The Occupy Wall Street protests started almost exactly 3 years ago. Three years before that, the irresponsible actions of the banks nearly caused the collapse of the Western World as incredible amounts of money simply vanished. Various governments poured money into the companies involved and in 2011 as some parts of Europe found themselves no longer in control of their own countries, there was a disappointing lack of anyone being held responsible. At the time we still believed in the power of democracy and being vocal and so many took to the streets in an attempt to move the political will. Eventually the protests fell apart for various reasons – some inevitable and some nefarious – and nothing truly changed. But we continue to believe in democracy and no one is seriously courting rebellion.
The main reason we have currently left things alone is that, in 2014, we still believe we can make a difference through civic means: elections, protests, calling our representatives, etc. But what would happen if we reached the libertarian end-game of Cypherpunk novels like Snow Crash and The Diamond Age where every function is run by corporations? Corporations have no morals and they answer to only one incentive – money. They want to make more money and respond when they are in danger of losing it. Because they are not elected, they have no responsibility to citizens, no social contract. When corporations run all, what recourse do you have, but terrorism?
These are the main issues being tackled by Torchbearer, which can also be considered to fall within the spy thriller genre. While I was at Baltimore Comic-Con, I spoke with series creator Nicolas Dedual as well as a Victoria Rodriguez, who was also at the table. First, the Rodriguez, who gives a synopsis and some publishing details:
Then I spoke with Nicolas Dedual about some of the technical details of the Torchbearer universe:
After speaking with Dedual, I was intrigued so I bought the first two trades, designated as Volumes 0.25 and 0.5. I’m not sure of the significance of the decimals – perhaps something eluded me in the story.
Dedual definitely seems to be a fan of decompressed storytelling. While the art is unmistakably Western, the pacing owes a lot to manga. I think this works both for and against Torchbearer. On the one hand, as a part of the meta fiction it works quite well to set the pace of the revolution. Before I had studied history seriously in my AP history class, the original Star Wars trilogy had a profound effect on my understanding of the battles of good and evil. Here was a conflict that took three movies to resolve. Not only that, but the protagonists were always on the run. At the end of the first movie they have not defeated Darth Vader or the Emperor and had to retreat to Hoth. But they don’t spend all of Empire Strikes Back fighting from Hoth, they’re evicted immediately. It was the first time I’d been exposed to a story in which good didn’t have ultimate and complete triumph at the end of 90 minutes. Although American comics have been shifting towards a manga-like decompression (see Bendis on Ultimate Spider-Man), we rarely have to wait more than five issues for satisfaction.
So when the first trade (consisting of a slimmer-than-usual 3 issues) concludes, the rebels (the titular Torchbearers, but you don’t know that yet) have really only had a couple acts of terrorism and one huge defeat. Additionally, the other half of the plot is a spy thriller. Unlike James Bond movies, most spies operate for months to years without getting caught or raising suspicions.
On the other hand, it works a bit against the series. For one thing, you don’t really learn about the titular group until the second trade. Additionally, it can be frustrating to constantly see new people popping up and knowing that Dedual is probably setting all the dominoes in place for the climax, but nothing ever really happens.
The art style, heavy on inking and shadows, can make it a little hard to tell what’s going on and who is who. There’s nothing wrong with it and I’ve seen this art style before. It just can be hard to know what is going on with science fiction technology and hard to tell who is who.
Getting back to the themes of the book, I think it does a good job of painting the picture of why it is horrible to have a corporation in charge of the universe. Because they only see obstacles to be removed in their quest to rule, they can be quite ruthless in their decision-making. At one point they nuke a city that’s resisting them without a second thought. There is no negotiation, just boom – problem solved. The final story in the second trade has the corporation committing genocide rather than investing some money in medicine. A corporation willing to do those things is not a corporation you change by protesting a shareholder meeting. This is a corporation that must be eliminated. Or must it?
Dedual has set up a great universe with lots of interesting elements. I would love to see how it came to be that this corporation was running everything. There’s a quick history lesson when someone asks about Earth, but I think it would be quite interesting to know what, if anything, this corporation is doing that’s benevolent. If it’s always been evil, how have they hid that from the public? In other words, how did they get into the position they’re in? And does that mean that it’s one segment of the corporation that’s evil? Or does it come from the top? There are so many fascinating things to explore here.
From the other side, what about the Torchbearers? Their leader has the requisite horrific backstory that propels him into the place where revolution seems like the only answer. But what if there’s more to it? What if he knows someone on the inside? And what if they takeover and then become evil, themselves? (A la Castro in Cuba) Or what if it causes a dark age a la Asimov’s Foundation trilogy. After all, it takes quite a bit of organization to keep distant planets in a conglomeration. Finally, I really do hope that Dedual does explore the murky ethics of being a terrorist. If innocent civilians die, is it OK as long as the evil empire is gone? What does that do to your conscious?
When it comes to the spy thriller element – Dedual definitely has the right feeling of tension. Because a key character is working as a double agent, she has to provide intelligence to both sides. Anyone who has studied real-world spies knows this complicates things for everyone, including the spy. No one a double agent because it quickly becomes unclear where the loyalties lie. Additionally, one side or another may demand an extreme sacrifice to demonstrate loyalty, often putting the other side in danger. I’d be interested to see in the comments if other readers of the series saw the end of the first trade and beginning of the second as a face heel turn. It appears that Dedual tries to present it that way, but I saw it more as a tale of the dangers of being a double agent. You can end up being a target of friendly fire because, by necessity, no one can know you’re actually working for the other guys.
In the end, what I find most frustrating about Torchbearer is that it’s a comic book and not a novel. That’s actually meant to be strong praise – I love the world and the tech and the story and I know if I had a book I’d be getting a lot deeper into all of that. When creating a comic, just like any other visual medium, a lot has to be sacrificed to keep from having an exposition dump. Additionally, story pacing is much slower in comics because it has to be drawn. If you didn’t listen to the interviews above, this story’s coming out every other month. From what I’ve seen of the first six issues, I think it’s going to be a very strong and fun science fiction story – something you don’t see enough of in comics.
Find out more about Torchbearer at www.oddtruthinc.com
Torchbearer Vol 0.25 and Vol 0.5 by Nicolas Dedual with art by Dennis Calero and lettering by David Lanphear and Kevin Lintz