Magen Cubed is a novelist and comics critic. Her superhero/SFF series THE CRASHERS is coming soon from Booktrope.
The horror its cover promises is one of subterranean nightmares, where fleshy pink tendril creatures stand at the ready outside lavish stone altars. Hooded figures loom in the shadows like Lovecraftian cultists, serving as caretakers of their otherworldly domain. But Negative Space is so much more than its monsters. It’s a book about depression, isolation, and human connection in a world where emotions are commodities and experiences are quantified. If what makes us human can be bought and sold, who among us are the real monsters?
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If our world is defined by big data, the world of Negative Space is one where emotions carry marketable value. Under the veneer of ordinary human experience, with all its banality and seemingly random flukes, there are monsters. Slimy, pink, toothy creatures who feed off our emotions, lurking just beneath the surface of what we know about the world around us. Kindred Corp is the multinational corporation in charge of keeping those monsters fed and happy. Kindred Corp doesn’t care about you. Their sole purpose is to collect the emotions we leak throughout our lives, manufacturing tragedies to exploit our experiences at the basest level. Emotions are just sitting out there, after all; why not put them to good use?
This is where Guy comes in. Guy is a writer. He’s an overweight, gay, depressed First American who feels so deeply that he’s one of Kindred Corp’s top producers. He’s also about to finally kill himself, writing his suicide note when writer’s block strikes. So begins the strangest night of Guy’s life as he struggles to put the full depth of his sadness to paper, freeing himself enough to finally end his life. There are chance encounters and accidents, fires and rescues, trips to the movies and one last longing note to Woody, the barista with whom Guy’s in love. All of this leads Guy to discovering Kindred Corp’s plot and the fundamental horror of Negative Space: our emotions aren’t our own, our lives just stories told to us by other people. Maybe Guy never really had a choice in ending his life with Kindred Corp writing the script; maybe none of us have any choices at all.
Despite its Lovecraftian undertones and social commentary, Negative Space #1 isn’t a traditional kind of horror story. Guy isn’t a traditional kind of horror protagonist, either. He isn’t the kind of robust hero, slender waifish heroine, or neurotic loner readers often encounter, denying the white American stereotypes characteristic of the genre. Guy is a complicated intersection of elements and experiences from outside the typical horror purview. Even the name Guy makes him a stand-in for the stock protagonist, an everyman who represents a far broader spectrum of American life. From his weight to his sexual orientation, his mental illness to his cultural heritage, Guy represents many different kinds of lives, and where those kinds of lives meet in the middle.
He feels deeper than most people do, and certainly more fully than is often socially acceptable of men, but he can’t gather the courage to express his feelings to Woody. He’s brave enough to rescue a baby from Kindred Corp’s fabricated car accident, but he can’t trust his own instincts. He isn’t conventionally attractive or physically capable, but he can do great things when put to the test. He’s trapped between soulless corporate machinations and looming existential dread, subject to narratives far larger than his own. Guy’s life looks like our lives – often boring, sometimes sad, and filled with quiet moments – so much so that he nearly misses the part where he’s the focus of the story. The monsters and corporate drones take a backseat to the real horror Guy stumbles into, and that’s where this book shines.
Lindsay makes an incredible case for Guy with lush, prose-like narration and sharp, memorable dialogue. His scripting provides context to Gieni’s exaggerated pencil work rather than detracting from the strength of its methodical pacing. This keen use of language urges the reader to follow Guy from the depths of isolation to the heights of selflessness. These are the truths of depression laid out on paper. Despite the weight of isolation threatening to break Guy in every panel, he’s brave, endearing, creative, and likeable. He cries at 500 Days of Summer and is in love with a barista. For all the beauty he’s capable of, he’s consumed by his depression, swallowed up by the illness that chokes out his confidence and joy. Mental illness dismantles Guy like it dismantles everyone who lives with it.
Negative Space is raw, honest, and respectful in its portrayal of depression, in ways rarely seen in comics with similar themes. It comments on mental illness without romanticizing its clichéd relationship with artists, probing instead of aggrandizing. It’s refreshing to see, not for the reasons we often call books like this refreshing. Lindsay and Gieni avoid dealing with these themes with the typical heavy hand of “grit” or “realism,” choosing instead to use the total unreality of the premise to explore the ideas they posit. In a book full of thinly-veiled metaphors, they pluck the humanity of the issue, emphasizing all of its messy, complicated, heartbreaking, hopeful, and surreal elements through Guy and his supporting cast.
This commitment to exaggeration is carried throughout by the artwork. Gieni’s characters are weather-worn and lived in. Their forms are made up of fine lines, soft shapes, and heavily dappled textures, as grimy as the urban scenes they inhabit. Well-placed highlights in the eyes, face, and hair give each character a glow, a soul that shines despite the gloom of deep green and gray palettes. While the antagonists are often overstated to the point of comedy, Woody’s face is the most visually inviting thing in the issue. His open expressions, warm eyes, and finely detailed features explain why Guy would love him before he utters a word, told in the brushing of hands and fingertips.
This compounds the tragedy of the final page as Guy discovers not only the existence of the monsters but Woody’s involvement with them. It’s a crushing blow that comes only after following Guy through the course of his last night, invalidating every moment that he experienced believing it was his own. It also poses a final intriguing question about the nature of our own digital experiences. As corporations and government agencies exercise their rights to our thoughts, discussions, documents, and personal histories online, where does the line between data and emotion truly lie?
If there was a way to distill and commodify the feelings we simply leak into the ether, who truly owns them?
The difference between a Facebook status update and the emotions that triggered it is looking hazier all the time, as Guy’s come to learn. Perhaps we should ask ourselves some of these questions before Apple or Google decides the answers for us.
Negative Space #1 is a stirring, engaging, and incredibly thoughtful book about depression in the modern world, with corporate America creeping into the margins of our lives to quantify our experiences. Lindsay and Gieni have delivered a strong opening issue with a strange but intriguing premise, opening the door to broader questions as the series moves forward. This is a series to pay attention to, with resonant themes and mature execution, and certainly one of my favorite #1’s of 2015.
Magen Cubed is a Contributor to ComiConverse. Follow her on Twitter: @MagenCubed