The Cyberpunk Renaissance

| By Mark Peters

How Analog, Paradiso, Lazarus, and Cyber Force Are Reconstructing the Genre of Technology and Rebellion.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines cyberpunk as “a subgenre of science fiction typified by a bleak, high-tech setting in which a lawless subculture exists within an oppressive society dominated by computer technology.”

Others might define it as 2018.

Even as we live in a world of miraculous technology, with global communication devices in our hands and robots toiling on the surface of Mars for over 5,000 days, we seem no closer to achieving an equal society without poverty, war, disease, or Nazis. Technology keeps getting better, but the gap between the rich and the poor keeps widening, and it feels like economic, environmental, political, civil, and nuclear disaster vie in a race to see which one exterminates humanity first.

High tech coexisting with high inequality is the pretext for a resurgence of the cyberpunk genre in movies, TV, and—especially—comics. In series ranging from Analog, Bonehead, Cyber Force, Lazarus, Paradiso, Tokyo Ghost, and VS, creators are exploring dystopic worlds full of transhumanism and tragedy that feel as far-flung as tomorrow morning.

The Schematics of Cyberpunk

Cyberpunk is most associated with writers William Gibson (especially his 1984 novel Neuromancer) and Philip K. Dick, whose 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was loosely adapted by director Ridley Scott into the 1982 film Blade Runner. Paradiso writer Ram V is a big fan of these classics as well as other cyberpunk benchmarks and books, building on a foundation constructed more than 30 years ago for his tale of a city that shifts alongside its inhabitants, illustrated with winding depth by Dev Pramanik.

Ram V thinks of the genre as “science fiction that looks at advancements in technology, juxtaposed with regression in the socio-economic fabric of a world or a people. There are often overtones of counter-culture, crime, and scarcity.” According to the author, cyberpunk, at its best, takes a hard look at “questions of dehumanization and/or trans-humanist ideals in a dystopian, and yet technologically advanced, society.”

Ram V isn’t alone in this fascination that contrasts technologica elevation with societal oppression. Matt Hawkins—co-writer of the returning Cyber Force alongside Bryan Hill and artist Atilio Rojo—explains, “To me, cyberpunk is about technological integration with humanity (à la transhumanism) and the rebellion of some against the system that attempts to control it.” Per the return of the comic and its host of man-machine black-ops heroes, first launched in 1992 by Image co-founder Marc Silvestri, he said the series is “all about... the interface of cybernetic technology and humans.”

The author expressed a worry that “…we’re looking at a near-term species split where the rich elites live for hundreds of years and control even more than they do now. Whoever controls the tech is going to own the future.”

The Politics of Metal and Wire

The rich owning the future (and every other damn thing) via future-forward tools is a central obsession among the writers and artists currently operating under and around the cyberpunk umbrella. Not all embrace the label, but most are fans of the genre, and the Venn diagram of cyberpunk and recent Image series is large and growing.

Greg Rucka is the writer of Lazarus, a sprawling series about warring clans and their enhanced bodyguards/assassins, illustrated by Michael Lark. “I’ve never thought of Lazarus as cyberpunk,” Rucka explains. “But that doesn’t mean it isn’t.” Despite his resistance to genre labels, he says that Lazarus harbors several hallmarks of the genre, including a near-future setting, transhumanism, and a story that “deals with the effect of commerce, information, and technology all in relation to politics.”

In the comic, rich families replace governments as the power delegators of society, allowing a small sliver of the population to hoard wealth, resources, medicine, and near-immortality, which they defend with the Lazarus—a quasi-member of the family who’s also a cyborg super-soldier. In Rucka and Lark’s ongoing story, it’s very good to be a member of a ruling family, somewhat OK to be a serf, and absolutely terrible to be waste, the class encompassing the vast majority of people.

Lazarus revolves around the simple idea that the apocalypse isn’t going to be nuclear or environmental: it’s going to be economic, says Rucka, who was inspired by the increasing, and “grotesquely skewed,” gap between the poor and wealthy. Rucka foresaw a time when wealth becomes even more consolidated, so “all the money resides in a very small place” and “everything that can be owned is owned.” The logical outcome, mined for much drama by Rucka and Lark, comes to a point when “people who own it all are going to start fighting among themselves.”

Paradiso features a different bleak, advanced world, spiked with moments of sublime beauty: one dominated by the seductive, sentient titular city and reeling from the mysterious Midnight Event, which has created a world that, like that of Lazarus, wallows in desperation.

