Posthuman, Alas! – New Romancer (DC/Vertigo, 2015)

New Romancer - Issue 1 cover art (detail) (DC Comics - Vertigo)
New Romancer - Issue 1 cover art (detail) (DC Comics - Vertigo)

Alexia “Lexy” Ryan is a programmer down on her luck. Despite being genetically engineered with brain enhancements by her her scientist dad, she is merely coding match-making algorithms for a third-rate dating website, New Romancer. But Lexy doesn’t mind, because she is also a hopeless romantic, obsessed with 19th century British superstar poet, Lord Byron.

Meanwhile, Lexy’s former employer, AI-development corporation Incubator, is discreetly harvesting the personalities of unfortunate guinea pigs, by use of the very technology created by Joseph Ryan to boost the cognitive abilities of his daughter.

Following a network surge, the profiles of history’s most famous “lovers”, coded by Lexy for research, are uploaded into the corpses laying in the “Wollstonecraft Center” (a nod to Frankenstein‘s author, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, mother of modern sci-fi and Byron’s personal friend), located in the basement of Incubator, and there goes the second coming of Casanova, Mata Hari, and Lord Byron himself.

New Romancer - History's "greatest lovers" come alive (DC Comics - Vertigo)
New Romancer – History’s “greatest lovers” come alive (DC Comics – Vertigo)

Is this a dream come true? Byron, in the flesh, proves to be different from the legend derived from his writing, while the ruthless libertine that is Casanova threatens to destroy everything that is sacred. But for Lexy just as for the resuscitated historical figures, love in the 21st century may not be as simple as it (allegedly) was centuries ago…

Diversity

This comic book is part of the diversification process in the comics industry, and it is obviously targeted to a female audience. By that, I don’t mean that it is sweet and cheesy. Don’t be fooled by the soda pop aesthetics of the pictures, New Romancer is “suggested for mature readers”, and it has its lot of profanities, obscenities, even some burlesque elements, like the recurring apparition of a certain mummified body part from the original Casanova (spoiler: its his cock). That said, New Romancer first and foremost exposes the behavior of “womanizers” like Byron whom, despite his celebration of sacred love in writing, had quite a prodigal love life. “Debunking the Byron myth” might be too strong a choice of words, but it certainly brings the romantic back to a realistic level in this hilarious “cautionary” tale of blind love.

Secondly, Byron is not the only obsession of Lexy’s. The other is Ada Lovelace, actual daughter of Lord Byron, and serious contender to the title of First Computer Programmer due to her work on Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine. Lovelace’s “profile” is haunting Incubator’s mainframe, feeding info to Lexy while trying to resist being deleted by Angel, chief scientist at the corporation. While this is kind of a damsel in distress situation, Lovelace nevertheless is a positive role model for Lexy and she gives her father a run for his money, something she never had the chance to do in real life, Byron having left England forever a few months after her birth.

There are a few missteps, like a clumsy, too stressed-out little panel about consent, but one can only salute that an exclusively male creative team (Peter Milligan, writer; Brett Parson, artist; Brian Miller, colorist; Todd Klein, letterer) has been sensible to those issues, and avoids being condescending doing so.

Narrative

The story doesn’t make much sense. It is unclear what exactly Lexy’s father did to improve her, what the cause of the power surge is at Incubator, or how an online profile carries the actual personality of an artist who’s been dead for centuries. Or why does Casanova’s return triggers a New Romantics revival in the club scene (which has more to do with cyberpunk than with actual romanticism). But nevermind that, it’s beside the point. It’s a comic book, and it’s fast, shiny, and screamingly funny.

New Romancer - Lexy confronting Casanova in the sixth and final issue (DC Comics - Vertigo)
New Romancer – Lexy confronting Casanova in the sixth and final issue (DC Comics – Vertigo)

While there are multiple references, culturally and aesthetically, to the 19th century, New Romancer is not steampunk in any way. The story is rooted in modern tech, the historical figures are dressed accordingly, and there is no re-imagination of what the past could have been. It’s not steampunk, it’s cyberpunk with pomp.

Cyberpunk

Being a hopeless romantic myself, the premise and the obvious pun in the title are bait for me. That particular double entendre has already been suggested by sci-fi author and critic Norman Spinrad, in his seminal article, “The Neuromantics” (Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, May 1986). While Spinrad’s article draws a convincing parallel between cyberpunk and romanticism, New Romancer, for its part, is not a thorough exploration of the subject. Cyberpunk, here, is only a pretext to revive and expose the tensions between two idealized versions of love, between the romantic and the libertine.

The common use of the word “romantic” is misleading, as this artistic movement is not so much about love per se. It is, however, very much about the discrepancy between the ideal and the real, and between the abstract mind and the concrete body, and that is, indeed, something that romanticism and cyberpunk do have in common. In the words of writer Peter Milligan, “Lexy is a lover of Byron’s poetry, she’s a lover of the idea of Byron—but that doesn’t mean to say that this fiercely intelligent young woman is not without her criticisms of the great man.” (from DC’s blog “Creator Commentary”).

New Romancer - Issue 5 cover art (DC Comics - Vertigo)
New Romancer – Issue 5 cover art (DC Comics – Vertigo)

And this is, maybe, where New Romancer is the most interesting. Behind the flashy colors and the absurd story-line, New Romancer ultimately shows that those who pretend love to be either a sacred emotion or only compulsory fun would fail to confront reality. In the end, each character must sacrifice what they hold most dear in order to resolve the conflicting duality between will and actuality. But, in a last romantic sigh, that is what we call “Destiny”.

New Romancer might not make you wonder in longing, nor make you crank high-BPM techno in the stereo, but I’m confident it will make you grin for a while.

New Romancer: 6/10.

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Pascal Rioux-Couillard is a punk, a literature scholar, a record collector, and a noisician. He believes that art is “the noise of culture” (Paulson, 1988), an entropic feedback loop in the redundant system that is society, and that cyberpunk culture is the most vivid expression of this noise.

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