Visual language allows us to literally express – not just describe – a key aspect to cyborg imagery, which is the destruction of the self and the blur of the abstract with the real.
When you read Gleem by Freddy Carrasco, the first thing you feel is its style. Teenagers wearing oversized clothes and chunky sneakers; gorgeous, crisp line art; minimalist black-and-white panels; and a strange fusion of Afrofuturist, manga, and cyberpunk aesthetics. While the stories vary from a boy on a drug trip to a faulty, potentially explosive ice cream selling robot, they are all set in the same science fiction world—a graphically realized vision of our future, which is cool, fun, and, most importantly, beautiful.1
Istvan Csiscery-Ronay describes the appeal of such futuristic beauty in his text The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction. There, he outlines the ways in which the sci-fi genre feels beautiful to us: its execution of our utopian ideals and dystopian fears, the pleasures of experiencing its speculative novums, the shiny magic of imaginary technology. Yet despite our standard associations of beauty with the visual–and our judging of beauty on our immediate perception of an object–Csicsery-Ronay dismisses perception as a valid method of assessing beauty in sci-fi, considering science fiction’s visual expressions (films, games, and comics) as not only more difficult to analyze than the traditional novel, but shallower intellectually. He writes:
It is doubtless my literary bias to believe it is much more common for all the beauties to complement one another in literary sf than in film or other spectacular forms. Indeed, the power of visual representations of the sublime and the grotesque, and of neological objects, is so great that it can easily eclipse matters that demand intellectual reflection, such as fictive history and imaginary science.2
Csciceray-Ronay isn’t denying the power of visual genres; instead, he’s claiming that their power is their weakness, and what makes them unworthy of literary analysis. In essence, this is the Star Wars treatment of all non-literary (or “spectacular”) science fiction, where whatever underlying conceptual themes such texts have are overwhelmed by the visual noise of image. In the blur of CGI and VFX, the spectacle of spaceships exploding and robots killing humans ends up becoming the real purpose and appeal of such genres. Even in cases where intellectual purpose is deeper than in Star Wars, any “visual representations of the sublime and the grotesque”3 ultimately distract us from the deeper questions of science fiction, and do not in and of themselves “demand intellectual reflection.”4
In some ways, Gleem proves Csiscery-Ronay’s criticisms. Unlike other graphic science fiction, such as the manga Ghost in the Shell—where paragraphs of technological and scientific explanation accompany drawings of cyborg warfare—Gleem is often wordless. This lack of exposition means that the beauties that Csiscery-Ronay identifies—“fictive history” and “imaginary science”5—have no way to express themselves, as the beauty of ink on a page overtakes the beauty of the scientific concept.
But does the lack of literary exposition make Gleem shallower, or less beautiful intellectually? Art critic Nick Sousanis, in his graphic novel Unflattening, argues against the privileging of literary mediums as more meaningful than visual ones, claiming that the visual allows us to express what the text cannot. In one page, dominated by a large, central drawing of a woman in silhouette posing—one hand on her hips and one on her head, with both her hair and dress flying to her right–he writes the following sentences, separated into caption boxes spread throughout the page: “In relying on the text as the primary means of formulating understanding, what stands outside the linear structure is dismissed, labeled irrational – no more conceivable than the notion of ‘upwards’ to a flatlander. The visual provides expression where words fail. What have we been missing? And what can be made visible when we work in a form that is not only about, but is also the thing itself.”6
In this essay, I will look at Gleem as a text which, as Sousanis writes, “stands outside the linear structure,”7 a text whose form and style is as futuristic and experimental as the sci-fi world it describes. I will argue that the irrational and “spectacular” aspects of visual genres—dismissed by scholars such as Csciery-Ronay as beneath literary analysis—might actually offer us new insights into old genres. How can images allow us to experience aspects of the future, such as pleasure and aesthetic beauty, in ways that are not typically represented, or able to be represented, in the current cannon of science fiction literature?
I will begin to attempt to answer this question by looking, specifically, at images of cyborgs in Gleem’s third story, “Hard Body,” and examining how visual representations of the cyborg provide a different perspective on posthumanism than literary representations. Throughout this paper, I will draw on Donna Haraway’s popular definition of the cyborg to examine how Carrasco both creates, uses, and subverts the “cyborg aesthetic” through his artwork.
