As admittedly cliched as it may sound, Ann Nocenti and David Aja’s new graphic novel The Seeds (Dark Horse/Berger Books, 2021) isn’t afraid to get its hands dirty. Some comics have a “lived-in” look and feel and indeed overall ethos to them, but this takes it a step further, narratively and visually communicating a world that’s dying out, its future Earth a dilapidated husk that most people have fled, in every way but the physical, for virtual technotopias. Forget the idea of a nuclear detonation or cataclysmic natural disaster — the slow-burn apocalypse chronicled in these pages is taking place largely because people have simply stopped giving a shit about reality.
Still, any home left unattended is likely to be appealing to squatters, and, to that end, the bees whose exodus we’ve heard so much about appear to be swarming and gathering in preparation for, well, something, and the aliens have indeed landed and simply set up shop with little by way of fuss or muss, the classic “invasion” scenario having proved to be wholly unnecessary. There are some humans left who still seem concerned about the fate of our species and have established a tech-free de facto “autonomous zone,” but they’re not actively fighting for the future so much as they’re finding themselves bogged down with the task of trying to survive the present — in short, it’s all a clusterfuck. And a rather believable one at that for those of us with a pronounced pessimistic streak.
Still, human nature persists — even when it isn’t, strictly speaking, human — and as evidence of this Nocenti and Aja present an alien “harvester” who has come to fall in love with one of us mere mortals. As the remnants of authority keep a docile population under the heel of their iron boot and patrol the physical barrier between dying high-tech civilization and marginalized low-tech encampment, an intrepid muckraking reporter named Astra has stumbled upon this unlikely pair of would-be paramours, but her “scoop of the century” comes with a twist: if she reports what she knows, we’ll very likely lose our last, best chance at survival. Oh, what to do?
Complex ethical questions abound here, most of which are extrapolated from depressing present-day phenomena such as “fake news,” environmental degradation, bigotry and “othering,” humankind’s subservience to its own technological creations, and the like, and it’s to author Nocenti’s credit that she manages to present all these as the inevitable results of contemporary trends in a manner that eschews stilted and overly-expository dialogue — indeed, this is, if anything, a fairly “breezy” read. Where she comes up short, however, is in successfully seeing many of these heady ideas through — concepts only partially-explored are liberally scattered throughout, plotlines left dangling in the wind are nearly as common, and whether or not this is intentional on a conceptual level, or a cynical ploy to leave readers clamoring for a sequel, I really couldn’t say. The other possibility is that the comic’s troubled production history (two of a planned four single issues were released before a plethora of pre-pandemic scheduling delays ended with the publisher announcing, essentially, “fuck it, we’ll just publish it all as a single volume whenever it’s ready”) necessitated various script changes just to finally get the project over and done with. Whatever the case may be, it feels like an incompletely-realized work, which is more than a bit of shame because it’s a thoroughly compelling one, dense with ideas but unfortunately having no real idea what to do with some of them.
What feels – and, crucially, looks — decidedly more thorough in terms of intent and execution is Aja’s downright cinematic art, awash as it is in gritty atmospherics, intense digital shading and texturing techniques, and inspired aesthetic flourishes, most notable of them being his use of gray/green duotone coloring. Aja’s panel compositions are inherently sophisticated, it’s true, but in a manner that feels unforced, naturalistic — he knows just where to place people and objects in-frame to achieve maximum impact, and the trope he and Nocenti exploit of frequently focusing on purportedly “superfluous” detail and characters while the dialogue protrudes in from “off-panel” never gets old even though it should. This bears all the hallmarks of being an auteur comic — even if it was made by two people.
And that, right there, may be this book’s most interesting feature and, ultimately, its saving grace. The Seeds is a comic that well, truly, and perhaps even against all odds, flows, with Nocenti’s economic scripting paced out in a very-nearly intuitive manner to move along with Aja’s nine-panel grids and/or his occasional, and quite deliberate, deviations from them. Of course, Moore and Gibbons immediately come to mind when thinking of works based entirely on such a layout, but whereas Watchmen felt every bit as precise and pre-determined as it was (not, I assure, you a criticism, just an observation), this feels organic and expressive. Perhaps there are a few too many narrative streams going here, with not all of them running into the same river and some heading nowhere at all, but there’s an argument to be made that it would ring false for everything to fit together too neatly in a comic like this one. After all, this is a story about life persevering, somehow, in the face of inevitable doom on multiple fronts, and life is seldom perfectly structured, perfectly realized or, for that matter, perfectly satisfying.