Eric Stephenson is perhaps best known these days as the publisher of Image Comics, but as Nowhere Men showed, he’s also a damn good writer. They’re Not Like Us is Stephenson’s new collaboration with talented artist Simon Gane, who you may know from The Vinyl Underground. Meanwhile Jordie Bellaire provides colours and Fonografiks handles the lettering, two more people who are known for fantastic work.
They’re Not Like Us volume 1 follows a young girl who has struggled her whole life, saddled with the unwanted ability to unintentionally hear people’s thoughts. After being dismissed and failed by doctors and family members, she finds herself at her lowest point before being inducted into a small secretive group of similarly powered individuals. Finally told that she isn’t sick, and is in fact gifted with an extraordinary ability, she at last feels like she belongs somewhere. If that was all there was to They’re Not Like Us, then this volume would be a perfectly enjoyable read, but the series is so much more than this simple premise.
It would be very lazy to sit back and call They’re Not Like Us a modern day story about super powered outcasts. In actuality this volume is about the dichotomy that exists between the privileged and the vulnerable in our society. It’s also about being young and angry at a cold and unfeeling society. It may be told using such characters who can read minds or control fire, but don’t be fooled, this is a wickedly intelligent comic book that’s about much more than super powers.
Early into the volume it’s established that this group of super powered folk are not super heroes in any sense of the word. When explaining why the group are so flippant about hurting people who they deem as dangerous to them, one message is clear: Life isn’t fair.
I was left with a grim sense of agreement with this message. No, life isn’t fair and a lot of people suffer because of it. People are often cruel, racist, sexist, transphobic, homophobic etc. Being different in our society is dangerous. They’re Not Like Us is a story of people who are different and decide that, since they now have the power to do so, they’re going to live well. Sometimes that means “normal” people are going to get hurt.
Meanwhile the comic also deals with anger at the world’s apathy, how the casual disinterest of the masses works to help the more monstrous people in society. It’s a topic that’s easy to relate to. People are of course often apathetic to causes that don’t directly affect them. The poor are getting poorer and suffering while the media demonises them, wealthy folks accept this lazy excuse because it means they don’t have to do anything, their problems can be blamed on those who can’t talk back. Transgender people are committing suicide at an alarming rate because of a frighteningly hostile society with endless ridicule, yet most people don’t do much to make society a better place for them. Disabled people are likewise consistently being made out to be a drain on society as the government slash funding that helps keep people alive. Today’s world is a dark, miserable place and They’re Not Like Us uses its story demonstrate the frustration at seeing so much corruption and cruelty.
Although the frustration of the characters is easy to relate to, these characters are also complicated and flawed. Watching them violently attack horrible people, who would otherwise get away with it, is guiltily satisfying but also uncomfortable. These aren’t super heroes punching out muggers, these are anti-heroes at best dishing out brutal physical attacks. They’re presented in a manner where you’re forced to question the morality of their actions. As the volume continues and we learn more, it becomes clear not everyone is on the same page.
Gane’s nonconventional artwork is a great fit for this story with both finely detailed characters and scenery. Even the protagonist’s bed looks extra comfy with wrinkled blankets and frilled pillows piled up, the extra details brings more clutter and life to the world. Expressions also deliver a lot of emotion thanks to tightly drawn details, a slight smirk or grimace of disgust bring heaps of emotion to scenes and helps flesh out the characters even more so. Meanwhile Bellaire’s colours are wonderfully diverse with moody blues at night and soft warm browns in relaxed daytime scenes, everything matches the tone of the book perfectly.
Anther theme the comic deals with is the topic of parents, especially in relation to “actual” parents vs. adopted parental figures. There are references to birth parents rejecting their children when they find out they’re different, or foster parents shunning adopted children and sending them away. Again, this draws very direct parallels to queer, disabled and mentally ill people, vulnerable youths who are often at risk of being shunned by uncaring families. Thus the comic explores the idea of communal families formed by peers and those united by their differences and rejection in mainstream society, something historically seen in queer history and especially seen now amongst many vulnerable groups via the internet.
These allusions become stronger deeper into the story, as it becomes increasingly clear the characters in They’re Not Like Us aren’t necessarily people who are using their gifts to live a better life because they want to, they’re also people who can’t have any other life because they’ve faced rejection elsewhere. The characters can come across as morally dubious but they’re also victims of a society that hates them. It certainly reminded me of people who’ve been forced into bad situations, because who they are has left them with very little options in our society. This paints the entire cast as much more complicated individuals, as the comic goes on you’re constantly questioning who are protagonists, antagonists, or something else in between.
Overall volume 1 of They’re Not Like Us is fantastic. It’s a very thoughtful read with a brutally honest take on the muddy morality of our society and the way the vulnerable are treated by the privileged. Yet if that sounds too heavy for you, this is still a very enjoyable story about a secret sect of super powered individuals who are quietly rebelling. Altogether this comic is as deep as you want it to be, but it’d be a shame for you pick this up without sparing a thought for what it’s really saying beneath the surface. Either way, you should read it.