“Hard Body” starts with an eighteen-page sequence of nine full page spreads, each with two or three characters. A continuous line in the background connects all the pages; we get the sense that all the characters are standing side-by-side in front of one long wall. Later, it is revealed they are all at the same party.
A display of characters before the story begins is not uncommon in manga or other graphic novels; it’s often used informationally, as a way to introduce the cast and their character designs before a long series. In Carrasco’s story, in which many of the characters he draws at the beginning never appear again, there is obviously a different purpose to this opening sequence.
First, it gives us a feeling of the crowd of this party; we see a variety of people and expressions—laughing, bored, flirty—and a few actions, like a security guard searching through a man’s jacket and another guy smoking. We also notice patterns among the audience: all the characters are young Black people, and all the characters, including the security guard, have their bodies altered. These modifications range from chunky piercings and necklaces to metal pieces attached to their chins and hooked to their skin.
Such modifications manifest themselves in small details in the characters’ design, which make subtle reference to sci-fi tropes like outer space. One example is a girl who is looking down at what could be a portable mirror for makeup, but is shaped almost like a mini spaceship. For another character, a joystick-looking object is sticking out of the right side of his head, and what looks like a sequence of buttons are attached to another man’s neck.
This, alongside the earlier girl’s spaceship-shaped accessory, makes a subtle visual reference to arcade games, an aesthetic Carrasco seems to be particularly fond of and represents in an earlier story.8 But in contrast to that story (in which a girl is simply trying to play an arcade game) the characters drawn here are actually fused with parts that look like arcade components. Although arcade games are a retro aesthetic, the idea that we can modify our bodies to look like such games, with joysticks and buttons implanted into our skins, is a futuristic ideal that draws from the image of the cyborg — an image which is, perhaps most famously, described in Donna Haraway’s Simians, Cyborgs, and Women. There, she defines the cyborg as a “fabricated [hybrid] of machine and organism,”9 a hybridity that is expressed not only through Carrasco’s character design, but also the title “Hard Body,” which implies a fusion between the hard metal of tech parts and the softness of the body.
This interplay between the soft and the hard is most prominently displayed outside the story, in Gleem’s cover, where a boy cut up into a 6×6 grid of colored squares (similar to a mosaic) gazes at the viewer. There is a degree of displacement and incongruence to these squares: the boy’s face is first not perfectly aligned within the grid, and the squares seem also somewhat mixed up with other images — with clouds showing through in some squares and pieces of helmets and wires in others. This, again, reflects Haraway’s cyborg, whose discarding of the “seductions of organic wholeness”10 are replaced with the (sometimes disjointed) amalgamation of opposing pieces.
Most interestingly, this amalgamation of opposing pieces on the cover is actually expressed with two senses: when you feel the cover (or the boy’s face) with your hand, some of the squares feel smooth and squeaky to the touch, and others soft and textured. This is a tactile and physical representation of the hybridization of the mechanical and organic.
The physical experience of the cyborg body embodied in Gleem’s cover is continued in the next section of “Hard Body,” where physical sensation reaches its peak. After the introductory character sequence, we finally get to join the party, which has the first inclusion of color in Gleem: in an arcade-inspired color palette of pinks, purples, and blues.
Here, cyborgs laugh, drink, and dance, often in a sexual way. There is a vibrancy, mobility, and liveliness to the characters we see on the page; we do not get stiff robotic machines, but colorful cyborgs who like to dance, feel and touch each other, embodying Harraway’s “pleasure in the confusion of boundaries.”11 This confusion of boundaries takes on three layers in this party sequence: first the confusion of the mechanic and the organic within each character’s body, second the confusion between the self and the crowd as characters touch and bump into each other, and third a visual confusion of panels overlapping, with different details of the party (a woman’s open mouth, her body as she does the splits, the turned eye of another man) all visible simultaneously on the page.
This simultaneity reflects Haraway’s cyborg myth of “a world without end,”12 or a world that has discarded clean linearity for constant, messy activity. Through both character design and overall paneling, Carrasco creates what Harraway calls “disturbingly lively”13 machines. Yet it’s this same mobility and liveliness of Carrasco’s characters that emblemize Harraway’s ideals that also challenges our conventional ideas of what a cyborg should look like. The first result when you look up “cyborg image” is of metal superheroes covered in wiring and smooth, white robots. This is a vision of a cyborg as a shiny machine of war, a tech-enhanced soldier, a superhero in an action movie–not a teenager having fun at a party.
