HBO’s Westworld debuted this week, adding a firmly sci-fi entry to the network’s stable of big-budget, buzz-worthy genre shows. Based on the same-titled 1973 film (written and directed by Michael Crichton!), the series gives a somewhat hokey SF premise—robot rampage at a futuristic theme park!—a cutting-edge upgrade.
In the future (?), Westworld’s wealthy guests indulge their darkest desires in an immersive Old West-themed town populated by realistic synthetic androids. These “Hosts” provide a realistic experience for guests, who are encouraged to live out their fantasies: you can be a lawman, or a bandit, or spend your entire trip in the brothel. The Hosts can’t harm you, and you can do absolutely anything you want to them.
After one episode, it’s hard to make too many predictions about the course of the story, but the Hosts, who may or may not be developing some level of sentience, seem to be stand-ins for any number of marginalized peoples throughout history. They’re not human, after all, and therefore are easily abused. Or maybe they are just really fancy robots. The show raises interesting questions, and in pondering them, we came up with six comics that consider similar themes. Here is a stack of books to read while you wait for the next episode.
East of West, by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta
A western-style tale set in a dystopian future? East of West, at least on paper, probably comes closest to Westworld’s distinctive blending of genres. In an alternate United States ravaged by a Civil War that went on for decades longer than our own, expanding into a fight between distinct warring factions, the Seven Nations of America uneasily coexist, squabbling over increasingly scarce resources while trying to avoid open conflict. At least until the four horsemen of the apocalypse arrive to usher in the end of days. The premise sounds convoluted, but only because of writer Jonathan Hickman’s utter refusal to be bound by convention. With help from Nick Dragotta’s stunning, detailed art, it’s one of the best westerns out there, even if it is set in a weird alternate future.
Vision, by Tom King and Gabriel Hernandez Walta
A little closer to home, King and Walta’s Vision is telling a deeply unsettling story about one of Marvel’s preeminent superheroes. The Vision is a synthezoid, a sentient android designed to mimic humanity. Sound familiar? In this limited-run book, he’s used his own brain waves to create a family for himself in a desire to live something like a normal life. It doesn’t work out that way at all, sadly; his family’s budding, but limited, sense of humanity encountering fear and misunderstanding from the outside world. It all begins with an unplanned murder and resulting coverup, and goes downhill from there. It’s hard to foresee the directions in which the android Hosts of Westworld will go, but I’ll be shocked if there aren’t a few similarly dark turns.
The Fade Out, by Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips, and Elizabeth Breitweiser
While Westworld defies genre conventions in many respects, it does display strong noir sensibilities, including a pervasive moral ambiguity, despite a few strongly sympathetic characters—I’d be hard pressed to pick out the good guys from the bad, and there’s at least one budding femme fatale in Thandie Newton’s unflappable brothel madam—and an impending sense of doom. The Fade Out is the story of Charlie Parish, a Hollywood screenwriter in the blacklist era who wakes up next to the body of a murdered starlet and must solve her murder and exonerate himself. It’s a brilliant distillation of noir sensibilities into graphic novel form, and, lest it seem like a stretch to compare it to HBO’s high-concept sci-fi series, the author Ed Brubaker is also a writer and supervising producer on the show in question.
Copperhead, by Jay Faerber, Ron Riley, and Scott Godlewski
Sci-fi has long characterized space as the new frontier, much the same way we viewed the American west during the 19th century. It makes sense: one day, perhaps, we’ll head out into space, and intrepid pioneers will colonize worlds beyond our solar system, where they’ll live in desolate conditions and harsh environments, with only their adventurous spirits and a desire for new lives and new fortunes driving them onward. Copperhead is the latest work in that proud sci-fi tradition, set in a dingy mining colony on a backwater world. A massacre is in the offing, but there’s a new sheriff in town: Clara Bronson, tough-as-nails, and with plenty of secrets of her own. For fans of the “western” part of Westworld.
The Surrogates, by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele
Though we have yet to see much of the world outside of the Westworld theme park, there’s the sense that things are going pretty well, for the wealthy anyway. Genre fans might already suspect there’s more to the story. Science fiction is full of examples of technology that looks good on paper, providing convenience or pleasure to those who can afford it, until things take a darker turn. Venditti and Weldele’s book is set in the year 2054, when cybernetics and virtual reality have come so far as to allow people to live their lives via surrogate machines, never needing to leave their homes. A techno-terrorist throws society into chaos, no difficult task when no one wants to go outside.
The Sixth Gun, by Cullen Bunn and Brian Hurtt
There’s a beloved subgenre in graphic storytelling: the weird western. Back in the day, westerns were huge on TV and in cinemas; adding in the supernatural element was a perfect way to marry the popular tropes of westerns with pulpy comic storytelling (DC’s Jonah Hex is the most prominent modern survivor of the era). The Sixth Gun takes place during the Civil War, incorporating little that we’d think of as science fiction. What it does offer are six pistols of unnatural power, all but one of them lost. The last, and most dangerous, winds up in the hands of a young girl who soon finds herself hunted. Rebecca Moncrief is a young innocent in a world full of bad or indifferent people, not unlike Evan Rachel Wood’s newly awakened android Dolores Abernathy in Westworld.
What Westworld readalikes would you suggest?