By Ines Estrada
Fantagraphics Books

Mexican cartoonist Ines Estrada wields her considerable talents for psychedelia into this science fiction story that questions the true nature of reality and consciousness and whether we understand either. But Estrada doesn’t cover this territory in some elevated technological realm that features worlds and people we don’t know. Instead, this is an extension of the one we are already in, just a lot worse.

And her characters are people we already know as well. Elizabeth and Carlos are just a young couple struggling to get through life and not very engaged by what life has handed them so far. Uninspired during much of their daily existence, the book opens with them watching a lunar eclipse that they’re not even sure they’re really seeing. Is it maybe just a VR simulation of a lunar eclipse? Virtual reality has infringed on their perception so completely that humans can’t keep track of what is real. They can have any life in any setting with any form that they want. It’s just that all those limitless choices don’t seem to make them any happier, or more engaged.

Elizabeth’s job is as a sex performer on the internet — here not accessed through a computer but straight into the human brain, which has now been augmented with tech. But even in a virtual situation, racism pops up — she’s an Inuit — as well as danger, and one of her “fans” appears to be a cyber stalker. She’s hearing a creepy voice say unnerving things and her fear is that she’s been hacked by someone.

Her solution is to dive into more virtual worlds and attempt to ignore it. But there is one area that humans have truly lost track of that they don’t expect a cyber attack — the physical one — and that is where Elizabeth’s perception is truly going to be challenging. If she feels something is going wrong, is it really going wrong? Could it maybe even be worse than it seems?

Estrada lets her themes unfold in a casual way that fits the characters and their lifestyle well and her mix of down-to-earth, slice of life cartooning with trippy, complicated spreads that challenge your perception do well to portray the confusion humans in her fictional world are living in. These are big topics Estrada is addressing, and the tone of her presentation makes it feel current, immediate like this is where we’re heading if we continue to behave as the characters behave. Or maybe, just like poor Elizabeth and Carlos, it’s already too late for us.

Ghost Tree

Ghost Tree #1
Written by Bobby Curnow
Illustrated by Simon Gane
Colors by Ian Herring with Becka Kinzie
Letters by Chris Mowry
IDW Publishing

It takes hardly any imagination at all to predict that a comic with the title Ghost Tree is going to be about ghosts, but at least this debut issue avoids any other obvious aspects that you might predict about it. It’s a quiet, gentle ghost comic that centers around conversation and relationships and tradition, and that serves as an alluring welcome that makes the reader want to see where it’s going.

As a young boy visiting his grandfather in Japan, Brandt makes a deal with his grandfather to meet in front of a particular tree 10 years after his grandfather’s death. When Brandt returns, he’s a grown man with grown man problems and the manifestation he’s expecting to see at the tree is just one of several ghosts that surround him on his visit — emotional ones, that is. And his distance from the country of his heritage, and therefore a part of himself, is obviously something that weighs on him as he attempts to bridge that separation by fulfilling his promise to his grandfather.

In Ghost Tree, the tone is light, but this is not a humor comic, and more aptly described as a sweet journey into the philosophical supernatural. Simon Gane’s art is charming but still manages to present an eerie, intricate landscape that begs you to imagine what’s hiding in the corners of the panels that you can’t see. This builds a nice ambiance that surrounds the story. When Brandt does face the inevitable outcome of his visit, the most jarring part is the emotion that accompanies it, and the foreboding in regard to lives as they are lived, but the world around  him hints that his story is going to become a swirl in which lessons for the living become reflected through visions of the dead.