The difference between those cyborg representations and Carrasco’s has to do primarily with the pleasurable aspect of the characters in “Hard Body.” First, the “cyborg” elements of Carrasco’s characters, the mechanical parts, don’t seem to be invasive or integral parts of their bodies, but rather decorative, removable additions. The characters seem to want to look like cyborgs through a deliberate choice in their clothing style, makeup, piercings, and accessories. This is a designed way for them to experience pleasure, by using cyborg parts not as tools or instruments of war, but a way to make themselves more beautiful.
This decorative use of cyborg parts not only distinguishes Carrasco’s work from other typical cyborg imagery, but it also importantly distinguishes Carrasco’s artwork from science fiction literature. Unlike many sci-fi texts which include or discuss cyborgs, in which gadgets are typically only described when they have relevance to a plot, Carrasco’s gadgets are simply used as a way to add visual interest to a character design.
Because of this use of the cyborg as a visual aesthetic, “Hard Body” has a much more casual relationship to the cyborg than its literary counterparts have traditionally had: texts which are concerned with deep questions such as the role of cyborgs in society, the possibility of consciousness in machines, etc. Carrasco has clearly stated in an interview that such questions are not his interest; “black mirror plotlines” of “dystopian robots” or “computers that are going to kill us” are oversaturated concepts to him. His real interest lies in “kids that just want to dress cool and go to parties,” or, basically, cool drawings of cool kids.
The refusal to deal with “serious” themes, particularly in the science fiction genre, is a controversial topic. Many scholars base their definitions of the genre around Darko Suvin’s Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, which argues that science fiction can only be considered science fiction if the text contains certain elements, including a novum – a hypothetical, novel addiction to our current world – that is grounded in “cognition,” or real science.14
This grounding of science fiction in a rational and scientific framework is what forces the science fiction text to have a message. This is explained by Joanna Russ in “Towards an Aesthetic of Science Fiction,” in which she states that science fiction is unlike other contemporary literature in that its primary purpose is didactic and moralistic.15 As in Suvin’s definition, social commentary is the heart of the genre; the sci-fi world acts a mirror of our own, a way to isolate and estrange our societal issues in order to analyze them.
This leaves stories like “Hard Body”—that, despite offering a visual window into a possible future, do not offer a comment on or explanation of it—stranded outside the genre. “Hard Body” is an outlier both because of its lack of moral messaging and its inclusion of visual language, two aspects which are intrinsically tied together.
This privileging of scientific language and moralistic messaging mirrors the privileging of the literary that I discussed at the beginning of this essay. Although there are expressions, the irrational, unexplainable, and indescribable—cool kids at a party and beautiful cyborg parts—tends to be expressed through visual language, while the rational, describable, and thematic—those “black mirror” plotlines—tends to be expressed through the literary. Of course, in this simplified dichotomy, traditional literature is considered the more intellectual and valid method of thinking.
In Sousanis’s text, he tracks this valuing of the literary over the visual in Descartes’s thought that, “bodies are not, properly speaking, perceived by the senses or by the faculty of imagination, but by intellect alone, and they are not perceived through their being touched or seen, but only through their being understood.”16 In other words, to look at the body is not the same as thinking about it, and to touch, see, and even draw the body does not mean we understand it. This delegitimizes Gleem, in which sensational and spectacular experiences of the body, from the reader touching the textured cover to the reader gazing at colorful panels of dancers, is at the forefront.
Yet despite Descartes’s argument, Carrasco’s visual language and our perception of it does offer insight into the body. Specifically, Haraway’s ideal of the cyborg—and other ideals of posthumanism which draw inspiration from Haraway—seem best conveyed and theoretically realized, through the irrational, sensory medium of sequential art. The cyborg is not just a literal bodily fusion of metal and skin, but also an imaginative, post-human ideal, the ideal that we can transcend our own bodies. This is described by Jenny Wolmark in “Staying with the Body: Narratives of the Posthuman in Contemporary Science Fiction,” in which she describes “the erosion of the boundaries between human and machine … which have given rise to general anxieties about the instability of the subject.”17 This is strikingly similar to Haraway’s statement about “the possibilities inherent in the breakdown of clean distinctions between organism and machine and similar distinctions structuring the Western self.”18 What is important about the women’s arguments is that they both name the cyborg blend of machine and organism as the starting point (and source) of anxieties about a general destruction of the self.
