Thursday Comics Hangover: Utopian symmetry

In the back pages of the first issue of the new series Symmetry, writer Matt Hawkins admits he’s “gotten a bit sick of” dystopia’s omnipresence, and so he decided to try writing utopian fiction, instead. He read Sir Thomas More’s Utopia (“it’s boring as hell,” Hawkins tells his readers, urging them to “skim it”) and embarked on months of research, determining the four qualities of all utopias in fiction (ambition, creativity, diversity, and instruments of capital must be eliminated) and what he believes to be the four pillars of society (community, peace, harmony, and equality are required). Finally, Symmetry is his story of that utopia.

Hawkins was lucky enough to find an artist in Raffaele Ienco who seems uniquely qualified to draw a utopian vision: his art has a painterly quality that brings both beauty and detail to the surroundings. Each panel of Ienco’s is packed with information: we see gleaming hallways and countless background extras as our protagonist walks around his utopia, while dome-headed robot nannies supervise all the action and ensure that humans don’t cause each other (or themselves) any harm. (One robot snatches a beverage out of the hands of our main character, Michael, saying: “Citizen, excuse me! That drink is not optimized for your nutritional needs. This one is. Labeling error. My apologies, citizen.”) Occasionally, up close, the features of the people in Ienco’s art look too plasticine, but there’s so much information packed into every page that it’s an easy-enough flaw to ignore.

The first issue is entirely devoted to establishing the world. High-level technology renders it almost unrecognizable to us — humans are born asexual, for example, and they choose their own genders and names at age 13. And the reader has to spend most of the issue shaking off those dystopian reading habits. By issue’s end, you keep expecting Michael to turn the corner and find evil robots shoving humans into a giant pie-making device, or making a secret stash of feral humans fight for the robot’s amusement. But that kind of thing doesn’t happen in utopian fiction; the inciting incident for the action pretty much always has to come from outside.

You can’t dwell on the plot of the first issue of Symmetry, because, well, nothing much happens. That’s not really fair; aside from the establishment of a well-considered sci-fi world, two events happen, one of which is a spaceship crash. But it’s hard to say what the consequences of those actions are, exactly — what kind of a plot they’re propelling. It’s interesting to read a book and finish the first issue and know by the end of it that everything has changed, but to not know what that means, or even if we should be happy about it. I wouldn’t want to live in the world of Symmetry, but I sure am glad to visit.