I’m starting to get that queasy feeling I got with things like Dexter or Avengers Arena (and still get with almost all reality TV). If you don’t know by now, I have a certain distaste for people behaving badly and gratuitous violence, which I can usually swallow if the story’s good enough. But sometimes, even when the story is everything it should be, I just can’t face up to its subject matter. Fortunately, that’s a rare occurrence, and They’re Not Like Us isn’t quite there yet.
Unlike Dexter and Avengers Arena, the squeamishness I get from TNLU doesn’t come from the violence of Syd’s compatriots—although it is excessive—but from their moral indifference. The mugging, you get, sort of. With their powers, you’d think there are more efficient ways of acquiring property, but easy pickings are easy pickings, even if they yield little gain. But beating on the victims afterwards seems purely malicious, especially if you accept their initial, sneering explanation to one unfortunate: “Because it’s fun to watch privileged little shits like you squirm? Or maybe just because we can?”
Later justifications from the Voice and Maisie aren’t convincing either. They may pontificate all they want about how those who are different are treated, and Maisie seems more sincere than the Voice in recounting their grievances against the “normals” who mistreated them. But projecting this resentment on others does nothing except support the normals’ prejudice. It’s the same self-defeating logic that drives terrorists.
Maisie attempts to soften their villainy by claiming they don’t “just pick on innocents” and “always choose our targets at random.” Emphasis on “just” and “always,” which indicate that they do pick on innocents (perhaps even as a rule) and sometimes choose their targets at random. She explains that the guy they ganged up on in the opener wasn’t just a spoiled hipster, but a tagger whose vandalism could bring unwanted attention to their neighborhood and they abhor attention above all else. You could get on board with this sell, however soft, except their response is totally counterproductive. Yeah, a guy who might have tagged their neck of the woods might have attracted notice, but a string of muggings and assaults definitely will—especially since they go as far as to scrawl threatening messages around the victims after they’re done.
Since these people have no redeeming qualities other than good fashion sense, Stephenson most likely doesn’t intend for you to admire or like them. In fact, his whole purpose may be for you to root against them. In that case, Syd’s loyalties will be the crucial factor in keeping this title compelling (and on my personal pull list). True, she admits she’s excited by “their arrogance…their complete disregard for anyone outside the group…the violence,” but it’s an admission she’s making in hindsight and with shame. So there’s a good chance she’ll eventually oppose her would-be saviors, even if she depends on them now to keep her powers in check.
More and more, I’m really liking Gane’s work. The linework isn’t as polished and smooth as your conventional artists, but that kind of texture makes it even truer to life. The detailing is, in a word, superb: the crinkles in a backpack’s straps, the range of folds in a hoodie, the way individual strands of hair poke out in irregular tufts beneath a pair of headphones. The emotional range of the characters also impresses, broadcasting the inhumanity of Syd’s colleagues through their leering smiles and grins. Bellaire’s colors are perhaps a bit too flat on occasion, making some of Gane’s panels lose dimension altogether, but her chosen shades are perfect, rich and earthy and warm in contrast to the characters’ chilling behavior.
– I admit, I would not mind having a listening room of my own, filled wall-to-wall with jazz and oldies records. In fact, I’m going to make that a life goal, starting now.
The antagonists can use a little more polish so they’re not completely unreadable down the line, but for now, they’ve definitely got your attention.