Our Love Is Real
Sam Humphries, writer
Steven Sanders, art
self-published, June 2011
Buy it at OurLoveIsRealComic.com
In the war to discomfit the reader, science fiction has an extra weapon in its arsenal: It can be set in a society whose underlying assumptions are disturbingly alien from our own. Depending on whether the differences happen to hit your buttons, this can be real put-the-book-down-and-squint-your-eyes-shut stuff in the right hands. The last thing I read to have that effect on me was “The People of Sand and Slag” by Paolo Baciagalupi in Wastelands, an anthology of post-apocalyptic short fiction. Baciagalupi created a world where genetically and biomechanically modified human beings presided over an empire of debris, feeling no pain, virtually indestructible, able to consume junk and rocks…and eminently unqualified to care the few vulnerable living creatures unfortunate enough to cross paths with them. It wasn’t a particularly gory or “disturbing” story, yet something about its protagonists, the fact that they were recognizably human yet utterly devoid of the qualities and vulnerabilities that we think of as characteristic of humanity, literally made me feel sick to my stomach. I still haven’t finished reading the anthology.
Our Love Is Real, it seems to me, is aiming to have the same effect. It’s set “five years after the AIDS vaccine,” in a world policed by hulking brutes in Iron Man/mecha exo-suits and characterized by sexual divisions not between genders or orientations, but between vegisexuals, mineralsexuals, and zoosexuals — people who have sex with custom-grown plants, the auras of crystals, and dogs respectively. But I think that previous sentence contains the problem with the project. The sex stuff that’s the story’s bread and butter is indeed rewardingly bizarre and blackly funny — I mean, look at that propaganda poster on the cover, it’s hilarious. But the world surrounding the sex is standard Dark Horse Legends sf-action material, instantly recognizable to anyone who’s read Hard Boiled or Martha Washington, or who’s seen the way Geof Darrow or Chris Burnham draw faces being smashed to flying splattering pieces. The character designs in particular are deeply indebted to Tony Moore, squarejawed men and snotnosed women who behave basically the way characters rooted in such designs can be expected to behave. When the genre visuals and action are that familiar, it’s tough to see how we get there from here with regards to the stuff that’s much further out. I mean, I get that the zoosexual cops hounding (no pun intended) the vegisexuals and mineralsexuals are analagous to heteronormativity and fag-bashing, but there’s not really an allowance made for the idea that people who have sex with dogs might build a sci-fi society that looks different from all the ones we’ve seen that were built in-story by plain-vanilla straight dudes. Starting with that lacuna, the book’s ideas never really congeal. It winds up feeling more like several neat ideas than one great one. I want it to go further.
But ultimately, the best compliment I could pay Our Love Is Real is that while its weakest points belong to other comics, its strongest points are all its own. The world depicted by Sanders and the characters that inhabit it may be overly familiar, but the climactic fight scene has real oomph and, weirdly, real grace. And while the characters’ behavior is traditional in a way that doesn’t mesh with the book’s bizarre animating ideas, those ideas are quite something, and are presented by Humphries in a way that’s straightforward but not smug self-congratulatory, the way knowingly out-there indie science-fiction comics by smart-and-they-know-it writers can be. Humphries’ is a new voice in a crowded field, saying truly strange and challenging things while speaking the language of mainstream action comics. With any luck that accent will thin, and future stories will have the fluency to forge a new dialect as singular as the ideas they’re designed to express.