“They will always use fear to shut you up.”
The relationship between technology and emotion could not be more complicated. The idea of how technology makes us feel, the fact that we’re often obsessed with our devices, and the idea that screens can cause mental states as complex as anxiety, comfort, pleasure, or joy is extremely difficult to wrap one’s head around. Enter Thumbs, a world where technology has grown to replace primary sources of care and compassion: our parents. With a rising cost of living and a longer work week, it’s not impossible to see the appeal of investing in a digital caregiver, but it’s also easy to see the imminent dangers it poses to our society.
Thumbs #1 wrestles with these issues and more through a very unique style that starts off a bit removed, like an old movie or even slightly holographic, but quickly grows to become fully immersive much like the evolving technology in the book. It’s a world that looks a bit different from our own, but with VR becoming easier to obtain, it may well be on the horizon. It intentionally uses a very limited color palette to great effect and involves other senses to dramatically increase the immersive effects. The book is very textured; you can feel every movement and every choice as if it’s happening around you. The SFX are seamlessly blended into the art work, so that you can hear the sounds emanating from the world that surrounds you. When added to a well-crafted narrative structured with a cinematic combination of full page spreads and wide close-ups, it’s easy to be enveloped by this world. Much like the decisions Charley “Thumbs” Fellows makes in the issue, ever choice made by creators Sean Lewis and Hayden Sherman feels intentional. From the SFX to the panel structure to using bright pink to represent technology and its ubiquitous presence, everything on the page is carefully chosen to convey a certain feeling, and in the beginning, that feeling is chaos.
Thumbs #1 begins with an emergency. You are flooded with wide close-ups of an injured adolescent with little explanation as to what’s happening. Nevertheless, you can feel the immediacy and the suffering coming from the panels. Its holographic texture feels like there’s a poor connection and you might lose contact at any time. This creates a sense of urgency and anxiety rarely manifested in other books. Isn’t it weird, the idea that a comic book could cause you to feel this way? It’s the same with technology. The future brings these devices that become intricately connected to our emotions, yet there’s also an inescapable detachment to it all. We don’t know who the character lying on the operating table is yet. We might not even care if he survives or not. We just need to know what happens next; we need to know why.
Charley’s brought to “The Fortress,” a place that looks as much like a prison as it does a base of operations. By now you may have noticed that pink is the only bright color sprinkled throughout the page and only over pieces of technology. It’s an extremely intentional choice that helps demonstrate how prevalent, overwhelming, and inescapable technology has become. In the panel with “The Fortress,” for instance, there’s almost as much tech as people, which is a scary thought. It’s as though the world is marked, dominated and even owned by technology. The lettering is very spaced out, which lets the art breathe and provides a sense of detachment from the emotions flowing through each panel. There are no lettering credits, so one can reasonably assume that Hayden Sherman did the SFX and either Sherman or Lewis lettered the dialogue and captions, Either way, it gives off a feeling of detachment because of its contrast with the rest of the page. You’re invested right away because of the style of storytelling, not necessarily because of Thumbs, who you learn more about later on. The narration especially is, at first, extremely removed from the images and dialogue. We tour The Fortress in an engrossing, profound, and cinematic manner. The wide close-ups and full splash pages that persist along with the short and concise dialogue as the gurney rushes through the halls sustains the urgency for an impressive number of pages. Then everything slows, and it all becomes visible.
There’s a lot of striking imagery prevalent throughout Thumbs #1, but one piece in particular is the remarkably disturbing panels of Charley on the gurney. The pictures of technology puncturing and remaining attached to parts of Charley’s body is enough to make you wince. He looks like an injured soldier, and that’s the true power technology holds. People have received PTSD from things they’ve seen and experienced with technology, and what may be virtual today could become real tomorrow. Instead of pausing to care or feel for Charley, however, everyone pauses to see what happened to Thumbs in order to judge. This is a world where traumatic scenes become tactical lessons and where they judge someone’s abilities, experiences, and character from the limited perspective they see on the screen. But this isn’t just their world; it’s ours. In this scene, the screens are the comic book panels and we, the readers, are also passing judgement. Do we really feel for Charley? We don’t know anything about him; not yet anyway. To us he is just a character with a name who has been through something traumatic. We care about the story, not Charley. It’s this moment where we become cognizant of our own detachment, and this moment when the story takes a break from Thumbs the character and introduces us to Charley the person.
Despite the issue’s more limited color palette, the flashback clearly has a different aesthetic. The more glitchy, holographic images are suddenly clearer using a variety of light and shadow effects. We are immediately introduced to Mom™, a robot caregiver that replaces Charley and his sister’s parents most of the time. She answers a curious child’s deeply personal and human questions with cold sarcasm, and represents technology’s inescapable takeover as it grows to replace even our loved ones. This is a future where there is no intimacy family, or care. There are only people living their lives and trying to survive. In the panels themselves, technology may appear as small and sprinkled throughout the page or as one large, overwhelming screen, but it’s always there. One might think that as the instigator of a world flooded with tech, the real world may be of little importance to Adrian Camus, but they would be wrong. In order to earn scholarships, gamer bmust be as skilled in real life as they are in the game, a requirement for any successful futuristic child army. With no parents or love coming from anyone but his sister, it’s easy to turn to gaming as your only escape. Real life quickly becomes dull and lonely in comparison. As Charley says, “I don’t get real people.” It’s a sentiment that more and more people are beginning to identify with in today’s society.
As Thumbs becomes better at the game, the darkness and loneliness around him continues to grow. He’s largely manipulated by the technology’s creator, Albert Camus, a very fitting name for the story’s evil corporate mastermind. Camus the philosopher was a preeminent believer in absurdism, the idea that struggling to find meaning and satisfy human need in a pointless existence is utterly absurd. When looking at Thumbs #1 through that lens, it’s easy to recognize the power of lines such as, “If you’re lucky you remember a face you can touch.” This is a world where everyone’s plugged in but no one’s connected. Trapped for six years with everyone to blame and nothing you can do, revenge looks like the only answer. Where are the adults? On the other side of this war, of course. Sean Lewis and Hayden Sherman do a phenomenal job building a world united by technology and driven by fear and loneliness that may be closer than we think.