When technology introduces something new to the world, do you automatically think of how it will all go wrong? That with each achievement in artificial intelligence-based invention, humanity inches closer to Skynet? That's what writer Alex Paknadel (Arcadia, Dr. Who) was thinking when Google Glass came out, and began working up the concept for a creator-owned comic, which would eventually become Friendo for Vault Comics.
The debut of the five-issue mini-series will be released Sept. 19, and SYFY WIRE has your exclusive preview of what's in store in Friendo #1, including five pages.
In this latest tech-gone-awry story — written by Paknadel, Martin Simmonds, Dee Cunniffe and Taylor Esposito — we are introduced to Leopold, a boy with a strict upbringing. Now an adult, Leo is one of the few who are able to try out Friendo, a virtual reality companion built within a pair of Glaze glasses, that's complete with personalized marketing. It sounds good on paper, but when it starts to malfunction, all good intentions go outside the window.
An eerie and violent look into the threat of technology if it goes unchecked, Friendo begins in 1996, during Leo's childhood, a period consumed with religion and without toys. Those two variables would be just the first of a handful of life-altering conditions that shape the main character.
"Leo grew up in this ascetic, fire-and-brimstone Baptist sect, so his early life was all about discipline and self-denial," Paknadel explains. "Accordingly, when his father abandoned him and he was taken in by a foster family, he was uniquely susceptible to the kinds of marketing and advertising techniques to which some of us — nowhere near enough in my opinion — have developed a measure of resistance."
"As an adult he wants every new toy there is, and that’s purely because he’s been told to want them, and he lacks the ability to interrogate his own desire properly. Leo’s the easiest mark on earth, man."
Leo's upbringing and subsequent abandonment, in conjunction with the media landscape and commercialism, place him on the struggling actor path, after chasing a dream half-assed. He's a grotesque amalgam of Josh Baskin in Big and Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy.
"That’s why there are Wizard of Oz and Grapes of Wrath references peppered throughout; what happens when you reach the Emerald City/California and it’s not the promised land after all? Well, you get real mad."
This sets up a certain fragile state for when he comes into the Friendo technology, which started when Paknadel once worked for a marketing company when Google Glass launched. He couldn't help but think, How were they going to monetize it?
"Would virtual coupons just swim into your peripheral vision every time you passed The Gap, you know? Eventually, I hit upon the idea that the advertising solution that would eventually be chosen would be a person; a virtual buddy with access to your entire online history and who might well know you better than you know yourself."
Since then, Paknadel spent much time researching every facet in the book from life in California to the technology that's referenced in Friendo. In SYFY WIRE's exclusive gallery preview, below, readers get to see how the Glaze glasses work and how Leo's Friendo, Jerry, is manifested after answering non-sequitur questions, like an oblique set of oral Rorschach tests that Paknadel thought might yield rich psychological data.
"After I read about how the U.K.’s Brexit campaign harvested its psychological data from a soccer quiz on Facebook that offered cash prizes, I just found the prospect of shady bastards being able to infer a massive amount about me from superficially unrelated questions really scary, so I used a version of that in the book."
The preview also shows the look of the virtual A.I., Jerry, something that Paknadel and co-creator/artist Martin Simmonds (Punks Not Dead) developed over the years. The result of all that work is a stylish comic, with sleek lines and flashes the color work of Dee Cunniffe.
"Initially I wanted him to look like a sort of demonic Elvis, but Martin went with a skinny Richard E. Grant kind of look instead. I won’t give too much away, but he’s going to look very different by time we reach the book’s climax."
Paknadel promises that the technology will be front and center as the story continues. Something traumatic happens to Leo that will leave him forever changed, and he's just scratched the surface of how the Friendo works on a person like Leo.
"Let’s just say none of the tech is performing as it should," he says, "and leave it at that."