Steampunk Files #8: Steampunk! An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories

April 14, 2014

steampunkSteampunk!: An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories

Edited by Kelly Link and Gavin Grant

Candlewick Press


I’ve read my share of steampunk anthologies, not all of them, but I’ve read more collections devoted to steampunk than any other specific SF niche. I may be wrong, but based on the essential reading lists I’ve seen floating around, this particular collection from Candlewick Press, published back in 2011, seems to get overlooked. It’s a shame, because it may be the most accessible and thoroughly pleasurable read out of the whole pack.

The content has a decided young adult orientation, which is unique from other anthologies, such as the three volumes edited by the Ann and Jeff Vandermeer and published by Tachyon Press, which bring a very “literary” sensibility to the subject matter. That’s not to say that the stories contained in this volume lack depth or literary merit, just that, on the whole, they feel less conscious of their own relationship to the genre, and exist more freely as vehicles for their respective narratives.

I also enjoyed the opportunity to read stories by authors who I am less likely to run into because they are mainly active in the YA market, like Cassandra Clare, Libba Bray, and Holly Black, alongside authors who I have long admired, but never read in a steampunk context, like Cory Doctorow, and the anthology’s co-editor, Kelly Link.

Back in the first paragraph I wrote that this anthology was one of the most accessible steampunk collections I’ve read. By that I meant that it conforms pretty neatly with what newcomers to steampunk prose would probably associate with the genre: clockwork automatons, airships, and steam engines abound, mostly in the context of a rollicking adventure or a whimsical fancy. In spite of their comfortable familiarity, these stories do not equate genre with generic. A sense of wonder and possibility runs through each narrative, but also an empowering subversion that is often meatier than their brassy veneer initially lets on.

Libba Bray’s “The Last Ride of the Glory Girls” tells the story of Adelaide Jones, a woman of the law embedded with a band of outlaws who use a fanciful “enigma apparatus” to manipulate time and rob trains. The wild west setting has a romance to it that appeals to the core idea of the steampunk fantasy, but the choices the characters face give it a relevance that extends beyond aesthetics. Adelaide faces a conflict between her duty to the Pinkerton Agency that employs her, and her new-found sisterhood with the Glory Girls, providing a meaty moral conflict that lends a strong resonance to the human drama of the story.

Less romantic is “Clockwork Fagin,” Cory Doctorow’s story set in an orphanage characterized by all means of Dickensian inequality and abuse. In this tale, the pitiful children overthrow their oppressive master and use their own ingenuity to create an autonomous steampunk utopia. In addition to its anarchic inclinations, the story makes use of hard computer science as a plot device, something relatively unique and refreshing in a genre where the “science” often involves aetherial energy sources, hollow earth theories, or inexplicable AI’s.

Throughout the collection authors continue to explore fresh settings for steampunk’s familiar literary constructs. Kelly Link’s “The Summer People” and Dylan Horrock’s “Steam Girl” each employ steampunk concepts in a modern setting as ways for their respective teenage protagonists to combat social exclusion and abusive parents, while M.T. Anderson’s “The Oracle Engine” constructs a steampunk tragedy set in Ancient Rome.

Also appreciated, are the two short comics included: Shawn Cheng’s “Seven Days Besot by Demons,” and Kathleen Jennings’ “Finishing School.” These comics are quite different from one another, but they both represent a stylistic maturity within the medium that should satisfy the steampunk and comic book enthusiast alike.

Being a YA anthology, the stories are light on (but not devoid of) “mature” content like sex and violence. that could be a deal breaker depending on your preferences, but if you’re like me, then mature storytelling is more important than mature content. If you fall into the latter camp, I would enthusiastically recommend this anthology for anyone looking for a comprehensive introduction to the genre.


Click here to read more steampunk reviews and essays!

