Since 2015, Image Comics' "Injection" has featured five characters -- a scientist, a programmer, a detective, a spy and a wizard — who, all together, did a bad thing. Tasked with making the future more interesting, they created an artificial intelligence that combined all their skills and inserted it in the Internet. There, they hoped, it would boost collective creativity and innovation. Instead, the world got more horrifying, as the Injection has been turning folk legends into reality, training humans to do its bidding and wreaking havoc on a small and large scale.
This fun, thinky read is more than a page-turner by one of the best teams in comics (writer Warren Ellis, artist Declan Shalvey and colorist Jordie Bellaire), “Injection” is a pitch-perfect exploration of the horror we feel every time the Internet — through trolls, viruses, scams, dumb memes, or Donald Trump — manages to horrify us. We’re a lot like the main characters of "Injection," wringing our hands and wondering, “What the hell did we put into the Internet and how can we stop it?”
This inventive series, which returns to comic stores this week, is also about the perils of disruption, the strange wonders of science and — honestly — sandwiches.
Ellis, Shalvey, and Bellaire have created a group of protagonists that is among the most diverse, witty, and badass in comics — a superteam that blows away the Avengers and the Justice League. Maria Kilbride is a brilliant scientist who’s seen better days: her experience creating (and trying to deal with the consequences of) the Injection put her in a hospital where she's recovering from a nervous breakdown. Vivek Headland is an omnisexual, deadpan private investigator who makes Sherlock Holmes seem dunderheaded. Simeon Winters is the black James Bond we’re probably never going to get in the movies. Brigid Roth is a hacker so brilliant she turns the country’s weapons systems on and off for fun. Robin Morel is descended from England’s cunning-folk: shamans and magicians in the old English tradition.
Before the events of the series, an independent company assembled these five disparate experts as the ominously named Cultural Cross-Contamination Unit (CCCU) and asked them to think about the future. What they found was disappointing. As Kilbride puts it, “We reach a peak of novelty and innovation and enter a long trough. Straight flat line. That’s the future.” So they made something to push things along. As Roth calls it, the Injection is “an almost conscious machine learning system that can mess with the state of the world.” This artificial intelligence combines the skills of all five, but it’s animated by a magical something-or-other from Morel, the wizard who constantly says he’s not. They upload it to the Internet and, as they say, hijinks ensue.
But the horseplay doesn’t involve the improved future they wanted. Rather than making the world more interesting and innovative, the Injection — in typical Frankenstein fashion — makes the world more terrifying by killing and manipulating people, screwing with its creators, and turning folklore into reality, such as the Cyclopean Pigdog of Sumatra and evil little pixies called Spriggans.
Watching the five protagonists try to deal with the weird, dangerous consequences of their actions is entertaining as hell, but it’s also strongly resonant with our own weird, dangerous world.
As the Injection continues learning, growing, and changing the world with no regard for human life, the parallels with reality get a little uncomfortable. Are all laptops “poisoned laptops” (as Roth calls devices controlled by the Injection) in some sense? More than two decades after the birth of the Internet, what is the ratio of good and bad produced by the online world? Is the easy access to endless information worth dealing with Internet trolls? In an interview, artist Shalvey said, “…it's not [as much] 'what did we put into the Internet?' as it is 'what have we done by creating the Internet?'” Two good questions.
“Injection” is a fitting title for this series, but another would have been “Disruption.” The actions of the CCCU feel like a heightened version of every real-life tech company living under the spell of disruption theory. Disruption has been a huge buzzword in tech, often used to explain the success and chaos caused by companies such as Uber. Disruption was also the justification of some for supporting Donald Trump, particularly anyone on the right or left who felt a revolution or Ragnarök would be beneficial. As Trump supporters who lose their health insurance may realize, change for the sake of change might not be the change you want.
"Injection" is no dreary preach-fest. There’s a tremendous amount of humor (particularly in the second arc) and a particular optimism that shines through in many of Ellis’ series. In a talk before the launch of the series, Ellis discussed the strange, incomprehensible beauty of the world, where “science fiction is actually written by science” and science news headlines have a “demented, Lovecraftian genius.” Ellis’ point is easily verified with one peek at recent New Scientist articles, which include such wonders as “translucent helmeted cockroaches,” “fuzzy pulsars,” “time crystals,” “cosmic uncertainty” and “seven earth-sized planets.” Ellis’ attitude is a much-needed mood-booster for the fact-oriented: “Science is beautiful and mysterious and a source of constant wonder.”
This appreciation for our strange world can be seen in many Ellis titles, from his inspiring astronaut story “Orbiter” to “Supreme: Blue Rose,” which is about living through a badly rebooted superhero universe. Even in that series’ obviously screwed-up world, some characters have Ellis’ sense of wonder, which is voiced by Dr. Chelsea Henry: “Our reality may be broken. . . but it’s awfully pretty and I’ve had a hell of a time. Let’s be accident investigators before we decide what needs fixing.” This echoes Ellis’ classic work, “Planetary,” which features “mystery archaeologists” working to record and preserve their world. That series has a catchphrase that's a little more elevated than “It’s clobberin’ time”: “It’s a strange world. Let’s keep it that way.”
Another theme running through “Injection” is nowhere near as lofty: sandwiches. Kilbride, as she emerges from hospitalization back to the grim reality of dealing with the Injection, is desperate for a sandwich. Headland is appalled to find that one of his sandwiches consists of a human bicep, just as Headland’s servants are appalled that Headland can detect human meat by taste. It remains to be seen how sandwiches will play into the remaining two arcs, but one thing is sure: just as our technology will continue to delight and horrify us, this series will keep exploring those delights and horrors. And sandwiches.