Are you looking forward to a new comic book but it’s impossible for you to wait for its release before you know what we thought about it? That’s why there’s DoomRocket’s Advanced Reviews — now we assess books you can’t even buy yet. This week: ‘Upgrade Soul’ OGN, out September 5 in comic shops (and bookstores September 18) from Lion Forge Comics.
By Mickey Rivera. If you could fix all your supposed faults, would you? Say you feel too old, too ugly, too weak, too fat, too stupid. Would you risk your life to have science root around in your body and “improve” your state of being? Answering “yes” to these questions isn’t shameful. Society places enormous pressure on looking and sounding and altogether being a certain way. Those who don’t fall into place are ostracized and ridiculed, or simply just made to feel inferior. Ezra Clayton Daniels’ graphic novel Upgrade Soul explores both the desire to be “better” and the nature of being “worse” by way of a beautifully strange and eerie science fiction tale.
This dark fable begins with an elderly couple, Hank and Molly, who want to extend their lives. Molly researches pathogens and Hank is the heir to a popular pulp fiction superhero franchise. Both feel trapped in bodies that are beginning to fail them with age, bodies that no longer look and feel as they wish they did. The two combine their money to invest in VIA, a company spearheaded by Dr. Kenton Kallose which is developing a process that transfers an otherwise healthy mind from an infirm body into a new body, grown from scratch. This body is not only younger and healthier but in fact stronger and smarter than the average human. Despite being warned of the risks this new and untested procedure presents, Hank and Molly fork over their money and sign a liability waiver in exchange for the privilege of being the first to undergo the procedure.
Everything goes wrong, of course. The procedure successfully transfers Hank and Molly’s memories to the new bodies, but these bodies are highly deformed, not at all the attractive and young personages they had envisioned becoming. Though they have the genetically enhanced superstrength and hyper-intelligence Dr. Kallose promised, they resemble gigantic underdeveloped fetuses with massive foreheads and bulging eyes. Working off of Dr. Kallose’s own description, you might also say they look like fleshy sentient potato people. Potato people with red-rimmed eyes, gummy mouths, and strength enough to crush your skull handily.
Adding to the mess, the procedure left behind the old Molly and Hank, effectively duplicating the two instead of replacing them with newer models. The new Hank and Molly are thereafter dubbed Henry and Manuella, and the old Hank and Molly are left in a deteriorated state as a result of the procedure.
As the newly engineered potato monsters Henry and Manuella gain control of their new bodies and minds, they reveal themselves to be compassionate and highly philosophical beings. Daniels’ greatest achievement in Upgrade Soul is how he maintains a Lynchian creepiness throughout the book, but weaves into it all a very moving and interesting examination of the nature of aging, disability, self worth, race, and beauty. Henry and Manuella are portrayed as multi-dimensional persons with immense potential for evil as well as good rather than as mere monsters with hearts of gold.
Daniels is incredibly adept at visualizing the frailty and strangeness of the human body. There’s a fluid and flowing quality to the wrinkles and folds in the skin of his characters, and an overall doughiness he gives to their bodies and faces. This has the effect of hyper-individualizing each character, almost to the point of caricature. Among the hundreds of other exaggerated facial and bodily features populating the word of Upgrade Soul, Henry and Manuella’s own exaggerated features begin to seem a little less strange.
I feel like I should stipulate to all who come across its deceptive cartoon color palette and its narrative flirtations with optimism that this book isn’t here to make you feel better about our differences. Not exactly, anyway. While the depths of Upgrade Soul are not pitch dark and terrifying, they certainly inspire intense unease. Henry and Manuella, potato people though they may be, are a distinctly uncanny combination of human, infant, and something entirely Other. Their beady eyes peer deep and ambivalently out from their sockets, heavy with a knowing intelligence that perceives their situation to be that of a Frankenstein’s monster born into a passive-aggressive era.
Lion Forge / $19.99
Created by Ezra Clayton Daniels.
9 out of 10
‘Upgrade Soul’ hits comic shops September 5 and bookstores September 18. You can pre-order it here.