He is also a prime example of microaggressions: “how articulate he thought you were”.
Upgrade Soul is a cutting-edge science fiction comic. Its art stuns and shocks, and its narrative does likewise. Daniels forces us to contemplate existential questions of identity: what is it that really makes you different from anybody else, say, even a yellow-skinned, alien-shaped version of yourself? Is our identity, as the philosopher John Locke argued, bound up in our memories; in other words, is it our specific memories that make us who we are? Or, perhaps it is our emotions or our unique physical bodies. Additionally, do emotions make us more or less human? Are the supreme versions of Hank and Molly released from the constraints of their emotive counterparts, or are they less human for their lack thereof? Where does the baton end with social responsibility, and what else can we do individually? These are just some of the interesting questions that Upgrade Soul raises, making for a unique and engaging read.
Ezra Claytan Daniels (W/A) • Oni Press, $19.99
Review by Rebecca Burke