As in many cyberpunk tales, advanced technology in Paradiso—represented by the skill of a Tinkerman and a mysterious, valuable device called a Neuma—has been anything but a cure-all for societal problems. But it also proposes a solution to this friction. Ram V says the series deals with “…scarcity and the collapse of civilization in the presence of advanced technology. But, if I were being ambitious, I would say that Paradiso investigates the relationship between humanity and technology at the cusp of a paradigm shift. Rather than look at dehumanization in the face of tech, Paradiso looks at sentient technology and humanity trying to evolve their relationship—find a new normal.”

The New Normal

Creating and exploring an evolved status quo is a cyberpunk and sci-fi trademark, but the new normal of Analog (written by Gerry Duggan, illustrated by David O’Sullivan, colored by Jordie Bellaire) hits especially close to home, suggesting that the way forward may be back, in a clever subversion for the genre. The boiler presents a future in which the internet explodes, revealing everyone’s secrets (direct messages, bank statements, internet searches, credit reports, medical history, etc.) to anyone who cares to look.

Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin explored a similar premise in The Private Eye, but where the duo created a flamboyant world where everyone wears a mask to maintain their privacy, Duggan and O’Sullivan lean toward the darker shadows of noir. That’s where Ledger Men like Jack McGinnis—illustrated in the style of a square-jawed, hard-drinking Slam Bradley-type PI—come in. These mysterious figures transport hard copies of private materials, since using the internet or a smartphone is idiocy for those who value any semblance of privacy.

Writer Duggan (Deadpool, The Last Christmas) says that Analog was inspired by stories about the Kremlin going back to typewriters for security purposes, and the increasing frequency of major info breaches such as the 2014 Sony Pictures hack, allegedly instigated by the North Korean government. The hack exposed some of Duggan’s own info. While eliminating phones and computers would be a shock to society, it’s a godsend to storytellers. “Modern technology has ruined a lot of stories,” Duggan says. “If you can take away that instant communication, you’re doing your story a favor.”

These comics are just a sample of books that dissect social erosion and transhumanism. Rick Remender and Sean Murphy’s Tokyo Ghost miniseries features characters tapped into addicting virtual reality feeds and Mad Max chases. Bonehead, by writer Bryan Hill and artist Rhoald Marcellius, foresees a “City of Drones” where nanotechnology-infused helmets allow gangs with parkour moves to communicate via neuro-link. VS, written by Iván Brandon and illustrated by Esad Ribić, unfolds a future deathscape where corporations sell war as reality TV, fought by bio-engineered super-soldiers who maim and suffer for ratings. Through compelling stories and seductive art, these comics create visions that are all the more nightmarish for their sheer plausibility, asking whether the new normal is new at all.

“It’s Actually Happening Now.”

This crushing plausibility is why creators working in and near the cyberpunk arena have similar answers for why the genre is currently flourishing more than a quarter century after its creation.

“It’s actually happening now,” Hawkins says. “We’re seeing AI integrated into our daily lives. We’ve had cyborgs for a while with pacemakers, etc., but I have an old classmate from my physics days who now has a cybernetic eye and can see in multiple spectrums. That’s some crazy shit. Also, it’s not just straight tech, but the proliferation of CRISPR has allowed us to do epigenetic changes to existing people. We no longer need generational mutation. If you want glow-in-the-dark skin, you can have it today; it’ll cost you about $100,000, and they’ll splice jellyfish DNA with yours, and your skin will now glow in the dark. There’s the world we know and reality, and they’re no longer the same.”

Rucka—who suggests that Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro’s Bitch Planet and much of Jonathan Hickman’s work also fit in this genre—says “it may be that the world caught up to what [the original cyberpunk authors] were talking about, and now we’re looking ahead to the next stage.” Back in the 1980s, “when Gibson was writing, corporations were not people.” Preposterous as it is, they are now, as defined through a series of Supreme Court rulings over the past decade.

Genre definitions aside, Ram V believes comics should ride the crest of the zeitgeist: “At dinner, comics is the guy who brazenly brings up politics and religion while everyone else is trying to make polite conversation. Put that together with the fact that comics attracts its fair share of science fiction authors, and you're bound to get stories that tap into collective anxieties. Topics like veracity of information, access to it, cybercrime and warfare, political destabilization, social media, echo chambers, and internet-age dehumanization seem to be infecting all conversations across socio-political divides. It is only logical then we'd expect to see that reflected in comics.”

As long as technology continues to evolve at a faster pace than equality, cyberpunk will remain one of the most frightening, relevant genres. As Hawkins put it, “The next few decades will be exciting and terrifying. That fear spawns creativity.”