BLOG Signal by Paul Duffield REVIEW

Alasdair Stuart praises a comic that captures a wonderfully optimistic view of humanity’s place in the universe

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Here’s another comic I picked up at last year’s Thought Bubble that impressed me…

When I was growing up I wanted to be an astronaut. I knew why – space was brilliant. It was where the Doctor and Captain Kirk were, where the Galactica and Star Wars rebels had been. It was the future. After all, we’d walked on the moon years before I was born. By the time I was 30 – I thought back then – I’d have stayed in a hotel in Earth orbit, maybe lived offworld. Maybe worked offworld. Like Jonathan Coulton said, it’s going to be the future soon.

It’s 2012. The Mayan calendar is about to run out. We’ve not even been back to the moon yet.

Earlier today, I saw this quote from Ursula LeGuin on Twitter:

“If science fiction is the mythology of modern technology, then its myth is tragic.”

LeGuin is one of the greatest genre fiction writers of all time, but here she’s about as wrong as she can get in my opinion. When I was growing up, the Space Shuttle wasn’t just the future, it was a way to a better life. Solar power, mineral wealth from other planets and the rolling singularity of technological breakthrough that would propel us off our world. That would, in turn lead us into the sort of experience which couldn’t help but make us better not only as individuals but as a species. I grew up under the nuclear shadow, just like my parents did, but unlike them, I could see the sun rise and I hoped desperately it was rising over a distant horizon.

Old dreams. Not bad ones, but old. I’m not alone in having those dreams either, judging by Paul Duffield ’s Signal . Duffield is attending Thought Bubble this year, and released Signal there last year. It’s a big format comic, a quick read with no dialogue. I’ve read it six times. I’m still finding more in there. What’s clear is this; a man wakes up who is no longer fully human and goes to work. He’s surrounded by equations, by gentle swathes of data that turn into sworls and lines that, in turn, mirror the lines of music being played by a holographic cellist in his office. He works, he dreams and then… something extraordinary happens.

Duffield dedicates the story to his family and to legendary scientist and astronomer Carl Sagan, and it’s easy to see why. The scope of the tall, expansive pages is cosmic from the start and the final reveals will make your breath catch in your throat. This is a story about a man writing his name across the universe, about the act of creativity and how it transcends science and art and physicality to become what so many of us want to be; remembered, immortal, free. It’s utterly beautiful and, oddly, calming. This is comics as classical minimalist music, deep, low note struck and held for whole pages.

Of course you can try and piece things together – like where the main character is, what the UFO-like objects near his house are – but that sort of thing but it defeats the point. This is a simple, elemental story that Duffield illustrates with elegance and grace, perfectly borne out by the panel showing the lead at work and every kind of creativity echoing down through history behind him. It’s a simple, elegant moment in a complex, elegant book. It makes me smile every single time I read it because whilst I didn’t get to ride the space shuttle, my dreams and the dreams of creators like Duffield, can take us anywhere. Simply beautiful.

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Alasdair Stuart

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