This is not the happily ever after that I was hoping for when I first began reading this series. Of course, it’s not surprising that a world-wide battle royale type story doesn’t end well, but by God, I had hope. The premise is fairly simple: billionaire Larry Ferrell, a technological wizard, dies, leaving his 18+ billion dollars to 140 (for the maximum number of characters in a tweet) Twitter followers. Each gets easily enough money to live comfortably, but the money comes with a caveat: for each person who dies, the survivors get a larger cut of the money.
Over the course of first 16 issues, 100 of the 140 die. The most fascinating of these, Akira, a hybrid between magical realist writer Haruki Murakimi and cult leader Shoko Asahara, but somehow stranger than both, died several issues before the finale and took a large portion of his followers, and the 140, with him. Although not in this issue, I would sell the overall series short if I didn’t mention him, as Akira is one of the most fascinating, and disturbing, characters created in a comic over the last 10 years. Even after his death, Akira’s actions and words reverberate throughout this final issue.
With Unfollow, Rob Williams has told a story that damns the way that we use and abuses social media nearly two decades into the 21st century. In earlier issues, Akira muses on the relationship between man, technology, and God. In this issue, Larry Ferrell, back from the dead, takes on the philosophical mantra. He no longer wants to share his money or his toys and deems the world unworthy.
In one of his several monologs of the issue, Ferrell states, “Can you imagine that just ten years in the past there were no smartphones. Twenty years ago most people did not have e-mail. It really wasn’t that long ago. But the thought of now being without it causes an innate fear, in all of us. A contraction within. This is the physical reaction to an addiction. The technology now controls us. I invented social media to bring us closer together. To help us communicate. Probably because I have never been very good at communicating myself. Most people who spend far too much time on the internet are very poor personal communicators. Irony.
“The revolutions of the Arab Spring were my messiah moment. I actually, for a moment, believed I had created the means by which mankind could throw off their oppressors, and become free. The oppressors Learned quickly, however. They could use this new medium to spy, to follow, and eventually—their masterstroke-to inform. Our lives were binary before, right and wrong seemed so linear, so easy to discern. Now, however, we are exhausted by the options assailing us. It is no longer white noise. It is a deafening crescendo. News flies by in a millisecond. Who can tell what is truth? Every moment of every day—we are besieged. By these.
“I offer you a fable for our times. A magic box sits in your pocket with all the knowledge and music and entertainment of the world contained within it. If you opened this box and looked down into it… how could you ever possibly look up again?”
This concept of the internet as addiction is nothing new, nor perhaps, is the idea that the internet is our generation’s Pandora’s Box. It is, however, a frightening thought. So too is the idea, put forth by Ferrell later in the issue, that “there are two worlds – ours and the internet. Which is the more real? You would think that it is ours. But we are subjective creatures. The correct answer? The most real world is the one we spend most of our time in.”
As we begin to spend an increasing amount of time in the unreality of the internet, Rob Williams seems to question, how does it ultimately shift not only our understanding of the fabric of reality but also our sense of morality. This is particularly poignant in the age of fake news and a president willing to wage war via twitter.
In addition to Larry Ferrell, a number of other key characters have survived until the final climax. At the beginning of the issue, however, the Deacon, a mad killer, but nevertheless one of the story’s heroes, who believes that he has a direct line to God, lays dying. That Deacon is a likable character is a testament to Rob Williams’ writing. Watching this larger than life man, who has complete faith that God is by his side, falter this close to the end, is heartbreaking. Seeing him get up and soldier on, only to fall, in a Christ-like pose, is doubly so.
In the end, a showdown between Dave, one of the characters readers have followed since the story began, and the mysterious masked Rubenstein feels like a foregone conclusion. What happens next sets up the final issue of Unfollow coming at the end of April.
Over the course of the run, Artist Mike Dowling and colorist Quinton Winter have crafted all the visuals of a classic horror comic. As strong as the story has been, the art has really set Unfollow’s tone. Dowling and Winter draw each character distinctly, but it is their depiction of Rubenstein and his death mask that is the stuff of nightmares. The sadistic smile on the mask and the long matted red hair that creeps around the mask’s exterior makes me squirm, in a good way, each time I see it.
In this issue, the most distinctive panel is a splash page of Larry Ferrell surrounded by a variety of exotic animals, several of which sit on his arms, shoulders, and head. The purpose of this scene, clearly an homage to Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals, is unclear. Perhaps this is to point out that Ferrell is Unfollow’s patron saint of the internet. Perhaps it is to show that he is at peace with his decision to destroy the world. Perhaps it is something else. The ambiguity of the image, however, makes it all the more intriguing.
Unfollow finishes up at the end of April. Of the recent Vertigo titles, this one, along with Clean Room, feels the most like the classic titles of the 90s, ironically before the internet age that Rob Williams so deftly explores in this issue and throughout the run.
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