In Review: SP4RX by Wren McDonald

SP4RX cover

Created by Wren McDonald
120 pages – Black and White and Purple

243mm x 170mm – Softback – £14.99
Published by NoBrow Press

The Story: “SP4RX is the story of mankind clawing for survival. Set in a future where a class system has emerged, the world is divided into four levels, with the elite ruling from the extravagant top-level.

“SP4RX, a young hacker who lives off grid, hacks into corporations and sells stolen data to wealthy buyers on the black market – just your average thief. Mega corporation Structus Industries introduces a welfare programme called the “Elpis Program”, which allows the working class to apply for Cybernetic implants to make workers more efficient. On the surface, it seems like a programme to empower the poor and allow them to rise to the ranks of the elite. But SP4RX soon discovers all is not as it seems… SP4RX and Structus are set on a collision course with the fate of humanity at stake in Wren McDonald’s latest sci-fi tale of survival and corruption!”

SP4RX - Sample Art

The Review: Of all of NoBrow’s recent releases, this is the hardest one to pin down. SP4RX is part cynical heist movie, part violent sci-fi horror comic and, partly, a big old wink at the reader. It is a book with sharp cornered layers. As you unpeel them, you might prick your finger on the sharply delivered humour. It is also a rattling rollercoaster of a read from page 1 onwards.

I missed Wren’s previous NoBrow offering of Cyber Realm (a NoBrow 17 x 23 release) but will now be heading back to grab a copy. His art style has an underground comix feel to its line work but also manages to fit in Geoff Darrow level detail and artistic noodling in some really impressive street scenes and beyond. Wren draws all the people and all the buildings and all the robots and ….. well, I’m sure you get what I’m saying. He never seems to cut corners and shows both the small quirky moments as well as the big open splash pages with panache and individuality. His faces have a lack of definition, yet still manage to express feelings (mostly anger) through a few simple lines.

The book is in black and white and purple on most pages, except for when Wren’s characters delve into a form of Virtual Reality in their web style systems. When this happens, the artist reverses the art into negative style space – and it’s impressively done. Wren loves to create a setting, this future world is crafted from top to bottom with weird robots, transformed humans and punk attitude.

SP4RX Sample Art

The character designs are huge fun and a couple of favourites of mine include Enoch Hirz,  the head of the rebel organisation W.R.A.I.T.H. (Weaponized Resistance Against Inequitable use of Technology against Humankind – and you thought S.H.I.E.L.D. was a complicated acronym?). He looks like he has a cut out metal sailor’s beard and is also sporting a clear plastic dome where his scalp used to be, so you can see the contours of his brain. He’s also angry all the time and fixated on fighting the system.

For this reader, one of the scene stealers was the robot scamp known as OBD-0.3. Initially found by SP4RX as just a robot head, he’s designed to scavenge and steal technology as he scoots about. A perfect analogue for the titular character himself. He becomes attached to SP4RX through an empathy chip and appears at opportune moments to save his bacon.

We also see some crafty winks in and around this cyber type genre. We get a little bit of consumerism gone mad, a la Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep from Philip K. Dick – very so often, Wren throws in a random one page advert for cybernetic enhancements or mood levellers. The 1984 parallels are painfully turned up in a setting that could only be imagined by the brutal steam roller of World Wide Web commercialism we see in this day and age. We also get a big old Akira nod as SP4RX finds a parked futuristic motorcycle and rides off on it – you can almost hear Tetsuo shouting “Oi, that’s my bike! after him.

The book isn’t without its serious side. In fact, one particular shoot out has Punisher level violence and death as SP4RX goes off on a firearms rampage – but it’s an irreverent story of redemption as well. The title character goes from selfish money-grabbing thief, prepared to ignore the world burning around him to actually stepping up and doing the right things, the responsible thing. It is also about the dangers of thoughtless conforming, the hive mentality where everyone agrees but fights each other to agree the most. Wearing badges and being part of the herd that punishes anyone who is different. (See what I said about layers?)

This is a book that has action, humour, politics and gritty science fiction a plenty. It is packed full of some excellent art and has a real edge to its storytelling. Wren McDonald is definitely someone I will be looking out for in the future.

• You can see some more examples of Wren McDonalds art at his website here or at his Tumblr Page here. You can also follow him on Twitter @WrenMcDonald

• I got the pleasure of chatting to Emma from NoBrow recently at their excellent ELCAF weekend event and they have some really interesting products coming out in the upcoming months. Head over to their website here and see what they have got cooking. You can also follow them on Twitter @Nobrowpress

Many thanks for reading.

Categories: British Comics, British Comics - Current British Publishers, Reviews

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