Review: Wren McDonald’s SP4RX
Disclaimer: This review is based on a copy provided by Nobrow Press.
SP4RX is a world you’re familiar with. Punky cyborg hackers eke out a living in squats shadowed by glittering towers while robots and AI are pushing more and more of the working class into the underclass. What makes SP4RX different from most cyberpunk utopias is its unpretentious, upbeat aesthetic, and dry humour. It’s a YA cyberpunk dystopia that plays to genre expectations while also sending them up, and one that looks straight into the darkest parts of contemporary life and cracks a joke about its tragedy.
The look and feel of SP4RX is the first thing that struck me. WWAC contributors can attest to how much time I spent raving about the colouring and lettering during my first read. Once I received my hardcopy from NoBrow, I raved all over again. While SP4RX isn’t a comic carried by its aesthetic, or one that’s all aesthetic (like Kelly Kwan’s issue of Frontier, for example), Wren McDonald’s colour, design, and font decisions are vital to narrative’s success. It’s part of what gives SP4RX, actually a rather sad story, life and light.
The book is a two colour dream: it’s all rounded corners in warm purples and grey grey grey. The robots, computers, vehicles, and other technology are rendered with retro-futurist smoothness, hard lines exchanged for cute robots, high drama for sound effects and gags. McDonald’s “naive” style — faces simplified to the utmost, figures lacking detail and body language and expression cranked up to Vaudeville obviousness — combined with his clean colour palette makes for a striking comic. It’s comfortable, even welcoming, in a way that few cyberpunk works are. McDonald’s punks seem grumpy. His doms and dommes — because of course there was going to be someone jacked up in leather — seem cute until they kill. Well…cute even when they do kill. It’s not that SP4RX has a soft touch or flinches at depicting violence. Dicks, robot dismemberment, and generally foul behaviour are depicted on the first few pages. It’s a cyberpunk dystopia seen through the eyes of society’s disaffected rebels and things suck. But not in living detail — some of the worst violence in the comic happens offscreen. However, SP4RX doesn’t hold back on dark ends — it’s the kind of comic that kills the dog and then gives you a sad emoji, oh noes, oh noes. 😢 That is to say that while McDonald is busy doing biting social satire and depicting personal and state violence, it’s not gratuitous — his aesthetic decisions allow him to depict violence without it being repellent, and to get mean without it being depressing. It’s the same effect that works so well in Looney Toons — SP4RX is less slapstick and more nasty but it’s still quite funny.
It’s a bit of a different approach to YA dystopia — just as accessible as Hunger Games or Divergent but from a different angle. SP4RX focuses on twenty-something shitheads, not fresh-faced teens, and it’s less interested in Sorting Hat style fantastic social arrangements and more with real world class distinctions. This is a dystopia firmly set in our world (not literally but politically and socially), inflected with the cyberpunk doom scenarios of past decades. McDonald combines the contemporary cyberpunk and retro-future aesthetic in order to make the work accessible and fresh. Your entrance to it is not based on likeable characters or a romantic coming-of-age on the barricades (Divergent, you are guilty of both), but on the familiarity of its stout but slinky-armed robots and leather-and-more-leather outfits. Instead of say, recreating the motorcycle sequences from Akira but with different outfits, SP4RX jacks a motorcycle for a short sequence that ends with him posed a little like Kenada, paired with a robot sidekick rather than a lesser hooligan who’s about to develop destructive psychic powers. Likewise, its references to everything from Ghost in the Shell, to The Matrix, to Neuromancer, and Terminator are not quotations but suggestions, never so obvious that readers who don’t get the references would feel like they’re missing out, just enough to be familiar. The physical spaces and vehicles of SPR4X somehow recall The Jetsons and Blade Runner at the same time — mega-tower blocks with aerial transport crowding a smoggy sky. Its robots and other tech are Lost In Space by way of Futurama, (another contemporary science fiction that’s as interested in old ideas of the future, as it is in cracking jokes about the present). SP4RX doesn’t settle on any one genre or era of science fiction to draw from, instead creating a more general sense of nostalgia — a retro-future that incorporates many different kinds of retro.
When NoBrow’s Tucker Stone contacted me about SP4RX he joked, “Who needs another Ghost In the Shell knockoff, right?” Right? But this one is good and it’s not exactly a knockoff. SP4RX knows the genre, loves the genre, but doesn’t get caught up in celebration — it’s got a story to tell. SP4RX, our eponymous hacker, is hired to steal a shady beta of a botnet. He doesn’t know what it’s for or why he’s been sent to steal it, but he doesn’t care. He’s here for the money and, as we learn in a quick sequence where he turns down a bad gig, he’s in it for his own ass. It’s a typical way to establish him as a selfish ne’er-do-well and although he experiences a third act change of heart, he doesn’t really — not finding the light so much as a selfish motive to do the right thing. The right thing, to no one’s surprise, involves working with a group of idealistic hackers (and a philosophizing visionary who gives speeches about SP4RX’s importance to the cause) resisting an oppressive technocracy. Here, the villain is both the system, which grinds down the working class folks consigned to the tower’s lower levels by misfortune and design, and also a corporate conspiracy to thin their ranks. I mean, of course, right?
SP4RX moves quickly through all of this, its pace not hurried but brisk. There are no side quests and few character or world building moments that don’t also serve the plot. It’s an efficiency that works well with the comic’s message — that efficiency for its own sake is inhuman and conceals hatefulness — and contributes, rather than takes away from its aesthetic and narrative goals. Every element of storytelling in SP4RX — dialogue, pacing, page and panel design, etc — is simple and easy to read and charming. I don’t think I’ve ever smiled so much over a cyberpunk dystopia.