In today’s article: Our recommendations for cyberpunk reading.
Owing to the overwhelming influence of the novels by Philip K. Dick and William Gibson, as well as visually-distinctive films such as Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and the Wachowskis’ The Matrix, comics in the cyberpunk genre have come to be associated with a certain monolithic aesthetic informed by a vision of a dark, oppressive, industrial, and grimy dystopian near-future.
However, it takes more than cyborgs, A.I., and art inspired by Moebius and Dan O’Bannon’s “The Long Tomorrow” to make a cyberpunk comic. Or at least, it takes more than that to make a good cyberpunk comic.
What the “punk” in cyberpunk really refers to is the idea of the technology of robotics, cybernetics, global electronic information networks, and artificial intelligence disrupting society, being appropriated and used by the marginalized for purposes its creators never intended or predicted.
This subversive quality—the notion that the intersection of humanity and technology is messy and chaotic and not at all ordered—is one of the features that sets genuine cyberpunk apart from traditional science-fiction and speculative fiction that heavily features networks, robots, cyborgs, and A.I. The best cyberpunk stories use the technology metaphor to challenge readers’ ideas of ethics, politics, identity, embodiment, free will, and sentience.
Perhaps more than any other science-fiction subgenre, cyberpunk encourages dissent, questioning the very definition of what makes us who we are beyond our biology. This isn’t a recent development. Cyberpunk bears the legacy of Karel Čapek’s R.U.R.—the 1920 science-fiction play that, besides introducing the world to the word “robot,” was an artistic comment on the Industrial Revolution and its role as a catalyst for the rise of both fascism and communism in Europe.
Below, I’ve listed some of my favorite cyberpunk comics. I’m not necessarily holding them up as the best examples of the genre—a number of them are quite flawed in certain respects—but they are works that stood out to me in terms of their craft, their significance in the history of the cyberpunk comics genre, or because of what their creators had to say about what it means to be human.
Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka by Naoki Urasawa
Perhaps because of the influence of the complex animist aspect of the indigenous Shinto religion, Japan has been and continues to be fertile ground for comics that revolve around the question of whether sufficiently advanced robots and A.I. qualify for personhood (and all that entails as far as ethics and rights go). Early science-fiction manga like Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy and Shotaro Ishinomori’s Cyborg 009 can be said to have “proto-cyberpunk” elements. Eisner Award-winningmangaka Naoki Urasawa examines both the tradition of robot manga and serves up a compelling, hard-hitting cyberpunk murder-mystery in Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka, his officially licensed reimagining of the classic Astro Boy storyline, “The Greatest Robot on Earth,” about a robot detective on a mission to determine the identity, and ultimately capture, a robot serial killer who victimizes robot and human alike.
No prior familiarity with Astro Boy (or science-fiction, for that matter) is necessary to enjoy Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka—it is a self-contained work that features fully-realized characters and a gripping story that succeeds as much as a crime comic as it does as a cyberpunk comic. All eight volumes have been translated into English and are available from VIZ Media.
The Private Eye by Brian K. Vaughan, Marcos Martin, and Muntsa Vicente
There is a noir-flavored murder-mystery at the center of The Private Eye, Brian K. Vaughan, Marcos Martin, and Muntsa Vicente’s “pay-what-you-want-for-it” digital comic, but the world of the comic is just as intriguing as its whodunit conceit.
The near-future world of The Private Eye has refashioned itself after a massive global data leak perpetrated by an anonymous party reveals every sent e-mail, every uploaded picture, every flirtatious text message, every Internet search request to the online world at large. In an instant, secrets cease to exist. The result is neither a tech dystopia nor a utopia of digital openness. After the initial fallout from the revelations—workers lose jobs, politicians resign, families are torn apart—the world keeps trucking along as it always did, but without the important element of trust that is the foundation of all communications, digital or analog.
As a social corrective to the failure of technology, people have taken the concept of privacy to a ridiculous, satirical extreme: Everybody hides behind pseudonyms, whether online or in the “real world,” they wear infrared signature-dampening suits, and they walk around with full-head masks, prosthetics, and obscuring make-up to deter surveillance cameras and facial recognition software. In a world where no one is who they claim to be, a person’s real identity is the only thing left that is of genuine value, and an underground economy based on the invasion of privacy has sprung up.
The Private Eye entertains even as it offers biting commentary on how personal boundaries and expectations of privacy have been redefined in the Social Media Age.
Transmetropolitan by Warren Ellis, Darick Robertson, and others
Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson may have been channeling the “gonzo” spirit of Hunter S. Thompson in Transmetropolitan’s over-the-top caricature of a protagonist Spider Jerusalem, but the comic, launched in 1998 as part of DC Comics’ short-lived Helix science-fiction imprint, was as forward-looking as any work of popular science-fiction at the time.
It seems obvious now, but back in 1998, the comic’s inaugural three-part storyline, “Back on the Street,” was particularly prescient in its depiction of how the live, on-site reporting enabled by wireless communications, global access to the Internet, social media, and the concept of virality would have a destabilizing effect on journalism, civil order, and politics. As Spider Jerusalem states in a fit of narcissistic mania while covering a clash between riot police and a community of body-modification obsessives:
Journalism is just a gun. It’s only got one bullet in it, but if you aim right, that’s all you need. Aim it right, and you can blow a kneecap off the world.
The entire Transmetropolitan series has been collected in ten volumes by DC’s Vertigo Comics imprint.
Appleseed by Masamune Shirow
There is no question that Ghost in the Shell is Masamune Shirow’s most well-known contribution to the world of cyberpunk but an earlier work about the growing gulf between humans and their synthetic human helpers, Appleseed, is just as important to the genre.
One of the most striking things about Appleseed is that it doesn’t look at all like a work that was created 30 years ago. Shirow’s depiction of a post-World War III 22nd century society and near-obsessive attention to future-tech detail looks as cutting-edge today as it did in 1985.
I don’t mean to suggest that Shirow had some near-preternatural talent for prognostication, of course. But just like O’Bannon and Moebius’ “The Long Tomorrow,” Shirow’s Appleseed was so overwhelmingly influential in just the right artistic circles that it practically defined the storytelling and design vocabulary for the post-Blade Runner generation. In Appleseed, Shirow wasn’t predicting the future of the cyberpunk aesthetic so much as he was creating it.
The original Appleseed series, along with a variety of supplemental material, is available from Dark Horse Manga.
Also worth taking the time to check out:
- Ghost in the Shell by Masamune Shirow
- “Deathlok the Demolisher” in Astonishing Tales by Rich Buckler and Doug Moench
- Electropolis by Dean Motter
- Biomega by Tsutomu Nihei
- Ghost Rider 2099 by Len Kaminski, Chris Bachalo, Mark Buckingham, Ashley Wood, and others
- Old City Blues by Giannis Milonogiannis
- Descender by Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen
- Battle Angel Alita by Yukito Kishiro
- Silent Dragon by Andy Diggle and Leinil Francis Yu
- WE3 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely
- Alex + Ada by Jonathan Luna and Sarah Vaughn
- RUNLOVEKILL by Jon Tsuei and Eric Canete
- Livewires by Adam Warren, Rick Mays, and Jason Martin
- .hack//Legend of the Twilight by Tatsuya Hamazaki and Rei Izumi
- Arcadia by Alex Paknadel and Eric Scott Pfeifer
- Nonplayer by Nate Simpson
- Mardock Scramble by Tow Ubukata and Yoshitoki Oima