Trouble in the Mines of Titan

A graphic novel by François Vigneault ’13 imagines a future beset with new forms of oppression on the moons of Saturn.

By Josh Cox ’18 | September 23, 2020

The air is thick with anger and heavy with heat. Protestors are rallying, dissenting with their voices and signs. The chants, sprinkled with insults, make it hard to hear the bullhorn-bolstered commands of the enforcers on the other side of the gathering. The officers are armed and anxious. They say the assembly is unlawful. They tell the protestors to fall back. They say it is the final warning.

Though this sounds like it could be a description of downtown Portland in the summer of 2020, it is in fact a scene from Titan, a graphic novel created by François Vigneault ’13.

Saturn’s eponymous moon has been turned into a mining colony. João da Silva is sent to the Homestead Station plant with orders to bring it back up to speed. Recently, productivity and profits have dropped, and if João can’t reverse this trend, all the employees will lose their jobs. This would be an issue anywhere, but it is a much bigger problem on Titan, where 50,000 of the workers are genetically engineered giants, named after the moon itself. These Titans are the descendants of colonists who were genetically modified to work in the planet’s low-gravity environment. And while their size makes them intimidating, they are treated as second-class citizens by the nonmodified humans of the station, who are referred to as Terrans. When João touches down, he quickly realizes he will not only be dealing with debilitating inefficiency, but also with racialized prejudice. The situation only becomes more complicated when he begins developing feelings for the impressive Titan union representative, Phoebe Mackintosh.

François took an unusual route to Reed. He was a so-called non-traditional student twice over, as he was both a transfer student and 35 years old when he enrolled. Maybe because of these factors, he found the campus culture intriguing, and was stimulated by the worldview of students only a few years out of high school. He also enjoyed the student body’s radical politics—a fact that won’t surprise anyone who reads Titan. He credits Reed with “opening his eyes to other literary backgrounds.” He majored in English and took classes on modernism, Russian literature, encyclopedic literature, and others that exposed him to new traditions and tropes, expanding his ideas about narrative.

François attributes two specific experiences at Reed to his creation of Titan. First, his class on comics with visiting art professor Patrick Hebert [2011–12] allowed him the time to develop an idea for a comic that had been in the back of his mind for a while. Titan’s “genesis myth,” as he calls it, came in an unexpected form: Many years earlier he had witnessed two dogs hanging out together, one big and one quite small. While this sight might have been mundane, it made him think of the intense selective process required to breed them. These dogs were technically the same species, but due to our genetic engineering they were morphologically so different. He thought: what if it were the same for humans? Prof. Hebert’s class gave him an excuse to imagine the circumstances that could necessitate genetic engineering on humans, which led him to a more novel idea: a human body designed for manual labor in low gravity—the Titan. By the end of the class he had drafted the first 10 or 12 pages of his debut work.

The second Reed experience was writing his senior thesis with Prof. Gail Sherman [English 1981–]. He chose to analyze the works of Jaime Hernandez, cocreator of the comic book series Love and Rockets. François was impressed with the personal agency he had throughout the process of writing his thesis. Some colleges might not have allowed an English major to write about graphic novels, but this creative license is something he still cherishes. He was able to spend an entire academic year immersed in Hernandez, an experience that allowed him time to focus on the nuance and subtleties of the genre.

This attention to form leaps from the pages of Titan, deceptively beautiful with its pink, black, and white palette. The novel explores oppression and inequity and how these conditions could survive in different forms even in the far future. The story is as preoccupied with culture clash, class conflict, labor relations, and police brutality as it is with romance. François makes this clear through the historical allusions sprinkled throughout the comic (for example, the name of the mining station echoes the Homestead strike of 1892) and the manifold references to music. His crisp, cinematic approach to pacing and composition shines in the more intimate moments, while also giving busier scenes enough space to breathe. All of these facets come together to create a tense and riveting read. You won’t want to put it down, and when you do, you will recommend it to friends.

Tags: Alumni, Books, Film, Music, Diversity/Equity/Inclusion