Loose Cannon: Issue #36

Fri, September 21st, 2001 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Larry Young, Columnist

THE LAST BOY ON EARTH

Back in 1996, when I was working on the Casual Heroes series bible for Image/Motown editor Tom Fassbender, and putting the finishing touches on the script for the never-produced Casual Heroes #4, I started to get really interested in retro-fitting my imagination into existing superheroes. As an exercise, really, because I'm not too keen on following the path others have already trod… I just wanted to see if I could do it.

The problem was, I don't really dig on the superheroes. The missus tried to get me over this problem by asking me what stuff I did like. Back then, I really was enjoying Neil Gaiman's work on Sandman; I was really interested in his reimagination of an entire worldview… I mean, Neil didn't retain much of anything of the first Sandman. Tied in loosely, it became its own thing. I really admired that, and set out to do the same thing to one of the comics I liked quite a bit as a kid: Kamandi. I figured I'd keep the whole teen-out-of-his-element thing. I also figured I couldn't not have talking animals.

I sent it to a few folks over at DC; my pal Patty Jeres, for one, couldn't have been more enthusiastic and helpful. The notes she gave on this thing has informed nearly everything I've written since then. She's one smart cookie.

But for several reasons, ol' Mike Carlin gave it a pass. I noodled around with it for a few years, thinking I could do something with it for my own publishing house, but… there are just some things that are too strongly their own thing, and I couldn't make it work in any other setting. Since I got such strong and positive feedback on my Nick Fury proposal from fans and pros alike, I figured you might be entertained by what I would have done had DC corporate had let me loose on Kamandi…

[Kamandi Logo]The Concept

Out where electrons spin and photons flash, ones and zeros represent the sum total of human knowledge. And in that place, anything can happen. Take a one here, and put it there, and suddenly a housewife in Springfield is getting a visit from Ed McMahon. Take a zero here, and put it there, and you can go to a place where the animals talk…

San Francisco bike messenger Estaban Wilson is the Digital Messiah.

He just doesn't know it yet.

The Skinny

The thematic question, "What is identity?" is answered, with authority, for a bike messenger on the 21st-Century-is-not-a-big-deal-but-the-future-is-now zeitgeist prevalent in "Multimedia Gulch" in downtown San Francisco.

In the midst of his post-adolescent search for identity, Gen-X-er Estaban goes (during the course of this proposed four-issue mini-series) from being an irresponsible and almost unreasonable twenty-something to the leader and philosopher-king of the shadowy, quasi-mystical digital world known as the DifferNet. Peopled by talking packages of data that have assumed animal form, Estaban (or, as he is known in the DifferNet by his keyboard-stroke, Command D) inherits the mantle of The Reasonable Man.

Taking the old adage of " the duality of man" to an extreme, Estaban comes to live a dual existence much like that of Bruce Wayne/Batman or Clark Kent/Superman. At first a disaffected slacker, Estaban is an ordinary kid in a set of extra-ordinary circumstances. In the course of his search for his own identity as merely one of the generation set to inherit the next millennium, Estaban "bamfs" himself accidentally into a digital sub-society that mankind has never dreamed existed. With an analog foot in the real world, and digital digits in the DifferNet, Estaban is a character who is finally addressing his destiny.

The Players

Estaban Wilson: A twenty-something bike messenger in San Francisco, uber-slacker Wilson gets kidded by his co-workers that he's so distracted and disaffected that he sometimes comes across as being the last boy on earth. Ratty and unkempt hair hangs to his shoulders. He's got Maori pattern tattoos up his calf and a "Command" symbol on his upper left arm. You've seen that symbol on a Macintosh keyboard; it's like four "D"s on each point of a square. He wears cut-off jeans, padded leather Converse high tops he calls his "Major Matts," and often rides around shirtless. When the fog rolls in, he'll sport a T-shirt with the sleeves ripped off, a flannel shirt, or a leather jacket under his messenger pack. Having moved to San Francisco from the East Coast, Wilson's left home and hearth behind. He's on his own in the Big City, and is saddled with a post-adolescent's separation anxiety. His parents and college pals are all a continent away, and he finds he's got to redefine himself in his new surroundings. With only a thin resume and a B. A. in English, Estaban gets the first job he can -- that of bike messenger. His bike route has him delivering packages to all the Multimedia Gulch start-ups, so he's in the know about computers, graphic design, the Internet, and all of the technology; all his friends are geeks and tech-heads. In fact, he's the only bike messenger trusted by...

