What can you do with 140 characters?
It's a question that haunts us our everyday lives in a way that didn't even exist a decade ago. I can be sitting in my apartment in Washington, DC, and cracking jokes with West Coast strangers whose voices I've never heard, the magic of Twitter closing the thousands of miles between us, and the gulf between their lives and mine. This magic is the foundation of Unfollow, a new comic from writer Rob Williams and artist Mike Dowling that twists the ideas of social media and connection into something more wicked.
A very old, very rich man is dying and planning to split his $17 billion inheritance among, you guessed it, 140 actual characters (read: people instead of letters and symbols) selected by a social media app. The math works out to $120 million each; the catch is that all 140 people have to fly to the Bahamas for week-long "vacation" — one that threatens to devolve into the Hunger Games because killing one of the other 139 people increases the killer's inheritance. The dying benefactor wants to show the world the truth of human nature.
The story definitely has a Hunger Games/Battle Royale/The Most Dangerous Game/Charlie and the Chocolate Factory feel, but it also leans into the social media angle, which separates it from its predecessors. Williams and Dowling cleverly reveal how many followers each of these 140 people has and detail their social media personas, calling attention to the way we communicate and interact with one another online.
Dowling's artwork is purposely harsh, loose in parts. This isn't a glossy world full of superheroes; it inspires a feeling of looming, inevitable dread. His visual style makes even the good guys — though I'm not quite sure who they are yet — seem a bit untrustworthy, while the evil ones feel more shadowy, more fearsome. The tension in this book is great — there's always a feeling that treachery is on the next page.
But with that said, there are a few areas where the comic could improve.
While Unfollow's premise is compelling, there are times when it appears to forget its core theme of exploring how people maintain social media identities that often differ from the ones they inhabit in real life. We see how money and the dying billionaire's contest completely alter the characters' personal lives, but we don't really see what everyone is projecting out to the world. The comic's second issue pays more attention to the divide between what you let other people see on social media versus what you don't, but the idea, while very promising, still feels somewhat undercooked.
We also don't see the effect of the contest on the general population; because Unfollow only deals with the actions and reactions of the 140 people chosen to vie for the money, we don't know whether those who are simply following the event online despise or envy or aren't even bothered by what's going on. The world wouldn't stand still while this happened, yet it does in Unfollow. And perhaps we'll eventually get to that point.
For a comic that wants to be about the ills and beauty of social media, it still thinks about human interaction in very traditional ways. The way we communicate in the age of social media is completely different from how we communicated five, ten, or 15 years ago. The sooner Unfollow can figure out what it wants to say about social media, instead of just treating it as a gimmick (and it doesn't seem to want to treat such crucial component of the story as a gimmick), the quicker it turns from a good comic into a great one.