Spoiler Warning in Effect
— Upgrade Soul‘s only flaw might be that it is too hopeful about mankind, too hopeful about the potential silver lining, faint as it may be, that lies beyond the greed of people. It is a science fiction story in that, even as our elderly protagonists are abused by greedy, delusional and unethical scientists, movie producers and a love struck teenager, they manage to have a happy ending. In our world where elderly abuse is all too common, the culprits mostly go unpunished and the abused draw their last breath, isolated and lonely.
I expected Upgrade Soul for a long time. The latest Ezra Claytan Daniels graphic novel had made waves last year with his Dwayne McDuffie Awards for Diversity in Comics. Upgrade Soul was already available as a bold, digitally serialized experiment long before it was published on paper. I never managed to jump into it, always hearing echoes of its brilliance, but never taking the time to look it up. I expected a solid book, what I didn’t expect was the ease with which Daniels was going to weave a tale of transhumanism, body horror, psychological thriller, moral and ethical dilemma, elderly abuse, lies, emotional manipulation, love and betrayal so effortlessly. Lion Forge takes a chance bringing this project whose origin and format is very well anchored into the digital realm and transfer it on the page quite well. Lion Forge is an interesting publisher in that they punctuate their release catalog with surprising and challenging work, Katie Green’s Lighter than my Shadow is one of them and a favourite read of mine this year and Upgrade Soul fits within that category. I should also point out for the record that Lion Forge owns the Comics Beat, though it doesn’t change my opinion that Upgrade Soul is one of the most solid reads of the year.
Upgrade Soul follows the story of Molly Teel and Hank Nonnar, an elderly couple, contemplating their mortality. Molly is a brilliant scientist in the field of genetics, but hasn’t accomplished all she wanted to. Hank has inherited an entertainment fortune and his a writer past his prime who spent his fortune vicariously living his dream of being a scientist by financing wild scientific research. This is how he is approached to both finance and ideally be the first human subject of a new experimental (and ethically and legally dubious) scientific process called Upgrade Cell. It’s a new way to regenerate a person and provide them with a new life span, bringing the mind and soul of a person into a new, younger, smarter, stronger body. Enticed by the idea to start anew and maybe accomplish the things they never could, Hank and Molly participate, much to the dismay of Cliff, Hank’s brother. The experiments goes awry and while it is aborted, Molly and Hank survive the process, but discover that instead of the rejuvenation they were promised, they meet with severely disfigured yet intellectually and physically superior duplicates of themselves.
This then becomes the thrust of the story, these two characters grappling with the reality of having these two bizarre, deformed individuals that are essentially an enhanced version of themselves. It has a really horrific undertone. What if you could meet the best possible version of you, someone with your memories and experience, but none of your flaws, how would it feel knowing that this person could achieve everything you ever wanted to. In addition to Hank and Molly, we follow the team of scientists involved in the experiment and mostly, lead researcher Kenton Kallose, the man behind the project, whose delusional vision and desire to prove that his earlier success in genetics wasn’t the apex of his career.
After a slow start to set the stages, the layers of the story begin to build and develop into a genuinely riveting read. A few elements become quite riveting, in particular the connection and eventual alienation between Molly and her double. There was a depth of characterization in their relationship that felt so authentic and genuine, you can’t help but be pulled in. The complicated relationship between Kallose and his severely disabled sister Lina is a highlight. Kallose feels a responsibility of care towards his sister, leading him to be overbearing and protective to the point of completely isolating Lina. On her end, Lina, though recluse, is craving support and emancipation and is fixated on talking to a drawing of a woman’s face whom she calls her sister, but really represents a perfect vision of herself. It’s a lot to take in, but it’s never overwhelming.
There’s a pervasive element of greed that subvert classic tropes in the most unexpected and realistic ways I’ve seen in a while. Hank and his brother Cliff inherited wealth and the rights to a popular comic book character upon their death’s passing. Cliff has blown through the millions in inheritance he received and wished that he had a bit more. Hank is exploiting the rights to the character in cash grab lowbrow action movie for money. The resulting movie will be antithetical to a lot of the values their father and the character stands for. Cliff is quite upset about it, thinking the film shouldn’t get made if it’s going to disregard the original intent of the characters. Hank really wishes he could stand up and be firm about those values, but he could really use the money to finance the Upgrade Cell project, which may very well extend his life. Hank thinks it’s a dilemma, Cliff thinks he’s a fool. In the end, they both are greedy, even though they each have their own reasons to be.
That interaction between Hank and his brother could have been simply about motives, but it ends up being far more revealing about the themes of the book After a quick, not-so subtle jab at the writing duo Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, we learn that Hank is increasingly frustrated that Hollywood producers are stripping his sci-fi character Slane, the hero created by his father, and shepherded by him for decades, to make a generic modern action movie devoid of all of his original meaning. Slane was created as a metaphor for Black American empowerment. His skin is blue, but black kids saw a role-model. This Hollywood adaptation will offer an action movie vehicle for a rising Hollywood star. Does this copy, this newly created work of art retains anything meaningful from his original base? Is it even fair to say they are the same thing anymore? The discussion between Hank and Cliff reveals that money isn’t the only thing at play, but an honest vision of what a copy represents and where the two brothers stand on this. If it looks like Slane, but doesn’t have the same substance, the same message, is it really the same thing?
Ezra Claytan Daniels weaves his story incredibly well over the course of his 240 page story. He manages to maintain a consistent look and style throughout. In particular, the colours used permeates the book with a feeling of unease and almost aggressive realism, like the laboratory in which the story takes place was so grounded in reality that he just drew it from an existing location. Daniels’ characterization really helps in keeping this story rooted and realistic, particularly as the science fiction concepts become increasingly more complex and the story builds into itself.
I was struck by how immensely enjoyable it was, how tense the story gets. It benefits from a second reading to truly grasp the intricacies of the book I’m not sure Upgrade Soul is the best graphic novel of the year, but it is certainly one of the most complete and satisfying graphic novel I’ll read this year.