Out of everything that happens in the Hernandez brothers’ sci-fi action-dramedy robot-rights allegory Citizen Rex — and a lot of things happen in Citizen Rex; it’s stuffed with things happening — the one thing that sticks with me is the wild scientist-for-hire Doctor Zazie watching other characters attack and fight each other through their own eyes. She’s tapped into the visual feed for CTZ-RX-1, you see, and as this long-presumed-dead advanced-model robot (the Citizen Rex of the title) runs around the city preparing to avenge the crimes that led to his creation, scapegoating, and deactivation twenty years ago, she sees what he sees.
But she also sees what the corpulent crime boss Mambo sees, because he’s using an artificial eye his goons swiped from Rex to replace the one Rex himself ripped out of Mambo’s face as the gangster dismembered his robotic body. Later in the story, Rex implants an auditory feed in the ear of our blogger hero, Sergio “Bloggo” Bauntin, so that when Rex speaks, he becomes the proverbial voice in Sergio’s head. And elsewhere, Rex creates an army of duplicates of himself, who at varying times do battle with Doctor Zazie’s own gang of robot clones or who disguise themselves flawlessly as other (human) characters to advance different aspects of Rex’s agenda. Still other characters are given artificial limbs by the other players, or receive plastic surgery that renders them nearly unrecognizable. And in the end, the truth about the corporate crime whose cover-up led to Rex’s two-decade disappearance is revealed during a dream sequence — the information is valid, but the context of its presentation is totally bogus.
In other words, it’s all but impossible to disentangle any one character, plot thread, or layer of the central mystery in writer Mario and artist Gilbert’s latest SF collaboration from any of the others. Thanks to the swapping of artificial body parts that functions as the plot’s prime motivator, in some cases it would be physically impossible to separate them, in fact. The story sits as heavy and sticky on the page as Beto’s thick blacks, rubbery character designs, and apocalyptic skyscapes, ensnaring you any time you attempt to unravel it. Indeed, the art at times seems to be racing to keep up with the text, as in one early panel that shows the aftermath of a human-robot collision that the caption box is referring to in present tense. Keeping up seems beside the point of simply depicting the cat’s-cradle interconnectivity of each player and each faction.
And woe betide those characters who try to set themselves apart from their fellows, be they human, mechanical, or some hybrid of the two — that’s the cardinal sin in this world. A world symbolized by the story’s climactic homage to the poisonous mercury fountain designed by Alexander Calder that graced the Spanish pavilion in the 1937 World’s Fair, a work described by Mario in his afterword as the “perfect symbol combining politics, the arts, and technology, as a reminder of our good intentions and our follies.” Even on a symbolic level, everything’s tied together.
Mario sums all this up neatly in his introduction to the book, in which he argues that “most science fiction” is really soap opera, using his and Gilbert’s collaborations over the years as Exhibit A: “a family drama, people trapped in a whirlwind of large human events … The fine threads of fate clinging and breaking away, as the players pinball through the maze of situations and obstacles I’ve thrown at them.” It’s a dense, engrossing, and above all humanistic approach to the genre, and not a bad way to calibrate one’s behavior in the real world as well, and it makes for Mario’s finest work to date.