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“What is Prysm?”
“Who is Professor Zero?”
“Is this the end for Alex Automatic?”
Six pages into Alex Automatic’s first issue and this comic is already unloading a large number of questions onto the reader. As the spy-fi series closes out its first era via a collected edition of the comic’s first five issues, many further questions are asked across this run. At times, the questions the comic asks are meant to lure the reader deeper into this comic’s psychologically numbing world and answered as the series progresses. Other times, the questions are more opaque, unclear if an answer may exist at all. The one question that may unite much of the series’ run so far must surely come from the titular character himself, as Alex Automatic must continually question who he is, evidenced by the cover of the first issue depicting Alex drowning amidst a sickly sea of floating question marks. This is suggested further by the title of this debut collection, “Where is My Mind?” Alex Automatic is a comic that not only questions but utterly breaks down the barriers between reality and fantasy, creating a violent sense of dissociation through its narrative and illustrative techniques.
Automatic Colours and Structures
Alex Automatic is the story of Alex Anderson. Or is it? Both are two names given to one character, but which is the character’s real identity? Initially presenting itself as a transgressive homage to darkly-charged, retro-futuristic spy-fi television of the 1960s, Alex Automatic continually and purposefully flummoxes the reader in its depiction of reality to fierce effect. The comic is the brainchild of writer Fraser Campbell and artist James Corcoran, along with regular colourist David Cooper, Colin Bell providing letters and design work on issues #1 and #3, Aditya Bidikar for issue #2 and Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou for issues #4 and #5. Throughout these five chapters (along with a handful of short stories included in its first collected tome) former flight-lieutenant Alex Anderson has been subjected to horrific psychological experimentations to such a degree that he believes himself to be Alex Automatic, the cyborg hero of an action/adventure espionage television series that never existed. Extendable arms and legs, gadgets concealed within his fingertips and virtually indestructible, Alex has it all. The comic unfolds aggressively, shifting between the fantasy of Alex Automatic’s action-packed yet tongue-in-cheek battles against the villainous Professor Zero of Prysm and the reality of the trails of blood Alex Anderson is leaving in his wake as he struggles to escape from those responsible for his scarred mental state.
Dissociation is at the mechanical heart of Alex Automatic. Alex is often unable to distinguish between reality and fantasy. The heroic efforts he thinks he’s making in stopping Prysm from taking over the world descend over himself like a red mist, masking uncontrollable acts of violence on his part. The comic’s creative team isn’t content to simply depict this through Alex, however. The reader is drawn into these challenging worlds as much as Alex is, creating an engrossingly distorting effect when reading the comic. Artwork, color, dialogue, and plot slice into each other to form a jagged, uncomfortable atmosphere throughout the comic in which the reader is initially immersed, only to be hung, drawn, and quartered by its unconventional structure.
The most apparent technique Alex Automatic uses to illustrate the mental anguish Alex is trapped in is the usage of color. The core team of Campbell, Corcoran, and Cooper helps to maintain a visual continuity from issue to issue whilst the comic itself evolves over time, with Cooper’s colors remaining a vital component. As a visual indicator of when Alex is suffering one of his Joe 90/The Prisoner/Captain Scarlet hallucinations, Cooper uses thick, bold, primary colors that sharply clash with each other. When coupled with Corcoran’s bruising line art, the energy these sequences radiate is designed not only to doff the comic’s cap to spy-fi of yestercentury but also to juxtapose with how color is used elsewhere in the comic when it’s combined with the art and storytelling techniques. When set within reality, Cooper brings out a murkier color palette that dominates the pages, as if smeared all over. When imagining himself as Alex Automatic, these scenes play out like a television episode out of any number of retro-futuristic spy dramas.
Issue 1 & 2: Alex Automatic & Bokeh’s Machine
This technique is most apparent throughout the first issue. During the comic, journalists Colin and Alice attempt to rescue Alex from a secret experimental facility, seemingly driven only by a sensationalist story rather than any feelings of empathy for Alex’s predicament. A hazy collection of reds, browns, and blacks craft an oppressive atmosphere within this secret facility, increasing in intensity when the rescue goes awry and Alex, Colin, and Alice end up on the run from Prysm, who are intent on reclaiming their top prize. Alice and Colin drive away with Alex in tow into the dead of night, the colors morphing into a predominately blackened style that continues to brawl with the rugged yet buoyant psychedelic moods shown in Alex’s fantasies as he continues to experience them. The colors of reality remain consistent, whereas the colors in fantasy are diverse, yet maintain the flow of the fantasy sequences through their stylish execution. The dialogue of this first issue also has an air of being hyper-stylized in an attempt to hamper any recognizable flow, adding to the disorientation. It flirts between vague, poetic junctions that ultimately come off as if Campbell is still navigating how the wordplay of Alex Automatic should function. The dialogue would become tighter in its execution following this debut chapter.
