Test #1 Shows Life in the Fringes of the Technology Boom

Cover to Test #1 (Vault Comics, July 2019)

Test #1

Jen Hickman (artist), Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou (letterer), Harry Saxton (colorist), Christopher Sebela (writer)
Vault Comics
July 3, 2019

The first issue of Test throws you right into the story, asking you to keep pace with protagonist Aleph Null as the story hurtles ahead in a world that feels familiar, but becomes something uncertain and unknown around the edges. Test #1 is an engaging start to a new science-fiction book that asks what might be happening in the fringes of our modern technology boom. 

We meet Aleph Null, a self described “professional guinea pig,” and Mary, Aleph’s AI companion, something of a cross between their Jiminy Cricket and a particularly curious Alexa Echo. The dynamic between the two is interesting: Mary asks seemingly irrelevant questions that wouldn’t feel out of place on a Myers-Briggs quiz, and Aleph rambles and digresses, both of them odd conversation partners for the other. Mary is just one of the many technological enhancements made to Aleph, either while they were a human test subject, or by their own hand. In this issue, Aleph is on the run from Pinnacle Labs private security, intent on reclaiming Aleph as a test subject for the Pinnacle Labs branch they had just escaped from. After escaping from the lab itself, Aleph wants to preserve their freedom by any means necessary in order to reach Laurelwood, USA, a rumored “test town,” sometimes in Iowa, sometimes in Kansas, where tomorrow’s technology is tested today. Aleph, driven by an addiction to technologically modifying their own body in search of a newer, more immediate future, wants to see what solutions Laurelwood can give them.

Test #1, page 10 (Vault Comics, July 2019)

Laurelwood, with its name so reminiscent of the infamous American tourist trap Breezewood, Pennsylvania, is nothing like Aleph expects. Instead, after the initial moment of awe upon arrival, they remark that it feels like any other patch of Midwestern Americana, small, tired, with neighbors who notice when someone new comes to town. The streets are full of local businesses, and inside the grocery store, they carry the exact same brands in every other grocery store in the state. Out of two dozen Laurelwoods across the country, Aleph believes they’ve discovered the “Plane Jane” one, a test town without the technology of the future to test. Instead, as the issue progresses towards its cliffhanger, it becomes increasingly clear that there is more going on in this Laurelwood than Aleph initially recognized, and more danger than they foresaw.

The concept behind this book is very strong, and while the character work is also engaging, a great deal of the draw comes from the strength of the concept itself. Similar to Sebela’s ongoing comic Crowded at Image Comics, which has a premise of being set ten minutes into the future,  Test is also about the immediate future, presenting a world that reflects our own, but with hidden depths where technology surges ahead in secret. The covert futurism of the world of Test is instantly engaging, leading readers to ask the ethical questions raised by secretive, unregulated testing, and to wonder if there might be very real institutions like Pinnacle Labs or Laurelwood hidden in the shadows of our modern moment.

As a first issue, at times this comic feels somewhat exposition heavy, with long exchanges of dialogue meant to ground the reader in Aleph’s world and in their story so far. But any text-heavy moments are lightened by letterer Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou’s work. Otsmane-Elhaou very effectively letters in different styles to distinguish speakers: the clean, cool bubbles of Mary’s dialogue, with a neat font that’s reminiscent of the user-friendly interfaces of smart technology, are easily distinguishable from Aleph’s dialogue, even when the two speak over each other and their speech bubbles jostle.

Test #1, page 21 (Vault Comics, July 2019)

Similarly effective is the art in this issue. Artist Jen Hickman provides very clean, dynamic line art, and colorist Harry Saxton does an excellent job capturing the contrasting moods of Midwestern flatness and the sterility of medical labs. The panel layouts are fluid, and the page where Aleph talks about their process of “self-care” in particular was nicely paneled, with the page layout leading the reader’s eye.

Test #1 is a promising start to what looks like an engaging title. Sebela handles the topics of illegal medical experimentation, self-modification, and addiction directly and respectfully as they arise in the issue, without sensationalizing the subject matter.  The first issue gives enough of Aleph’s backstory to understand their circumstances and what drives them, but not enough to give readers a full grasp of their story. Between Sebela’s character focused writing and Hickman and Saxton’s expressive art, there is a clear enough picture of who Aleph is and what might be ahead of them to give readers a lot to look forward to in coming issues.

Emma Snape

Emma Snape

Emma is an Ohio native who has worked in film production and education, and writes about comics on the side. She loves thinking about the role of visuals in narrative storytelling, both in film and comics, reading comics set in cities she's lived in, and telling people to read X-Force (1991).