A Belated Review of Sovereign #1

April 1, 2014

sovereign 1Sovereign #1

Writer: Chris Roberson

Artist: Paul Mayberry

Image Comics


A few weeks ago Image Comics released Sovereign #1, a new sword and sorcery ongoing from the creative team of Chris Roberson and Paul Mayberry. It might just be my perception, but it feels a little like this release got lost somewhere in the shuffle between recent Image successes like Zero and Sex Criminals and the media around forthcoming series by the likes of Warren Ellis and Kieron Gillen, among others. I hope I’m wrong, and that everyone is ranting and raving about this series in all the places I’m not looking, but just in case it isn’t, I want to draw some attention to it because, in a lot of ways, it’s exactly the comic I want to read.

I enjoy genre fiction in all its incarnations, but when it comes to epic fantasy, I find I can be a bit of stickler, and unlike my relationship with sci-fi and horror, I’ve never felt too tied to the traditional canon of epic fantasy works. It’s been a while since I’ve given much thought to the works of Tolkien, for example. The genre too often comes off as reductive when the imaginary worlds it depicts should be rich, complex, and ambiguous. It’s also not uncommon for the standard tropes (elves, ogres, dwarves, dragons, etc.) to read as awkward stereotypes or caricatures of the cultures and traditions from which they are derived.

Sovereign gives us something else, though. Roberson’s invented world drops the reader in a landscape that is in the process of adapting to recent profound changes. Its historical setting would most closely resemble that of the late 16th century, yet it carefully avoids a direct analog. In this story, a once independent people, the Khend are now ruled by an outside kingdom, the Horse Lords. Rather than a clear-cut story of oppression, it is about the struggle that both sides face as they learn to adapt to the new status quo. On the fringes of this great change, are a mystical religious order fighting to maintain their values and beliefs in the face of the new order. And in yet another narrative thread, a ship approaches from across the sea bearing missionaries and a scholar whose arrival, we can infer, brings with it the potential to unsettle whatever delicate balance has been preserved thus far.

Good epic fantasy should be both sprawling and intimate, exploring broad cultural and historical themes through the experiences of well-rounded, relatable characters. Sovereign #1 uses most of its panels to let us into the worlds of its various protagonists, whether it is the cocky Horse Lord, forced to reconcile his relationship to the Khendish hunters with his position in the ruling class, or the scholar, whose rationalism casts him as an outsider in relation to his pious countrymen.

While prose fiction provides utterly overwhelming options when it comes to epic fantasy, comics have much less to offer. This is strange because the ongoing comic book format is uniquely suited for the type of world building and long form plots that this genre loves. Roberson isn’t afraid to play with textual elements, including fictional quotations and long-form prose exposition, freeing up the panels, and the art to tell the story, not the history.

Of course, I don’t want to leave out the fun stuff: a funeral rite goes bad, ending in a good old fashion undead horde! and let’s not forget about the zombie shark!? If any of the above sounds appealing, you may want to see if your local comic shop has any copies left. I want this book to have a long and epic life.

Fiction Review: Submitting to Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation

March 9, 2014

untitledAnnihilation: Book 1 of the Southern Reach Trilogy

by Jeff Vandermeer

Farrar, Straus and Giroux


I don’t review a lot of prose fiction on this site, mainly because I’m usually about a year behind the genre publishing world, if not more (and that pile just keeps building). But every once in a while I am compelled to pick up a novel, and read it, as soon as it comes out. Ever since I first heard about it nearly two years ago, I’ve known that Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation (book one of the Southern Reach Trilogy) would be one of those books.

I was first turned on to Jeff Vandermeer’s writing through his fan-favorite Ambergris cycle, and ever since that series concluded with 2009′s Finch, I’ve been hungry for his next uniquely weird creation. Before reading this novel it’s important to understand that despite all of the anticipation, buzz, and excitement from various media channels surrounding the release, it’s impossible to prepare oneself for Annihilation. The promotional copy reads as follows:

Area X has been cut off from the rest of the continent for decades. Nature has reclaimed the last vestiges of human civilization. The first expedition returned with reports of a pristine, Edenic landscape; all the members of the second expedition committed suicide; the third expedition died in a hail of gunfire as its members turned on one another; the members of the eleventh expedition returned as shadows of their former selves, and within months of their return, all had died of aggressive cancer.

