My Life Among Humans

My Life Among Humans

Jed McGowan

Oni Press


96 pages

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Ever have trouble relating to others, especially those you desperately want to relate to the most? Then perhaps you can relate to the nameless protagonist of Ignatz nominee and Best American Comics contributor Jed McGowan’s My Life Among Humans: a sentient, mechanized creature sent to spy on random humans in the American southwest for an unexplained purpose.

Consisting of tentacle legs on a round body with one big eye at its center, our protagonist is definitely out of place among its human subjects. Were it not nimble and about the size of a beagle, its espionage act would be hard to pull off. Using undetectable telekinetic sensors, it gains access to humans’ thoughts and feelings, which it synthesizes into data reports for its “manager,” very far away. Through copious internal monologue, we learn that the alien observer is in the service of a large institution of some kind; no details are given, but fear is a motivating factor. If the alien should err in any way, repercussions up to and including destruction at the hands of its manager are possible.

Sure enough, the mission goes awry when the alien, which has become personally interested in its human subject, Will, lingers too long inside Will’s house and gets spotted. This is a destructible offense. Not knowing what to do, the alien instructs its probes to communicate a message more or less the equivalent of a mantra: calm, blue ocean. It works. The humans are calmed. They are, in fact, unexpectedly cowed into a kind of agnostic stupor where they feel neither pain nor happiness, or indeed any emotion at all. Through further telepathic testing, the alien discovers that it has total control over what the humans say and do. Soon, the family’s friends and associates have been lured close enough for the alien to infest them with probes too, a la Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The alien's manager conveys pleasure via interstellar email that a higher than expected number of humans are under observation.

But the alien is paranoid about its charade being discovered. One human, Celeste, remains unaffected by the alien’s probes, and becomes increasingly suspicious of what’s going on around her. While the alien is capable enough of navigating its human puppets through daily processes like work, subtler activities like human interactions with friends and loved ones elude it; as a result, the subjects say and do all the wrong things in social settings. After a while, Celeste gathers other townspeople who have noticed similar weirdness in people they know, to formulate a plan.

Despite promise, My Life Among Humans never leaves lower orbit. Yes, the art is terrific a lot of the time. The Pixar-esque style—people with big heads on small bodies, evocative landscapes, and a protagonist that looks like an Omnidroid straight out of Incredibles 2, only in miniature—are rendered with exactitude in every panel. You’ll never not know who is talking to who. Clean, borderless panels against the crisp, white pages work well with the color palette. But something is missing. The issue holding this book back is depth.

The story is told from the perspective of the nameless alien protagonist. We don't witness anything of this character’s background; we are front-loaded with the reason for its arrival on Earth. Similarly, we don't see the human characters going about their normal routines, allowing readers a chance to connect with them. Instead, just like the alien observer, we see the humans one step removed, and only skin deep. We know Will and Celeste are working on a video game project together, and on the cusp of a romantic relationship, but how do they know each other? Why did they decide to collaborate? Why, beyond simple reciprocal niceness, are they even into each other?

The alien observer talks about how it is growing fond of its human subjects, but nothing is demonstrated that would suggest this, other than simple proximity. Most of the story is told through the alien observer’s inner monologue. While this works to convey a lot of information quickly, it leaves little ambiguity or intrigue. In storytelling terms, the art is often strong enough to tell us what we need to know; the narration feels like a crutch or shorthand for making certain readers understand the narrative beats, and how they should be feeling about what they’re seeing. Sound effects are flat words like "shut," "turn," "bark," displayed in the same font and size as the lettering in balloons and captions. Surely more creativity could be used to convey these sounds.

I found myself not caring much about the characters; often, their designs made it hard to even tell how old everyone is. We know from the dialogue that Will is in college, but from his appearance alone he could just as easily pass for a high schooler, or a thirty-something. Moreover, because of this cutesy visual style, it never feels like anyone is in peril. Maybe the alien observer, but that’s it. This is something of a double-edged sword; the gentle atmosphere the art creates is effective for worldbuilding and tone, but not for creating tension. When the story starts heading in the direction of escalating danger, it’s hard to buy into a real threat - particularly when the alien's manager arrives on Earth, interacting with the townspeople the way a generic monster would. Given the advanced technology it's using to communicate with the alien protagonist, and its presumed managerial status with access to advanced technology, it doesn’t make sense that it would behave in this way.

It's fair enough to explore a different kind of story about a cute foreign visitor amid human counterparts than your E.T. and the like. But siloing off the alien main character to his caption narration among too-simple humans limits what can happen. A messier, more dynamic scenario may have provided more options for the story to evolve. Instead, at nearly every turn in this book, what seems most obvious as a possible route is the one that is taken. Interplanetary tales are full of well-worn conveniences like near-instantaneous travel across incomprehensible distances, but it’s tough to cozy up to a story that takes a route so unconvoluted that it is simply a straight line.