In early science fiction, a lot of stories were part of a dialogue about the morality of men and their flaws. In many stories of this sort, the authors condemn mankind’s faults in their themes and plot. This trend was due mainly to the fact that a lot of sci-fi really started to gain popularity during the Cold War. The alien from The Day The Earth Stood Still came to Earth to spread a warning about the dangers the nuclear arms race, not only because of the threat to mankind, but also because other alien species thought lowly of mankind for it. Arthur C. Clarke’s If I Forget Thee, O Earth is about a child who is taken for a ride across the Moon’s surface by his father to view the bombed out remnants of Earth. In those days, science was seen as a tool for good that had been harnessed for evil.
Science became less of a savior and more of a menace later on, as we can see in films like Terminator, Gattaca and–well, I can’t remember the last movie I saw where science actually saved civilization rather than messing it up, but games like Deus Ex and books like Robert Marlowe’s Nano end on positive notes for science. My memory is probably just rotting away, no big deal.
The Last Mortician, written by Tim Hall and illustrated by Dean Haspiel, is a speculative work in this tradition, in which we follow in the footsteps of a man named Ben who used to run a funeral service. That whole business went down the drain after immortality was created, but as we see from the first panel it seems he may have one last job to do.
You would think such an invention would invite utopia, but this is not a very happy world. There’s still war, and in the debate over the ethics of immortality, the anti-immortality crowd seems angry while the defenders of immortality seem resigned and emotionless. In essence, it appears that the lack of death has made life dull and miserable. The laypeople who gleefully talk of extending their lives come off as happy idiots at best, excited only because they are scared of death, and ignorant of what it means to truly live.
The story is only 16 pages long, so the above paragraph probably gave away a full two-thirds of the story. But the main point of the writing is to define the debate between the pro-immortality and anti-immortality crowd through voiceover and debate, while Ben recounts his life and the misery wrought upon it by fate. While the talking heads on TV debate the global implications of immortality, Ben’s narrative shows us the personal impact it had on him, his love life and his job.
To be honest I had to re-read it a couple of times to fully understand what was going on. I’m not sure if it’s because I’m dense or if it is objectively confusing. Upon first read, though, the emotional impact of the story still got to me with a stinging slap to the face–once I made sense of it all, that feeling amplified to a sharp jab in the ribs. I’ve never heard of Tim Hall before but I know now that he is very skilled at grabbing you by the brain stem and making your sad glands sweat. Just the first three words on the first page are layered in meaning, and after that he takes you on a ride through many different opinions on death and life in a very short span. Being able to convey a lot of information in such limited space is not easy, but I think Hall is excellent with an economy of words.
Haspiel, for his part, is a fantastic artist. His use of monochrome colors to portray past events and mood works well, and his characters are drawn with great detail. Ben looks like a monster out of a horror film due to his atrophying body, and the body language of his characters speaks even louder than the words sometimes.
Every single panel is designed to convey and evoke emotion. From the flipped chessboards to the sleeping pills, the haughty grimaces to the pained expressions, Haspiel’s work is all about sadness. I think he does an admirable job at it, and like Hall, he is very good at conveying a wealth of information with a limited page count.
With the art and writing working so gracefully in tandem, 16 pages is more than enough for this tale to play out and make you read it again and again. But wait, why would you want to read something this depressing? Well for one thing, it’s cerebral, it’s fascinating, it’s a great piece of science fiction and it’s a very human tale. Now if you’ll excuse me, I am going to write a petition in favor of getting these guys a Hugo Award, then cry for seventy-two hours.
TL;DR: The Last Mortician is an emotionally provocative work about one of man’s oldest questions concerning death, and it is an excellent addition to the science fiction genre.