Jon Fox: Owner and CEO of There There, Inc. The company works on cutting-edge Internet and access-oriented software, and is based in a warehouse on Second and Brannan, overlooking the San Francisco Bay and Multimedia Gulch. Jon Fox is a cool, ex-bar bouncer verion of Bill Gates. A mid-thirties hipster-genius with an '80s ponytail, Oakland resident Fox named his company ironically. Sick of hearing the lament, "Oakland: there's no there, there," Fox set out to disprove the statement. In downtown San Francisco, in Multimedia Gulch, there is a There There. In addition to giving a physical identity and form to his nebulous idea of his company, Fox also liked the soothing aspect of the name, reassuring venture capitalists and other investors by the comforting nature of the sound. There There employs some computer-programming whizzes, who collectively go by the name of...

The Mathemagicians: a loose association of idiosyncratic ne'er-do-wells who come together every day to work on the most arcane bits of code and software, all under the tutelage, supervision, and patience of Jon Fox. These programmers work on cutting-edge, industry-advancing stuff that won't even make a Wired cover story for another two years. They are:

Jimmy JPEG: a reclusive Netrunner with a sardonic wit; a caffeine fiend and cough syrup addict, Jimmy is a squat but solidly built farm kid from the Midwest. About 5' 6", 175 pounds, the blond-haired, 28-year-old Jimmy is eager to please. He sports a closely trimmed haircut and a bit of a goatee, like everyone else of his social standing and economic stripe. He's responsible for There There's Internet presence and content provision.

Les: a former paralegal and present biker chick, tattooed PR whiz, and Morticia with a '20s flapper haircut, Les is from the Pacific Northwest. She's about 5' 9", and is the reedy thin and pasty-looking guise that's sported by those who spend too much time working code and staying inside. Les'll date any guy who asks her, because most guys are intimidated by her; that spells a dearth of dates. She complains incessantly about San Francisco's weather, claiming that it doesn't rain enough. She's the eldest Mathemagician, at a senior-citizen 31.

Ebola Jones: Once a child model, Ebola (a teenage stage name, held over from a difficult youth) is strikingly beautiful in a classically exotic way. Think of her as Cleopatra, Iman, Betsy Ross and Britt Ekland all rolled into one. Stunningly, expensively attired, she's difficult, elusive, and sought-after. Physically, Ebola is a babe clich. Mentally, however, she has no equal as There There's security girl. No hackers get behind her coded firewalls.

and

URL: tall blonde guy, a cipher, he'd be the red shirt on a Star Trek landing party. Lives in a house with four guys and six couches. His given name really is "Earl," but he's such a code-monster, he insists his friends spell it U-R-L. Most apt to crash at the office. Perpetually trying to break up with his girlfriend.

Sundry Others We Will See:

Girlboy: The androgynous mailperson in the building that houses There There. Girlboy always has a perfect comment, and is included not for comedic effect, but as an almost omniscient observer. Is perpetually hungover, and hides secrets beyond the obvious.

Zoey: Zoe's Estaban's former girlfriend. Worked with URL at a web design firm, she took a gig delivering pizzas after she burned out and the company went belly-up. She's about 5' 6", with a solid frame; she's not slim, but not ample. Shoulder-length hair, a gymnast's build, and a novice's interest in volleyball. She's the kind of gal you can count on, and it's evident by her look. She favors clothes that are a couple of sizes too large; she's got a heavy ice cream habit and shuns hard liquor. Will go out after work to a pub, but orders Diet Coke. Harbors contempt for and a smoldering crush on our boy Estaban.

Happy Panda: San Francisco has torpedo-shaped, British-racing-green, metal pods wherein senior citizens sell the daily papers. There's one at Market and New Montgomery where Wilson goes to get information, philosophize, or just kibbitz with the indeterminably old Asian guy in the pod he knows only as Happy Panda. Like the omnipresent guy in the Nissan ads, he's Wilson's Yoda; he's one of the only characters that we see in the "real" world and in the DifferNet. In fact, just wait until you read the plot.

