Design, technology, and an apocalyptic drive to cure diseases come to a feverish head in Geniacs!, visual artist Liby Hays’ debut graphic novel. The comic charts a biomechanical children’s crusade, waged under the banner of techno-capitalist corporate empire by self-interested teams of exhausted grad students fighting to innovate their way into a stable career, a generous research grant - anything better than a life spent straining to escape overqualified unemployment. The setting is the near future, but the concerns are wholly contemporary.
The titular hackathon gives its participants two days to create a “design for efficiency,” the winners granted the opportunity to lead a team developing the “world’s first silicone-based lifeform”: a potential successor to humanity when the Earth becomes inhospitable. The participants complain that the parameters of the competition are vague, open-ended and contradictory - is the project meant to be aesthetic? Utilitarian? Life-saving? Convenient? Social? Marketable? All that is clear is that it must please the judges’ vision of the futuristic. The comic plays out as a slightly accelerated vision of the nightmarish skirmishes hopeful professionals across all disciplines face in the fervent drive to tie careers to STEM - a constantly shrinking playing field whose horizons grow ever more conceptually radical to please people with money driven by a hazy-yet-vast idea of what might be possible. The goal isn’t to reinvent the wheel, but to be the one that convinces the people in charge that you have - or to sabotage the person who will.
Beyond Birthday is a young woman who has forged her credentials to enter the Geniacs competition, claiming her career as a poet is simply a misspelled abbreviation for “potential entrepreneur”. Haunted by childhood trauma, it is unclear if Beyond is involved in espionage or if she is simply attempting to make something, anything of a career to provide for a coherent rest-of-her-life. Luckily, Beyond quickly encounters an eager collaborator, the mysterious 20-year old prodigy Yohan: a lean, mercurial engineer with several biomechanical projects under his belt and a body covered in tattoos that seem to suggest an affinity for artistic expression and a comfort with bodily modification. Perhaps it is Yohan’s upbringing in the Waldorf school system where arts and crafts are integrated into most other subjects which attracts him to collaborating with a poet; or perhaps he appreciates the opportunity to work without interference, and the leverage to take credit for his collaborator’s ideas. Together, this aloof and desperate pair set to work on a living application which runs on entropy -- eventually dubbed “rot-to-speech” -- running through the hurdles and confusion of creating a functional, never-before-accomplished innovation as quickly as possible.
Hays’ artwork, a dreamy and snappy mishmash of the textured screentones of mainstream manga and the graphite smears adorning a teenage sketchbook full of attempts at drawing in the manga style, sends the reader thundering down pages of story - almost urging them not to slow down to fully comprehend the technobabble. The sheer force of the artwork propels the reader past punishingly dense layers of context, like a conversation between engineers overheard at a nearby table while sweating over an incoming deadline. Urgency and confusion builds amid information overload until the book reaches a terminal point and cannot continue, landing at a cruel, bitter punchline. Geniacs! forms in its whole an elaborate joke about sacrificing your life and putting everything you are on the line for the dream of an app that might be used by a very large number of people for a very minor task. Hays is clearly tapped into radically technological visions of the future -- the people and concepts could not have been depicted nearly so sexy if she weren’t -- but the absurdity her comic prods at incisively is the violent futility of building those dreams in a totally capitalist framework: the ridiculous and lethal compromises made to play a market to win while changing the world for everyone.
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 The irony of an engineering whiz kid coming out of a pedagogical system where some instructors believe in a literal demon inside of modern technology was not lost on me.