The first page of Saman Bemel-Benrud's Abyss could serve as the thesis to a dissertation on the effects of pervasive technology on the social order. Two black outlined characters seemingly float in stark relief against a white background, their backs to us, rendered flat in a sketched two-dimensional space. One character reaches out his left hand as if to hold the hand of the other, a claiming gesture meant to show their bond together as a couple. The other character floats next to him, her arms crossed, remaining immune to this connection. Almost every line on this page is vertical, emphasizing the rigidity of the boundaries between them, the gulf between personalities, even as there is the implied longing to connect.
Only connect! That is the whole of Bemel-Benrud's sermon.
What begins as a journey to a “go-to burrito spot” evolves into an exploration of how the ubiquitous social platforms we carry are as isolating as they are enjoining. It's a hollow form of connection, leaving us ghosts of interactivity whose souls are the victims of app gentrification
“Everything good is disappearing, replaced with empty pits. Like black magic, they absorb the life energy from a place then use it to summon open floor plans and gourmet kitchens.”
It's easy to cast Abyss aside as another Luddite-longing for a simpler time or a haunting dirge for a pre-digital world. And yet, this is not a book wrapped in these sodden laments. As we fall into a world engendered by the social aspects of our devices enmeshing ourselves into a new code of behavior when reaching out to others by tapping on the glass, we acknowledge our separateness while formulating a new collective.
Together we bind our ghosts to the ghosts of others. We disassemble into a new means of understanding each other, something new, and, in a way, more fundamental. We create a shared experience in a new language on a different platform.
In this book, one of the main characters falls into a digital abyss. There, she meets a digital ghost who says to her.“On your side, matter trapped in space. On mine, information frozen in code. Linked in a cycle of co-creation. But separated by an impenetrable boundary.”
Although the ghost is trapped, “geofenced,” and cannot leave the abyss, through this new type of connection between these characters, this co-creation of reality, Bemel-Benrud suggests that there can be forged a new perception of the world around us and the people within it. To bastardize Walt Whitman, every line of code belonging to me as good belongs to you.
It is after the meeting with the ghost that the character whose arms were crossed on that first page begins to reach out and touch things. She puts her hands out, and what she caresses is transformed. Bemel-Benrud uses a pale blue-green shade to indicate the digital dimension throughout Abyss. As the book ends, this color begins to become part of the non-digital “reality” of direct experience. The final page has this character doing the same gesture proffered to her on the first. Now she is facing us, though looking askance. She reaches for the ghost and is subsumed by the blue.
As a reader, I was left with a quiet hope. If the mark of the success of a species is unfettered expansion, then humans are winning. And yet, even as our numbers grow, many have the sense that we are becoming more isolated from each other than ever before. But such terms as “isolation” are embedded in the past and the conception of “community” is mired in previous expectations. We are transitioning, evolving, and we open new portals of connection every day. Comics like Abyss provide observational commentary on a process whose end is beyond our current ken.
It's important to note these sort of wayside markers as we journey, for they often provide a perspective, an access to understanding, as we sojourn our way into uncharted territory.
While originally released as a web comic, Abyss has recently been printed up for your traditional comic book experience by the fine folks at 2D Cloud.