The Plot

The main project that The Mathemagicians are working on is an alternative to the Internet. By using proprietary coding techniques, There There, Inc. has stumbled on an access infrastructure that can be piggy-backed on existing coaxial cable, with no loss of signal for either regular television broadcasts or information exchange. Coupled with self-designed dedicated hardware, the Mathemagicians' first real-world application of their new discovery is a constructed Internet-like network that links the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History to all American zoos. There There is set to offer this new technology to a media-saturated world and potentially make a load of cash. As Jon Fox glibly says, "There's money to be made sending discrete packets of informative data from There to There." These twenty-nothings are poised between slacker apathy and old-fashioned greed. Playing their cards close to their collective vests, Les comes up with a tagline to sell their product to the world: "It's not the Internet; it's different. It's the DifferNet."

The DifferNet is an intentionally murky, quasi-mystical application of computer technology that 'll take a while to define. For now, let's just leave it at the sample ad copy at the start: out where electrons spin and photons flash, ones and zeros represent the sum total of human knowledge. And in that place, anything can happen. Take a one here, and put it there, and suddenly a housewife in Springfield is getting a visit from Ed McMahon. Take a zero here, and put it there, and you can go to a place where the animals talk.

The first issue opens with Estaban racing around San Francisco, with that frenetic energy coupled with that laconic slowness that seems to characterize bike messengers in all major cities. The first three pages are a kind of teaser. Page one is a mishmash of San Francisco landmarks, a quick visual tour of famous places that instantly grounds the reader in the locale. Estaban narrates a shoot-from-the-hip-per-than-thou monologue that builds to a two page, Kirby-esque splash of action. Pages two and three showcase a new logo and features Estaban, on his bicycle, jumping over a curb and through a puddle. When the reader turns from the first page, I'm going for a visceral, punch-in-the-face effect.

He rides down Market Street, towards the newspaper pods on the corner of Second. After locking up his bike and getting two coffees, Estaban brings them over to a grizzled Asian senior citizen manning the newspaper kiosk. It is here we meet Happy Panda; this may or may not be his real name. If this were a film noir, he'd be the amiable shoeshine boy or the trusted informant. In this scene, for example, we set the tone of the book right away with their conversation.

After greeting Happy Panda formally, Estaban presents the coffee and they agree to blame the Digital Age for their woes. Estaban asks Happy Panda about his former girlfriend Zoe. Zoe knows Hap through Estaban, and still visits him and delivers him pizza. She also keeps up with him through Hap. Happy Panda replies with the koan-like question, "If food had voices, what would those voices be?" Wilson demurs, and says he's got a package of opticals for There There, Inc., and briefly describes the company. He leaves the kiosk, and Happy Panda, but thinks that chocolate would have to be James Earl Jones, and a Polish Hot Dog would be voiced by Ed Asner. He ponders this on the way to There There.

The second "act" (roughly pages 8-16) begins with Estaban entering the There There warehouse. He meets Girlboy, the mailperson, in the agonizingly slow elevator, where Wilson is forced to endure stories of the previous night's revelry. Girlboy is unpleasantly hung-over. They discuss the nature of identity ("What makes you you at There There?") ; is it a gender thing, or an environment thing? How does one define oneself? There are no answers in the elevator. Estaban enters the There There offices. He (and the reader) meets coder Jimmy JPEG, PR gal Les, security coder Ebola Jones, and Internet generalist URL in succession. Flip comments delineate the characters in turn (again, a self-reflexive etude on identity, as each character defines himself expositorially...), until Estaban encounters Jon Fox and gives him the disks he was delivering; Fox tells him to go to lunch and return for a package. On his way out, Estaban flirts with Ebola about the food/voice thing, and asks Happy Panda's question about the Digital Age. She comes back with a question of her own: what's with the Command D tattoo? He asks her out to lunch, offering to tell her there. She has to work and tells him no; but when she sees Estaban's obvious disappointment, she cheers him up by offering another question to ponder: If we've had "the Gay Nineties" and "the Roaring Twenties," what will the "identity" of the new decade be? He splits, thinking, outclassed but hopeful. But what's with that shadowy-man-sized bug-thing in the corner, spying on Estaban?

