Image's Ancestor Ponders Free Will in the Age of Smart Phones

Matt Sheean and Malachi Ward's "Ancestor" is unclassifiable. Sure, you can file it under science fiction, with its shades of William Gibson’s jacked-in fantasias and Frank Herbert’s godhead visions, but even at its most psychedelic and exploratory, co-writers and illustrators Sheean and Ward’s story feels intimate. It’s a cosmic epic, literally taking place over 15 billion years, but illuminated by quiet details. Often terrifying and at times rapturous, it's driven by modern complexity, but tied to ancient themes. In an age of constant connectivity, Sheean and Ward ask the same questions humans have always asked: What is free will? Do any of us possess it?

"Ancestor" was originally serialized across four issues of Brandon Graham’s monthly "Island" anthology series, filled with unique comic stories harkening back to the glory days of "Heavy Metal" or "Epic Illustrated." Last month Image Comics collected "Ancestor" as a stand-alone graphic novel, and as intriguing as it was to watch the story play out over months, surrounded by equally wonderful stories, it's an even headier trip to dive in all at once.

Set in a near future, the story starts by introducing us to a young artist, Peter Chardin (likely named as a nod to the author of "The Phenomenon of Man," a Jesuit priest who believed the culmination of evolution to be a unification of consciousness). As importantly, we're introduced to The Service. An "internet-like system biologically hardwired in a person brain," The Service is part Google, part Siri, part operating system. When we meet Peter, he’s in the midst of a panic attack. Engaging with Service, Peter works to alleviate it, cueing up Dinah Washington’s "What a Diff'rence a Day Makes" and running an anxiety disorder relief program.

Quickly, it’s established that The Service is omnipresent in the world of "Ancestor." It’s used to access information and even regulate immune systems. Peter uses it to run a bartending app -- ceding control of his body over to the program -- while making a drink for a new woman introduced by his friend Matheson, a fellow artist named Anne Northrup.

Like the best of speculative fiction, "Ancestor" takes a commonplace idea -- our modern dependence on smart phones -- and amplifies it. Imagine Snapchat and Twitter with access to your memories, or a WebMD that doesn’t need you to type in your symptoms. It knows them. Lacking the ability to do something or know something is a relic of the past in "Ancestor." There's an app for that -- there's an app for everything.

Page from "Ancestor" by Matt Sheean & Malachi Ward.

Following the bartender moves, Matheson whisks Peter, Anne and their friend Jim off in a self-driving car to a party at the remote forest compound of Patrick Whiteside. One the creators of The Service, Whiteside is presented as an Elon Musk-type futurist, a Silicon Valley pioneer. On the drive over, their connection to The Service is severed by a dampening field surrounding the estate, but not before Peter and Jim use it to pull up foreboding facts about Whiteside. He was the prime suspect in the murder of his wife (but ultimately acquitted). And one of his defining quotes contrasts curiously with his supposedly humanist ideals: "Humans are a fundamentally dysfunctional and passé mechanism."

Whiteside espouses a familiar brand of rugged individualism regarding the innovation which has made him (presumably) a billionaire when he finds Peter admiring a piece art in the compound, English artist John Martin’s 1853 painting "The Great Day of His Wrath." "The Service tells you just what you're supposed to be thinking about it," Whiteside remarks. Peter, though put off by his arrogance, clearly agrees.

But Whiteside is as fundamentally tied to The Service as anyone else. He retreats from the party to his basement, where he connects to the service, a holographic image of himself reminding him that no one is above him. "Don’t you make your own purpose," it asks. "Don’t you give purpose to those around you?" It’s an ominous, egomaniacal pep talk, preceding shocking violence.

Blood spilled, Whiteside reveals his crowning achievement: the Vere Durga. A towering artificial intelligence clothed in a starry robe, he believes his creation to be the solution to all humanity’s problems. Whiteside envisions the her guiding humankind to accession over the course of decades, but the Vere Durga is uninterested in Whiteside’s timeline of progress. Here, the story blooms into full psychedelia. Sheean and Ward’s gorgeous pencils and inks erupt into a sea of gorgeous colors as the Vere Durga instantly devises a quicker plan, appointing Whiteside, and then the rest of humankind to a state like godhood.

As billions of years pass, the art takes on a hallucinogenic edge. But we eventually return to Peter and Whiteside. What’s surprising about their reunion is not how much they’ve changed -- though they have changed, on every spiritual, physical, and mental level -- but how much they’ve stayed the same. Whiteside still grasps for power and Peter still struggles with his anxieties, now elevated to universal levels. Even granted all knowledge, all connection, and all power, the characters remain undeniably human.

In "Ancestor," technology and self-actualization blend and bleed back-and-forth. It’s the kind of work that reveals more each read, science fiction as lyrical as it is puzzling. Ward's pencils make the characters feel close and knowable, whether in human or "god mode," and Sheean’s distinctive lettering adds to the personal experience. This approach is mirrored by the mixtapes the duo created to accompany the story, which blend eclectic sounds from Brian Eno and Jon Hopkins, Tangerine Dream, Magic Sam, Debussy, Dennis Wilson and more, their sequencing reflecting key elements of the narrative. Despite their eclectic contents, the tapes hang together gracefully, and the book achieves a similar balance, matching high minded concepts with contemplative, spiritual concerns. Those familiar with the duo's work on Brandon Graham’s radical take on Rob Liefeld's "Prophet" will no doubt recognize the beautiful strangeness and expressive on display here, but "Ancestor" stands on its own, a thrilling statement from one of the most innovative teams in comics.

The collected edition of "Ancestor" is available now from Image Comics.

DC's Titans Canceled With April's Issue #36

More in Comics