This is the twelfth expedition.

Their group is made up of four women: an anthropologist; a surveyor; a psychologist, the de facto leader; and our narrator, a biologist. Their mission is to map the terrain and collect specimens; to record all their observations, scientific and otherwise, of their surroundings and of one another; and, above all, to avoid being contaminated by Area X itself.

They arrive expecting the unexpected, and Area X delivers—they discover a massive topographic anomaly and life forms that surpass understanding—but it’s the surprises that came across the border with them, and the secrets the expedition members are keeping from one another, that change everything.

As book descriptions go, I can’t fault this one for being inaccurate: the backstory is succinct and easy to follow; the characters are few, and as vague, yet layered, as their titles suggest; the biologist and her mission do indeed serve as our main point of reference; and the mysteries the expedition encounters are as engrossing and shocking as the summary promises. However, as with Area X itself, there is an intangible quality that truly defines this novel, and it cannot be described so much as it must be experienced.

Despite my better judgment, I’ll take another shot at describing the contents of the novel: it is a psychological thriller, wrapped in a sci-fi adventure, swaddled with existential horror. I indulge myself in this ultimately futile attempt to define Annihilation in order to emphasize that, at its core, the story is driven by its psychological drama.

Within that narrative, information, or more accurately, the control of information, is a central theme. The truth about Area X is concealed from the members of the expedition, information about the volunteers, including their names, is concealed from one another, and it is immediately clear that the members do not have equal information, or similar instructions.

But the control of information also defines the structure of the novel. The biologist speaks directly to us in the past tense, but from how far in the future is unclear. What does she already know of the mysteries she is about to experience? How are we meant to understand her vague suggestions about the world and its landscapes? It’s at the intersection of these uncertainties that the story assimilates us into its world. Take this early passage for example:

“At first, only I saw it as a tower. I don’t know why the word tower came to me, given that it tunneled into the ground. I could as easily have considered it a bunker or a submerged building. Yet as soon as I saw the staircase, I remembered the lighthouse on the coast and had a sudden vision of the last expedition drifting off, one by one, and sometime thereafter the ground shifting in a uniform and preplanned way to leave the lighthouse standing where it had always been but depositing this underground part of it inland. I saw this in vast and intricate detail as we all stood there, and, looking back, I mark it as the first irrational thought I had once we had reached our destination.”

At first, the biologist is preoccupied with her psychological state compared with those of the other expedition members. She is fixated on the idea that she sees this unexplainable structure as a “tower” while the others are content to think of it as a tunnel. This is significant to the unfolding drama because we know that part of each member’s task is to monitor the psychological stability of the others.

In an attempt to rationalize her own thought process in relation to those of the others, she ultimately concedes her own irrationality. In her role as the narrator, the biologist is inherently unstable for reasons that are obvious from this excerpt, but she will also be objectively more stable than any other character, for reasons that will become clear when you read the book. What is remarkable about the above passage, however, is the way that Vandermeer uses this dynamic of stability/instability to eerily foreshadow the more sinister aspects of Area X, along with the fact that this place may be a more worthy psychological foe than any of her companions, even though these revelations haven’t yet come to pass in the course of the narrative.

Given that the title of the book is Annihilation, we probably knew things wouldn’t end well for our protagonists, but after this passage we realize we’ve signed on to experience the descent into psychological crisis of our only stable reference point. But it’s too late, by this point the narrative has us in its snare too.

I could go on to analyze many more passages for the chilling layers of existential and psychological horror, and the way they channel the essence of a landscape that by its own nature should defy description, but after some consideration I decided that depriving readers of coming to these experiences on their own would be unfair and wasteful. Instead I’m going to wrap-up with one more very brief quote from the novel which, devoid of context, is safe and spoiler free:

“…and yet even so, somewhere in the heart of me I had begun to believe there was no place I would rather be than in Area X.”

