By Rob Salkowitz, Forbes
Unbridgeable political divides, creepy new technologies that stalk our every move, social media that turns everyone into balls of anxiety… If it feels like society is crumbling under an onslaught of unprecedented new pressures and no one is willing to stand up and say the emperor has no clothes, bestselling author Gregg Hurwitz has a modest proposal: break the frame.
That is the premise of NewThink, Hurwitz’s new graphic novel released today by from AWA Studios, collecting the five issue miniseries that came out earlier this year dealing with some of the weightiest issues in contemporary culture. Hurwitz — who brings a long resume of work in prose, film and TV, and front line superhero comics for Marvel, DC and others — has a lot on his mind, but carefully wraps his kernels of theory in tasty wrappings of genre fiction, then has them drawn by some of comics’ best artists.
NewThink features five standalone stories that reframe hot-button issues through science fiction, fantasy and other familiar narrative styles. “The Skreens,” drawn by veteran superhero artist Mike Deodado, explores the proliferation of mobile devices as an alien invasion yarn. “A Fair Tale,” with art by Ramon Rosanas, is a light fantasy fable about cancel culture. “Red Beak and Claw,” beautifully painted by Keron Grant, is an urban horror exploration of the impact of social media on self-image. “Nowtopia” illustrated by Mike Choi, pointedly contrasts the material abundance and technological achievements of the 21st century seen through the eyes of humans suffering through earlier moments in history, with the pettiness of our current cultural squabbles. The final chapter, “A Children’s Story,” locates the causes of our social divisions in psychological differences that naturally occur in all people, with art by Will Conrad.
Hurwitz says that he wanted to do the NewThink book after noticing that patterns of ideological indoctrination taking place in the media environment of the mid-2010s closely resembled the tactics used by cults. “I started to see trends ascendent in the political culture that felt like aspects of mind control,” he said. “The polarization struck me as alarming, and likely to lead to some bad things.”
Hurwitz became involved in politics to combat a culture of extremism that he believes exists on both sides of the political divide. “In my personal politics, I’m quite liberal,” he said, “but what I think is correct, morally and legally for America is much more centrist.”
Rather than pointing fingers at individual extremists, Hurwitz sees the real villain as the hidden interests who profit from division and hatred, by monetizing the views and clicks of a riled-up public. These social media companies have “teams of addiction specialists working with deep AI and machine learning to target exactly where your focus is and what you’ll find most salacious and upsetting, to trigger your continue reliance on it. There’s an enormous amount of money to be made driving our outrage, fear and resentments, and encouraging us to dehumanize various groups.”
Though Hurwitz’s diagnosis of the problem isn’t unique, he wanted to bring his skills as a storyteller and his academic background in psychology to bear on a solution. “I wanted to write five different stories in an attempt to give people tools to shatter that spell of what I call the hate industrial complex,” he said. “I’ve written op-ed pieces, but wanted to take on these topics in ways that are more accessible, using the power of comics, which rely so much on the visuals.”
There’s no faulting the professional execution of the project. The art choices for each story, though different, represent the kind of highly-polished work you’d see in a Marvel title rather than the less slick and commercial cartooning styles prevalent in literary graphic novels. Words and pictures work together harmoniously. This is a work by people who understand comic book storytelling, not a forced marriage between a serious author and the best available illustrator who can meet a deadline, as you can often find from prose publishers trying to cash in on the graphic novel boom.
Hurwitz said his longtime relationship with Axel Alonzo, who was Editor-in-Chief at Marvel Comics prior to launching AWA, helped bring in the right visual collaborators to realize each story in an appropriate style.
Whether NewThink succeeds on its own terms is more of a Rorschach test. These days, even the discourse around the discourse has been polarized. To many political observers, the worst crime you can commit in today’s dangerous climate is “bothsiderism:” trying to appear above the fray by giving equal weight to both sides of an argument or equally discounting extreme positions simply because they are polarized, without regard to the underlying merits.
NewThink and Hurwitz wear their bothsiderism proudly. Hurwitz believes it is essential for everyone to challenge their accepted frames, especially as they apply to positions they agree with. And cooperation across ideological boundaries is not just desirable but essential, a point he drives home in the final story.
“Every social group has conservatives and liberals, and there’s a reason for that. They’re close enough that they can handshake across the aisle, and if you have respect for both of them to cover each other’s respective blind spots. Both of them together are how any complex society can navigate complex change moving forward.”
Hurwitz acknowledges that a lot of folks with an interest in this debate are already dug into their positions. Will some imaginative storytelling and flashy artwork be enough to blast them out of their stupor? There’s only one way to find out.
NewThink by Gregg Hurwitz and various artists, is available from AWA Studios December 14, 2022.
Bold Original Stories Spanning Genres