Seeing the first issue of the David Mack-penned comic adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s short story, “The Electric Ant,” on this week’s shipping list sent me to the bookshelf to retrieve the fifth volume of Dick’s complete short stories so I could give the story a read before checking out the first issue. The story is something of a precursor to works like “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” but with a shifted focus from the difference between a human and an android (or "electric ant," as androids are called here) to how each would, or could, perceive reality. Judging from the first issue of the comic adaptation, though, Mack may be more interested in what finding out you’re an android is like than the ideas explored in the Dick story.
Garson Poole wakes up in a hospital, and his right hand is missing after an accident with his squib (flying car.) He’s informed that they can’t treat him there because he’s not human, he’s an electric ant. He may, in fact, be owned by someone else, not the owner of a company like he thought he was. The first issue deals mostly with the fall-out of this revelation as Poole receives a replacement hand (though with the wrong skin color) and anguishes about the reaction of the woman he’s seeing.
Adapting Dick’s writing can be challenging because, as a stylist, Dick wasn’t much of one. His writing is direct and without a strong flavor often, and “The Electric Ant” is no exception. The prose is little sparser than normal, but it’s very direct and almost mechanical in the way it advances, accepting certain things in service of forward momentum. Mack decompresses the beginning of the story effectively, adding elements to draw the characters out more completely or to create more interesting visuals like calling for a page to show Poole’s squib accident. However, in some places, the changes seem forced and out of place, like the technician who replaces his hand trying to sell Poole on having his genitals upgraded.
Also, in working to add an extra level of human drama to the story, that shift in focus that I mentioned at the start of the review takes place. By the end of the issue, this seems like a story about Poole coming to terms with what it means to be an electric ant and if he can fit in with humanity. The story isn’t about that at all, and I imagine the series won’t be either. But, a reader only familiar with this issue could hardly be blamed for thinking that. Personally, I find the ideas about reality that Dick explores in the story far more interesting than the dynamics of human/android conceptions of life, but others may not, so the slight shift could lead to backlash in future issues.
Pascale Alixe’s art isn’t what I expected on an adaptation of a Dick story, with his sketchier, less mechanically-inclined style. Looking at his work throughout, though, he captures a nervous feeling in Poole that mirrors the unease in Dick’s writing. Poole never looks completely at home in himself after he’s told he’s an electric ant. Alixe’s art isn’t serviced by the colors well, though. The joke about Poole’s new hand being a different skin color is mostly lost because it’s barely colored differently most of the time and coloring directly over the pencils gives the art a muddled look.
Alixe is an interesting artist with a strong vision for this world, something on display in the double-page spread early in the issue, which shows some familiar visuals mixed with some new ones, but his storytelling is weak in places, with characters looking posed or designed in such an idiosyncratic manner that they’re distracting. His choice of perspectives in panels doesn’t always highlight what seems to be important or make clear what the writing seems to be getting across.
“Electric Ant” #1 is an interesting comic, especially for fans of Philip K. Dick like myself who can compare it to the story and debate over which changes work and which ones don’t, but it doesn’t offer anything new or different. The story of a man who discovers he’s an android is one that people are familiar with; The draw of this story is how Dick plays with that later in the story, so the opening chapter is sure to be the weakest. I’m curious to see how Mack and Alixe handle the rest of the story and think people should stick with it since it should get much more interesting.