There is a point for the reader too, at which we become so immersed and fascinated by this strange wilderness that we no longer hope to follow the biologist to safety, but want to dig deeper with her into its mysterious core, perhaps even rooting for it to win in some perverse and irrational way. Fortunately for us, the accelerated publishing schedule for the Southern Reach Trilogy means we only have a few short months before we can return in May.

From One Protagonist’s Ashes, Another Shall Rise: Mythic Cycles and The Wake Part II

March 4, 2014

the wakeIt took a great deal of audacity for Scott Snyder to end the first arc of his two-arc miniseries, The Wake, with the death of every character and the destruction of the world. It’s not that the scale of the story was audacious in this age of epic doom-and-gloom storytelling, it’s the fact that this bleakly terminal narrative was just the beginning of Snyder’s story.

So he we are, 200 years later with a post-apocalyptic vision of a semi-lawless, post-ecological disaster earth with all the trappings of the genre: martial law, black-market economies, scavenger societies, etc. The ease with which Snyder and artist Sean Murphy immerse us in this viscerally ruthless world makes for a fun read, but the way in which they manage to create a cohesive transition between the trapped-in-a-ship sci-fi/horror of the first five issues, and this new chapter of humanity earns the team real points for the originality of their vision and its unique storytelling technique.

Act I was very much about myth, more specifically, the academic study of myth. We watched in painful anticipation as a group of scientists tried to use their collective knowledge of folklore, biology, and evolution to extrapolate the nature of the terrifying mer-creatures they encountered, only for those mythical histories to rise up and literally engulf them. By the time they put the pieces together it’s already too late.

But from one protagonist’s ashes, another shall rise. I like to think that Phoenix mythology to which I have just alluded was on Snyder’s mind when he crafted the opening scene. As the first arc ended with a hero in peril, so does the second begin, or so it seems. As Leeward frantically flails about in the ocean with a school of bloodthirsty mer-men waiting below the waves within striking distance. Our hearts race, until she triggers a sonic wail that (as revealed in the previous arc) paralyzes the creatures, effectively turning the tables. She catches a few of the unwitting monsters and barbarously decapitates them, returning to market with a bag full of heads, apparently a hot commodity for the narcotic properties they contain.

Though less educated, and far less reserved, than Dr. Lee Archer (the leading lady from Act I), Leeward shares her stubborn commitment, idealistic sensibilities, and social isolation. But her understanding of the world is also inherently different. The world of Act II is situated inside the mythic cycle of history that the characters in Act I speculated about from the outside. Leeward, in this sense is positioned to become the mythic hero that Archer couldn’t become due to the narrative constraints of her story. The Wake deals with mythological cycles – the way that stories are retold, reinvented, and repeated over the ages. The idea of a cycle is inherently defeatist in many ways, but that’s the challenge that this story represents. Leeward is uniquely poised with the opportunity to break humanity out of its vicious cycle. Will she succeed? I don’t know, but watching it play out over the final four issues promises to be a unique and exciting ride.

Steampunk Files #7 (and Kickstarter Plug): Unwoman’s New Album!

February 17, 2014

Another exciting steampunk Kickstarter is in progress. This time it’s Circling, a new original album from San Francisco based solo artist Unwoman (AKA Erica Mulkey). In many ways, just the idea behind crowdfunding an independent release is enough incentive to do so, I’ll touch on that more later, but it’s a no-brainer when the artist in question is as talented, unique, and visionary as Unwoman. Furthermore (and this will be the focus for most of this post) Unwoman is one of the truest examples of the steampunk genre embodied in musical form.

Steampunk in literature functions as a genre, in fashion and cosplay it is an aesthetic, but its relationship to music is harder to pin down. Is it the incorporation of anachronistic instruments or styles? Nineteenth century lyrical themes? Or is it merely enough to affect steampunk dress and visual tropes? A while back I suggested the three characteristics that I believe interact to characterize all steampunk literature: an anachronistic quality, the introduction of a new technology, and the social struggle for control over that technology.

