Harms Tackles the Ramifications of Genetic Immortality in "Eternal"

Who wants to live forever? Plenty of people would say, "Me, me, me!" but odds are good they haven't thought things through. William Harms, however, has delved deeply into the ins and outs of the process for his four-issue "Eternal," debuting from BOOM! Studios Dec. 10. Joined by artist Giovanni Valletta ("Dark Horse Presents" #19), Harms crafts a world where a company called New Life has developed the scientific means to not only clone bodies, but upload and save minds and memories to their own servers.

Whenever a corporation gets involved in something along these lines, people are rightly skeptical -- especially when that organization has amassed ridiculous amounts of power over the course of centuries. In the case of "Eternal," these people have banded together as the Human Liberation Army, a group of revolutionaries who want humanity to return to its more genetically pure state.

"Eternal" revolves around a trio of characters who represent different aspects of this new world. Peter Rathmann represents New Life's omnipresent police force, Gail is the head of the HLA and Violet is one of the "pures" Peter is tasked with capturing and Gail aims to save.

CBR News spoke with Harms about the real world science and politics behind his fiction, the battle between New Life and the Human Liberation Army and how characters like Violet, Gail and Peter Rathmann come into play as his tale unfolds.

CBR News: "Eternal" sounds like it features a lot of world-building, so let's start our tour with New Life. What can you tell us about this company?

William Harms: New Life is a bio-tech company that perfected two different, but related technologies. The first was the ability to create perfect clones of any person, from any point in their life. The second was consciousness transfer. A wireless chip is implanted in the neck of every clone -- which is connected to the brain -- and every moment of that person's life is uploaded to New Life's cloud. So if a person dies, New Life has all of their information and an hour or so later, that person is back in a new body. And the person can pre-determine the "age" they want to be when they come back.

The world of this book also features a group of un-cloned people called "pures." Violet is one of them -- how does she fit into the story and how does her lack of cloning change the way she's treated?

Violet, and other pures, are descended from people who have never been cloned, so their DNA hasn't been damaged by that process. One of the things that happens when chromosomes are duplicated is that they get shorter. There is a section of each chromosome called a telomere that acts as a buffer and is shortened instead of the chromosome. Take away the telomere, and you've got problems.

So when I was researching how the science of cloning humans might work, I settled on this idea that DNA from the pures is used to repair or replace the damaged chromosomes that are present in the clones. This makes the pures extremely valuable, and over the course of a couple of centuries, they've gone from being placed on a pedestal and given whatever they want, to being held in camps that are barely one step up from concentration camps.

I'm not sure if you want to get into this too much, but is there a long con being played by New Life here, or are they more of a once well intentioned company going downhill? 

New Life is a once well-intentioned company that has slowly, bit by bit, lost its way. Imagine if a company was actually able to do what New Life has done -- make people immortal. That company would not only be hailed as our saviors, but they'd also make unspeakable amounts of money. People would pay whatever it takes to stay alive. Now fast-forward a couple hundred years, when the market saturation for clones is nearly 100%, how does New Life maintain those profits? By becoming even more draconian, by cutting corners. This is the primary reason the pures ended up in enclaves.

"Eternal" pits Human Liberation Army leader Gail against New Life's Rathmann. What do each of them want and how do those ideas oppose each other?

Gail leads the HLA, which helps pures escape the United States. She's spent nearly ten years doing this, while also trying to educate the public about the treatment of the pures -- and the cold truth is, no one cares. People don't want to die, they want to keep on living forever. Gail and the other members of HLA make a decision that will set them on a direct collision course with New Life.

Peter Rathmann is a captain within New Life's Biological Enforcement unit. His job is to shut down illegal cloning operations and recapture any pures who have escaped from New Life. At the start of the story, he's starting to question the morality of what he's doing, and he actually starts to think that we weren't meant to live forever. The decisions he makes impact not only Gail and Violet, but the entire world.

There's obviously concern for humanity on a genetic level with this much cloning going on, but are the members of the Human Liberation Army also concerned about New Life having access to so many peoples' digitized personalities and memories?

I think they're concerned that New Life has its tendrils in every part of everyone's life. I never explicitly state this in the course of the comic, but New Life's Biological Enforcement Division is the de facto police department. They're the only law enforcement we see during the story. New Life also owns and controls humanity's DNA, which how they're able to create, and profit from, the creation of clones.

That might sound far-fetched, but there are companies out there today who are suing for the right to "own" specific human genes. The Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that companies cannot patent human genes, but in the world of "Eternal," that's exactly what has happened. New Life owns everyone lock, stock and barrel.

It sounds like you did a good amount of research to base this sci-fi story in fact. Would you say that grounding helps people get into a story like this?

I think there are two things that ground science fiction -- having one foot, or even a toe, in reality, and having relatable characters. The characters are the eyes and ears for the reader, and if the characters are well rounded and empathetic, readers will accept some pretty fantastic scenarios.

That said, I did do a fair amount of research. Since of this technology actually exists, I took what I was able to find, specifically as it relates to how cloning damages DNA, and extended that out to the pures and why New Life needs them.

How did you work with Giovanni Valletta in building this world? Was there a lot of sketching and ideas passed back and forth before getting into the penciling stage?

I worked out a lot of the world building stuff before Gio was onboard, but just seeing his samples was inspiring. He has a clean look that lends itself very well to this kind of story and Ian Brill, our editor, is constantly pushing me to come up with crazier and crazier tech for Gio to draw. He's really the perfect artist for this book.

There are a lot of big questions that come along with a story like this: is cloning morally okay? Are people meant to live forever? Can corporations be trusted? Should science be used to go against nature in this way? Are those questions you have personal answers for, or just ideas you want questioned in your work?

I have my own opinions on all of those big questions, but I don't think people will read this comic to hear me editorialize my version of morality.  The important thing to me is that the characters, primarily Rathmann, Violet and Gail, all have their own opinions. The reader gets to see and experience what the characters believe and then draw their own opinions from that.

I do hope people start thinking about things like this, though, because companies and scientists are already pushing the boundaries as far as they can. Way back in 1998, for example, a company tried to patent human/animal chimeras. The US patent office rejected it out of hand, but the boundaries are going to continue to be pushed.

"Eternal" hits on Dec. 10 from William Harms, Giovanni Valletta and BOOM! Studios.

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