"Act " three has Estaban and Happy Panda eating lunch. Estaban has just missed Zoe as she's dropped off a pizza for Happy Panda. Estaban and Hap return to their discussion, which Estaban amplifies by adding to the mix the new input from Ebola. "What should the new decade be called?" By exploring all of the different names for "Zero," Estaban and Happy Panda finally agree on calling it "The Naughties." Pleased with himself and full from the pizza, Estaban pedals back to There, There. When he returns to the warehouse to pick up the packages from Jon Fox, he is sidetracked by URL, who shows him the top secret DifferNet hardware and set-up. They kibitz for a bit until Estaban is left alone for a moment. Idly, he fingers the DifferNet keyboard (that looks more like a Giger-esque movie prop than a computer interface). Thinking the DifferNet hardware is a "normal" computer, he dashes off an email to Zoe, thanking her for the pizza and using that as an excuse to try to see her again. Wanting a copy for himself, Estaban tries to duplicate the file by pressing the keys "Command" and "D". In a splash of color, Estaban ends up digitized in the DifferNet. Actually, it's not that simple. In fact, Estaban is still in the "real" world. But the DifferNet is subsuming his "normal" sensory input. His "essence," everything that makes him unique, is transferred to another "place." And to make matters worse, for our addled and confused friend, we end the first issue as Estaban is greeted in the DifferNet by the smiling visage of his pal Happy Panda, as a panda.

Issue two explores the DifferNet and the various inhabitants. Filled with the electric potentials of all of the world's animals, the DifferNet is populated by what can only be described as living data; metaphorically we might call them souls without bodies. This dark world of talking animals (like a Nick Park Creature Comforts animation gone tech-savvy) is a world of noir-ish conflict. Happy Panda (here, an actual panda and no longer an Asian man) leads Estaban through an energy-lit maze of eeriness, all the while explaining the rules governing the DifferNet. Although it has existed since the dawn of recorded history, the DifferNet has not always been such nor even been called such; its "form" changes with the introduction of each new information-handling paradigm. The metaphor-echo for Life mutates with each clear-cut shift in the dominant technology, and we are now at the cusp of such a change. This shadow-world of living data has evolved from the molecules of the ancient Egyptian's papyrus ("The Scroll"), through Gutenburg's printer's ink ("The Bound Volume"); from two-dimensional black and white electromagnetic television waves ("The Channel") to the present unique packages of ones and zeros ("The DifferNet"). While mistakenly accessing the DifferNet, Estaban causes the structure of the world to form out of the data the system has available; this, of course, is the Smithsonian's information and catalogues of all the animals in the zoos of North America. As a result, the denizens that were once animal-headed gods, bird-winged angels and scrappy game show contestants are now... talking animals. In his capacity as the DifferNet's ambassador to the "real" world, Happy Panda warns Estaban to beware the DifferNet's agents of chaos, hooded praying mantis-type creatures known both here and in the DifferNet as "Bugs." The Bugs are mischief for mischief's sake, and the animals don't abide the destruction of their data. It seems that this "place" with the talking animals and the Bugs has always existed, but, as noted above, the form has been suggested by the dominant technology. Moreover, it has always been governed by a human philosopher-king they call The Reasonable Man. The Reasonable Man is an office, and is always chosen by the data-souls from a representative working in the field of the dominant information media. In fact, Estaban is told (by a heavy gold chain-wearing tiger referred to obliquely as "Mister T" [this is, of course, a nod to Mister Tawny of Shazam! fame]), the former Reasonable Man was known in the DifferNet as Kenneth, and he was "de-throned" in a bloodless coup by the Bugs involving a frequency dispute.

The DifferNet appears as a featureless expanse, until an aggregation of data appears and gives the "world" form. More than one "animal" meeting another will generate his own "space." While this allows for shifting scenery, it also allows for explanations of "missing" data, discussions on the nature of form, identity, and thought, and even extrapolations about whether or not "normal" folks have accessed the DifferNet at various times in human history. It may be broadly hinted that Twain's "Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" and Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" were inspired by visits of each to the DifferNet to perform the ministrations required of the office of the Reasonable Man. Estaban has prematurely entered (although "became aware of" might be a better description) the DifferNet, without finishing the philosophical grooming being done in the "real" world by the Happy Panda. Estaban has been designated the next Reasonable Man, but he has arrived much too early. There is some urgency to his ascension to the office, however, because the DifferNet has been without a Reasonable Man for the last five years, and the Bugs have run unchecked, causing systems errors and other disturbances that threaten both the DifferNet and the "real" world. It is here that the arc of the series starts to become overtly stated: Estaban had better go from irresponsible and unreasonable to responsible and Reasonable quickly, with the fate of two worlds in the balance.