At first glance, it’s not so clear how music, not being a strictly narrative driven form, could encompass all of these characteristics, which clearly relate to narrative when considering literary steampunk. Taking a few steps back, however, I would argue that steampunk music exists within our current cultural narrative, and that Unwoman as an artist embodies this narrative exceptionally well.

The anachronistic flare that she brings to her body of work is the most easily recognizable characteristic. Unwoman uses the cello as her primary instrument, but combines it seamlessly with digital percussion. Stylistically, she draws on the classical training that one would associate with her instrument of choice, along with a rich array of influences ranging from anarcho-punk and post-punk to traditional folk and 80s pop. Drawing on a few examples from her last original album, The Fires I started, one can get a sense of her lyrical range. She explores areas of dark romance that nod to Goth music and romantic literature (“The Heroine”), but she also turns out rollicking political anthems (“The Future, The Boot”), and even re-energizes romantic poetry (“A Poison Tree”) and 20th century anarchism (“Written in Red”). Anachronism runs deeper than Unwoman’s striking and creative fashion choices, it percolates through every aspect of her music.

But what do we make of the introduction of new technology? Rarely do Unwoman’s lyrics revolve explicitly around technology. Yet I would argue that as a professional museum, she is intimately associated with today’s technological revolutions. The digital technologies that make recording, distribution, and financing possible for independent artists are exceptionally steampunk in and of themselves. One of steampunk’s arguments (if it can be said to have such a thing) is for the re-appropriation of the means of production by individual artists and artisans. It’s not surprising that steampunk projects frequently turn to crowdfunding, and it’s a testament to Unwoman’s dedication to this creative model that this is her tenth Kickstarter campaign. As I hinted at earlier, I think it is important to the future of steampunk culture and its surrounding ethos that fans continue to actively and enthusiastically support such projects.

Finally, we arrive at the social struggle for control of this technology. Is “struggle” to epic a term to use, divorced from a fictional narrative? Maybe, but I think the spirit still holds true. Despite the renaissance in self-publishing and independent media brought on by innovations like crowdfunding and social media, artists remain at odds with giants like Apple and Amazon, who seek to skim as much income off of said artists as is viable, but also to dominate the platforms for, and terms of, distribution. Though I’m not certain if it’s true of her forthcoming album, but in the past Unwoman has released her music under the Creative Commons license, meaning that given proper credit and non-commercial use, you are free to share, distribute, and remix her work. The Creative Commons license is important in the realm of public access and the proliferation of creativity and, I believe, will be crucial to the outcome of the aforementioned “struggle” going forward.

Legal and corporate considerations aside, it should also be emphasized that Unwoman works diligently (and tirelessly, judging by her output and presence in the steampunk community and beyond) to embody the ethos of the creator-operated model. there is a reason she has nine funded Kickstarters to her name. She is talented, driven, and utterly professional in everything she does.

OK, so the clinical dissection is out of the way. It’s the approach I’m most comfortable with and most qualified for, but I respect that many have a more personal, even visceral, relationship to art. I will be the first to acknowledge that beyond my musings on genre, artistic politics, and aesthetic cohesion, the primary reason I love Unwoman’s music is its darkly antagonistic elegance. All of those clashing styles and influences create a lush, anarchic sonic landscape that is easy to become immersed in. Even when her lyrical themes are understated, the subversive energy they contain rings loudly.

As of this post’s publication, the Kickstarter for Circling still needs your help to reach its goal. But you can also buy her back catalog direct from bandcamp at incredible prices, and if you feel like spending a little more I highly recommend the double LP of The Fires I started, which comes in a beautiful gatefold! What are you waiting for?

Jeff Vandermeer, Annihilation, and “Binge Reading”

February 13, 2014

Imagine my delight and surprise as I came across an article on the front page of the New York Times the other day talking about Jeff Vandermeer’s new novel, annihilation. The focus of the article (which you can read here) wasn’t on the book per se, though it did put the title and synopsis in the first few lines. The actual focus of the article was a new trend in “binge reading,” supposedly following TV’s lead.

