Doktor Sleepless isn’t quite a new comic—it started its run in 2008, but has only managed to span enough issues for one trade collection so far. (I blame Warren Ellis’s huge spate of other projects, films, books, etc.) All the same, I’m rather fond of it, and I hope it goes somewhere one day. I even have a shirt with the grinder-gears symbol on it that says “Science Bitch.”
For fans of Transmetropolitan, Doktor Sleepless will strike a similar chord: it’s about a maddened future and a lead character who has more than a few screws loose. The difference is in the worldbuilding: the world of Doktor Sleepless is much less positive than the world of Transmetropolitan. It’s not a dystopia, per say, but the characters are much less hopeful, the message is questionable, and the relationships are all strained to the point of breaking.
If you’re looking for something like Spider and his Filthy Assistants and their combative rudeness and hilarity—you won’t find that here. Instead, you get something that strikes closer to home for our attitude toward our own future.
There are a lot of thematic statements floating around in Doktor Sleepless, but perhaps the most intriguing is the one contained on the first page, as we enter the world of the comic.
“Today I stop being real. … People like listening to characters. Characters are safe, because they’re not real. So today I become a character. … But Doktor Sleepless, he’s something else entirely. Who’s afraid of a cartoon mad scientist? Who’s afraid of Doktor Sleepless?”
This adoption of another self, a purer character instead of a real person, strikes me as an allegory in some ways for what we become in today’s technological storm. On the internet, are you really you, or are you a character of “you”? We have pen names, screen names, handles, tags—and each of them might be different, signify a different character we play. Some are closer to their real selves than others. I like to think I’m pretty honest about myself here on the web, but I’m the character of Brit Mandelo: in real life I curse a lot more, for one thing. In real life, I have problems and trials and some head-conditions. All of the parts of this person I am, speaking to you right now, are real parts of me. It’s just that some of them are at the forefront and others are pushed back, much like Johnny does. With the goggles on, after all, you can’t see that he hasn’t slept and that he’s hurting and angry and depressed.
I’m no mad scientist, but I can see his point. People listen to you when you sound like you know things, or if you entertain them.
It’s difficult to separate what parts of the narrative—well, all of the narrative, since that’s the first page—are Johnny and what he genuinely plans to do, and what parts are his character of Doktor Sleepless, who is aiming for the death of all humanity. The catch is that it’s for a pretty damned good reason: it’s oversimplifying, but let’s just say, Lovecraftian horrors from beyond spacetime. They eat people, including his parents. He tells Sing at the end of the first volume that his plan to get revenge on those Things is to kill their food source: people.
It’s weirdly admirable, but completely fucking insane. Which is what makes me question if it’s the Real Plan or not, because the other part of the story is about the selfish entitlement of the popular culture.
The graffiti tags we’re shown in the early comic say things like “Where’s my fucking jet pack?” and “You owe me a flying car.” In this universe, we’ve invented a plethora of strange and beautiful technologies to alter ourselves, communicate, create—but everyone’s mad they don’t have a jet pack. They don’t appreciate how lucky, how privileged, they are. They aren’t grateful for the things they have every day that people dreamed about for decades, that other people will never have or never be able to afford. And Doktor Sleepless has decided that if they can’t enjoy this future, since it wasn’t the one they were promised, they don’t deserve to have it at all.
That definitely reminds me of the world I’m living in right now. Ellis himself explains “what it’s about” in a short, pointed blog entry here. He says it best. “Someone stole your future. Don’t you ever wonder who?”
Doktor Sleepless has a slow production schedule, but it’s worth reading because of those things, and others—it’s perhaps one of the most cogent things Ellis has ever written, and also one of the darkest, and I’m including Scars in that tally. Doktor Sleepless is depressing, and terrible, and a bit heartbreaking. It’s even got a bit of a mystery plot going on in there to guide the themes and ideas. (Not to mention a crazed interactive meta element, but we won’t get into that right now.)
Aside from that, the art is gorgeous and luscious. It’s an ugly world, but Ivan Rodriquez makes it beautiful to behold.
So, if you’re feeling like something serious, check out Doktor Sleepless. The first trade is available from Avatar Press, the second hasn’t been given a date yet, but the single issues are still being released. Check it out.