Nobrow Press, 120 pages, paperback, $18.95
If you open SP4RX and start reading, the first thing to cross your mind will probably be, “Wow, it’s weird that the artist decided to go with purple for this since it’s basically a monochromatic tome.” Then, because the narrative moves forward at breakneck speed, you’ll quickly realize that despite the strange art, with is something that Nobrow has become known for, SP4RX is an outstanding cyberpunk sci-fi graphic novel packed to the gills with action, explosions, social commentary, rogue robots, violence, and smart writing. By the end, however, you will have one complaint: it is over all too soon.
In the near future, the world is a tech-based place in which a class system has emerged. As a result, the world is divided into four levels. As always, the ruling rich are at the top and the rest of the people live below them. SP4RX is a young hacker who lives off grid in between levels. With the help of a friend, he hacks his way into corporations in order to extract valuable data that he then sells on the black market. Mega corporation Structus Industries has just introduced a new welfare program called the “Elpis Program” with the idea of leveling the cybernetic implant field by allowing people from the working class to apply for implants in order to become more efficient. It looks like a program that will empower those on the lower levels a bit, but there is something else behind the program, something that is as sinister as it will be bloody. SP4RX discovers it, and what follows is an explosive tale of survival against robots and high-level corruption in which he will join a group of rebels and find the future of all lower levels in his hands.
The best thing about single author/artist graphic novels is that you get the sense that the story has not been altered or diluted in any way. In SP4RX, McDonald’s vision is offered unfiltered and raw, which is something that shines thanks to his peculiar style. In this project, he is responsible for both art and words, and he brings to the table a strange mix of top-notch writing and bizarre, cartoonish graphics that work together very well. The result is a graphic novel that shares DNA with the work of authors such as William Gibson and Philip K. Dick and classics like Akira and the film Blade Runner while simultaneously feeling fresh and unique.
There are a few elements that make SP4RX special. The first is that it takes the term fast-paced very seriously. In fact, there are some pages in which the panels don’t contain dialogue and show SP4RX running or some violent action, and they demand to be “read” rapidly in order to match the frenetic pace of the narrative. From the first few pages, the story moves forward rapidly, and it only accelerates from there. Also, it would have been easy to stay in the realm of weird implants and violence, but McDonald decided to take things further and gave this narrative an emotional/intellectual depth that I wasn’t expecting and that was very welcome.
Lastly, there is a lot of story in just 120 pages. McDonald has a knack for using images to create the world his story takes place in and that allows him to focus on other things when it comes to dialogue. This last element gives SP4RX an edge and places it among the best graphic novels of 2016.
Techno-thrillers are nothing new, but finding one that feels fresh is a rare occurrence. SP4RX pulls off just that, and does it with a lot of heart, a few critiques to those things it references, and without ever losing its sense of humor. This is a must-read for fans of dystopian science fiction and all-around great graphic novels alike.
Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, and book reviewer living in Austin, TX. He’s the author of Zero Saints, Gutmouth, Hungry Darkness, and a few other things no one will ever read. You can find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.