Nobrow recently published SP4RX, the first full length graphic novel by cartoonist Wren McDonald, a resident of Brooklyn who, in his other work does not shy away from modern politics or critique of city life. SP4RX is fictional, but in this dystopian work presented in an elegant and highly watchable style, you’ll find plenty of resonance with modern life, too.
The structure of the story is built around a hierarchical class system that literally live above, for the rich, and further and further below for the poor, on a leveled structure. We learn that this city of Avalon has colonies in space as well, though this fast-paced narrative operates purely in the city itself. We follow a hacker, SP4RX as he pursues a make-shift life hiding out from the authorities, visiting his work team-mate and friend CL1PP3R, and taking on hacking missions where he encounters members of W.R.A.I.T.H, a Resistance underground team trying to encourage an uprising.
Meanwhile, the city around SP4RX is erupting into dangerous unrest and finally mayhem as a new cyborg initiative is released by the government–essentially subsidizing the super-poor with mechanical enhancements to their bodies so they can work longer hours to support their families. As the trend becomes widespread, it becomes clear that mechanizing the poor was exactly what the elite were hoping for. But are they totally in control of what they’ve set in motion?
It’s refreshing to read a story that’s a little less superheroic than many dystopian tales are. Though dystopian stories are by nature more measured in hero-worship than actual superhero stories, they can still tend toward protagonists who are naive and alarmingly pure of vision. Having recently watched the whole Hunger Games film series, which I enjoyed, I was nevertheless much more at home with SP4RX, who is really only out for himself, with a smidgeon of real loyalty and feeling for CL1PP3R.
Wren McDonald has created an unfussy character without a massive backlog of backstory to try to weave into the narrative, and that, too, makes for a nimble story that encourages you to learn about the world of Avalon and its characters by watching them in motion. And it is a highly enjoyable world to explore, not because it’s sweet and kind, but because we get to follow SP4RX through its forbidden zones and move with enviable freedom among its levels. The storyline of this graphic novel is surprisingly dark in a satisfying way. McDonald doesn’t shy away from wholesale violence and dismemberment, piling up the discarded bodies of cyborgs, robots, and humans alike. But the motives behind the narrative strike home–the violence is not actually goofy or funny, but a casual callousness that seems a little too familiar of city life. And the reasons behind the callousness–class warfare–are also recognizable to us.
McDonald’s artwork on this book is superb. It’s impossible to tell that it’s a first full-length graphic novel based on the pacing or layouts. Action scenes–of which there are many–are nicely varied and placed within the story without overloading the reader. The fact that exposition is really limited only adds to the experience of the artwork and the real testimony to the artwork is how powerful the occasional silent pages are, including a couple of dream-sequences or punctuated still moments in full-page spreads.
This book is a serious joy to read, and by serious I mean it’s adult and makes you think quite distinctly about a number of issues, like the social elements mentioned above. But the other looming theme is the relationships people build with technology. Just as McDonald presented SP4RX as a less than perfect character to great effect, the creator also approaches technology even-handedly. This is not a “beware the ides of technology” story meant to scare us into distrusting the tools we build.
But it is a story that explores complexity and presents a number of kinds of relationships with technology and then considers them. There’s the use of hacking to undermine oppressive forces, there’s the use of virtual reality as a kind of drug, there’s creative and playful use of tech as a platform for constructing limited artificial intelligence. There’s even helpful body modification. Then there’s the use of technology to control the population, which is a more obvious problem. The upshot is that this is a book, as you might guess from the title, that celebrates a kind of tech-punk ethos while looking for possible lines in the sand to draw if technological reliance runs wild.
McDonald not only has a clear artistic vision of the worlds he wishes to create, but a strong handle on what topics he wants to explore. Thankfully, we get to come along and take part in an art-thought experiment like SP4RX.
Wren McDonald also created the book Cyber Realm from Nobrow and his illustration work has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Hollywood Reporter, Vice, and others.