Comics

This is the Way the World Ends, Not with a Bang but a Meme

This week’s Guest Star Robert Aaron Mitchell a writer, blogger, videographer, and journalist. You can read his work at his Soldier of Cinema blog.. His short films and interviews with filmmakers and actors from George Romero to Iko Uwais and Jason Momoa to Jamie Lee Curtis an be found on his YouTube channel!

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In early December of 2014, I was wandering around Washington D.C. I was reflecting on the year that was and what lay ahead. With the gift of hindsight, it was a year that saw the seeds that would bloom into the chaotic flowers of the second decade of the Twenty-First Century. Russia had invaded Ukraine and occupied Donbas and Crimea. That summer saw unrest in Ferguson, Missouri after Michael Brown was murdered by law enforcement. Images of another young black man murdered by police cirulated the Internet with rapid pace. The week prior to my visit to DC, a grand jury had decided to not indict the officer who murdered Mr. Brown. I got swept up in a protest against police brutality. The chant of the year echoing off buildings, “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” Looking back, 2014 was indeed tumultuous but for me did not feel apocalyptic. 

The march dissolved and people faded away into the night. I walked into a comic book shop and walked out with the first part of a new limited series just published by BOOM! Studios entitled, Memetic. The series was written by James Tynion IV and illustrated by Eryk Donovan and centers around an apocalyptic event. The title, Memetic, was taken from a field called Memetics, which is the study of self-replicating units of culture. The story of Memetic begins ominously on day three. A lone man walks through an alleyway under a smoke-filled orange sky. The splash title page holds nothing back showing a street scene of great destruction and the same street days prior. People are walking and looking down at their smartphones. The dialogue is texts, memes, and emails. Modern life is a super connected life. Someone knows the exact second a message is read.

Aaron is a college student who is in the middle of a fight with his boyfriend, Ryan. In between messaging his boyfriend, Aaron surfs the net and comes across a page that states: “THIS IMAGE WILL CHANGE EVERYTHING.” The comments below the board claim, “Okay, Am I crazy or does this picture make you feel amazing? Like, immediately when you look at it. I can’t stop looking at it and smiling. This is the coolest thing I have ever felt in my life.” Ryan does what one does when faced with an Internet meme with such boisterous claims. He hits ENTER. Ryan sees the image of a happy little sloth in front of a swirling background and feels nothing.

Ryan’s friend Sarah shows up, phone and sloth image in hand. She, like other Internet commentators, is incredulous that Ryan cannot feel anything from such a splendid image. Ryan says, “Mutant power, remember.” Sarah replies, “Ah yes the extraordinary power to see no color. You’re straight out of the X-Men for sure.” That this story dialogue predates #TheDress shows how tuned into the times James Tynion IV was.

Another character is introduced, a retired military Colonel by the name of Marcus who has macular degeneration in his eyes. While not completely blind his vision is greatly reduced to fuzzy shapes. A friend of his is over and describing the image that was just on the news. The friend speaks about how lonely he has been since his wife passed away and how the sloth is making him feel that everything is okay. Euphoria washes over his face. Marcus contacts the Pentagon and expresses his concern over the happy little sloth image.  Marcus speaks about Barbara Xiang and her writings on “Weaponized Memetics”. The colonel on the other end of the line assures Marcus there is nothing to worry about, “Just a silly picture on the Internet.” Rereading the comic in 2022, seeing the panel of how compromised the colonel at the Pentagon is after the past several years of seeing how compromised U.S. Institutions have been is chilling. All the while the Internet is sending happy little sloth binary code at a record pace. “Taylor Swift Messages Sloth To Each Of Her Followers?” “Where Were You When You Saw The Sloth?” “Sloth Parody Videos Tear Up YouTube.” The sloth is everywhere. Servers are crashing. People are crashing when they can’t get their happy little sloth fix. Pictures pop up on city walls with the caption, “Praise Him.”. In the oval office the Secretary of State tells the 44th President about the image. However, Obama’s daughter already has shown him prior to her going to school. Aaron is out to eat with friends when another student joins them. Martin brags he was one of the first in the country to see the image go online at 7:04 am. Martin begins to feel unwell. He stands up screaming and blood begins pouring out of his eyes. He turns instantly violent and attacks the nearest person. Choking and killing them. 

