Since the election, dystopian fiction seems more like an inevitability than a warning. And though the cyberpunk sub-genre originated in the ’80s, much of what it has to say about corporations, politicians, and revolutionaries still bears a lot of weight today. This is none more obvious than in Wren McDonald’s first full-length comic novel, “SP4RX”, published by Nobrow Press. All the familiar elements and trappings are there: the reluctant hacker hero, awesome robots, a government infiltrated by corporations planning to kill off a significant portion of the population, a bleak mentality, and a team of struggling revolutionaries, but McDonald’s voice and style give the book a new life.
Written and Illustrated by Wren McDonald
SP4RX, a young hacker who lives off grid, hacks into corporations and sells stolen data to wealthy buyers on the black market – just your average thief. Mega corporation Structus Industries introduces a welfare program called the “Elpis Program”, which allows the working class to apply for Cybernetic implants to make workers more efficient. On the surface, it seems like a program to empower the poor and allow them to rise to the ranks of the elite. But SP4RX soon discovers all is not as it seems. SP4RX and Structus are set on a collision course with the fate of humanity at stake in Wren McDonald’s sci-fi tale of survival and corruption!
I think the best way to describe Wren McDonald’s “SP4RX” is as more a remix than an original piece. Throughout the book, he throws in all the elements of cyberpunk stories of the past: the designs and environments of “Akira”, the technology of The Matrix, the heists and teams of Neuromancer, the pundits of “Dark Knight Returns”, the cybernetics of “Ghost in the Shell”, and on and on. I’m not trying to diminish the work in the slightest because I think a remix might be the most appropriate approach to a cyberpunk story in 2016.
Consider the backdrop of the story: a massive corporation is about to unveil a new program that gives people in the poverty-stricken areas of this futuristic city cybernetic enhancements to make them more productive and efficient. But, of course, this isn’t for the people’s benefit. It’s more so the corporation and the government it holds power over have the ability to take control of the population and thin out the numbers, since it’s more convenient to kill everyone off than take care of them. Everything is about money and the special interest groups have managed to make it so they have the ability to do whatever they like, while the PR departments spin it so people think this is for their benefit.
SP4RX, meanwhile, is one of the best hackers around. This comes in no small part to his extreme caution. After a job goes wrong, he ends up crossing paths with a group of revolutionaries who are fighting to keep the corporation’s program from going operational. He tries to stay out of everything, yet nevertheless is drawn into the conflict.
McDonald knows that the plot elements are overly familiar, which allows him to take his own set of risks with the material. The consequences of a scene don’t always come off as expected. Events happen to the characters that probably wouldn’t be allowed in a modern-day blockbuster. Not much here is new, but by fully embracing the cyberpunk structure, McDonald can ask if these cycles, these repetitions and clichés are just as much part of our world as they are the story’s.
For example, despite all his weird dreams and mad computer skillz, SP4RX’s choices rarely make any impact on the narrative. More often than nought, he finds himself as a device, a thing to be used by the people in the background. Although he may see himself as the hero, he’s just as manipulated and controlled by outside forces as the people in the lower levels about to be eradicated. You could remove SP4RX from the story and the events would still happen pretty much the same way. The robot probably does more than our main character. In any other narrative, this would be weak writing, sure, but I feel McDonald is using this to directly address the system, using it as a way to show how the Chosen One is a crock of shit and that real action comes from real groups of people actively working toward something. SP4RX becomes those people behind a keyboard wanting something but avoiding the work to achieve it. An armchair revolutionary. The effectiveness of that character only works by playing on what we already know about heroes of cyberpunk stories.Continued below
What I like about this book most of all is McDonald’s presentation. His geometric designs are not only expressive, but incredibly readable. He doesn’t go over the top when he stages the scene, and you fall into a strong rhythm for the first two-thirds of the book. He uses purple tones to define shapes and depths and it makes the book seem less like we’re inside a computer and more into this off kilter other-world.
However, for how well the remixing works for the first acts, it cannot maintain that momentum for its conclusion. Once the final attack begins, McDonald loses his beat and the climax is a jumbled mess of events and situations. It feels like a checklist of conventions rather than an appropriation of them. He rushes to bring it home and it ends up kind of boring.
“SP4RX” shows that the cyberpunk genre is just as relevant now as it was 30 years ago. It rehashes a lot of the conventions of the stories that came before it, but through Wren McDonald’s design, eye, and voice, it still manages to find a way to say something. It’s too bad the end sort of falls off the rails, but it nonetheless provides something to think about.
Final Verdict: 7.0 – A cyberpunk remix with great designs that unfortunately cannot nail its landing.