Earlier this year I was thrilled to be invited to contribute a regular column to Vector, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association. My column, Sequentials, is the first time the journal has covered comics and I'm really excited to be a part of that.
Before my column kicked off proper, the year began with a Best of 2013 issue, so what better way to introduce comics to the Vector readership!
Below then is my look back at the best science fiction comics that 2013 had to offer, with a particular focus on four important comics: Ballistic by Adam Egypt Mortimer and Darick Robertson from Black Mask Studios; The Wake by Scott Snyder and Sean Murphy from Vertigo; The Private Eye by Brian K Vaughan, Marcos Martin and Muntsa Vicente from Panel Syndicate; and Raygun Roads by Owen Michael Johnson and Indio from Changeling Studios.
Hit the jump for the full article!
Vector #275: 2013 in Comics
The murmurings of a science fiction revival in the world of comics grew ever louder in 2013 following the announcement from Vertigo that the publisher intended to restore their credentials within the genre. Sure enough, Trillium, The Wake, and FDP: Federal Bureau of Physics caused waves of interest throughout the year, as did the return of Astro City and Tom Strong.
It’s true that it was a particularly strong year for science fiction comics, but the genre and medium have long been on good terms – from the first bounding leaps of Superman to Attack on Titan. Still, in the wake of Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ Saga, the space opera that knocked zombies and superheroes from their pop culture thrones, publishers have certainly got their eyes on the stars of the future.
Even graphic novels leapt upon the extraterrestrial zeitgeist, with Paul Pope’s Battling Boy and Frederik Peeters’ Aama in particular garnering critical acclaim, and even the great Jason turning to the skies for Lost Cat. But in truth, it was futuristic, post-apocalyptic and even nihilistic fiction that captured the imagination of creators and readers throughout the year. While Saga and Grant Morrison’s Action Comics tapped into the idealistic best hope within us all to great acclaim, others looked to the future with a wearier eye.
Four comics, from very different backgrounds, completely stole the show in 2013. All are science fiction, and none star superheroes. In fact each show us our very darkest fears about the fate of humanity – perhaps unsurprising given the current political climate.
Ballistic, by Adam Egypt Mortimer and Darick Robertson and from new creator owned publisher Black Mask Studios, perhaps captured this outlook best, invoking the world of cyberpunk but with an organic twist – technology is grown rather than built, and capable of bio-mimicry and bio-utilizations. Robertson is pushed to his limits here, creating incredibly detailed landscapes and intricate creations. The colours from Diego Rodriguez are suitable garish and bombastic, throwing light on the darkest shades of society.
Comparisons to Transmetropolitan (Robertson and Warren Ellis) are perhaps inevitable, but this is both a bleaker and more colourful tale. Each issue comes complete with a stack of notes further expanding upon this gangster-run hellhole; the sheer creativity bowling over readers and fellow creators even as it flies beneath the mainstream radar. Black Mask Studios is committed to publishing more political and risky ventures, and this is Mortimer’s first comic. It’s also essentially a buddy comic, following one man and his foul mouthed gun. The future is sick, crime-ridden, and hedonistic.
Hot on Ballistic’s heels is The Wake, from Batman scribe Scott Snyder and Punk Rock Jesus star Sean Murphy, and published by Vertigo. The artistry here is breathtaking, switching between the surface of a future flooded world and the underwater horrors of a present day expedition. The claustrophobic setting of the seabed, so similar to that of a spaceship, as a place of terror and fantastical death is nothing new to sci-fi fans, but this combination is rarely seen in comics.
The future is depicted in a clean and highly detailed style, almost reminiscent of ukiyo-e prints in some of those waves, while the murky depths of the ocean floor and horrific monsters owe much to the supreme talents of colourist Matt Hollingsworth. In fact three highly talented creators have come together here to produce some of their best ever work. The future is drowned, architecture crumbling, and vastly depopulated.
The Private Eye, by Brian K Vaughan and Marcos Martin, caused great excitement when it was announced with teaser images that invoked the power of social media – “Follow”, “Like”, and “Share” temptingly asked of interested readers. Available in digital format only, the ten issue series is DRM free, available in multiple formats on a pay-what-you-want model, and is instantly available in English, Spanish and Catalan with more translations en route.
Five issues were released in 2013, with all profits going directly to the creators and allowing for each new issue to be published on their website, Panel Syndicate. It was a bold financial and publishing move, and one that seems to be paying off – in a year where digital comics made a real push for readership, The Private Eye has won many fans, not least due to the fantastic day-glo colouring of Muntsa Vicente.
