Tales of the Uncanny Valley: Small Press Comics’ Sci-fi Anxieties
A defining feature of science fiction is how it transforms the anxieties of today into the commonplace of tomorrow. There’s an aggression in such transformations, though. These avenues of sci-fi that, as a reader, you may wish to travel down don’t exclusively end in happy endings. The worst possible outcomes are always within reach, sometimes smothering us. Two pertinent features of our modern lives for example are the seemingly insatiable rate at which technology dominates the minute aspects of our lives and the rapid, horrific effects of climate change. These are the core themes at play in the indie comic anthologies Uncanny Valley and Tales of Fractured Worlds. Science fiction is a rich genre within the medium of independent and small press comics, and often presented with the apocalyptic twist, which these two comics deliver on in an oddly shared fashion.
Structurally, they are the same – one writer gifting numerous short, standalone, thematically-linked stories to a variety of artists to turn them into comics of an alarming nature, transmitting the consequences of a society engulfed by their respective dangers each anthology warns of. In Uncanny Valley’s case, it’s digital technology and for Tales of Fractured Worlds, it’s climate change.
I love science fiction. I love indie comics. I’ve been reading indie/small press comics for the best part of eight years now, and in that time, I continue to consume an eclectic array of sci-fi titles. In all that time, I could not tell you of an indie science fiction comic that boasted an upbeat outcome for its scenario. I struggle to think back of an indie sci-fi comic that was a warm and pleasant read to experience. Maybe that’s the nature of science fiction, as mentioned earlier. Maybe it’s the nature of indie comics existing away from the overly meddling hands of corporate-tinged publishers wanting something with mass appeal (indie comics are boutique products with a limited market, after all). To say that I enjoy Uncanny Valley and Tales of Fractured Worlds feels pretty perverse, but nevertheless, I do find a lot to like about these comics. They are morose, introspective things that are tinged with the personal despair of their respective creators. Maybe that’s why they’re so good – there’s something decidedly unfiltered about them.
These comics are far apart from each other in terms of their creation. Uncanny Valley is the primary brainchild of powerhouse duo writer Rick Quinn and artist Martyn Lorbiecki. Of the five stories that make up the bulk of Uncanny Valley (accompanied by pin-ups and more), two are drawn/coloured by Lorbiecki, with a variety of other artists joining in. The comic was crowdfunded in 2021 to much success. Tales of Fractured Worlds is the product of another dynamic duo – Irish writer Roddy McCance and Latvian artist Rolands Kalnins, both of whom edit the comic and are joined by further artists on different stories. It was published some years earlier in 2018, also via Kickstarter. A happy coincidence that this pair of comics with such urgent ideas scrambling around inside of them share such similar beginnings.
The similarities between these comics venture much deeper than their physical make-up, however. Their melancholic attitudes are illuminated by an unpredictable eclecticism in the artwork. Combined with the thematic scale in stories, these comics rarely feel like one-man bands with visual accompaniment. There’s a community of storytelling at work here. The breadth of the artwork allows each story to take root and differ from each other, all framed through the lens of introspective anxiety. The central ideas in each anthology then are made to land with a wholly emotional impact that’s prioritised over all other story-telling mechanics.
Perhaps the most muscular bond that ties these comics together is their emphasis on a visceral atmosphere. Often, the stories are vague in their tangible elements – at first glance, characters and stories appear underdeveloped, the comics presenting enough to entice you in, but not enough to make you stay. On closer inspection, there’s a more definite primary function going on in Uncanny Valley and Tales of Fractured Worlds – to unsettle you. You can only fit in so much world-building in eight-page comics after all, but you can fit an almighty amount of emotion, and it’s no surprise that the anxiety aspect of both anthologies is therefore the overriding element.
These comics feel purposely made to provoke reactions of fear out of you. In all cases of art, the emotional reaction comes first and the interpretive second, something that Uncanny Valley and Tales of Fractured Worlds know to great effect. This isn’t to say that the story-telling techniques used in these comics are unfulfilling or substandard. There’s a definite recognisability in how many of these stories, despite their mostly futuristic settings, hit close to home in the depiction of technology and climate change.
‘Violet’ opens Tales of Fractured Worlds, setting the mood for the other stories that follow. It’s an eight-page story of an undetailed war. It’s not a story of how the war begins or how it ends – instead, it’s framed through the eyes of a little girl, desperately making a horrifically dangerous journey across a city that’s under siege. Human and concrete debris line the streets. Cries of the injured are punctuated by the overheard roar of passing fighter jets. Are they attacking or retreating?
Drew Moss does an effective job of framing the story from this girls’ point of view, right down to the eye-line level of panelling. Chunks of the story are spent looking upwards, barely able to make out the chaos surrounding us. The fighter jets themselves are presented as an uncanny blur, a darkly settling shape that doesn’t look entirely manmade. It’s one of the anthologies’ stories that arguably has the least direct connections to climate change, but the orange-tinged skies, scorched from war, and the air of a city beyond structural repair, speak volumes.
If there’s a comic in Uncanny Valley with a direct equivalent of Violet, then it’s Chameleons. This is exquisite, melancholic cyberpunk. It’s one of a growing number of comics by Rick and Martyn, alongside the anthology’s opening comic Earworm (which is also available as a separate comic) and their previously released standalone The Ghost Butterfly. Little surprise then that Chameleons has a lived-in feel, making its weary sense of anxiety feel more natural. A great deal is compacted into the comic’s 28 pages (character development, world-building) but it’s all emotionally framed. The sequence of the story or the growth of the characters aren’t the winning features here. A mother, father, and their adoptive children trudge through a snow-torn wilderness, heading towards an underground bunker that could well be humanity’s last refuge. Mankind is slowly being eradicated by a corrupted artificial intelligence; G.O.D.S. Finding the bunker, the family are overwhelmed to have found not only humans surviving, but cautiously thriving, a new community freed from the self-inflicted trappings of class and gender. Utopia is violently snatched away however, as the family discover that G.O.D.S. can evolve…
Where the G.O.D.S came from, how they became corrupted or how this bunker emerged are unspoken, unneeded. The value of Chameleons is found in the blankness of its story. Throughout the comic, there are wide expanses of pages with little or no dialogue whatsoever, the mood being enough rhythm to carry the reader across the panels and pages. But Chameleons feels more than a snapshot from some Terminator-esque techno-thriller parable. It lives and breathes on its own terms. Little is explored, but much is experienced. Chameleons is at its most emotionally resonant in Martyn’s large, wordless pages. A sense of exhausted hopelessness flourishes across these pages.
These are deceptive comics. They lure you in with intriguing sci-fi scenarios – virus-like melodies that rest in your brain; a salvage crew investigate a signal emanating from a cathedral of ice on an unknown planet; a company sending drone-like robots to deliver messages from one human to another, eliminating the need for physical interaction. The premises invite you in and their razor-sharp moroseness kick you out, the cut plunging deeper given the comic’s briefness. This is how these comics leave you.
The other comics presented in these anthologies surely present other artistic concepts to pull at, but that would be too knotty a thread to untangle. In addition, to try and extrapolate the emotional qualities of all the comics featured in these anthologies surely robs them of their intended impact. The emotional methods with which technology and climate change are navigated with disdain make for compelling reading in these two comics. But these comics also focus less on the fact that climate change and technological dependence are inherently negative in themselves and more about our reactions to them, which ensures that the emotionally driven nature of the comics become more relatable. This, combined with the short nature of their individual comics and the diversity in the artwork results in Uncanny Valley and Tales of Fractured Worlds boasting an urgency about them. Desperately good comics for desperately anxious times.