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Comic Review: SVK by Warren Ellis, D’Israeli and Berg

SVK is an experimental comic book, a graphic novella from the mind of Warren Ellis, pen of D'Israeli, and innovation of BERG, a design and invention group. Any one of those credentials is enough to make it a runaway success, but a first run sell out of 3500 copies within 48 hours is remarkable.

With shades of Transmetropolitan, Fell, and even Crooked Little Vein, Ellis has crafted a futuristic tale of detection, surveillance and terrorism, all through the eyes of a recovery agent, a finder of lost things. Thomas Woodwind may live in the future, but it is a tomorrow that seems very familiar indeed, with predatory CCTV cameras stalking the country and phone hacking scandals revealing our private thoughts to grubby investigators.

SVK: a layered story

Woodwind is tasked with tracking down a device that should never have gone missing. His client however has seriously underestimated the tech-savvy agent, as morally straight Woodwind endeavours to put the privacy of the individual first.

"I’m seeing a man of six feet or so, quite lean, with a good Patrick Stewart-ish skull fuzzed with very short pale hair. Paranoid eyes. Tending to very long black coats, probably with poacher’s pockets sewn on the inside. A bluetooth earpiece cupping each ear, with front facing limbs (where the IR LEDS are). Also wears black gloves, I think – no fingerprints, reduction of epithelials." - Warren's character notes.

Hidden within many of the frames lies the experimental element of this publication: a new form of thought bubble rendered in invisible ink, revealed to the reader by using the UV torch included with the comic, a revelation experienced in person by Woodward as the story unfolds.

Ellis' heroes are often follicly challenged.Woodwind is a classic Ellis protagonist. With a great coat.

Robin to Woodwind's Batman is Bulmer, a high level geek who lives like a student, and yes, he is working in his underwear – don't we all? Working from his basement and in near constant phone contact, Bulmer is Woodwind's very own filthy assistant.

"Imagine NASA Mission Control as furnished by Steptoe And Son.  There is an actual order to what’s in here — tables, workstations, laptops and a couple of iPads, real high-end stuff like fabbing machines and printers that print metals and microscopes and Other Stuff, and also a lot of junk and shit — but probably no-one can see it but him (and maybe you)." - Warren's notes.

And they say my room is a mess...From experience, the empty tubes of deceased pringles are missing.

Crisp art in black and blue ink from Matt "D'Israeli" Brooker (2000AD, Kill Your Boyfriend, Lazarus Churchyard) gives the comic a sleek style, in a story where facial expression is key. The blue inks help integrate the UV ink, ensuring that the reader can stay immersed in the comic, even when fiddling with a torch.

As comics historian Paul Gravett reveals in his contributed article, comics have often been at the forefront of print experimentation, from the various 3D comics of the last century to the much celebrated invertible strips of Gustave Verbeek. The included article from Jamais Cascio, futures expert, is rather terrifying; revealing that the technologies featured in the story are not so far from reality after all.

Just an ordinary train...Wouldn't it be great to be telepathic on a train?

Completing the line-up of contributors is William Gibson, who has authored a foreword despite his lack of familiarity with comics in general. Gibson, "noir prophet" of the cyberpunk subgenre and father of cyberspace, talks of his amazement upon reading this little piece of art – high praise indeed!

"I may be beginning to get it. As evidence of that, I thoroughly enjoyed SVK, which either in spite or because of its concision is somehow Dickensian, and while quite thoroughly dark, is also quite touching. Memorable. And couldn't be done as well, or even be born, in any other medium at all." - William Gibson

The story is clever, as you'd expect, and tight: the comic contains 32 pages of plot, and 8 pages of contributed articles, artwork, and adverts from the future. The art is flawless, Brooker clearly knows exactly how Ellis' brain works – a feat in itself – with a depth of expression and realism of emotion that makes me want to track down all his work immediately.

... full of invisible thoughts.Yeah, maybe not.

Ellis has described SVK as "Franz Kafka’s Bourne Identity"; this is a one-shot that will leave you wanting more from both Woodwind and the London he inhabits:  the themes of corruption and privacy have never been so relevant. SVK itself lends itself well to multiple readings: reading without the torch gives a very different perception of the story and characters than when you switch on the invisible thoughts.

At a time when so much focus within the publication industry is directed at digital advances, it's a real pleasure to see something from the other side: creator owned, direct supply, experimentation. SVK is a little more expensive than your average comic, due mostly to the expensive ink and small print runs, but perhaps the near-instant sell out is evidence that fans are eager to support new forms of creativity in their comic books.

As for me, stumbling out of bed this morning to catch the comic as it fell through my door, I think it is well worth the cost.

Get SVK.

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