I've come to expect than anything I read from First Second is going to be at least a little different and this graphic novel is perhaps the most original thing I've read from them yet.
At heart, it's a story of a disaffected youth in a dystopian future, which is nothing new but the angle that it takes is a fascinating one. This world is fast and it's happy with that. Well, mostly.
Imagine a hundred years ago before most of the technologies we're used to. Now imagine if the people from that time leapt forward that century and wonder how they'd cope. Not too well, you might say and you'd probably be right. Here, things have sped up even further, to clearly ludicrous degrees, and anyone who reacts to that with anything other than the expected response is seen as defective, right down to a mandatory minimum heartrate. Think Ray Bradbury's 'The Pedestrian' but set in a world where it isn't just television but everything that's part of the new cultural norm.
Angela's parents like this new cultural norm, in which everyone has a chip implanted into their bodies that reacts with the scanners installed everywhere by the Guarantee Committee and tied into some sort of Database. It's a security concept that makes them feel safe, but it also makes them feel hyper. Everyone must feel hyper! Angela is so unthrilled by feeling hyper that she keeps forgetting her Gos. To condense conversation, participants must end their contributions with the word 'Go' so that the next person can be sure that they're can step in to react. You know what I mean? Go! Yeah, it would drive me nuts too. Go!
Angela is young but she seems like an old soul. She wants to study and read books, not the digest versions that are all the rage nowadays but the antique originals that haven't been cut down to nothing by judicial editing. And when conversation turns to the one book that's illegally circulating in full form, her interest sparks up because she knows all about it. It's 'Kick the Boot' by Kent van Gough and she even has a copy of it, left anonymously under her chair at school by someone who doesn't want her to turn into a number like everyone else. It's an Old World novel that foresaw all of this and it's our MacGuffin.
Of course, some of what van Gough foresaw is already with us, so we recognise some of this: widespread surveillance, for a start. It isn't difficult to progress down that road a few years, especially with all the revelations that keep coming our way from whistleblowers within the intelligence community. Watch what happens with the new internet of things and see how much information gets gathered from smart TVs, internet connected fridges and the latest children's toys. However, what makes Adam Rapp's story here so interesting is the widespread acceptance of these infractions on our freedom because they're all done in the holy name of security and the little cultural quirks that grow up to surround them.
And, of course, the rebellion. How do you rebel against things being fast? Well, you take them slowly. It's a pretty obvious idea but not such an easy one to visualise in print, though Rapp and his illustrator, Mike Cavallaro, do pretty well.
They extrapolate as carefully as they do the hyper world, from simple beginnings like putting down our smartphones and ending our reliance on convenient alternatives. I've read some fascinating articles lately about how our brain chemistry changes when we don't exercise that important muscle within our skulls. Rapp has rebels exercise their brains by deliberately avoiding contractions, saying 'it is' instead of 'it's', for instance. These are like little rituals and they initially seem strange, but there's real sense behind them and that does start to get through to us before long.
So, Angela escapes her hyper nightmare by running away from home and she stumbles accidentally onto an underground world where people choose to decelerate, a word that's been banned on the surface for its subversive nature. They have real food, play real music and use real long words. One rite of passage involves writing a long word on the Great Wall of Adjectives. It's a fascinating place and an enticing one, to those of us who live busy lives and already feel the benefit of periodic deceleration to recharge our batteries. After all, we don't have to be Luddites to opt out of the latest fads or see the benefits from not using the latest convenient technology.
There's more traditional story here too, as Angela finds somewhere she can feel alive and people whom she can feel alive with, but it's less substantial than the culture clash. There's action coming too, as the authorities inevitably discover the underground, though how that ends is surprising, as it's much more uncompromising than I was expecting. I was initially disappointed by what felt like a cop-out, as we're never warmed up to transcendental meditation within the story, but, with a little reflection, I think that it's the right ending, as it asks us to figure out an appropriate balance point between the insanity of the hyper world and the deceleration of the rebels. If we believe that they go too far in the end, how far back along that spectrum of behaviour is the right point to stop?
As always for First Second, the design of 'Decelerate Blue' is impeccable. I often find myself laughing at the ineptitude of graphic designers and UI engineers, but First Second rarely let me down. Every time I pick up one of their books, I find myself impressed by the design all over again. This is a substantial book and it feels right.
The art of Mike Cavallaro didn't impress me as much, though it does its job. Most of it is black and white and drawn in a relatively simple style. I'd have liked more nuance to the characters, especially as Rapp is rather successful at writing that. The best frames are the ones towards the end that adopt colour, for an appropriate reason.
This is far from my favourite First Second graphic novel, but it's another interesting one to add to a very interesting stack. It's also a book to think about and revisit periodically, because we might all find that a couple of years have moved us closer to the hyper world of Angela's parents, perhaps without our realising that consciously. Maybe this is a book to grow with. Go. ~~ Hal C F Astell