Writer: Christopher Sebela Art: Jen Hickman Publisher: Vault Comics
WHAT IS IT?
TEST is unlike anything else out there. The genre shifts dramatically in issue #2, from a cyberpunk-lite search for a "magical" land that feels unlikely to solve all the protagonist's problems, to a surreal melting pot of future technology, supernatural mystery, and themes of mental health.
If you take Elliot from Mr. Robot, and give him the technical body augments of Adam Jensen from the Deus Ex series, then have him go on the run, like in The Fugitive and then drop him into an inexplicable pit of weirdness similar to TV's Legion's brand of odd, you might get close to what TEST encapsulates.
WHAT'S IT ABOUT?
(Spoilers for Issue #1)
Aleph Null is in Laurelwood, the town they thought would solve all their problems. However, it doesn't seem like their problems are solved as they hide from their pursuers and encounter a level of "Weird" they weren't prepared for.
That's, um...about all I can say. Between spoilers and the level of strange mystery introduced this issue, let's just say you're gonna have to read it if you want to know more.
First off, just take all the bullets from our review of issue #1 and add these bullets to them, because there're a whole lot more reasons why this book is so well done than just these.
Second, without even getting to the meat-'n'-potatoes of the comic, I just want to say to the legal copy on the credits page with the lead-in, "This comic contains the following ingredients": I see you, and this is a delightfully discoverable Big Pharma thing of you to do. Well done.
OK, I promise I'll move on past the credits page, but seriously, the hand-drawn circuits here bring an organic feel to the very inorganic concept of technology. This merging of organic and inorganic is an ongoing theme in TEST, and you see it in the book's narrative and art as well as its design and lettering. (I'd go into this more, but again, spoilers!)
The concept of "low-tech sorcery" or "enchantment through obstinance" is not only fascinating in itself, but even more so in a comic rooted so strongly in sci-fi/technological themes.
I want to warn you: I'm going to spend the next several bullets gushing over Christopher Sebela's writing, which feels very Palahniuk in TEST. Not in the way where it's filled with odd statistics or far-out trivia, but that good Palahniuk, where he cuts to the core of humanity through imperfect characters and their traumatized personal philosophies.
Speaking of Sebela's characterizations, they're a delight. From the man called "Tedward," who tries not to curse when he can help it, to Aleph's damage and how we can identify with its core but not to the extreme they take it to.
Juxtaposition is another trick Sebela uses to great effect in TEST. The juxtaposition of the “I left okay behind in an emergency room at twelve years old” caption with the “I’m okay” speech bubble. Then, how the word is used to mean different things, changing with the narration (all this is shown in the page below) and crescendoing in a way that breaks the pattern and moves the story forward. Later, the juxtaposition of “this is for your own good” from two sources who probably can’t be trusted (and how that further defines Null's worldview). And it's not always a repetition or parallelism through words. Other times, it’s thematic: water comes into play a few times in the captions, and then it's brought to life visually soon after.
Beyond characterization and writing style, there's also a fair amount of philosophy in TEST. “A junkie in search of an addiction” is such a strange concept. It feels backwards, but it makes you think about a greater question, like what skills or shortcomings lie dormant in our personal DNA that wouldn't get brought out they'd never found a stimulating match. If that junkie never found their perfect addiction, would they spend their life in search of it, but never actually becoming a junkie? Or, from the "skills" perspective, what if the greatest computer programmer the world has ever seen had been born a hundred years ago? Would they have been a nobody? There's also a great discussion in the vein of the Ship of Theseus some philosophy lovers might enjoy.
Don't let all those bullets on Sebela's writing skill eclipse everything Jen Hickman bring to TEST. One of Hickman's many strengths is in bringing complex concepts to the page. One spread in particular shows scenes from the past and present, and it's almost as if the past encroaches more and more on the present until something happens to snap Aleph out of their reverie and force them to focus on the present.
As mentioned earlier, Hickman brings their own interpretation of the organic/inorganic theme, making for a sort of storytelling unity – a piece where it feels like all the creators are working together to tell one story instead of their own.
Hickman's splash page at the end is especially hard-hitting, a wonderful use of the page-turn.
Harry Saxon's muted colors bring a lot to TEST's unique voice. And his pattern work in the wallpaper and toward the end of the issue are very pleasing to the eye! Honestly, the texture he brings to his colors in general is just insane, and truly enjoyable to see.
Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou is always a pleasure to see letter a comic. My favorites are in his creative flourishes. He matches Hickman's vibration effect in their line art with one character's word balloon. He hand-draws his sound effects, and in one place, even merges it perfectly with an element in the art so that it looks like a single piece. His typeface and balloon choice for Lenore contrasts with other characters' styles, giving more of a ragged texture to her voice. Even subtle things, like positioning the balloon outside the door frame in the image below, show his extreme skill at thinking creatively when lettering a page.
WHAT DOESN'T WORK?
TEST can sometimes be so trippy and high-concept, it might be a little difficult to follow along with the finer points of what's actually happening. But you get the basics, and it might make more sense as the issues go on.
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.
There's a lot yet to be revealed and worked through in TEST. Needless to say, though, it's one of Vault's most impressive titles, disruptive and unique and innovative to the point where it'd fit right into the Vertigo line had it been made years earlier.
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:
The image(s) used in this article are from a comic strip, webcomic or the cover or interior of a comic book. The copyright for this image(s) is likely owned by either the publisher of the comic, the writer(s) and/or artist(s) who produced the comic. It is believed that the use of this image(s) qualifies as fair use under the United States copyright law. The image is used in a limited fashion in an educational manner in order to illustrate the points of the author and not for the purpose of entertainment or substituting the original work. It is believed the use of this image has had no impact on the market value of the original work.
All Vault Comics characters and the distinctive likeness(es) thereof are trademarks of and copyright Vault Comics or their respective owners. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED