“If it’s all a big joke then how are we supposed to know when to stop laughing?”
We live in strange times, to say the least. Culturally, we’ve arrived at a place we scarcely expected, as absurd and fictitious notions play out to the horrors of many. What is known to be truth can now be rejected, as fantasies are sold to individuals, only ever benefiting the rich and the powerful. Rules still apply, but only to serve those in positions of power. The Ouroboros is unbroken and systems bend to abuse those below, whilst raising up those above.
Friendo is very much a book about living through such times. Springing from the minds of Alex Paknadel, Martin Simmonds, Dee Cunniffe, and Taylor Esposito, it’s a harrowing science-fiction story that’s incredibly relevant.
Set in a near-future Los Angeles, the book showcases a world in which the people’s agency has been sold away to powerful corporations in the name of marketing and advertising. Dubbed the “Bernays Act,” it now permits any manner of incident, with things being written off as serving the corporate interest. Perhaps the most telling scene is our introduction to this future, where in we begin with a horrific and very real incident car incident. The driver, horribly wounded and bleeding, is alive and is taken away, while the passenger in the seat next to him is dead. The driver exclaims ‘Not again!’ almost casually, accentuating the frustration emergent from repetition. As the driver is helped out of the car and limps off, he’s asked to say his line and he declares to the gathered audience “Swift and the Serious Twelve everybody! Only in theaters!” And in the background the Hollywood Sign is visible, dilapidated to the point that it now merely reads VOID.
And that pretty much encapsulates a lot of what Friendo is — satirical to be sure, and yet also something more. In the tradition of works such as Black Mirror, Friendo is a grimy and horrific mirror of our culture now and a peek into a possible future. Here’s a world where deaths and fatal incidents, in the name of marketing, are just part of the norm. To sell a simple action movie franchise, people pay the ultimate price. And no one cares, not really, not enough to do anything. Perhaps, more truly, no one can do anything, which is where the terror of this world lies.
And that driver? The man barely grasping onto the edge of his life? That’s our protagonist, Leo Joof. Leo is an unemployed actor who lives with his employed and relatively well off girlfriend, Rachael. Defined by his upbringing moving from home to home, before which he was at the mercy of a religious extremist father, who was prone to anger and abuse, Leo is doing his best to survive. Trapped in a land that sells fantasies to people at the cost of their very lives, Leo is another cog in the brutal machine that is America. However, one day Rachael buys him a pair of Glaze Glasses, a device not too distant from Google Glass. Produced by a company simply titled The Manufacturer, the glasses offer the Friendo app, which creates a virtual assistant and partner suited to the user. Imagine if Google were a virtual intelligence with a face, voice and distinct look tailored to you — that’s a Friendo.
Friendos are formed after the glasses test the user via pre-set questions and have full access to their users’ histories, virtual or otherwise. Like any piece of the internet, the Friendo is always using what it knows to try and sell things to us, ever the marketing engine. More importantly, they only appear and stick around when we buy things. Leo’s Friendo manifests in the form of Jerry, a confident man in a suit with slicked back hair and a mischievous grin. Jerry also sports the voice of Leo’s old college roommate, a man who could talk Leo into just about anything. It’s eerie, but it’s only becomes more so when Leo gets involved in a mugging incident where in, wearing his glasses, he gets hit by a major jolt of electricity. The incident changes Jerry and removes his ethical protocols, setting the stage for Leo’s journey.
Plunging deeper and deeper into his obsession with Jerry and his need for this digital companion, Leo’s life spirals out of control. With his Glaze Glasses sporting a crack from the incident, Leo looks out into a distorted reality and buys into the fantasies that Jerry keeps selling. Spending every penny he can grab on whatever Jerry may offer to discount, Leo spends his time with this artificial ally, to the detriment of everything else in his life. He’s horribly addicted and over-reliant on this piece of technology. It’s a terrible habit, an unhealthy addiction he cannot get over. And it’s a problem that isn’t exclusive to Leo, with the prominence of smart phones, tablets, and computers in our lives and the usage of the internet, we’re all hooked.
One of the most purposeful scenes is the above moment of intimacy Leo shares with Rachael early on, even before Jerry exists. When Rachael asks for the television to be turned off so they may be closer, Leo denies her and halts their love-making to go watch the television instead. It’s an insight into where Leo’s priorities lie. Unless his marketing stunt, filled with death and blood, makes the evening news, he doesn’t get paid. All that pain and death and yet it means so little. Things then begin to escalate for Leo, as Rachael reaches her boiling point. After an especially awful attempt at forcing her down the road he’s taken, Rachael dumps Leo and kicks him out. He heads off to the local Cornutopia, a large supermarket chain, and attempts to rob them at gunpoint, leading to his arrest. However, he’s let go when a lawyer representing the company that produces Glaze Glasses arrives. She informs him of Jerry’s idiosyncrasy and asks that he continue to rob Cornutopias, except now with two drones following him around to live-stream the event as entertainment. The Bernays Act covers him and thus he cannot be harmed or arrested, since he is breaking no law in the eyes of the actual law. And being Leo, what does he do? He takes the offer.
Simultaneously we witness the perspectives of the company behind Glaze, the head of Cornutopia and his life, whilst getting a peek at an assassin hired by the latter to take down Leo. Paknadel, Simmonds, Cunniffe, and Esposito weave together what is very much a believable and textured reality, despite the maddening horror and absurdity at the center of it. You understand how this world works, how it came to be this way and how it somehow, inexplicably, continues to thrive. In some ways, Friendo is reminiscent of works by talents such as Warren Ellis and even Mark Russell, whilst being its own distinct beast. There’s a potently thoughtful philosophical heart to Friendo, one that is willing to expose all the horrendous truths of our modernity and existence and where we may be headed.
Paknadel and Simmonds have very unique voices and their idiosyncratic storytelling is a huge part of what stands out about the book. From the interesting references and allusions to philosophical texts, classic films, and even plays to the visually intriguing layouts and careful framing of the imagery, it all blends together nicely to make a thrilling comic. Paknadel’s biting commentary, which is amusing but ever coated with dread, ends up being hauntingly powerful. Clearly he has a lot to say and there’s clearly a sense of him bursting with ideas, all of which are laid out articulately in a clever web, while Simmonds brings it all to life on the page with stunning clarity. Simmonds, ever versatile, pulls off anything that the story requires, whether it be striking dream sequences featuring bizarre yet lovely depictions of sunlight on the page to the more relatively grounded bits of storytelling. He’s a huge part of why the book’s ambitions succeed, as he bridges together the entire thing into a cohesive, believable whole, balancing every facet of this ludicrous yet terrifying world.
The gamut of emotions Leo and the characters go through in the book land due to his expressive character work and brilliant composition, which puts the reader right there with them. And thus, there’s also a distance when it comes to Friendo, an intentional one. There’s a sense of coldness, a detachment, that’s all too evident as we’re transported to this isolating and nightmarish world where all are trapped and there is no escape. We’re experiencing what Leo is, plunged into a disorienting landscape full of pain and loneliness, where the only reprieve is a virtual Friendo. Simmonds’ usage of negative space is key here, helping get across the sense of emptiness whenever it especially calls for it.
Cunniffe and Esposito’s work is a massive reason why any of the above clicks together and their efforts cannot be emphasized or understated. Working in perfect sync with Pakndel and Simmonds, they’re the heroes who truly make the work sing. Cunniffe makes the versatile book possible with his thoughtful color palette and smart decisions, granting the book a distinct visual look that makes it remarkably fresh. His use of color, whether it be the reds, the oranges or the blues, help give appropriate context for each individual moment and help tell a story all on their own. The flashback sequences, for instance, which are cast in yellows and blacks, are a great example of this. But even going beyond that, you compare those scenes that with the regular ones and the dream sequence and the choices Cunniffe makes in each one and you understand what a skilled and thoughtful colorist he really is. He very much sets the mood and the tone of each scene.
Then we come to Esposito’s brilliant lettering work here. His choice of unbordered balloons is ingenious here, showcasing a world where anything goes whilst also contrasting with the nature of the trap everyone in it is caught in. It’s a subtle choice, but it’s also an essential one and only one example of the meticulous work he puts in. One of the most inspired moments in the book when there’s a sandstorm raging and the dialog within the balloons is obscured by the dust in the air, truly capturing the sense of what it’s like to be trapped in a storm with people, not knowing what is clearly even being said. Great lettering is an active part of the story, it’s something that guides the reader through and contextualizes every moment appropriately, whilst accentuating the artist’s work alongside all of the above. Esposito pulls it off and even makes it look easy.
Having read the upcoming #4, it’s evident that the creative is still very much firing on all cylinders, breaking down and reassembling all that we know about contemporary culture. Despite being set in the near future, Friendo reads like a prescient book. As all good science-fiction is, while it is a book about what may be, it’s also about what is. It’s a timely book firmly rooted in the moment. It’s about the feeling of living in this tumultuous world, which can almost feel like a dreadful joke. The experience of living in such a world, where it’s hard to laugh at this point, despite the sheer unbelievable absurdity of events, because things have gotten so dire. Their damage is very real and they’re terrifying. And it’s rooted in that feeling, that experience, which we all can understand and relate to, at the end of the day. We all have our own Jerrys yelling out at us, trying to sell us things, looking into our soul and learning our deepest, darkest secrets to exploit them. Jerry may not have a face in our world, but is a Friendo not real in the end? The amoral and unethical algorithm serving shadowy rich corporations while selling us fantasies is all too real.
Here we have a white man going into places generally considered safe with a gun and committing crimes, but he is protected by the law and the powerful, with nothing stopping him. The authorities say nothing can be done, he faces no repercussions for his actions. In fact, he grows in popularity and has his exploits streamed. The creative team knows exactly what it’s doing and they charge forth without hesitation at every step of the way. Much like Mister Miracle, Friendo captures what it’s like to live in worlds that have spiraled out of control, where all your assumptions might prove false or more scarily, all the more real.
The nightmarish marketing and advertising based realm of Friendo with the Bernays Act may seem strange and distant at first, but Paknadel, Simmonds, Cunniffe, and Esposito tear down all the layers to expose human truth amongst it all. Thus you end up with what is one of the most acclaimed and ambitious science-fiction comics of 2018. The next installment, the penultimate installment, hits next week and it’s a wild ride. Put on your glasses and join in — you might just see something you weren’t expecting.
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