It’s also during this first issue that the narrative tone of Alex Automatic is cemented early on. Story-wise, we lurch violently from reality to fantasy, story and art interlocking that conditions the reader to feel immediately disoriented. Aiding in this disorientation is the fact that issue #1 and issue #2 are relatively self-contained stories, their unique atmospheres bolstered by their standalone nature. What throws the reader off-balance, even more, is the gulf between issues #1 and #2. Colin and Alice’s introduction in Alex Automatic is as swift as their exit, as both are killed off by the time issue #1 draws to a close, to be replaced by fellow Prysm escapees Harry and Wylde. How much time has passed between issues #1 and #2, we don’t know, but issue #2 wants to show us how Alex is making a vain attempt to adjust to normal life, having evaded his captors from all sides until now. Issue #2 feels more confident and assertive in showing Alex’s mental schism in being unable to distinguish fact from fiction. Throughout the issue, Alex believes Harry and Wylde to be Prysm agents, specifically Prysm’s chief scientist Bokeh, who has developed a device that can transform matter into fiction. It’s very meta, but it also increases the comic’s central dissociative concepts in how Alex’s trust, in reality, is misplaced, as both trust and reality continue to be eroded.
Alex and Bokeh
Alex’s attempts to dodge Harry and Wylde have expectations thrown when Harry and Wylde reveal that they’re working against Prysm. The pair disclose that Alex wasn’t the only one to have been mentally manipulated by the organization and that they require Alex’s help. Alex is disbelieving in their claim, injecting a vintage Cold War tone of “spy versus spy” into the comic. Alex makes a desperate leap into a nearby ocean to put more distance between his captors, with the comic’s final page showing Alex now imagining himself as an ardent viewer of the Alex Automatic TV series itself. Fiction within fiction…within fiction? The effect this has is like a mind wipe, on as much the reader as Alex. It’s as if the comic is trying to comfort us, that the violent, dramatic scenes in the comic are just the work of fiction. But it’s a deceitful comfort, not just for the grotesque, laughing figure within the television set itself, but what is revealed as the story continues from here. The understated twist here that threads back into the events of issue #1 is that Prysm is, in fact, not the product of Alex’s imagination, but a very real organization, hinted at in issue #1 but confirmed here, the walls between reality and fantasy coming crashing down even more so.
As the story of Alex Automatic gains in confidence, so too does the artwork. In the issue’s opening scenes, Alex is shown trying to do some shopping, an act of domesticity that captures how Alex is trying to transition into something resembling normality, only to be hounded by further non-Prysm operatives, led by Harry and Wylde. As Alex attempts to shop, he’s dressed in a striking dark blue denim jacket and flat cap, attempting to mask his face, whilst all around him the real world appears grey and monotonous. Alex is a psychedelic hangover adjusting to the monochromatic reality of everyday life that encroaches around him. From here, Alex’s attempts to evade further capture see him imagining the fictional dangers of Bokeh. These scenes, placed within a jungle setting, are dense in hot colors as Alex tears his way through a steamy landscape, illuminated in thick, bulging oranges and greens. The brawniness of Corcoran’s artwork hugely complements these scenes, giving them a thick, pulsating power.
Issue 3: Verite
This Week’s Episode…
Alex Automatic shifts into a higher gear from issue #3 onward. Having established a relatively strict formula with its first two issues of Alex lurching from one reality to the next, issue #3 looks back to look forward, a characteristically paradoxical move on the comic’s part that maintains that inescapable sense of dissociation. Issue #3 pries open the backstory of the relationship between Alex Automatic and Professor Zero, revealing that the pair were once allies before becoming enemies. The issue’s firm embracing of the wider story at play here feels like a deliberate acknowledgment that the formula built up early on in the comic’s run was in danger of becoming exhausted, suggested further by how the events of issue #3 bleed into issues #4 and #5. Now functioning like a serialized story, the piercing unevenness of Alex Automatic’s first two issues is sanded down to become a smoother ride, story-wise.
The bursting hot colors of the first two issues that signified which of Alex’s mental states we’re placed in and also implanted a sense of perverse fun into the comic have just about been scrubbed clean, a further acknowledgment that it was a set-up the creative team didn’t want to risk running into the ground. Once again, a displacement of time is used in the comic’s opening scenes, creating a jagged link between the end of issue #2 and the beginning of issue #3. Alex has now been successfully captured by Harry and Wylde, how exactly isn’t divulged. Alex is shown to be secured and dreaming of his past, but rather than frame Alex and Zero’s flashback sequences of their past relationship as another episode of the imaginary Alex Automatic TV series, issue #3 pays subversive tribute to the accompanying comic book spin-offs that would accompany the 1960s/’70s spy-fi adventure TV series, like TV21 or Countdown, by framing these flashback sequences as from TV Smash, a fictional comic which carries a comic spin-off of Alex Automatic itself. An additional layer of reality is formed when Alex imagines himself as the writer of the strip. Throughout these fantastically surreal sequences and those set in reality, Cooper adheres to a maroon-ish color scheme uniting reality and fantasy, mostly abandoning the typical clashes of color from issues #1 and #2.
