Social media has a way of holding us tight once it’s pulled us in. No matter how much we hate it, it’s hard to let go, partly because abandoning it often means losing access to friends and family, making its enticements at once blackmail and bribe.
A similar problem operates in the background of the ongoing comic book series Unfollow, the first collected volume of which, 140 Characters, is now available. As the story begins, the terminally ill Larry Ferrell, creator of the fictional social network Headspace, summons 140 individuals—a supposedly randomly selected group—to his private island, where he informs them that he’ll be dividing his massive fortune between them. But he also imposes a condition somewhere between a tontine and a dead pool: Each time one of them dies, his or her wealth will be divided up between the survivors. All you have to do to become a billionaire, he tells them, is kill 130-odd strangers.
Though chaos quickly ensues, the series—written by Rob Williams and drawn by Mike Dowling—remains focused on its eccentric cast, each of whom seems troubled in one way or another. There’s Courtney, a spoiled heiress with a death wish; Akira, a Japanese novelist who once hacked off his legs with a katana; and Deacon, a special forces operative who holds private conversations with God and carries an impressive arsenal of firearms. They’re joined by plenty of others, including the streetwise Dave, who’s being stalked by a talking leopard that he may or may not be hallucinating.
It would be easy to dismiss the book’s social media components—especially that too clever title of the series’ first volume, a reference to Twitter’s famous character limit—as so much window dressing. In practice, however, that context is essential to Williams and Dowling’s world-making—and to the way they introduce their diverse cast. The messages the protagonists are posting to their online profiles occasionally pop up in panels, giving us a sense of the ways they’re presenting themselves to the world, and in the process helping us to better understand what each of them is hiding. Meanwhile, we see their follower counts swell as their notoriety grows, providing a constant reminder that their small actions have global consequences. It’s a clever use of the medium’s collapse of word and image, further texturing the book’s richly colored pages.
Strikingly, though, these posts exist in relative isolation: Though we sometimes get the sense that our characters are responding to messages from others, we never glimpse those larger conversations. In that sense, Unfollow may be best understood as a story about the ways that technologies of connection beget disconnection. It’s no accident that Ferrell’s death inspires much of what follows: In his absence, those he’s gathered together—both through his social media platform and his Mephistophelian will and testament—are forced to confront the ways he’s long been pulling them apart and playing them against one another.
No matter how much of themselves they present online, Unfollow’s characters can’t seem to penetrate the inner worlds of their fellows. Indeed, the closer they get to one another, the stranger those around them seem. We’ll likely get to know them much better as the series continues, but if they’re truly going to befriend one another, it’ll only be by breaking free from the puzzle box that Ferrell has forced them into.
Thanks to its more surreal elements, Unfollow also has mysteries on offer. Some of those details—especially Dave’s leopard—might be explained as products of incipient insanity: As in an H.P. Lovecraft story, everyone here seems primed to snap, assuming they haven’t already. The series foregrounds madness in a way that suggests social media somehow brings mental illness to the fore—whether or not it’s actually contributing to our instability. In this regard, this first book is sometimes troubling. Though it features frank portrayals of depression and other states, its approach to mental illness sometimes feels glib. That will, one hopes, change, as the series continues to unpack its characters and their backstories.
For now, at least, the first volume’s most intriguing enigmas are those that are harder to explain. Given the name of Ferrell’s company—Headspace—it seems entirely possible that this will all turn out to be unfolding some sort of Matrix-like virtual world. If that’s the case, Unfollow will likely grow into a very different sort of story. For now, at least, it’s a promising take on the already post-apocalyptic landscape of our socially mediated world.