By André Lima Araújo, Arsia Rozegar, and Tom Williams
Technology has evolved alongside those who have invented and manipulated it to serve their own goals, from simple tools to mechanized apparatuses to the miniature computers we are unable to separate ourselves from that we carry in our pockets daily. Our innovation and dependence grow in a symbiotic relationship to technology at an exponentially faster rate. Can technology then, come to be an integral facet of our individual self-identities? Of our shared cultural identities? Can these advances themselves, these ever more intelligent and predictive tools, be said to have an identity? How far can we blur the line between humanity and machine? At what point does the latter come to define the former more than the other way around? Welcome to Man Plus, a passion project if there ever was one, from André Lima Araújo that examines all those questions and more through the lens of a science-fiction procedural that blends international flavors with ageless introspection.
Araújo is wearing his influences proudly on his sleeves as he introduces the cyberpunk-topia of Olissipo City in the year 2042 replete with the thematic tones of Akira and Ghost in the Shell. The ideas introduced here are inherently new (they certainly proceed those two classic manga) but that doesn’t prevent there from being new ways to explore them. Like all successful sci-fi, Araújo presents a theoretical mirror on our current place history and one potential path that it may lead through a veil of the extraordinary and the horrifying. Here, we have a cold, robotic world populated with mega-corporations, humans, human-cyborgs, and much-maligned androids automatons that many believe share nothing truly in common with their organic programmers. A violent conflict in a public setting between one of these aforementioned androids and a heavily-armed cadre of cyborgs gets the narrative gears moving.
Rooting the plot firmly in the familiar police procedural is a smart choice and subtly echoes the cold efficiency of this advanced, though troubled, world. Things are easier in some ways (humans can enhance themselves through cybernetics) but the need for law enforcement has grown to meet advanced challenges and the S.O.F. (Special Operations Force) here is introduced as the familiar, gruff, ‘there’s a job to do’ team that can be found throughout fiction regardless of temporal setting. As such, the dialogue can seem trite at times as they go about solving the specifics of this violent occurrence, but Araújo sprinkles glimmers of their own particular tribulations yet to be explored, specifically the well paced opening introducing our lead, Rodrigo.
He wakes in a fashion that indicates routine as his hand reaches to silence and alarm only to stumble in search of one of the many scattered cigarettes strewn about the nightstand. There’s a sense of imprisonment; a sense that this world of marvels is as constricting as it is awe-inspiring. The wonders of this world are filled with the ugly horrors lit by the comforting sun that technology can not yet touch and Rodrigo smokes his cigarette, the first of many, looking out at it all and preparing for yet another day in a reality shaped and defined by others, mechanical and organic alike. It’s a smart, silent scene that goes a long way towards informing the reading about where this book is headed as it leads into the more action-oriented sequences that immediately follow.
Let’s get right down to it, the reason one should immediately want to revisit Man Plus as soon as the final page turn is made: the art is stunning. To say that Araújo makes it look easy would be doing a great disservice to the evident care and craft poured into each and every panel. Marrying his architectural background with the clean, hyper-detailed line work is a recipe for engaging storytelling. The use of perspective shapes a believable and tactile landscape that directs the eye with efficient and engrossing ease. Buildings tower and fade, as they both gleam and decay in a world where the grime has accumulated despite the technological advancements. Every shot of the city is thought-out, with patches of corrugated metal panels atop roofs, cracked and caking paint, descriptive signage, cable and screen-riddled operating rooms, and even the juxtaposed drying laundry hanging above a sea of glowing progress. It’s a rich setting that feels populated and weighted, the same sci-fi pastiche of the worn-down future that adds so much to the cyberpunk influences and the Millennium Falcon. The SOF’s attire, the militaristic cyborgs, the vehicles and myriad equipment they utilize are all unique and paired down to just the right level of design. Combined with his great design sense, Man Plus is a clinic on world-building.
One of the more refreshing elements to Araújo’s character work is body shape. There are no impossibly lithe waists defying mountainous musculature or voluminous breasts. No, these characters are rendered as realistic body types that move with appropriate heft. The mysterious android is a particular great example of anatomy and proportion that certainly adds to the underlying question of finding humanity in our tools given form.
The true testament of the art is the narrative flow and this issue could be read without any text at all and still be almost entirely understood. The big set-piece of this issue is undoubtedly the four page action sequence found early on that conveys a sense of motion throughout as the android scales walls, crushes trucks and clotheslines punks; it’s a menagerie of ‘fight or flight’ that fluidly sings. Araújo doesn’t get unnecessarily complex or playful with panel shapes or layouts, instead smartly arranging them to best communicate sequence and atmosphere without ever crowding the page or forcing intensity.
While saturated and rich, the coloring from Arsia Rozegar is surprisingly subtle. Olissipo City may be cold and nearly dank, it’s illuminated with a bright palette that incorporates bold identifiers of its characters (the SOF squad each have their own Voltron-like color scheme) and the city seems to exists in a tranquil perpetual twilight. The incorporation of soft gradients into interior walls, asphalt overpasses and the android’s hair are stunning and are ever conscious of light source while bathing all it touches in a comfortable glow. It’s not a dark noir tale and the colors are consistently inviting while allowing Araújo’s pencils and inks to define the textures. Rozegar is an elegant match for a book that’s already visually enticing.
Fans of this cyperpunk genre will find plenty to be interested in here with a crime procedural subverting some of the more traditional conventions. It’s rhythmically paced, even with some talking head dialogue ebbing the narrative along the way. Man Plus is holding a fair amount of cards close to its chest at this point, and exactly what levels of commentary and how many, if any, will find their ways into the thematic thread are yet to be seen. On its own however, the Moebius levels of detail and skill on display stand bionically tall and the established tone of identity ambiguity merit your attention. There’s a wealth of depth left to explore about these characters and this world and Araújo’s has demonstrated a level of precision in this debut issue to ensure that the future is far from bleak.
For more behind-the-scenes info and tons more about the man himself, be sure to check out the All-Comics Interview episode with André Lima Araújo!