I haven’t read Annihilation yet, though I look forward to it. I was aware that it was part of his planned Southern Reach trilogy, and even vaguely aware that the other books would be released in pretty rapid succession, but I hadn’t given much thought to the significance of that fact. It makes sense from a publisher’s perspective to churn out a hot series while the fans are still hungry for it.

It’s also worth considering how this trend in publishing might affect writers. I imagine there are some positives on both the business and creative ends. Writer’s could potentially find more stability with larger advances by selling multiple novels up front, and it might get the ball rolling on TV and film licenses a little quicker.

Selling a complete series of books up front also lends a degree of creative sovereignty to writers, who would no longer feel the same pressure from publishers or fans (or nagging sales figures for that matter). Not having to worry whether or not a long form work will be allowed to run to completion would be a nice comfort.

There are some negatives too, for instance the “binge reading” marketing approach is specific to writers who already have some kind of industry profile and fan base. It’s a reasonable fear that if this approach becomes an industry standard we could see less exposure given to undiscovered writers who can’t be counted on to sell a trilogy in less than a year. Of course such a change could end up shining a light on the smaller presses and webzines that have been actively discovery new and foreign writers for some time now.

On the evening of the Times article’s publication, American Public Media’s Marketplace podcast (2/12) also picked up on the story (unfortunately they never mentioned Annihilation), but they spent more time on what this says about the public’s changing consumption habits and how reading appears to be following the trends in television. I found the conversation to be a little irrelevant. I would posit that recent trends in media consumption, have less to do with changes in audience patience or attention spans, and more to do with the advantages that digital media lend to storytelling. For instance, when television shows don’t have to worry about their audience missing episodes during a season or forgetting about subplots last touched on a month earlier, a door opens for more complex stories and nuanced character development.

With literature, it’s still unclear whether rapid release schedules will have any significant impact on storytelling, but with eBook sales claiming more and more of the market, the old publishing model that relied heavily on price discrimination through staggered hardcover and paperback releases no longer really applies, thus, why wait to get the sequel out there if people are ready to pay for it.

As for myself, I’m quite looking forward to reading Vandermeer’s Annihilation, and the fact that the next two novels will follow right behind is just an added bonus. Hopefully I’ll get my hands on a copy soon, so check back on Entropic Worlds for a review in a few weeks.

Ales Kot Brings New Life to the Monthly Format with ZERO

February 5, 2014

download (3)By most accounts, it’s a good time to be reading comics. It’s arguable that for the first time in comics’ relatively long history, the complete breadth of the medium’s potential has been cracked open. Independent genre and subculture titles, character driven “literary” fare, children’s stories, licensed properties, educational texts, and non-fiction all earn critical acclaim on a regular and consistent basis. Content, it’s fair to say has caught up with the potential of the form; but it’s actually been some time since the form itself has been radically re-conceptualized. In the late 80s Alan Moore led this charge, turning comics into a re-evaluation of its own potential with classic works like Watchmen and Miracleman. He infused his stories with a metatextual post-modernism that also paid explicit attention to the structural components of comics: the compositions, juxtapositions and unique rhythms that are only possible in sequential storytelling. He incorporated large chunks of prose text in organic ways and infused his books with cultural references that worked on multiple levels. He would continue to expand on and hone these same concepts in later works like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Supreme, and he continues to rework these concepts today. Many took Moore’s cue and incorporated aspects of his approach, often with a less novel approach and less attention to the nuances of the form.

Since then, creators and critics have thoroughly evaluated, analyzed, and catalogued the grammar and function of virtually every aspect of the medium. Comics have become a craft, a form less about structural invention and more about understanding and application. Generally, this is a good thing. An era that saw much flailing and awkwardness amidst occasional moments of glorious success has given way to a new one of gorgeous fluid storytelling that is confident and transcends any one particular genre, theme, or influence. It’s no longer common for critics to say things like “even though it’s a comic book, it’s a very compelling story.

