Writer: Christopher Sebela Art: Jen Hickman Publisher: Vault Comics
WHAT IS IT?
TEST is a modern on-the-run/in-search-of-a-miracle-land story that features an odd, neurotic protagonist.
OK. Take Elliot from Mr. Robot, and give him the technical body augments of Adam Jensen from the Deus Ex series. Have him go on the run, like in The Fugitive. Now, give him the "I just have to get to this mystery land that will solve all my problems" motivation from Isola.
WHAT'S IT ABOUT?
Aleph Null is on the run from the government. To be fair, the government has put a lot of money into them (over $1.5 Million, in fact), testing on them. Making changes. Adding technology.
It's not like Null didn't ask for this. They volunteered for it. It's just...all that experimentation can lead to side effects. And all those side effects can make for not the best life. But Null finds out there's hope for a fix. A place they have to get to that can help them.
They just have to find it. Oh, and also dodge all the government agents searching high and low for them.
Aleph Null in the name of the main character. It's a unique name. After typing it into a generator to see if it was an acronym for another word or phrase (it wasn't), I did some research. Apparently, "Aleph" has linguistic roots in other languages, where it can mean the absence of a true consonant. "Null," often synonymous with "void," has a pretty obvious meaning: zero. Also one of the two characters in binary code. But Aleph Null basically translates to "Nothingness." Which is why it’s interesting their face is blocked out on the cover, and they allegedly change their appearance so much, their true self is a mystery. Also of note: Aleph is derived from the West Semitic word for “ox” – something that may have inspired Jen Hickman to give them a septum piercing.
If you're wondering, I'm using the pronoun "them" in this review because I don't think their gender was defined, at least in this issue. And I really like that, either from a "representation" standpoint or just a refusal of the need to define characters' genders on principle.
The comic's opening question, "What's the thing you hate most about yourself?" leads well into the body modification themes. It also reminds me of that old TV show, Nip/Tuck, where the plastic surgeons asked their potential clients to tell them what they don't like about themselves. It cuts to a universal human characteristic: we all have things we don't like about ourselves. We'd all change them if we could.
Sebela writes Aleph as chatty, anxious, and neurotic. It makes for a character who doesn't necessarily feel likable so much as three-dimensional, and lays the groundwork for a protagonist who is an unreliable narrator. The fact that Null does narrate the comic makes that even more likely.
Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou helps sell in that personality, separating Aleph's lines into smaller bubbles and bolding words often to drive home a dialogue style fit for a junkie-type character.
That sense of chaos gets expanded to the whole book with a choice of dialogue typeface that isn't perfectly aligned. The letters have different heights and widths, and they feel intentionally messy to match Null and their story. This contrasts well with their technological helper's, word balloons, shown below. These still look hand-drawn, matching the comic's style, but also look so much more put-together and friendly.
Also shown below is an example of some of the brilliant at by Jen Hickman and Harry Saxon. In this panel in particular, we get a lot of negative space to frame Aleph's situation. We also get introduced to Aleph's digital assistant/companion, Mary. Framed right smack in the middle of the panel, Mary's dialogue is unmissable, a bright and cheery voice contrasting with the hot and desolate country and the darkness of Aleph and the remains of a gas station.
Mary is a smart narrative device, a charmingly unique way of telling us about Aleph while also helping to move the story forward.
Harry Saxon's warm yellows and browns match the warm Midwest tone and really drive home how out-of-place Aleph is there. It also makes the visit to the grocery store seem alien, with its cool blues and white. The way Hickman draws its aisles, they feel curved and looming and claustrophobic.
That's one aspect of the beauty and the brilliance of Jen Hickman's line art in TEST. The way Hickman subtly makes you feel uncomfortable and anxious helps you identify more easily with Aleph. As mentioned, Saxon's color palette also helps drive home that very specific feeling of anxiety that comes with being a misanthrope.
As mentioned below, Hickman's panel borders are straight, often laid-out in a way where they're all aligned and making maximum use of the page. However, it seems like this changes as Aleph becomes less stable, and Hickman uses that misalignment and angular panels to help fuel that tension and anxiety.
I love how much thought is given to the balloon placements in this. I'm not sure how much was in Sebela's original script, or if it was all Hassan (I'd believe either, because both are massively talented and thoughtful about how to use the medium in innovative ways), but often, the exposition overrides other characters’ dialogue. It brings an air of self-importance to the page and to Aleph. In another place in the issue, Saxon's colors and Otsmane-Elhaou's balloon placements lead the eye in untraditional order/direction, spiraling to the center of the page. It's a daring choice, but it pays off in innovation and style.
