“Square Eyes” by Anna Mill & Luke Jones

Square Eyes is a graphic novel by artist and designer Anna Mill, and Luke Jones, a lecturer at the Cass School of Art, Architecture and Design. It is published by Jonathan Cape, an imprint of Penguin Random House that specialises in graphic novels (among other things), and the book is a sumptuous, high-end hardback that is a thing of beauty in itself. Mill’s art is incredible, and both creators draw heavily on their background and knowledge of architectural design, which is evident in the meticulously realised cityscapes and interior environments which call to mind the manga of Katsuhiro Otomo (of Akira fame), and perhaps also Geoff Darrow’s Hard Boiled. Mill is a consummate draughtsperson, and the art combines delicate use of traditional media (pencil and ink, I would guess) with a highly creative application of digital techniques. Overall, then, in terms of the physical look and feel of the book, it’s a truly lovely thing, saturated with detail, and something I could happily pore over for hours.

In terms of the story, Square Eyes is set in a near-future city where augmented reality has become a standard feature of everyday life. Through some technological means – which, at first reading at least, remained somewhat obscure (it doesn’t seem to use glasses or other AR devices) – people can interact with the space around them, and many of the book’s more striking images convincingly suggest how such an experience would look, as digital graphics overlay and superimpose upon underlying “real” physical space. In fact, this layering style communicates a core theme of the book, as there are a number of points where both the protagonist and reader are unsure what is real and what isn’t; what is dream, memory, hallucination, graphical overlay or digital playback. This is even suggested in the colour scheme, which often utilises a muted and restricted palette, thus blending and blurring the distinction between the augmented and the real even further. The dystopic suggestion, then, is that such a technology would undermine our grasp of what is real, while also allowing forces outside the self (government surveillance, corporate marketing) to manipulate and distort perception for their own ends.

The protagonist of the story is Fin Ueda-Soto, a brilliant augmented reality pioneer who has developed a particular form of AR that allows users to give virtual form to their own thoughts – to create their own augmented reality. But the system is unstable, and as her own grasp on reality begins to slip, she suffers a very public breakdown, and one day awakes to find herself in Recovar, a sort of rehab clinic for virtual addiction and psychological distress. From there, the book tracks her journey back as she attempts to reclaim her old life – which, while in Recovar, seems to have disappeared – all the while struggling to distinguish her own “memories” from unfamiliar “flashbacks”, and to untangle the mystery of what happened to the company she created and her former role in it.

These are, of course, well-worked dystopian sci-fi themes, especially cherished by the likes of Philip K. Dick: What is real? Who am I? Can I trust my memories? As John Locke proposed, the basis of identity is really memory – undermine that, and who “I” am begins to change and fall apart. But while it explores these issues, Square Eyes does so in a very subtle way, so that these concerns are often in the background, revealing themselves as much in the art itself as the dialogue or action. The reader doesn’t just abstractly consider the nature of such disorientation, but actively experiences it. This is also, perhaps, one of the challenges of the book. It’s often pretty hard to grasp what’s going on: while we follow Fin as she tries to work out who she is and what’s happened to her, we are simultaneously trying to establish what sort of future this is, what its norms are, what sort of technology is being used and what this means for how people interact with “reality” – all of which is frequently only hinted at, and must be pieced together from a close reading. And this is certainly a book that repays such scrutiny, as page after page reveals hyper-detailed environments – both physical and virtual – as they overlap and interplay, and technological terms and jargon are just thrown in (William Gibson style), so that the reader must simply “go with it”, hoping that it all makes sense in the end.

And does it all make sense? It’s difficult to say! Even now, I find myself questioning the basic synopsis I’ve presented here. I think, like some archaeological dig, I’ve only really scratched the surface, and that, after a few more readings, some more concerted effort to unpack the logic of the world Mill and Jones have painstakingly created, I’ll be repaid with a much richer and deeper understanding of the work. Is it worth such effort? I think so – the art alone merits that, and I suspect a similar amount of work has gone into the world building. All of which belies the notion that comics/graphic novels are “easy reading”. You might read Square Eyes in a few hours, but its themes and ideas, its world, its take on technology and its relation to reality – unearthing and understanding these will take a whole lot longer.

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Gareth Southwell is a philosopher, writer and illustrator from the UK. He is the author of the near-future sci-fi novel MUNKi, which concerns robots, the hunt for the Technological Singularity, and people swearing in Welsh.

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