Monday, 24 August 2015

Visiting The Island #2: I.D. pt 2

Or a look at the effects of research and detail in ID pt. 2 
by Emma Rios with consultation from Miguel Alberte Woodward, MD; Image Comics

I once read an X-men comic allegedly set in my hometown of Vancouver, Canada. I was pretty excited since very few comics are set here, and seeing my favourite city portrayed in media is always fun. Unfortunately the artist on the book didn't bother to actually reference what Vancouver looks like. So instead of the intersection of ocean, looming mountains, and skinny green-glassed skyscrapers, there was a vaguely defined collection of generic highrises and apartments with the odd Canadian flag thrown in. Instead of seeing the familiar shape of my home in an X-men comic, I was reading a comic that might as well have been set in Cityville City. It was a huge distraction.

Which goes to show that details matter in fiction.

I.D. in Island #2 is a great example of how fine attention to detail can enhance a storytelling world.

This post will contain *SPOILERS* for I.D.

In my day job I work as an academic research scientist in cardiac cell biology. This is only relevant here in so far as it makes me really picky about the portrayal of Science and Biology in fiction. I mean, it's fine when things are left extremely vague ("there is a surgery that let's us transplant brains, cool?"), I can go along with the premise in service to the story. But once a story tries to engage with the Science-maguffin, I find that this invites scrutiny which often just blows holes in the story, subtracts from my suspension of disbelief, and leaves me distracted from the core narrative. It can be another un-Vancouver moment. 

Like, in I.D. #2 the volunteers are told they will be infected with a virus that adds light-sensitive firefly proteins to their brains. The goal being to allow for optogenetic surgery which allows lasers to cultivate neuron growth and brain integration. Which, despite the delightful moment about bug-DNA, is kind of problematic. Fireflies are best known in Science as the source of luciferase, a bioluminescent light-emitting protein that gets used a lot to measure when a particular gene is being transcribed, or activated. Off the top of my head, fireflies are not really a source of commonly used light sensitive proteins. Optogenetics, the use of light to control cells, generally uses channelrhodopsin, a light-sensitive protein derived from the eye that can be used to transport ions and which has been implicated in neuron activation, axon growth, and synaptic potentiation. Jargon speak aside, this means that channelrhodposin would make a more plausible tool for the kind of brain-integrating surgery portrayed in the comic than a "modified firefly gene".

I can be downright crazy about this stuff.

The thing is, despite this crazy person quibble, I.D. does a fantastic job incorporating Science. The overall approach of using optogenetics, light directed surgery and virally transduced genes, is shockingly plausible. The drawings displaying the surgical setup, or the process of using a lentivirus and vector are textbook precise. The use of Science jargon is pitch perfect and complex. Basically I.D. displays a level of biological expertise beyond what I have ever encountered in another comic book. I mean, the fact I can quibble about which light-sensitive protein would be the most realistic in this situation at all is truly remarkable event.

The effect of this is that I.D. is elevated from a clinical character study using a Sci-fi plot device to a serious work of Science Fiction that is having a serious discussion about well developed and well thought out technologies. Which for me makes the entire premise feel more real, which lends the comic an unsettling, visceral quality that a less realistic, un-Vancouver-style comic would lack.

I think this really showcases the value of researching background/setting material in fiction: while a scant go-with-this contract works, a comic that invites and stands up to technical scrutiny is much more satisfying a reading experience.

Which goes to show that detail matters,

Island #1: I.D. Part 1
Island #1: Multiple Warheads

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