Weapons are where you find them

Despite what the comic intelligensia tell you, neither Alan Moore nor Neil Gaiman are the best graphic novellists of the past twenty years. ‘Sandman’ is vastly over-rated (except the fantastic ‘Brief Lives’ sequence, and yes, I do understand it, now go stand in your corner you proto-goth-pseud) and Alan Moore went off the boil around ‘Stormwatch’, which was…awful. The best, or at least most consistently astounding comic author of the past generation is, without contest, Warren Ellis.

I think I first came across his writing in the seminal political opera that was ‘Doom 2099’. A forlorn, unloved Marvel book, but the writing struck me as fantastic. (And even the art for the last run of the book took on its own brilliance.) An English writer, certainly something special. So fast forward quite a few years and here he is, producing something that is altogether unique. And expensive. Ten of those Great British Pounds for a single forty page, single story, singular book. It has an introduction from William Gibson, praise enough to start with. It has D’Israeli art, for those readers of a certain age, praise enough to start with. And it was written by Ellis, which is always enough for me.

So aside from the rabid fanboi in me, what does this deliver for the money? Black and white, rampant paranoid security agencies losing precious gadgetry. (Oh, Universal Exports, how I loved seeing your sign there.) So far, so…generic. But if you have read anything of Warren’s, you will know it will be so far from that. Inventive, creative tech, oddball characters not quite fleshed out (it is only forty pages) begging for some backstory, more backstory, more story.

Which leads me to what I have been avoiding mentioning. There is a reason for the cost. There is a reason for only forty pages. But mentioning it without weaving in some story of my own just isn’t my way, let me meander for a paragraph. Back when I was chasing girls (in a different way that I do now), very few were…appreciative of graphic literature. Or some were, but not of the graphic literature which involved speech bubbles. Very few enjoyed this with me, but then again, very few enjoyed aching hip bands you won’t have heard of. Or staying up to 3am with me just so I could show them the austere beauty of the craters of the moon, or resolving double stars. But certainly not baby comics with the thoughts encased in clouds.

ReinventBut SVK is slightly different. Not only do you get this limited print run of an indie book, produced lovingly in London, it comes with a torch. Yes, this torch has text on it that fits in with the story, as does even the sticker on the acid-free polybag (with rigid cardboard insert) that is shipped with. To save the comic-geek in you having to do it yourself, while trying not to spoil the sealing sticker. A torch. Press the button, oh look, shiny, shiny purple light. Purple..light. That would be ultra-violet, no? Which when you shine on certain panels reveals…more. Ambient thoughts, added meat to the story. (Personally the old hobo with a beard mumbling ‘boobs boobs boobs’ on the tube was a little too close to home for comfort…) But it is a neat device. Sure, it is only a gimmick, but you see what he was trying to achieve, and achieve he did. You could go further into the comic, even after reading, shining on the fake adverts dotted around, seeing what you can find.

There is the usual violence, the usual wisecracks, the usual (though in the grand scheme of comics, unusual) wit and verve. And there is ultraviolet. There are a couple of essays, and the whole package is just classy. Heavy paper, lovingly produced. And the ultraviolet ink isn’t cheap, which is why it is so expensive. The first print run sold out in 48 hours, and deservedly so. I am sure it would be prohbitively expensive to produce a whole TPB in this way, but damn, I would be tempted to pick it up. The story contains some many ideas you want him to write more, to see where he goes with it.

This is a writer who knows his medium, controls his medium and has fun with his medium. Sure, it isn’t the book to get your boyfriend or girlfriend to change their mind about comics, sure it is the book to wind your wife up when she finds out that it was a tenner, but I am sure it is a great book. Sure, the ultraviolet reveals are a gimmick, albeit a funny, inventive one, but it sure all adds up to something special. Something short, but something special.

Go get SVK.

Review | SVK by Warren Ellis & D’Israeli

Written by Warren Ellis
Art by D’Israeli
Published by BERG
Available for £10 from http://berglondon.com/products/svk/

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.

Alasdair Stuart