First published in Spanish in 2016 by Asitberri, Boom Studios! imprint Archaia brings an incendiary graphic novel from the minds of Marcos Prior and David Rubín to English language readers. If you’re wondering, the content seems as frighteningly prophetic as it was three years ago, especially if one is prone to doomsday scenarios associated with current global political affairs. Unlike most dystopian tales, this one seems even more plausible and prescient than most.
Written by Marcos Prior
Illustrated by David Rubín
Translated by Andrea Rosenberg
Lettered by Deron Bennett
Imagine a world overrun by big business and “fake news” via the social media machine…. In “Grand Abyss Hotel” neoliberalism has become a state religion, while the citizens quietly and then not-so-quietly rebel, giving way to violence on the streets and sowing chaos. A masked vigilante takes on the role of hero to battle politicians, the erosion of democracy, and social media. After the fires burn low and the dust settles, social order returns. Or does it?
From the opening pages of “Grand Abyss Hotel” readers are met with a dizzying array of talking heads complete with Bloomberg-type crawls spouting contextless excerpts from proclamations similar to what greets viewers of every modern news outlet. Presented thusly it reads like a greatest hits of bad news, a virtual cavalcade of 1984-level totalitarianism snippets that comes from a nationwide conglomerate-run state. The lobbyists have clearly done their jobs in this imagined near future. What strikes readers almost immediately is the disconnect between these talking heads and the people, here reduced to their “Wikipedia” pages and social media profiles. We are our online presence and nothing more. In fact an early spread in the book is devoted entirely to a Twitter-like thread of reactions to a violent revolutionary act at a demonstration. We also see casualty statistics being obfuscated by the media in real time along with an online poll about the escalation in violence being manipulated by bots. It’s a world at war over ideals. Even the police force and the fire department are at each others throats for supremacy, each one demanding to be at the forefront of protecting the public’s best interest and saving them from themselves. The dynamic mutates these life-saving public servants into something bordering on malevolent. At the very least it creates a dynamic where the two cannot coexist in peace much like the espousers of opposing world views.
Floating underneath the bevy of screens and amidst the sea of humanity is a red ski-mask wearing revolutionary in a clever updating of the Guy Fawkes mask. While his shaved head may evoke parallels to neo-Nazis, this character is a man of the people, a force for the messy reality of democracy denied. The nameless character becomes a champion for the common man, and his actions kickstart a nation-wide debate and street-level riot all being recorded in real time from an army of device-wielding citizens. Prior is wise to not give a name to any particular nation or ruling demagoguery even as Rubín’s imagery relies on a kind of cyberpunk fascism. Dirigibles loom overhead and the affluent seem to only exist above street level or move about with an air of casual indifference to the panic raging around them. As a whole “Grand Abyss Hotel” unfolds as a pastiche of vignettes that cling together thematically to give a window into a world gone wrong. We even see an accomplished academic and businessman reduced to lab rat for the sake of a pointless economic experiment, a commentary on the elderly as a resource to be managed.
If as Karl Marx said “Religion is the opium of the people,” in “Grand Abyss Hotel” banal click-bait news that has pervaded any attempts at meaningful journalism alternating with reports of the hell-in-a-hand-basket du jour have taken its place. Those who resist the drug’s effects can avoid the apathetic stupor but are sentenced to either endless debate or a tendency toward violence. Essentially, no result is positive or productive. In the end–and “Grand Abyss Hotel” ends a bit too suddenly–the book seems to be about a lot of competing ideals, but it is most certainly a treatise on violence as an agent of change. It’s about physical and emotional violence. It’s about how acts of violence can easily become the only recourse for feelings of frustration and powerlessness. As readers turn to the narrative’s final page (perhaps surprised to find the remainder of the beautifully produced book’s pages are sketchbook and other process-related back matter) they might be hard-pressed to define the somewhat slight albeit conceptually-packed story being told here as much as a presentation of a moment in time, an inflection point that hinges on a historic moment, a resignation announcement from the highest office in the land, a promise of hope. Unfortunately, one suspects that the cycle will repeat itself again and this moment in history will flip back to page one before long.Continued below
While conventional storytelling may be lacking in “Grand Abyss Hotel” the book is a sight to behold. Rubín has never looked better, and the urban apocalypse setting is clearly in the wheelhouse of his frenetic style. Readers will pour over every panoramic page, return to them, and drool anew. Rubín’s color work is similar to what we’ve seen in “The Hero” and “Ether.” Reds abound. Smoke and debris riddle the panels. No background is without a stupefying amount of detail. The layouts reveal an astonishing level of inventive variety, and that aesthetic carries over into the figure work where the bodies appear to be made from plasticine. Intentional or not, the book’s design and thematic motif pays homage to Frank Miller’s “Dark Knight Returns” and its sequel “The Dark Knight Strikes Again” by leaning into the metatextual portrayal of the media and its accompanying pundits while the streets are torn apart. There are worse progenitors. Unfortunately there are no super heroes to rescue us in Prior and Rubin’s imagined world, and the guy in the mask is just that.