Christopher Sebela's writing style is fascinating. Sebela channels Warren Ellis in his dialogue's aggressive playfulness. His damaged-yet-brilliant protagonist who always seems to be one step ahead of the reader feels very steeped in Ellis. Maybe it's no coincidence that Tim Daniel & Nathan Gooden chose to homage Transmetropolitan for their Vault Vintage variant cover.
Sebela's characterization of Aleph is wild. As mentioned earlier, Null is a misanthrope, but you also see how they're a very damaged character. You see this in their actions, sure, but also in the way they talk about them, comparing real world experiences of his to operating on himself and how that gets easier, like that’s something everyone has experienced. This is furthered by haunting lines, spoken nonchalantly, revealing how they perceive the world. I'd quote them here, but I feel like they're better in the moment.
Aleph seems to be written as a nonbinary character. While this is fantastic just from a representation standpoint (and brought to life by a team who identifies as nonbinary, queer, and trans), it's doubly interesting for a technologically forward book like this one. Null is partially merged with technology, something that works off binary code, but everything about them, from their name to their gender, is non-binary. It's really fascinating. I wonder how much of it will have bearing on the story later.
WHAT DOESN'T WORK?
Some readers may find it interesting that Otsmane-Elhaou chose a lettering style that looks hand-drawn. It doesn't match the straight-bordered panels, and it's strangely personal and organic for a story and protagonist (and their assistant) who is so technology-forward. That being said, it helps bring that personal touch to a book that may otherwise feel too cold or impersonal, as science fiction can sometimes be. It also serves to remind us that Aleph is a mess. They're not a robot. Plus, I personally never mind a more natural lettering style.
I was kind of bummed Otsmane-Elhaou wasn't represented in the available WiFi network balloons, like Sebela, Hickman and Saxon were. However, this is a tiny disappointment compared to how cool the representation of the networks looked and discovering the other creators' names as part of it. (NOTE: Hassan let me know he put his dog's name in there, instead, which is AWESOME.)
The solicit copy talks more about Laurelwood than this first issue does, it seems like. Hearing more about how they're "test-marketing the future with tech that can’t possibly exist yet, and won’t for decades" might help readers connect the title of the comic to the book itself.
WHY SHOULD I READ IT?
Null may look like a cyber-punk, but TEST doesn't take place in a cyberpunk world. It takes place in our world. At least, one very similar to our own. Reading TEST feels like watching a piece of technology work. There are many moving parts, each clicking and whirring away, doing its tiny job. But together, all these pieces make a symphony.
TEST is a new play on the hero's journey and the story of the fugitive on the lam from the law. The destination may or may not exist, and may or may not solve all of our hero's myriad problems. As for our hero, they're ridden with neuroses and trauma brought on by the predicament they put theirself in. We know they're about as worthy of our trust as a junkie you haven't talked to since high school who suddenly reached out to you via Facebook Messenger about an exciting, new business opportunity. But at the same time, there's something likable about them. You want them to succeed. You want to learn more about them and this world.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
If you like the writing:
Crowded, Vol. 1 by Christopher Sebela, Ro Stein & Ted Brandt
Queen by Jamie Me & Bernard Gita
Hex Loader by Dan Whitehead & Conor Boyle
If you like the art:
Moth & Whisper by Ted Anderson & Jen Hickman
Vagrant Queen by Magdalene Visaggio & Jason Smith
Fearscape by Ryan O'Sullivan & Andrea Mutti
ABOUT THE CREATORS
Christopher Sebela – Writer
Has an adorable dog that he loves very much
Multitalented: Used to be a journalist and a graphic designer
The comic he writes, Crowded, has just been nominated for an Eisner Award for the third time
Jen Hickman – Artist
From their website: "Their primary passions are exciting narratives, good coffee, and exceptional grammar."
Their art style is very versatile, able to change a great deal from comic to comic. It's also a good balance between clean and detailed or messy for some great texture without feeling overwrought.
You can buy their sketchbooks and comics on their Gumroad
Harry Saxon – Colorist
Outlander: Lives in England, but born in Greece
Test of Time: Has worked as an independent illustrator and colorist since 1999
Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou – Letterer
Multitalented: Edits PanelxPanel, the digital magazine about comics, and also writes comics & films
Outlander: Lives in the south west of England
Has a comics podcast with Aditya Bidikar called Letters & Lines
Adrian F. Wassel – Editor
Name Recognition: Is the CCO & Editor-In-Chief of Vault Comics, and plays the role of editor on most, if not all, of Vault's titles
Also runs Vault with his brother and father
Has personally helped other comics creators in their endeavors, even for non-Vault comics work
Tim Daniel – Designer
Multitalented: Also does all the design work for Vault Comics
Inspired by others in the business: Sonia Harris, Sean Phillips, and Fonographics
Dream Team: Co-wrote Curse and Burning Fields with Michael Moreci
HOW DO I BUY IT?
TEST drops next week. Pre-order it from:
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