Writer J. G. Ballard, the author of such acclaimed works as The Drowned World, The Burning World, and High Rise, challenged the narrative conventions of science fiction with his experimental writing style and his thematic focus on human psychology, societal decay, and environmental catastrophe. The most recent evidence of Ballard’s continuing cultural influence is Boom! Studio’s publication of the science fiction comic We Only Find Them When They’re Dead, by writer Al Ewing and artist Simone Di Meo. The comic, featuring a spaceship crew harvesting the dead bodies of giant humanoid space gods, is inspired by Ballard’s short story, “The Drowned Giant.”
Set in the year 2367, the first issue of We Only Find Them When They’re Dead focuses on the crew of the “autopsy ship” Vihaan II at the outer edge of the galaxy. Under the command of their captain, Georges Malik, the crew harvests resources from the body of a dead alien god. The remains of these dead gods are scarce and valuable, and the crew faces intense competition from other ships and careful scrutiny from the authorities.
In an interview with Comic Shop News, Ewing confirms that Ballard’s story — along with the cosmic-themed work of celebrated comics creator Jack Kirby — inspired the comics series: “The basic starting point owes a lot to a short story by JG Ballard, ‘The Drowned Giant,’ which stuck in my head while I was visiting an island off the coast of Scotland, far from anywhere. Visions of Ballard’s dead giant combined in my head with the unknowable Space Gods of Kirby, and that was the seed of all this.”
First published in Ballard’s 1964 short story collection The Terminal Beach, “The Drowned Giant” explores the societal impact of a dead giant, human in appearance, washing up on a beach. The story’s unidentified narrator recounts the mysterious giant’s effect on the community. Ballard eschews exploring the origins, science, or mystery of the giant, but instead focuses on the human reaction to the giant; beachgoers treat the dead giant with little respect, curiosity, or awe, instead climbing and defacing the cadaver. Eventually the giant is forgotten, its decaying remains harvested by the community as fertilizer and ornaments.
Unlike others, the story’s narrator has a keen interest in the giant; for the narrator, the giant is transcendent:
“I next visited the beach three days later. My friends at the library had returned to their work, and delegated to me the task of keeping the giant under observation and preparing a report. Perhaps they sensed my particular interest in the case, and it was certainly true that I was eager to return to the beach. There was nothing necrophilic about this, for to all intents the giant was still alive for me, indeed more alive than many of the people watching him. What I found so fascinating was partly his immense scale, the huge volumes of space occupied by his arms and legs, which seemed to confirm the identity of my own miniature limbs, but above all, the mere categorical fact of his existence. Whatever else in our lives might be open to doubt, the giant, dead or alive, existed in an absolute sense, providing a glimpse into a world of similar absolutes of which we spectators on the beach were such imperfect and puny copies.”
Ballard was a key writer of science fiction’s “New Wave,” an artistic effort in the 1960s and 70s to produce science fiction with literary sensibilities; the New Wave challenged the established tropes and conventions of pulp science fiction, and Ballard’s “The Drowned Giant” is an example of his New Wave style.
There is no action or identified protagonist in “The Drowned Giant”; the story’s singular focus on the community’s reaction to the giant is unconventional. In his introduction to The Best Short Stories of J. G. Ballard, writer Anthony Burgess opines that Ballard’s focus on the human response to the dead giant is a key element of the story’s impact: “The idea, perhaps, is nothing, but the skill lies in the exactness of the observation and the total credibility of the imagined human response to the presence of a drowned giant. Swift, in Gulliver, evaded too many physical problems, concerned as he was with a politico-satirical intention. Ballard evades nothing except the easy moral: to say that his story means this or that is to diminish it.”
In Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction, writer Brian W. Aldiss notes how unconventional Ballard’s short stories were, compared to the focus on action and adventure in contemporary pulp science fiction tales: “Ballard’s short stories are sui generis. They hinge upon inaction, their world is the world of loss and surrender, their drama the drama of a limbo beyond despair where action is irrelevant.”
Unlike “The Drowned Giant,” We Only Find Them When They’re Dead features clearly identified protagonists and focuses on their actions. Artist Di Meo, with color assists by Mariasara Miotti, renders the characters and their quarry in lush, beautiful detail. In addition to Malik, his crew — Ella and Jason Hauer, and Alice Wirth — have clearly defined responsibilities and personalities, as does the stern law enforcement officer, Paula Richter, who has an unpleasant personal history with Malik.
Similar to “The Drowned Giant,” societal and ecological themes are explored in the comic. Malik recalls the history of the dead space gods, how their appearance in his grandfather’s lifetime provided economic and material benefits just as humanity had mined out all the asteroids. Regarding harvest claims, large corporations seem to have more legal benefits than the smaller prospectors. A thriving black market for the harvested materials exists and pays better than fixed government pricing, and Malik is very much aware that his crew’s comments are monitored by the authorities.
Ballard imagined an uncurious culture harvesting a dead giant’s body for resources, and Malik’s culture does the same. But unlike the beachgoers in “The Drowned Giant,” Malik has a reverence for the dead alien bodies he harvests. Di Meo’s artwork depicts the dissection of a dead god in keen detail, and when Alice comments on the beauty of the process, Malik remarks that it isn’t beautiful, but could be, an indication of the captain’s grand ambition to find a living god.
Ballard’s “The Drowned Giant” is a fitting inspiration for We Only Find Them When They’re Dead; both are thought-provoking imaginative works that explore, in a compelling fashion, the societal implications of humanity’s contact with the fantastic.
NOTES AND FURTHER READING:
We Only Find Them When They’re Dead #1 (written by Al Ewing; art by Simone Di Meo; color assists by Mariasara Miotti; letters by AndWorld Design, Los Angeles: Boom! Studios, September 2020)[The comic may be purchased online or available at your local comic shop.]
“Cutting-Edge Science Fiction” (Cliff Biggers, Comic Shop News # 1723, August 2020)
“Four Stories: ‘The Drowned Giant’ by J. G. Ballard” (Christopher Burke, Weird Fiction Review, November 5, 2014)
The Best Short Stories of J. G. Ballard (J. G. Ballard, New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1995)
Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction (Brian W. Aldiss, with David Wingrove, New York: Avon Books, 1988)
Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (edited by Robert Holdstock, London: Octopus Books, 1978; printed in USA by H. Hoen & Co. Lithographers, Baltimore, Maryland)
“Remembering J. G. Ballard’s Science Fiction Legacy” (Alasdair Wilkins, io9.gizmodo.com, April 21, 2009)
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