Turning the post-apocalyptic trope on its head, here we have the future post-Internet. The Internet exploded, showering the world with information both public and formerly private – today there is no private, and everyone hides behind hi-tech masks. And to whom goes the power? Perhaps not who you would expect… this is indeed a highly original look at a world where knowledge is nothing, and privacy a distant dream. The future is utterly corrupt, individuality extinct, and everything is public.
And in true underground style there was Raygun Roads, by Owen Michael Johnson and Indio, a comic that is pure sensory overload for dispirited hearts everywhere, complete with integrated soundtrack that soothes your soul while your brain fights to race through the 48 page indie flip-album.
Raygun Roads and her Kittlebach Pirates are a band of punk-ass anarchists who hurtle into the grime of our world to boot it in the crotch and save Vincent Paradise from his mundane gloom at the hands of a Mr Shankley type job centre worker and/or the D-Void infected and Ullyses Pomp, shaman of shame and ruler of the Porpoise of Purpose. With Vincent’s artistic soul being corroded by the capitalist desolation of our society, it’s up to him to save the world, and fictional characters break into our dimension, becoming more real and with their own story to tell.
It’s utter chaotic madness, dripping with Indio’s fluorescent colours and gorgeously grotesque characters embodying the spirit of punk, yet his beautifully fine artwork betrays his roots as a tattoo and underground music poster artistic genius. The artwork is overflowing with a crazed energy that leaves the reader breathless and crumpled, buzzed and angry all at once, as Vince fights to crush the influence of the man on his life and embrace his artistic potential in a world of suits and money.
It’s social commentary and satire by way of complete insanity and a genuinely clever infinity loop in both fiction and reality that will have you reading and re-reading it over and over again. The future is infected by zombie drones in business suits, the establishment has crushed our artistry and creative desires, but our imaginations can set us free.
Four futures, four very different outcomes and yet all share two very important themes: threats to our way of life grown large from contemporary worries, and colour. Worries about technology, rising sea levels, privacy invasion, and the crushing boot of authority are all present in any current news broadcast and indeed are no stranger to science fiction readers. But in the world of comics, dominated as they are by militaristic superheroes and wealthy playboy vigilantes, it’s interesting to see these fears being faced by characters that represent ordinary people.
In Ballistic our hero is Butch, an air conditioning repairman with big dreams and a thirst for crime in a cut-throat world. In The Wake, Dr Lee Archer is our protagonist, her skills as a cetologist and a promise of helping her get custody of her son back landing her on the research team that is taken to see a mysterious creature at the bottom of the ocean. In The Private Eye, we follow an unlicensed journalist who ends up uncovering far more trouble than he anticipated when taking up a case. And in Raygun Roads, our hero is an unemployed waster out of touch with his true potential, being ground down by the man.
All have something more to say than simply beating up the bad guy, or falling out with their super-best-friends again. Not that superhero titles are incapable of larger messages, not by a long shot, but in the past year it does seem as if it is the science fiction comics that are taking current day issues and worries and projecting them into the future as a warning call to all. Our environment is crumbling – half of England suffering from dire flooding in early 2014; our fear of technology and loss of privacy is matched only by our apathy to the inevitable; and the scapegoating of the poor and elevation of the rich continues apace under a conservative government – the latter long known as a creative fount of rebellious inspiration.
And what of colour? Lest it be forgotten, comics is that odd medium that blends both narrative and visual storytelling, at times both a hybrid of literature and film, and a predecessor of all communication in presenting all information at a symbolic level. In 2012 I was captivated by the black and white starkness of Punk Rock Jesus, the punk underdog to the undisputed colourful champion of Saga, effortlessly blending the rampant capitalism of our society, the ever encroaching celebrity obsessed lack of privacy and the terrifying march of religious fundamentalism. The lack of colour sharpened the blade, and drove its point home.
But last year, the horrifying futures were covered in gorgeous colour palettes, soothing the eyes or jarring the brain in turn. The Wake was softly sweet, a de-saturated surface and a gloomy undersea leaving the mind ill-prepared for the horrors that awaited. Ballistic, The Private Eye and Raygun Roads all reveled in shockingly bright colours, both setting the tone and exciting the eyes. The future is bright and gorgeous, yet cruel and terrible all in one.
In a present where we flock to flashy and expensive movies while our countries grow poorer, spend money we don’t have on disposable clothing made in sweatshops, fly the flags of our nations while our governments stamp on the poorest and most vulnerable, and close our eyes to the horrors in plain view, these are perhaps the most realistic futures of all.
Next time in Sequentials... at look at some of the most influential and overlooked SF comics of all time, by women creators.