Heimdall Security Solutions has lost a prototype surveillance device. The SVK is unique, revolutionary and walked out of the door with a young researcher. Marley, the company’s head needs it back and the only man he can trust to find it is his old colleague Thomas Woodwind. Woodwind, a paranoid surveillance expert, sets out to locate the SVK along with the help of his engineer Tommy Bulmer. Marley and Woodwind both have agendas, both have pieces hidden on the board. The only question is which one of them will outmanouvere the other.
This sort of cold, near future world is fertile ground for Warren Ellis and like books like Orbiter and Ocean, SVK is about the effect a revolutionary piece of technology has on the world around it. However, where those books go for overt science fictional elements, SVK is smaller, quieter. This is a story that happens on the streets of London and focusses on a credit card-sized revolution. The SVK is going to change the world, the only question is whose hands it will do that in. That’s where the book’s true Ellisian qualities lie; in the ideological struggle between a man who wants to protect the system and a man who wants to protect the people inside the system.
Ellis loves this sort of character, the damaged, crumpled idealist and Thomas Woodwind is the latest distillation of a line which takes in Spider Jerusalem, Michael Jones and Richard Fell. He’s a good man with a bad past, someone who is completely at home with violence but completely separated from emotional and physical connnection. Woodwind is a man without a country by accident and, through his two feature-obscuring Bluetooth headsets, a man without a face by choice.
That idea of invisibility, and things being dragged out into the light, lies at the heart of the book. Thomas Woodwind is dragged back into the country by an old acquaintance, the SVK is a piece of equipment designed to render the invisible visible and even the design of the book revolves around this concept. SVK ships with an analogue of the SVK device the story revolves around. It’s a torch instead of the pair of contact lenses Woodwind but the concept is the same; render the invisible, visible, show what people are thinking and through that, take control of them. It’s a neat, horrific concept in the story, a classic slice of Ellis near-future technoloy, but the torch turns it into something different. We see the banality of most people’s thoughts, see the transparency of the men who threaten Thomas Woodwind’s lives and, at two crucial points, we see something utterly beautiful. First off, when he first puts the SVK lenses Woodwind is spellbound by a young Muslim’s calm, polite faith. It’s a lovely moment, this literal visualisation of faith, of serenity and belief drawing Woodwind, a man who has no faith whatsoever, up short.
The second is the book’s finest moment. Bulmer tries the lenses on and sees what his girlfriend is really thinking as she storms in to pick an argument with him. The contrast between what she’s saying and what she’s thinking is heartbreaking and there’s one panel which is just raw with enotion and fragility and compassion. Ellis has a reputation for being one of the harder edged comic writers but moments like this are where his work shines. Humanity endures, humanity thrives, even in a world where your thoughts are projected over your head.
The book plays with this idea throughout, even adding extra detail to the supplementary material. This is another area Ellis has pioneered, the idea of adding content to single issues of comics and the material here is fascinating. William Gibson provides the foreword, Paul Gravett provides a brief history of the thought balloon in comics, Jamais Cascio looks at the possibly dark future of Augmented Reality and a double page of faux ads includes the Uni-Slacks, trousers that adjust to their owner and a box of 50 Facebook likes. It’s a nice idea, mirroring old fashioned comic ads and turning them on their head. Gogamestorm.com round out the book with the Ideation Innovation Centre, an 8-bit game style snakes and ladders look at corporate development hell. Abandon hope all ye who enter the pre-approval process.
SVK is a book about invisibility and what happens when it’s taken away. It’s a book that plays with the idea of information suppression and release and cheekily keeps you wrong footed until the last panel of the last page. It would be easy to write it off as a gimmick but there’s much more here than just a comic with a free torch. Ellis’s script is inventive, compassionate and unpleasant and D’Israeli’s art is the perfect detail heavy, tense companion to it. This is smart, precise, tailored storytelling that creates something new out of some very odd cloth. Give it a look. Then, give it a second one. You’ll be surprised.