As I said, this is a very good thing. But… It’s no longer common to have that “wow! This has completely changed the way I think about comics as a medium” reaction to a new work. Being a fan of inventive iconoclasts (spanning other media, artists like the Ramones, William Burroughs, and Jean-Luc Godard come to mind as examples of this kind of disruption), I always crave new approaches that reinvent old forms.

This is where Zero comes in, it’s a new ongoing series written by Ales Kot, illustrated by a rotating assortment of artists, and published by Image Comics. Issue #5 was recently published, completing the first arc of this radical new series, that is if the concept of story arcs even applies to what Kot is doing with this book.

The single issue format, 22 pages, give or take, of story, designed for quick consumption and high impact, was originally a short story format. A self-contained adventure played out across the pages every month. This format hasn’t changed, but the demands of readers, who largely expect more epic stories, greater narrative complexity, and more nuanced character development, have. Sometimes the comic book format itself is at odds with the storytelling approach demanded of creators. Keeping track of characters and subplots from month to month can be daunting and even detrimental to the potential impact of a story. Collected volumes, in many cases, become the preferred vehicle for delivery, yet the monthly issue remains the industry’s default setting, for reasons both practical and, perhaps, outdated.

Rather than forcing a square peg in a round hole, as many writers feel compelled to do, Ales Kot has zero-05reimagined the parameters of the serialized comic, unlocking new potential by way of fragmented story telling.

If you are not yet familiar with the structural conceit of Zero, it works like this: Each issue is a self-contained story, portraying an event in the career of secret agent Edward Zero, whose eventual dissent reflects a changing global landscape. Each issue calls on a different artist and Kot crafts that particular issue to the strengths of the artist in question. The stories are not presented linearly, but they reference each other in ways that are enriching and revelatory in relation to other issues, but not confusing or distracting from the story at hand. My earlier review of issue 3 may also be worth checking out for context.

One might recall that Warren Ellis took a similar approach with his underappreciated Global Frequency. Yet the function of his approach on that series had more to do with world building than it did with narrative movement. In Zero, however, every issue significantly drives the overarching story being told. But in what direction?

Last month’s issue #5 ends with one a whopper of a reveal (which won’t be spoiled here), it also happens to correlate directly with a scene glimpsed in issue #1, providing a sense of closure and unification, or the illusion of a story arc. Yet in reality it functions as just another clue, no more or less dramatic than the clues surrounding Zero’s upbringing, career, and defection, that have been appearing throughout the narrative.

This idea that each issue presents a self-contained story is compelling. Writers of mainstream comics often say that their goal is to make each issue accessible to a first time reader, regardless of the continuity of their larger story. In practice, this rarely rings true. While observant and seasoned readers may be able to glean enough from context and exposition to enjoy a single issue without reading the rest of the series, their experience is lacking compared to those who have read earlier installments. The true test for the claims set forth by Zero is best expressed by the question: does reading order matter? Despite the sense of forward motion that one gets when reading the series in publication order, I’m convinced that the answer is: no, it doesn’t.

While we have what appear to be the bookends of Edward Zero’s life, the story does not move neatly from one end to the other, but instead moves inward from both directions, though not towards some single definitive moment or experience. One suspects that the power of Zero‘s eventual conclusion will be the moment when the saga of Agent Edward Zero’s life finally comes into vivid focus. The pleasure of this series is akin to that of completing a puzzle without looking at the picture on the box first. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what strategy you use to get it done, but no matter what, you will finish by inserting one last piece, finally creating a fluid unbroken image.

If the pleasure of reading Zero is derived from experiencing a whole come together out of a set of parts, then there is another kind of pleasure in re-reading Zero. Though it would be senseless to recommend reading Zero out of publishing order (because who could wait), I do recommend re-reading the series through a fluid free association. Use a character who reappears, or a reference made in a given issue to guide you to another issue to which it may refer, then from there you can do the same, and so on, and so on. One could get caught in a perpetual loop re-reading Zero, a book with no beginning or end. I could think of worse ways to spend eternity.


Interior art from Will Tempest, Zero #5


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