Alex and Johnny
That abandoning of the different styles is what gives issue #3 a unique personality within Alex Automatic. The scenes of Alex captured by Harry and Wylde are illuminated with a dark blue hue, melting into the maroon-tinted worlds of fantasy. Likewise, Corcoran’s art gains a significant sensitivity in its execution during this issue as its character-focused storytelling grips the reader. Indeed, as the comic continues to evolve, Corcoran’s artwork gains a swaggering confidence that livens up the action set pieces, but also never disregards the quieter moments of horror, drama, and dread these characters are forced to endure. When so much of Alex Automatic’s identity appears rooted in its non-linear execution and hugely diverse colors, Corcoran’s artwork functions like a concealed weapon within Alex’s mechanical person.
Some brief sequences of retro-futuristic action pop up, but the issue mostly concerns itself with showing Alex’s disintegrating relationship with Zero, whose real name is Johnny Jenkins, framed through Johnny being something of a sidekick to Alex’s adventures in the TV Smash comic, but Alex then being forced to kill him off owing to the sidekick’s unpopularity with readers. The action of the first two issues is replaced by a taut horror motif when Johnny returns not in the comic, but in Alex’s office, tearing himself from the fantasy of the comic to the fantasy of Alex’s sedated-induced flashbacks and grotesquely assaulting him. The icing on the cake is that the scenes of Harry and Wylde capturing Alex are themselves an induced reality. Alex, Harry, and Wylde are in fact, and presumably have always been, the prisoners of Professor Zero, placed in a comatose state and subjected to espionage fantasies so extreme that they believe they are fighting against one reality for the security of another. Or rather, Zero’s true self: Colonel Jenkins.
The head-swirling mixture of numerous levels of reality, emotionally-charged characterizations between Alex and Johnny, and advanced approach to the comic’s colors and art swell together in making issue #3 of Alex Automatic its first genuine classic and an undeniably high point of the comic from which other entries can be judged on their creative success. Through the foundations built up by issues #1 and #2, what shouldn’t be cohesive throughout issue #3 somehow slots together to maintain a warped version of reality that loses no narrative momentum or engagement. Issue #3 feels like the most creatively successful example of the dissociation that Alex Automatic has been striving to conjure since the first two issues. There is a fluidity to issue #3 that’s a rarity elsewhere throughout this series.
Issues 4 & 5: Never Were There More Devoted Brothers & The Fiercest of Creatures
The first three issues of Alex Automatic were released roughly within a year of each other from November 2016 to September 2018, but a prolonged period fell before the next installment was published. June of 2020 brought with it issues #4 and #5 as a double-issue, its two-part story acting as the final push for Alex Automatic’s first great leap, as well as setting up a climactic confrontation with the story’s true antagonist. Spiraling out of the shocking twist from issue #3, the height at which Alex Automatic could deconstruct reality, it’s no coincidence that this two-part story is the first installment in the Alex Automatic saga to place itself firmly within reality. In true Alex Automatic fashion, however, things aren’t so simple.
Issues #4 and #5 can be considered one prolonged chapter, as both traverse three separate timelines in Alex’s life; coloring in the trauma of the past, the drama of the present, colorist, and teasing the future. They’re dense with plot developments and maneuver the overall story to the next level. A feverish search for some concrete confirmation of reality is spread throughout these two issues and gratifyingly, that reality isn’t just within reach, but firmly clasped by its characters. In this two-part story, Alex, Harry, and Wylde awake to find themselves in Prysm’s headquarters, released from Johnny’s capture. Harry’s questioning of whether she and Wylde are truly awake, along with her proceeding to land Harry a punch to the arm to confirm they’re not remaining trapped in some Prysm-induced coma, is as much for the audience’s benefit as it is theirs. Suspecting that they were captured during the events of the second issue, Johnny has a double-edged reason for bringing this trio to his castle.
Johnny has brought Alex in, in particular, to offer him his freedom but also to deliver devastating news. Johnny has presented Alex with a regulator device, implanted within his ear, to drown out his psychotic attacks. Corcoran and Cooper live up to these quiet, confident scenes with warm, pleasant colors reminiscent of Alex’s “episodes”, but there’s a strong earthiness to them that works to confirm the sincerity of Johnny’s offer, and that Alex, and the reader, are very much in reality. That sincerity spills over into the scenes of issue #4 that are set in the past, detailing how Alex joined Prysm as a secret agent before being slowly subjected to the organization’s horrific mind-altering experiments. Stripped of color entirely, they’re presented in a striking black-and-white style that communicates a raw immediacy.