Issue three showcases the conflict inherent in the situation of the Mathemagicians having stumbled on the DifferNet, and the talking animals wanting to have their existence uninterrupted by the probing of the "real" world. In fact, their very identity as a separate "world" is at stake. In the five years that the DifferNet has existed without the tempering hand of The Reasonable Man, the chaotic Bugs have made there way into most areas and are trying to assume control (or force a lack of it, as the case may be) of the DifferNet. Estaban himself is set upon by the agents of entropy, and the seemingly unflappable "palace guards," a religious yet martial sect known as the Birds of Pray (that protect The Reasonable Man), kick ass against the encroaching Bugs. Birds and Bugs are natural enemies, so the resulting battle is massive and filled with not a small amount of rancor. Estaban is in danger, so Happy Panda "leaves" the DifferNet and seemingly abandons him to his fate. However, Hap realizes that not only is Estaban's data/soul in danger, but his corporeal form in the "real" world is vulnerable to the Bugs' agents on earth as well. Happy Panda decides to return to our level of reality to seek help for his pupil. Hap, uniquely situated to understand both worlds, has to seek out the help of Zoe to get Estaban released from the DifferNet. Since Zoe was a burned-out computer whiz, there is a brief conflict between Happy Panda and Zoe about her not getting involved, until Hap convinces her that Estaban's "real" life is at stake. Entering the world of the talking animals while not fully prepared makes him more vulnerable to the agents of entropy that exist within the DifferNet. Tricked by the Bugs, the Birds of Pray are out-maneuvered and Estaban's data is captured. It is revealed that the Platonian essence of each person is what exists in the DifferNet, and the Bugs' force-of-nature motivations require only the destruction of all data. Estaban discovers that it is not only his data that is imperiled, but the very fabric of the universe is in jeopardy, too. Groomed to be the bridge between information personified, and the "real" world application of such knowledge, Estaban realizes that the fundamental truth of the old adage "knowledge is power." Back in the "real" world, after a mild crisis of faith, we tie up this issue as Zoe is convinced to help Hap and the Mathemagicians with their plan for Estaban's extraction, as the stakes are raised by the Bugs. Not only are the Bugs trying in the DifferNet to erase Estaban's data, but their agents are trying to kill his body in the "real" world, too. Some days a digitally-encoded Messiah just can't catch a break...

Issue four resolves the "question of identity" theme that has been an undercurrent in the mini-series so far. As Zoe's data follows Happy Panda into the DifferNet, she learns that she is more than the sum total of knowledge that she has assumed has defined her character; that is, her original burn-out as a programmer was because of a lack of faith in her own abilities. It is those self-same skills that allow the rescue of Estaban from the Bugs and a temporary liberation of the animals from the chaotic entropy of the Bugs in the data. Estaban, now free to act (with a little help from his friends), makes the intuitive leap in logic that allows the Mathemagicians to write a "de-Bugging" program that washes most Bugs from the DifferNet. Marshaling his forces with an innate sense of leadership, the stereotypical angst-filled young man that Estaban was is also washed away, to be replaced by the brash leader of... well, talking packages of data that have assumed animal form for the purposes of this... metaphor... that he has become. Triumphantly, Estaban accepts the responsibility of the position of The Reasonable Man; in fact, each character displays a small moment of self-awareness and understanding. Even the denizens of the DifferNet allow him to perform his duties periodically, so he can return to the "real" world, ending the miniseries, but finishing in an open-ended manner to allow for a continuing series or a revisiting of the character.

So, there you have it. Long hair and cut-off jeans, talking animals, and an actual reason he's called Kamandi.

Ya gotta admit, it's better than Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes…

Email: larry@comicbookresources.com

Website: www.ait-planetlar.com

Last week's quote was from With Malice Towards None, by Stephen B. Oates, and is the high-water mark on Lincoln biographies. There's a reason this is being read, oh, yes.

While you can get your news and commentary about the funny books all over the damn Internet, I usually make it a point to let slip at least one bit of information at theLoose Cannon Message Board that I post nowhere else. Just so you know.

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