What if you could be your best self? This is a question that’s familiar to the point of banality in a lot of genre fiction, from the heroic ideals of superhero comics to the transhumanist shadings of a lot of sci-fi. Upgrade Soul, a stunning new graphic novel from the terrifically talented Ezra Claytan Daniels, asks a seemingly simple variant: What if you could meet your best self? Would it be an edifying and inspiring event, or would it be something much deeper and more disturbing? Would learning what you might truly be capable of leave you feeling joyful and fulfilled, or would it be downright horrifying?
Daniels, not yet forty, has already made a big impression on the comics community. The Iowa native kicked off his career with the successful and unexpected series The Changers while living in Portland; he moved to Chicago following its success and has been a figure of great interest in the city’s arts community, focusing his attention from one medium to another – animation, music, film, music, and video, among others, always with intriguing results – before setting to work on Upgrade Soul, a project over a decade in the making that has finally made it into traditional graphic novel form after a long stretch as an immersive digital app. In some ways, the decision to release the book in a standard publishing format is a step back to more pedestrian means of production than we’re used to from Daniels, but the end result is a work of such profound impact and originality that it can’t be argued with.
Upgrade Soul concerns itself with Hank Nonnar, the heir to an entertainment fortune, who spends his life and his money funding projects he finds interesting and worthwhile. Along the way, while accepting an award for his generous donations to science, he meets and falls in love with Molly Teel, a brilliant geneticist whose forceful personality and outspoken ideas lead to their ultimate involvement in a daring, dangerous, and very legally shaky experiment to create something from their own genetic material: the stuff of their aging, dying bodies will be extracted, reconstituted, and used as a building block for a newer, stranger, and better version of themselves, not quite clones and not quite children, but what might best be described as future echoes of themselves.
The theme of time come undone recurs all throughout the book, as we are shown flashbacks and scenes disconnected in time that illuminate the progress of Hank and Molly’s new selves. In some ways, they are what they hoped to be: brighter, younger, stronger, more clearly in touch with both their emotions and their intellects. But in others, they are monsters, inside and out: deformed, misshapen, dismissive to the point of contempt of their previous selves, and – perhaps – not quite as enlightened as they seem to be at first. The story begins to spin out of control on every level, blending in elements of psychological thriller, body horror, transhumanist science fiction, and gripping family drama in ways that are so adeptly melded it’s almost breathtaking how fluidly Daniels makes it happen.
But Upgrade Soul is far beyond just a deft manipulation of various forms and formats that we’ve seen before, far more than just dressier manifestations of the familiar made strange. It’s a work of incredible texture and surprise, and every page has a new element that peels off like the skin of an onion, both connecting and separating from the main story. As eccentric and odd as the story elements are, it remains grounded in a queer sort of realism: the VIA facility, where the experiments are carried out, is believably roughshod and rinky-dink, underfunded and swarming with uncertainty, its staff negotiating the unpredictable waters of doing something truly new and very possibly terrible. Lead researcher Kenton Kallose is both sympathetic and compromised, and faced with the reality of his success (or is it a failure?), he lies to his subjects, his investors, and ultimately, himself in a way that haunts the entire narrative.
After a deliberate and careful start that gives us ample time to absorb the myriad emotional and technical elements of the book, the pace picks up alarmingly as everything starts to go wrong in ways both predictable and unpredictable. Hank and Molly find that merely being in the vicinity of their doppelgangers causes them unnamable distress; Henry (Hank’s clone) seems to develop feelings for Lina, Kallose’s severely disabled sister; Hank’s brother comes calling to investigate the goings-on at VIA, and Molly becomes increasingly alienated from what is, essentially, herself. This is a depth of plotting and characterization that would be difficult to pull off on its own, but which is even more incredible given that it forms the framework of a story that asks and answers some powerful questions about everything from race and disability to the meaning of intelligence.
Daniels’ art has continued to improve throughout his career, and he’s at a visual peak here as well. The off, slightly faded colors give much of the book, especially the scenes at the VIA facility, the look of a dated television show viewed through a faded, skipping screen; and while the entire book is full of physical grotesquerie, it’s never exploitative and only manipulative in the best sense. There are even touches of bizarre visual humor (as with Henry’s fascination for comical-looking fake ears) and elegant artistic metaphors (as with Lina’s revealing internal conversations with a simple drawing of her own idealized face). The quality of the art is maintained and keeps a consistent style throughout, giving a firm grounding to a story that is perpetually taking risk and moving our comfort zone far out of the frames.
There’s far more happening in this book than it seems even on first read. It’s truly one of the best comics of the year, full of incredible depth of characterization, unexpected turns, difficult resolutions, and broad themes dealt with using pinpoint precision. It’s one of the rare works that yields deeper meaning each time it’s revisited, and where not a single panel of narrative is wasted: each development furthers a promise made to the reader that we are in the hands of a creator who is taking the questions he asks seriously. It’s both transformative and transformational, and in a way, it asks us to take the same step with our critical faculties that Hank and Molly take with their lives: immersing them into something risky and untried, with the promise that they will emerge as something different than they were before.