Tusk & the Woodcutter
The flashbacks in issue #5 hit with a different emotional core. Having been fully subjected to the terrors of Prysm, these flashbacks sketch out Alex’s relationship with Lara Kohl, otherwise known under her assassin alias as the Woodcutter. In the immediate aftermath of Alex’s mental unraveling, Kohl is shown to be the one who discovers this lost, robotic soul and attempts to nurse him back to health. The character was first seen briefly back in issue #1 but is given the emotional context here. Johnny’s other reason to secure Alex is to alert him that an extremely villainous figure has now captured Kohl, the technopath known as Tusk, who is revealed to be the genuine antagonist of Alex Automatic. Tusk is an experiment of Prysm’s which, like Alex, spiraled out of control, but unlike Alex has embraced a villainous nature. Johnny’s proposition that Harry and Wylde be the ones who try to rescue Kohl and capture Tusk whilst dangling the prospect of freedom in front of Alex if and when the mission is successful isn’t enough. The regulator may have reverted him to being an ordinary man but, as this comic has shown us, Alex is multi-faceted.
The issue and the first arc of Alex Automatic ends with Alex escaping from Prysm, vowing to hunt down Tusk, who is watching from afar with Kohl trapped, gleefully awaiting his arrival and impatient to ambush Alex with a new level of mental horror. Once again, Campbell brings the ammunition for Cooper and Corcoran to set their guns blazing. The shifting timelines throughout this duo of issues are wonderfully captured through complex (but never complicated) art and color, delivered through diverse locations. The lucid exoticism of Prysm’s headquarters, the otherworldly dangers of Tusk’s hideout, the blistering, newspaper-monochromatic details of Alex’s flashbacks to being coerced by Prysm, the rustic noir coating of Alex’s past life with Lara – a vast world is created in this dup of issues that teem with danger and unease.
Tusk is given minimal scenes in the comic, but his presence is thrust upon the reader to great effect. In a final, extreme example of how Alex Automatic kicks dissociation between what’s real and what’s fiction into the reader’s face, there are several instances throughout this double-issue in which Tusk tears themself through the panels of the comic, a deadly evil that upsets the reader’s enjoyment of the double-issue. Issues #4 and #5 are meant to be read as a continuous package and as such have a sprawling nature and are less concerned with maintaining the muscular disjunction between realities that past issues have upheld. They task themselves with tying up loose ends that have been lying loose since the first issue. The plot is the biggest factor of these two issues, rather than atmosphere. Purposefully then, issues #4 and #5 have the least strongest links to the wider themes of dissociation, simply because they advance Alex’s story along for him to no longer be experiencing the horrors that Prysm has subjected him to.
Is this the end for Alex Automatic?
Much like Alex’s biomechanical gadgetry he believes is embedded within his body, Alex Automatic uses different methods to utilize its core theme of dissociation. The rapid-fire atmospheres that brutally grip the reader in the first two issues are an instant punch to the gut to open the comic with settle into something slower and quite unsettling with issue #3, before easing into the complex layered narratives of issues #4 and #5. Despite these differences, dissociation is hardwired into the comic to such a degree that the reader is made to feel the same volatile disconnection from the world around them that Alex feels.
Despite the clarity that comes into view from issue #3 onwards for both the reader and Alex, who knows what fresh terrors await Alex as he embarks on tracking down and confronting Tusk in future issues? If Alex Automatic has taught us anything, it’s that this comic can’t entirely be trusted to inform us of what’s real. Whatever futures Alex Automatic will distort us with, its handling of the loss of identity within a world our hero can never be sure of, framed through a retro-futuristic adventure that’s unexpectedly emotionally-fuelled, is thrilling to watch unfold.
But Alex Automatic is also more than impenetrable psychological action-drama or pulpy homage. It’s a comic that finds a unique language for the destruction of personal identity and the swirling, uncontrollable disconnect from an intrusive world. It’s a near-impossible mission for Alex to untangle himself from fantasy, to plug himself into a pre-Prysm safety of existence. He is a changed man, searching for a reality he can no longer be certain is real. That emotional undercurrent functions as the almighty wave that propels the intense adventures of Alex along its surface. By the time you reach the end of “Where Is My Mind?”, the one thing you can be reassured about is that Alex Automatic swells in confidence in knowing what kind of comic it wants to be. If the comic leaves you with one particular question, perhaps it’s this: Has the merciless destruction of individual identity coupled with the futility of attempting to navigate one false depleting reality from the other ever been so entertaining?
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