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The Dawn of GM Humans: BOY-1 Creator HS Tak on Our Inevitable Genetic Future

A new comic book series from IDW explores humanity’s next evolutionary leap.

For the vast majority of our time on Earth, humans have been subject to the laws of natural selection like the rest of our planet's lifeforms. But recent history has yielded such a rapid-fire burst of genetic advances that it is now possible to modify, engineer, or even duplicate a human being. It's illegal as hell, mind you, but theoretically speaking, GM humans are completely conceivable.

Naturally, the theme of tampering with our genes has inspired countless modern science-fiction stories, from Bioshock to Orphan Black. But as IDW Publishing's new comic book series BOY-1 demonstrates, there is always room for fresh material about the ever-evolving world of human genetics.

Image: Zach Howard/IDW Publishing

Written by HS Tak and featuring artwork by Amancay Nahuelpan, the series is a moody rumination about identity in the age of GM humans. It launches next Wednesday, August 12, and has already been getting some preliminary buzz praising its expansive world-building and ambitious premise.

I talked to Tak about what inspired BOY-1, where he thinks genetic technology is headed in the future, and of course, the perils of opening a series with a monologue. Read on.

Motherboard: What was the germinal idea that first inspired BOY-1?

Tak: The Human Genome Project was completed back in 2003, and when I heard about it, I didn't know quite know what it was all about. Not knowing, I guess, caused me to look into it, and then learning about the global and historical significance of that achievement in science and dreaming of what could happen next. Now we have the basic molecular blueprint to create humans. So what? What happens next?

Then when you start to understand what that means—it means BOY-1 could be next. A human being better than you or I, someone not as imperfect and flawed as we are, as we see ourselves.

What kind of research did you do to flesh out the characters, world, and plot?

The whole thing is research, and that is part of writing. I talked to a few biologists and geneticists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and National Institutes of Health (NIH) and really what I took from it was that what is happening in BOY-1 is nothing compared to what those guys believe the future possibilities and outcomes can be, and that was what astonished me the most.

Here I am writing what I think is a cool ass sci-fi story exploring futurology and those guys, what they're actually working on in the lab is trumping what I can come up with in my head.

Image: Tak/Nahuelpan/IDW Publishing

The timeline of genetic research in the insets (above) was a great touch. Do you think the history of genetic engineering sheds any light on how the field might evolve in the future?

The history of genetic research and development mirrors the history of science and technological achievement in general, no matter how terrifying the intended or unintended outcome ends up for us.

In science—from what I can tell—if it can be done, it will be done, no matter the consequences. Hiroshima and Nagasaki are prime examples of that. What did we learn from the death and destruction of so many?

I think maybe we learned something, but in the end every developed or developing nation is chasing that nuclear power dream of theirs in some way. Another example is aeronautics and flight, and then we put men on the moon, and we just flew past Pluto. Genetics is no different. If one group of people don't or won't push the needle, another group of people will.

Image: Danijel Zezelj

Without giving too much of BOY-1 away, there is a theme of GM humans experiencing identity loss as a result of their "unnatural" origins. If humans were to start engineering their children, do you think there would be a psychological impact or social stigma attached to it?

At first, there will definitely be a search for identity and where one fits in. I mean, all of life is like that, you're born, this is what you're given, what you learn from, and then what you strive to do and be. It all gets wrapped up into who you are as a person. Our differences get dissected, often that's the first impression one gives to someone else—how similar or different they are to you. Going to high school I remember I had my differences dissected and I think that's what high schoolers do, right? And then either your variations are insulted or glorified, and then what do you do with those? Use them to empower you or bury you? And all that makes you, you.

So yes, if you were a genetically modified human, one of very few, you'd be a minority and you'd have to reckon it, just like the society around you would have to reckon it too. Human beings are jealous, fearful, resistant to change, but they can also be courageous, generous, rebellious. I think every man and woman seeks his place in the world. It's part of being human, modified or not.

How much of BOY-1 is currently completed? Is there a finite arc, or are you open to developing the series indefinitely?

Right now we're figuring out if the arc can be stuffed into four or five issues. It's a process with my artist Amancay, producer Jeremy, and editor Denton. We have to figure out what best serves the story. It's difficult because the future of evolution is right here at our doorstep and there's so fucking much to talk about.

The opening pages include a monologue that posits "if we can control DNA, we can control the future. We can finally have some say in who we become." Do you think that so-called "designer babies" and other human genetic modification is ultimately inevitable?

Ugh, opening with a monologue! I learned nothing from writing class! At any rate, I'm not a parent yet so kind of unqualified to answer this but from what I can tell, if you gave a parent a choice to give their kids another opportunity or way in which they will succeed, to make their memory retention greater, or body less prone to illness, or greater lung capacity for that fourth quarter ballgame, I think I know what the answer will be. I know people in New York who send kindergartners to $30,000/year kindergartens. There's nothing wrong with it. It's natural to want what's best for your family.

Image: Leila Del Duca

Then, what's your stance on the ethics of genetically engineered humans? That's kind of a huge question, but it would be great to know your general take on whether humans should be subject to DNA cloning or modification.

Look, I'd be lying if I said I wouldn't want to take my grandkids to an actual Jurassic Park one day. But ultimately it doesn't really matter what this author thinks is right or wrong about it. It's happening already in early stages and will speed up with biotech like CRISPR and rapid advancements in gene modifications like germ line gene therapy and gene splicing.

If you start moralizing science, you end up inhibiting progress and whatever comes with it, good or bad or both. If there are those that demonize and fear GM then there will be those that sympathize and push for it. That oppositional psychology is just an integral part of who we are as a species and so to me it's not a question of if, it's when. Hopefully, we won't get eaten by dinosaurs or enslaved by supermen, but if we do, it's part of our story, and our time on Earth; our evolution.