Knee Caps For Sale

By | Wednesday, August 13, 2008 1 comment
I recently read two stories whose themes revolve around body manipulation and the commoditization of humanity: Vendor and Fluorescent Black. They took strikingly different approaches and I thought it might be interesting to compare/contrast them.

Vendor came out last month from Viper Comics. It revolves around John J. Vendor, who illegally harvests body parts from the recently deceased to graft onto high paying customers. His job keeps him pretty busy since the outbreak of a flesh-eating virus called Moss. No cure has been found for it, and the only way to prevent it from killing you in a matter of hours is to cut off the infected part. Which obviously leads to the source of Vendor's income. The technology was developed to make body grafts quick and relatively painless, which has also led to a subculture of grafters who use unusual body parts for social effect -- grafting horse legs to their torso or snakes in place of their arms.

The actual story concerns one client in particular who claims that his wife discovered a cure for Moss, just before contracting it herself. Vendor takes the job to track down suitable body parts for her while she's in stasis, despite her husband working for the company that helped inadvertently develop Moss in the first place. He also learns, though, that taking the case has put him squarely against a group who have immunity to the virus, claiming religious righteousness is smiting those who are unworthy, and actively try to kill him, thus preventing a cure from being released.

I also read the first chapter of "Fluorescent Black" that appeared in the latest issue of Heavy Metal. The setting here is also a future in which biogenetics are a primary concern, but it's the result of a large company developing a genetic encoder that allowed people to alter their own gene sequences. Not surprisingly, it fell into less-than-talented hands, and there's a substantial group now whose genes are unhealthily scrambled. The government has stepped in, though, and exiled those "dangerous" individuals to an isolated peninsula outside of Singapore.

The story follows Max and his street gang, who learn the hard way to make money by selling the bodies of the recently deceased to "butchers". Things are desperate enough that gang wars erupt specifically to increase the body count, and sell the resulting corpses. So when a corporation offers them a large sum to break into a rival's headquarters and "release" a clone experiment, they jump at the opportunity. However, they soon realize they were set up and were meant to die in the process. Securing this clone, though, they're also smart enough to realize that the two companies are willing to pay quite handsomely for her release.

It should come as little surprise that "Fluorescent Black" (appearing in Heavy Metal) features much more graphic illustrations than Vendor. In Vendor the detail is simplified considerably, taking the focus away from the actual amputations, and placing it on the social ramifications and implications of a culture whose members can change their whole body structure on a whim. "Fluorescent Black" by contrast is trying to emphasize just how ugly society can become when discrimination by any means is prominent, and the gorey detail underscores just how far apart the haves and the have-nots are from one another. So, even though the précis of the two books are similar, they come at the issues from wholly different perspectives, and have very different messages.

The undercurrent of both books are notably different as well. John Vendor, who worked with some of the folks who brought Moss to the rest of the planet, spends much of the book seeking redemption. While it's made clear that he himself did what he could at the outset to prevent Moss from spreading, his guilt continues to haunt him, to the point where it blocks his common sense. Max however is working towards mere survival in a society that is doing everything it can to literally kill him. His greatest achievements, like those of most of those who are exiled in the story, are largely making it through a whole day in one piece. Max stands out, though, in that he's able to survive and see a bigger picture than the next day. I was about to go so far as to say that he's able to make very modest gains in his conditions on occasion, but those few gains he does make are at a great cost. Everything and everybody has a price in his world. Max lives in a true dystopia with no real hope to speak of, while John lives in a world that, while miserable, isn't that far removed from our own.

Also differentiating the two books is the completeness of them. Vendor can and does stand on its own very well. There's a very clear beginning-middle-end to the story, and readers are provided with all the information they might need within the context of the story. As part of a larger serial, "Fluorescent Black" does not give readers that luxury... within the context of Chapter One. Most of the cultural background I cited above comes from their web site. Not knowing that doesn't really detract from the story flow, although readers who are unused to the serial format may be left with some questions that may or may not be answered in future issues. In that respect, I don't know that it's really fair to compare the two at all on this front since we're looking at a complete story versus another's introduction. To really see if that additional background information is necessary to the overall plot, we'd need to wait until the whole storyline was complete. (I don't know exactly how long the story will run, but I think it will easily go through the January 2009 issue.)

Both stories are solid reads, and any complaints I could file against either would be relatively slight. I think whether or not you enjoy either and/or both would depend largely on what you're looking for in a story and what types of genres you typically enjoy. Blade Runner fans would likely lean more towards "Fluorescent Black" while Judge Dredd fans might prefer Vendor. Both are well done, but just have some significant stylistic and thematic differences that might make a reader prefer one over the other.
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Dean said...

If you are interested in other stories in comics involving the harvesting of body parts, in the first 12 or so issues of the Marvel Comics treatment of the Micronauts (Mantlo/Golden 1979) it was a factor in several elements of the story.