And just like that the world erupts. Everything is normal until it isn’t. As worldwide events are shifting into spectacularly scary scenarios, the President is broadcast across television and social media trying to go viral with a message of calm assurance. That does not go well. The President also begins screaming and bleeding from his eyes. Broadcast signals across the world cut to static. In twelve hours, over 500 million people have seen the good times sloth. It seems fantastical that a mere meme could circulate around the world with such chilling chaos. Months after Memetic was published a Tumblr user named swiked posted a photo of a dress asking what color it was. People saw either #WhiteAndGold or #BlackAndBlue. The post was remarkable for how fast it went across the internet as well as seemingly everyone online weighed into the debate. The debate of color perception is fascinating in terms of the main character in Memetic. Ryan is color blind and cannot completely engage with the happy sloth meme. The comic shows how far reaching a seemingly harmless meme can affect people whose contact with the happy sloth is indirect. How many people have been directly affected by a piece of Covid-19 misinformation they had no contact with? The genius of Memetic is the image that goes viral is the depiction of the world’s slowest mammal. The image that brings human existence to extinction isn’t Big Brother. It isn’t “two minutes hate”. It is a happy sloth.

Rereading Memetic in April, 2022, the premise of a destructive meme seems much more prescient as we have seen foreign interference in an American election centered on misinformation resulting in a President being elected who sowed chaos and division. We see this in Tyrion’s story, as the President in Memetic was compromised by an image of unknown origin from the Internet. This same viral and memetic transmission of misinformation has also spread lies about Covid-19 causing an immense amount of harm to people. 

Memetic shows with a remarkable pace a world descending into chaos. How does one survive during the unthinkable? How do you process grief, as extraordinarily horrific circumstances you have witnessed are still unfolding all around you? At what point do you accept that the world is ending and you are going to die. In the story of Memetic it is a mere three days and the world as it was known is changed forever. A lot of us take March 15, 2020 as the day we recognized that our lives were forever changed. In one day everything we knew everything we took for granted changed irrevocably.  While I was walking through an empty grocery store that weekend I thought to myself, “Everything is normal until it isn’t.” These days with the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the very real possibility of nuclear powers squaring off with one another, I think of nuclear winter, cancer, starvation and undrinkable water. I am horrified by this prospect.  I think of banal details, such as how am I supposed to walk my dog twice a day when everything will be on fire and radioactive. The simple answer is, I won’t.

In a broken world, we are trying to still connect with people who mean a lot to us. In the #BeforeTimes, zoom was a verb. In the #AfterTimes, it’s a lifeboat to continue human connection. These days the term Mutually Assured Destruction once again weighs heavy on my mind. Here in 2022 the world is still tumultuous. It also feels to that me we are living in simultaneous apocalyptic events. In the “before times,” I read “post-apocalyptic” fiction as both entertainment and cautionary tales of what could happen. In these apocalyptic, doom-scrolling days, I find a pseudo-comfort in knowing I’m not alone in thinking about the “unthinkable”.

Rob, no, why?!

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Check out Robert’s first essay on his relationship to post-apocalyptic art, “The Scene that shook Me–The Day After (1983),” at Biff Bam Pop!

Mimetic is being made into a film.

Robert Aaron Mitchell is a writer, blogger, videographer, and journalist. You can read his work at his Soldier of Cinema blog.. His short films and interviews with filmmakers and actors from George Romero to Iko Uwais and Jason Momoa to Jamie Lee Curtis an be found on his YouTube channel!

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