Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Review: SVK by Warren Ellis

SVK (graphic novel)
Written by Warren Ellis, illustrations by Matt 'D'Israeli' Booker

Published: 2011

Synopsis (via the SVK website) : First and foremost SVK is a modern detective story, one that Ellis describes as "Franz Kafka's Bourne Identity". It's a story about cities, technology and surveillance, mixed with human themes of the power, corruption and lies that lurk in the data-smog of our near-future.

I am a huge fan of Warren Ellis. I'll read anything that has his name attached and to be perfectly honest I doubt I could see anything he wrote as anything less than brilliant, even something as basic as a shopping list! That said, I solemnly swear that I'll be reviewing this graphic novel on it's merits, in terms of art, writing and the inclusion of new technology. There will be some minor spoilers, so if you're wanting to read this graphic novel sans spoilers I suggest you turn back now with only this...short by sweet and so worth a read.

So, for those of you willing to risk the spoilers or who already read the graphic novel I'll give you a bit of a background on the comic. SVK is an all new comic experience. Using invisible ink and a UV torch SVK gives readers and opportunity to see into the minds of the characters, to catch a glimpse at some of their secrets and their true reactions to other characters. As their website states "this graphic novel is about looking - an investigation into perception, storytelling and optical experimentation," and indeed it is. Both in terms of their use of invisible ink and the actual plot.

The brilliance of this comic is that it combines the new invisible ink technology into the storyline, rather than just having it attached as a gimmick. The story follows Thomas Woodwind (a Patrick Stewart!) as he is hired by the Heimdall security firm to track down one of their product developers who disappeared with one of their prototypes, SVK. Woodwind is offered a large sum of money and given the barest of instruction and heads off to retrieve the item. In the bad ass maverick way of all Warren Ellis protagonists Woodwind dodges Heimdall's tails (because he's so bad ass he needs people to keep watch of him) and meets up with his super nerd colleague Bulmer. From there they do some snooping and track down the prototype which turn out to be a set of contact lenses, which when inserted, do what the nifty UV torch does to your allows the viewer to see the thought of the people around them.

So I won't go into more detail than that because I don't want to give away too much of the how and why, but I went into this much detail because I wanted to emphasise the brilliance of the story/media combination. By showing the thoughts via UV it emphasises that they aren't something you're supposed to see and it puts you into Woodwind's shoes. Can you imagine if they managed to create this sort of technology? As they say in the comic, imagine if they could tack this on to all the CCTV cameras that abound the streets of London. Faceless corporations constantly monitoring our every thought, perhaps under the guise of security but who'd stop them from using it for something more sinister? And as the comic shows with it's UV bubbles, people think things they shouldn't, perhaps by suggesting the person they're talking to looks like a rapist, perhaps by venting rage by saying they're going to 'kill' their uncle. More often than not it doesn't mean anything, but imagine what the cops would do if they saw their allocated keywords (kill, rape, hate, murder, die) come up on a CCTV screen with your face on it?

As usual the writing has a bite. Warren Ellis is caustic, quick and every word packs a punch. The illustrations are in black white and pale blue/grey (other than the UV of course) and simple but they work as a perfect compliment to both Ellis' writing and as a backdrop for the added UV. It's a short novella, but the story is filled with Ellis' usual social critique and develops the characters of Woodwind and Bulmer to perfection. Every graphic novel Ellis works on amazes me, because he manages to tell such intricate stories with such complex characters without a lot of exposition or unnecessary side-plots. It's to the point and leaves the reader in no uncertain mind as to what the novel is about and who the characters are. Fantastic!

In addition to the story, there are a couple of articles dotted through the comic that deal with aspects brought up in the book. Jamais Cascio discusses AR (augmented reality) contact lenses and what they'll mean to you and me, while Paul Gravett discusses thought and speech balloons in comics. They're interesting articles and don't get in the way of the reading experience. Because I flicked through the graphic novel before I began I noted where they were and made sure to flick right past them and carried on with the story, returning to them once I had finished. This isn't standard practice in graphic novels and comics but they're included because this comic is more than just a story, it's about changing the rules of comics and storytelling, and is almost an advertisement for this novel idea. Or perhaps like a panel at a writers or media festival.

SVK sold out it's first print run (woot, first edition yo!) but they're working on a second edition (it's expensive to print in UV ink as I'm sure you could imagine!) and I highly recommend getting your hands on a copy. Or, if you're a little light in the wallet situation convince a friend to buy a copy and borrow it from them! It's a great mystery, that delivers a wallop of a story with some fantastic bad ass characters and some frightening tech creations.

My rating: 4.5/5


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