Magen Cubed is a novelist and comics critic. Her superhero/SFF series THE CRASHERS is coming soon from Booktrope.
Empty Zone #1 from creator Jason Shawn Alexander and Image Comics trades on a very specific kind of sci-fi nostalgia. Steeped in allusions to notable classics like Tank Girl, Blade Runner, and William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy, Empty Zone wants to be an amalgamation of your favorite flavors of 80’s and 90’s cyberpunk and dystopia. It was first conceived and published in 1995, and this issue marks its 20th anniversary reboot with a brand new retelling. While certainly inspired, putting out a very 90’s cyberpunk book is a somewhat peculiar chance to take as an American comics creator in 2015.
Cyberpunk, in many ways, is dead in the western world. If not truly dead, it’s largely dormant. The genre can still be found in fiction novels and video games franchises like Deus Ex, but the last truly prominent mainstream entry that most can name was The Matrix Trilogy. Even then, the titular, era-appropriate film was followed by increasingly redundant and outdated sequels. The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions respectively failed on several levels, but arguably their 2003 releases helped seal their fates.
Who really cared about cyberpunk in 2003?
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Characteristically drawing on Japanese aesthetics and anti-corporate (sometimes even anti-capitalist) themes, such conventions weren’t readily embraced as the pop culture landscape was subsumed by pro-western, pro-capitalist media in the wake of 9/11. Digitally-empowered rebels taking on monolithic corporate tyranny just wasn’t sexy for much of the last fifteen years. Cyberpunk’s traditions are still alive and well in Japanese manga and anime like Biomega and Ghost in the Shell, however, where artists and writers continue to draw on its core visual aesthetics and transhuman ideologies even as its topical relevance waned.
In our digitally-oriented modern world, we live so much of our everyday lives through screens. Be they work tablets, school computers, or pocket smartphones, our devices do our work, capture our memories, and syndicate our personal thoughts and experiences for public consumption. We’re surrounded by gadgets like Google Glass, we enjoy performances by holographic pop stars, and we often wax about the opportunities promised by transhumanism. If we’re already living the commercially-driven digital future that cyberpunk fiction warned us against in the 80’s and 90’s, now what?
What can cyberpunk even say about us now that toddlers have tablets and your grandmother has the latest iPhone?
Empty Zone #1 proposes an interesting answer to some of these questions. To its credit, this eerie sci-fi/horror story does a great job of using genre source material to its advantage in building a compelling world of gloom, sex, and intrigue. It also avoids the redundancy of many cyberpunk-inspired stories I encounter by focusing less on the technology and more on the people who live and breathe it. Alexander’s cyberpunk future isn’t a grim warning or philosophical treatise; it’s just the future, where people and technology coexist as the norm. While certainly leaning on some familiar genre convention, Alexander successfully breathes new life into these old ideas to deliver a distinctively cool comic.
In Empty Zone #1, reality is tenuous at best. The cracks between life and death, flesh and machine, are inhabited by ghosts, like digital whispers trapped in implants. It’s a nebulous space where corpses arrange themselves in elaborate tableaus akin to the bent, tormented figures of a Caravaggio painting, and speak to the living through visceral nightmares. Alexander explores these uncomfortable ideas with style and aplomb, following his mechanically-enhanced protagonist Corrine. She has a charmingly nostalgic Tank Girl aesthetic and operates in a suffocating vision of future Pittsburg, where she navigates dirty streets and lucid dreams amid a grungy cast of similarly enhanced humans.
Tortured nightly by violent sexual nightmares, Corrine’s job as a data bounty hunter is often hindered by her alcoholism and black-outs. Hers is a lonely existence, blurred by the diminishing boundaries between dreaming and waking, where she is haunted by corpses wearing her dead lover’s face. It only gets worse when a job gone wrong exposes her and her dead friend Hank to the dangers of a nefarious secret project, hinted at in the closing pages. Experiments on corpses and reanimated consciences harness the subjects’ ghosts, their spirits tethered to skeletal bodies as researchers exercise an unnerving new brand of necromancy-as-science. If the mind is like a computer, what does that make the soul? Are these wailing ghosts mere data, to be saved and uploaded to a server? Alexander teases many questions and leaves them compellingly unanswered, setting up for a larger mystery.
Nothing about Corrine and her world is particularly unique, but the infusion of horror elements makes her story fresh. Gone are the transhuman philosophies underpinning many contemporary cyberpunk works, exchanged for a truly creepy vision of technologically-manipulated death. The character designs and implant technology are right out of a William Gibson novel, and it’s enough to bring a smile to the face of any cyberpunk fan. Alexander’s dialogue, and specifically Corrine’s box narration, is absolutely soaked in Rick Deckard’s clipped, world-weary swagger. Corrine’s cynicism is reflected in her bleak surroundings, but also in her wry sense of humor as she dishes out one-liners with Harrison Ford-like regularity. This intrinsic sadness unfolds through Corrine’s exchanges, as well. From her sensory-obsessed ramblings during the nightmare sequence to the flippant façade she maintains at the bar, these moments specifically emphasize the physical and the intimate, calling for human comfort in a cold, metallic, and digitally-oriented world.
Likewise, Alexander’s artwork is incredibly well-paced and beautifully composed, developing Corrine’s world through minimalistic visual storytelling. The tight closure between panels cuts out all the expositional fat, making for swift, lean, and intuitive transitions from sequence to sequence. Supplementing the narrative brevity, Alexander uses his lush, finely-detailed figure work to provide emotional context. Every gesture, smirk, or tilt of head is as deliberate and meaningful as their sparse dialogue, successfully grounding each character with a sense of personal history. In doing so Alexander trusts the reader to follow his story visually, letting the reader figure the world out as they go instead of spoon-feeding it to them, like many sci-fi creators regrettably end up doing.
Interior spaces are defined in jagged shadow and claustrophobic angles, as are the choking street scenes where metal structures intersect one another in a demanding bid for space. Human comfort is further de-emphasized here as Corinne’s wispy, solitary figure is repeatedly dwarfed by severe metal architecture, surrounded by exposed wires and competing neon signage. The sun is blocked out by gauzy white fog over a Pittsburg so bleak and crowded that the lines of the street don’t make sense as they meet, as though people aren’t even meant to walk them. These oppressive environments give way to Corinne’s open, edgeless dreams and rich sensory indulgence allow the reader to feel at ease, only to be snapped back into the real world by violence. This tension plays out well throughout the issue, leaving the reader uncomfortable but increasingly curious, never quite able to fully get a handle on a moment or setting before the story pushes forward.
Unusual, mysterious, and well-designed, Empty Zone #1 is confident and engaging endeavor. Cyberpunk fans will appreciate Alexander’s robust writing and visual language, and horror fans will enjoy its slow creepy exploration of death and everything after. This is a strong opening issue and definitely a title to watch out for in coming months.
Magen Cubed is a Contributor to ComiConverse. Follow her on Twitter: @MagenCubed