What does it mean to be human? To be self aware? To have a sense of self?
If you think it’s too heavy a topic for anything but a deep dive into French philosophy, think again; Self/Made: An Inciting Incident by Australian writer Mat Groom with art by Marcelo Costa & Eduardo Ferigato asks some very big, enticingly presented questions throughout its compellingly-thoughtful, action-filled narrative.
Centered in the world of gaming, it begins in what looks a standard multiplayer game in a fantasy setting where rapacious raiders are squaring off a peaceful kingdom defended by a battalion of elite troops, one of whom is the graphic novel’s protagonist, warrior Amala Citlali.
It is obvious to her fellow fighters that she has an awareness and bravery beyond their own, but she is reluctant to speak beyond her place, all too aware of her place in the grand standing of things.
That sense of restriction, of being convinced she has no other place in the world than the one she currently occupies, is blown to smithereens, pretty much literally, when she discovers the life she has always known is based on a lie.
She is a player in a state-of-the-art video game, a stunning revelation that she struggles to take in at first, as anyone in her position would, before embarking on a worlds-spanning odyssey that takes through various permutations of her home, futuristic science fiction settings, our reality, and hitherto unknown places that call into question pretty much everything Amala and so many other people have ever accepted as truth.
As adventures it’s audaciously, breathtakingly brilliant and fantastically imaginative, an exploration of what it means to be a person but particularly to be Amala, who must ask herself who she is once she discovers she is far more than some gamer-directed pixels.
How would any of us cope with finding out our reality was a fabrication, the plaything of a creator who set out to distill the very essence of humanity into one of her characters and succeeded far beyond her expectations?
It’s an intriguing question, and one that Self/Made: An Inciting Incident executes on in impressive form, serving up a compelling action thriller suffused with big existential questions and a willingness to stretch our ideas of what it means to be human.
There is, as you might expect, from a story that pushes the pedal to the medal, a great deal of thoughtful stretching going on.
Especially when Amala meets her literal maker, Rebecca, who is a games-creating perfectionist dedicated to realising the perfect distillation of humanity in her creations, and has to grapple with the fact that her fate rests almost solely in hew newly-realised she’s sentient hands.
That’d be a challenge even if she was in her original home environment but she is instead moving from world to world and body to body, with little to no warning and on the mother of all existential learning curves.
It helps that she is a consummate warrior and a fiercely-intelligent woman who is more than willing to do what needs to be done when the chips are well and truly down – the difference between the Amala at the start of the story and the Amala of the climax is truly something to behold – but she is vulnerable too, someone who is able to admit she needs help and can’t do it by herself.
It’s a gloriously empowering and yet grounded mix of characterisation that works brilliantly in its reality-bending context, which bursts alive with vivacity thanks to the gorgeously-coloured artwork which arrestingly reflects the markedly differing environments in which the propulsively-affecting narrative takes place.
Self/Made: An Inciting Incident benefits greatly from a near-perfect execution on a staggeringly expansive premise, one in which there are so many differences and changes from world to world that the propensity for things to go wrong is considerable.
But Groom puts nary a foot wrong, delivering solidly on each of the vastly-different worlds and keeping Amala a compelling character throughout, helped by Costa and Ferigato, which is important since she is the one consistent element in a narrative that morphs and mutates between and often within each of the chapters, and the one with whom we most identify.
Amala is the hero of our times, someone who tackles the big, thorny questions of existence in a way that few of us have to worry about, and who emerges at the end changed in a way that leave you marvelling at the transformative power of her journey.