From the opening page, Transhuman, a graphic novel by Jonathan Hickman, lets the reader know one thing: this is a speculative documentary through the medium of comics. The second panel is of a clean, well-dressed reporter wearing glasses standing outside a facility. The lower-third of the frame tucks away a small microphone. The panel resembles the opening shot of a PBS Frontline documentary. Already, the audience knows this is not your standard comic book story.
A monochromatic reporter providing streamlined exposition like he expects this story to air after the 10 O’ clock news replaces the traditional boxed in, god-like voice of authority. Past-tense stories given from quick stand-ups are the preferred way to highlight the characters in the story. Clear science fiction parades around like it just happened yesterday. Hickman provides fake found footage and to fill in the blanks. Suddenly, the reader is out of place. This structure is not the normalized 25-page comic people read today. Transhuman is a revolutionary push that adds the documentary as a genre in comics.
The story is of two rival genetic engineering companies striving to make the first superhuman. Humonics attempted to make the first by splicing and altering genes, While Chimera Corp. goes an alternate route involving cybernetic enhancements. Humonics ultimately prevails after promising results happen in the early stages of their human testing. However, the crucial point is that the monkeys on which they tested initially advance rapidly and ultimately win the day. The ending comes out of left field slightly, and the story feels disjointed at times. However, these failures do not take away from the unique structure Hickman weaves these plot points through to the jumbled end. It feels like genetic, super monkeys should not belong in a documentary of any kind, yet this graphic novel pulls it off.
The structure is engaging, and a reader can hurry through scenes without losing the thread of the story. Being guided along by a seemingly indifferent narrator only adds to the zany, sci-fi nature of the story, while the interviews push the conflict to an illogical conclusion.
Transhuman does not just choose to use the documentary style because it would be interesting. The novel chooses this style because it adds layers to an otherwise mundane comic. All the character building and emotional points achieve completeness thanks to the format. The art done by Jim Ringuet is a testament to how intentional the genre of choice was. Panels guide fluidly from wide shot to close-ups. Every frame paces in a way meant to mimic mainstream documentaries. Even the color palette and lighting feels pulled from a PBS Nova show. This careful attention to detail means a reader can gain new insights with every reading. Hickman and Ringuet created a novel that has re-readability.
Jonathan Hickman has hit mainstream success at Image Comics now. Transhuman is the comic that marks his transition into that success. However, it also has become a monument to how innovative he is as a writer. This graphic novel speaks to how transcendent the medium of a documentary is, and the specific way it can tell stories.