My personal heroes are the people who speak for the trees. Those real-world Loraxes who advocate for the well-being of plants, animals, and ecosystems that cannot speak for themselves. It is not only because I believe that all living creatures deserve our respect and protection. It is also because environmental justice has direct implications for the well-being of humans. Environmental justice is social justice. For instance, pollution disproportionately affects people of color and people living in poverty. Consequently, addressing environmental issues will help us address other inequalities. Eventually, of course, environmental damage affects us all. As PLANET EARTH narrator David Attenborough articulates,

“We are at a unique stage in our history. Never before have we had such an awareness of what we are doing to the planet, and never before have we had the power to do something about that. Surely we all have a responsibility to care for our Blue Planet. The future of humanity and indeed, all life on earth, now depends on us.”

At ComicsVerse, we examine social justice issues through comics. For example, Vertigo’s Y: THE LAST MAN takes on a posthuman apocalyptic narrative, imagining life in a world without men. Other works take a more direct approach to the topic of human-caused environmental destruction. These include Rachel Hope Allison’s I AM NOT A PLASTIC BAG, Philippe Squarzoni’s CLIMATE CHANGED, and the Nozone zine FORECAST. Recently, two comics have stood out as additions to these environmentally engaged works: Ann Nocenti and David Aja’s comic THE SEEDS and Dougal Dixon’s re-released AFTER MAN: A ZOOLOGY OF THE FUTURE.

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Posthumanism: Decentering Humanity

Earlier this month, Nocenti and Aja debuted the first issue of their four-part sci-fi thriller. THE SEEDS #1 introduces us to a dying planet divided in two zones: a tech-free zone and a tech-filled zone.  Nocenti’s protagonist discovers an alien charged with studying the endangered human species. Throughout the comic, Nocenti hints at environmental jeopardy.

AFTER MAN, originally published in 1981, imitates field guides like John James Audubon’s Birds of America. However, instead of documenting real species, Dixon imagines creatures that will evolve 50 million years after human extinction. Dixon specifically leaves out the issue of climate change in order to create a recognizable landscape. If he’d accounted for climate change, the planet would be completely inhospitable to his myriad creatures. Nevertheless, he demonstrates a thorough, if imaginative, understanding of evolution.

Posthumanist Connection

It may seem strange to connect THE SEEDS with AFTER MAN. The dark sci-fi comic clashes with the relatively whimsical field guide. However, both graphic narratives exemplify the possibilities of posthumanism as an ecologically engaged framework. Posthumanism interrogates the relationship between humans and animals, as well as humans and technology. In particular, it asks what happens to the human when technological advancements carry our species beyond recognition or to extinction. Moreover, posthumanism is interested in taking the focus away from humanity as the be all and end all authority.

However, the comics approach posthumanism in different ways. THE SEEDS features clashes between technology and nature, as well as humans and non-human aliens. AFTER MAN is a literal and hopeful look at the world post-human. THE SEEDS is mildly threatening, offering a more critical stance on how humanity’s behavior has affected the planet. AFTER MAN gives readers a morbid sort of hope for the planet for when humans go extinct.

THE SEEDS: Colony Collapse

Although only THE SEEDS #1 is currently available, it sets up a fascinating conflict between humanity and its own environment. The central plot focuses on the protagonist, a young journalist hard at work on a clickbait story for their publisher. But the rest of the comic includes carefully placed details suggesting the world is not well. For example, in one frame, a pixilated bee is graffitied on a wall with the words “Game Over.” The bee reminds readers of the dangers climate change poses to bee populations, which are crucial pollinators. The existential fear of colony collapse reflects the theme of Nocenti’s text. Namely, human society is on the verge of collapse as well.

THE SEEDS #1
Image courtesy of Dark Horse Comics.

Indeed, the bee motif fills THE SEEDS from cover to cover. Not only is the tech-free zone called “B Zone,” but chainlink fences and other patterns constantly evoke a beehive design. Pollination, of plants, of ideas, or even of humanity, is critical for evolutionary success. However, Nocenti’s comic suggests that environmental pollution has caused problems with all kinds of successful reproduction.

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Alien Invasion?

Both Nocenti and Aja add another posthuman element: aliens. THE SEEDS #1 does not provide many answers about Earth’s visitors. However, thematically, the not-quite-human creatures help Nocenti move the focus from humans once again. Viewing the human species from the eyes of a non-human other allows readers to think of humans as a species that lives alongside others despite the environmental devastation we have caused.

Additionally, as the aliens arrive, readers might start to wonder about the ways humans have explored and conquered different environments. By crafting another creature’s perspective of Earth, THE SEEDS hints at many ethical questions about humanity’s interactions with other species.

THE SEEDS #1
Image courtesy of Dark Horse.

Nocenti and Aja’s aliens can be viewed in another light as well. Recalling the comic’s title, which emphasizes plant reproduction, the arrival of aliens on Earth parallels the ways humans introduce plants to new environments. When these plants (or sometimes animals) overtake an area, we often call them “invasive species.” Such a term removes blame from the human who introduces the species to an area and places that blame on the species itself. Similarly, the aliens’ arrival on Earth makes us question what is “invasive” and what is “native” to an area. Hopefully future issues of THE SEEDS will explore additional ways characters can transgress borders both rhetorically and physically.

AFTER MAN: Natural Selection

While it may not be a remedy for the existential dread readers experience with comics like THE SEEDS, AFTER MAN is much less drastic. Indeed, as Dixon writes in the updated author’s note, AFTER MAN “was a glorification and exultation of life itself.” Instead of focusing on the threat to life on Earth, Dixon celebrates resilience. In AFTER MAN, Dixon details a vast array of new species. Dixon’s creatures range from wild to cute to freakish and everything in between. The zoology includes small annotations, diagrams, and dramatic scenes. All the while, Dixon’s artwork is in awe of biodiversity.

AFTER MAN
Image courtesy of Breakdown Press.

As Dixon experiments with different behaviors and physical characteristics, AFTER MAN points out that Earth does not need humans. In fact, Dixon’s fantastical menagerie reminds readers that humans are part of the ecosystem like everything else. Ultimately, we will go extinct and make room for other creatures too.

Importantly, by giving readers a glimpse of his imaginary beasts, Dixon helps readers reconnect with the wonderful animals we live with. Although the Redstilt, the Flooer, and the Night Stalker are completely imaginary, readers may think of tigers, bats, or monkeys when they see Dixon’s art. Ultimately, instead of making readers fear human extinction, AFTER MAN finds joy in biodiversity. As a result, readers might feel more curious about the natural world around them.

AFTER MAN
Image courtesy of Breakdown Press.

What Can We Learn from THE SEEDS and AFTER MAN?

These two graphic narratives present radically different posthuman visions of the future. While Nocenti and Aja’s work is apocalyptic and threatening, Dixon lets readers enjoy an imaginary future and reconnect with non-human animals. Importantly, both comics demand that readers engage with a difficult question: how can we help protect the planet we call home for future generations of people and other living creatures? Or, as renowned primatologist and environmentalist Jane Goodall puts it,

“Here we are, the most clever species ever to have lived. So how is it we can destroy the only planet we have?”

Comics often engage subjects that are not easy to talk about. Some environmentally engaged art runs the risk of alienating audiences or letting them feel hopeless. However, THE SEEDS and AFTER MAN help readers refocus. THE SEEDS details a complex story in which environmental concerns are a real threat. AFTER MAN finds a way to celebrate life on earth by giving space to the non-human. Both challenge readers to re-engage with our environments.

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