Augmented test subject, Aleph, has escaped from a secret experimentation lab, is on the run, and is in search of a mythical town full of future technology. And so begins the new Sci-Fi comic from Vault, TEST by Eisner nominated writer Christopher Sebela, artist Jen Hickman, colorist Harry Saxon and letterer Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou.
The first issue of TEST follows Aleph as he journeys haphazardly across the empty states of America. It reads like a stream of consciousness, a modern day On The Road by Jack Kerouac. Sebela has cleverly given Aleph a foil to converse with in the guise of a mobile phone which appears to have its own sentience. This allows Sebela to incorporate the exposition in to the comic in a conversational manner, without the need for voice over style caption boxes.
The back and forth of the two characters gives the reader a better insight into who Aleph is and what he is striving for. Sebela is able to dissected the character via a function of the story while not contaminating the characterisation in any way. The reader learns about Aleph through his own speech but this is mediated by a third party to produce balance.
Although this approach makes it easier for the reader to enter the world of TEST, it does not eliminate all of the mystery or explain everything that is going on. In fact, everything you know about this world you learn via Aleph. This makes his actions somewhat ambiguous and it is not always clear if he is justified in these actions.
The story progresses at an even pace, occasionally sliding into a drug induced blur of ideas that builds character while creating questions. Aleph’s journey is a long one and he has many encounters on the way that Sebela is able to fit into this single issue because of his clever economic storytelling. One part of the journey may take up to several pages but another is limited to one or two panels.
The settings throughout the early part of TEST are minimalistic in design with very little definition. Aleph could be anywhere, seemingly lost in a post-apocalyptic environment. The atmosphere in the opening has a lot in common with the original Mad Max movie, creating a sense of vast wastelands for the character to get lost in; which is exactly the point. When the reader is introduced to Aleph, he is lost in the world, looking for something that he that may not even exist.
Nothing is clear, there is much that doesn’t make sense but all of this is seen through Aleph’s eyes so the reader understands exactly what Aleph is feeling. Jen Hickmen’s art reflects the chaotic nature of Aleph’s existence while also filling the panels with a lot of empty space. As the character is lost in his own environment, the reader emphasises with him on a much deeper level.
Hickman uses a thin inked line to define the characters then adds detail depending on the moment or the scene. Some backgrounds are comprehensively rendered while others contain the bare minimum. These later panels relay on the color work by Harry Saxon to define the scene and, more often than not, the atmosphere. As the scenes shift, whether in location or time, it is the coloring that signifies the change allowing the reader to follow the story from place to place, and from morning to night.
The range of lettering techniques and decisions on show in TEST is quite outstanding. The shifting mind of Aleph is depicted by the shifting presentation of his inner monologue; sometimes this is shown in speech balloons, at other times in hand drawn caption boxes. Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou also applies a range of different designs for presenting the text to distinguish each individual voice. The varied caption boxes and skilful overlapping speech balloons keep the reader on their toes and help to fully immerse them into the comic.
TEST is an exhilarating stream of consciousness embodying a number of science fiction concepts. It is an expertly crafted comic that draws the reader in and then entraps them in the chaotic nature of the narrative and the art. It works by concentrating on the central character, zooming in for close ups then pulling away to reveal the environment he is traveling through.
The comic flows effortlessly from the opening page to the last, leading the reader on a journey that feels uncontrollable but is designed with such a precision that the creators manipulate the reading experience at every turn.
Like a Warren Ellis comic, this is sometimes intense and sometimes charming, with an element of action thrown in. TEST is an immersive narrative and a highly accomplished work of comic book art.
TEST from Vault Comics is released on June 26th.