This increasingly generalized collapse of the body is actually perfectly exemplified in the last section of “Hard Body.” Here, we break from the party life, returning to a black-and-white palette to follow a man’s travels through the party’s bathroom stalls, maybe in search of something. At the end of his search, he pushes a drug (in the shape of a sphere) through a peephole in the stall. The stall opens with an explosion, and we then get Gleem’s final sequence, an abstract, sequential representation of our character’s body throughout space.
These sequences are difficult to describe: a series of two page, abstract spreads, drawn in a cartoonish (bordering on comedic) fashion that gets increasingly bizarre as the pages continue. Floating pigs, floating heads, floating eyeballs, and a crisscross of lines and mini explosions surround a body, which is repeated many times throughout the page in various contorted positions. The body shown is a reduced version of an actual human—a cartoon figure with an asterisk symbol for eyes and a wide open mouth—who looks as if he is falling through space for a very long time. The sequence ends with an explosive, two-page bang, when the character is then returned to the “real” world of the bathroom stall.
The blur Carrasco draws between abstract and literal representations of the body, between the simulated and the real, is actually another perfect representation of the dichotomies of a cyborg. Haraway writes that the cyborg is the “condensed image of both imagination and material reality.”19 In “Hard Body,” we get the “material reality” from the physical and bodily experience of the party, but we get the imaginative aspect from this abstract sequence, in which the body transcends both its physical anatomy and the physical boundaries of the panel and the page.
This transcendence is, importantly, irrational. In Sousanis’s argument, he also describes this tension between reality and imagination – using the term of imagination as a contrast against Descartes’s rationalism. He writes that “imagination lets us exceed our inevitably limited point of view to find perspectives not in existence or dimensions not yet possible.”20
Although there is “imagination” and creativity in both written and drawn works, there is an imaginative flexibility in a piece of art which is not confined by the literary bounds of describability. An abstract sequence such as this one, which literally stretches the possibilities of the body, would not be possible in a written text. Visual language allows us to literally express – not just describe – a key aspect to cyborg imagery, which is the destruction of the self and the blur of the abstract with the real.
When Sousanis wrote, “What have we been missing? And what can be made visible when we work in a form that is not only about, but is also the thing itself?”21 — perhaps Gleem is a fraction of the answer. Through the chaos and beauty of his artistic style, Carrasco transforms the cyborg from something static—a concept—to something much more alive and much more human. Without the use of words or theory, he manages to emblemize Haraway’s, and other posthuman, ideals of our future. In doing so, he gains a window into a story that would not otherwise be told in the traditional, Suvin-following, didactic sci-fi tale. “What will a party look like 30 years from now?” and “What should a machine wear?” are not particularly deep questions, but by asking them, we allow ourselves to think about the future in a way that’s pleasurable, and imagine one not confined by cynicism or rationality— a world in which cyborgs dance.
- Carrasco, Freddy. Gleem. Peow Studio. 2022.
- Csicery-Ronay, Istvan. The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction, Wesleyan University Press, 2012, 9.
- Csicery-Ronay, The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction, 9.
- Csicery-Ronay, The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction, 9.
- Csicery-Ronay, The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction, 1-12.
- Sousanis, Nick. Unflattening. Harvard University Press, 2015, 59.
- Sousanis, Unflattening, 59.
- Carrasco, Freddy. “Freddy Carrasco: Mastering the Art of Cool on Planet Tokyo.” Sabukaru Online.
- Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the Late Twentieth.” Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. Routledge. March 19, 1991, 150.
- Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto,” 150.
- Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto,” 150.
- Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto,” 150.
- Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto,” 152.
- Suvin, Darko, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre, Peter Lang, 1977.
- Russ, Joanna. “Towards an Aesthetic of Science Fiction.” Science Fiction Studies 2, no. 2 (1975): 113.
- Sousanis, Unflattening.
- Wolmark, Jenny. “Staying with the Body: Narratives of the Posthuman in Contemporary Science Fiction.” Review of Edging into the Future: Science Fiction and Contemporary Cultural Transformation, Quarterly 73, no. 1 (2003), 76.
- Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto.”
- Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto,” 150.
- Sousanis, Unflattening, 88.
- Sousanis, Unflattening, 59.