Fraser Campbell and James Corcoran’s mind-bending 60s spy series Alex Automatic is back with a new double issue, but is this small press stalwart still an automatic choice?!
Publisher: Cabal Comics
Writer: Fraser Campbell
Artist: James Corcoran, David B Cooper, Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou
Price: Now funding on Kickstarter
The strange and outlandish world of Alex Automatic began as a high concept one shot back in 2016, and was a chance for writer Fraser Campbell and artist James Corcoran to pay homage to 60s spy series like The Man From U.N.C.L.E. or The Prisoner. It certainly owed a huge debt to the latter with it’s surreal story of agent Alex Anderson, who had been brain washed into believing he was a robot super spy. It was one of the most exciting and baffling debuts we had seen in some time, and in the subsequent issues Campbell and Corcoran have expanded the fractured world of Alex and PRISM, bringing us reality altering super machines, newspaper throwbacks and even a portable sidekick in a suitcase.
Which brings us to the latest double issues in this incredible series. Now funding on Kickstarter issue #4 and #5 of Alex Automatic continues the adventures of Alex as he attempts to escape the clutches of evil organisation PRISM and attempt to find out the secret behind his origins. While this may sound like Weapon X or Bourne Identity territory, this is so much more than that. Campbell and Corcoroan have created a whirlwind of misinformation and confusing truths that mean you are never entirely sure what is real and what is a fiction. And they have mixed this in with genre throwbacks and surreal missions which keep the action moving at pace throughout.
The two issues are linked and will come as a reversible double issue. The opening pages of issue #4 see us flashback to Alex’s training days at PRISM academy, and it is told in a low-fi black and white style which looks like a distressed fanzine. It’s an interesting change of pace from Corcoran’s usual Kirby inspired silver age style, and it’s another great example of how the creators make each issue feel fresh as they use different genres and different art styles to tell their increasingly complex story.
As well as exploring Alex’s origins further in issue #4 we are also re-introduced to a character in issue #5 – Lana Kohl, Thew Woodcutter – an assassin who murdered her parents in brutal fashion. First appearing in a small mention in issue #1, there are shades of La Femme Nikita or Black Widow here, as she appears to have similar experiences to Alex with PRISM. It provides an interesting protaganiost/ally for Alex and is another great example of how elements which might have been a throwaway from earlier issues are now given more substance and purpose as the story develops. The same is true of Jimmy Jenkins, the former sidekick of Alex in issue #3 is now revealed to have a more substantial role in Alex’s fractured reality.
With these new issues Alex Automatic continues to be one of the most ambitious and original small press series out there. It is not always an easy read and the confusing nature of the story, with liberal uses of flashbacks and dream/hallucination sequences can make it overwhelming and disorientating. However that is the point. It is meant to be this uncertain journey where you are never quite sure what is real and what is a fiction, as it is intended to match the mental state of it’s hero. However while this would normally be a negative, instead this is a reason to persist with the series. There is so much depth and thought within each issue that you want to work out what is going on and how it all relates to each other, and so it rewards re-reading both within each issue but also from issue to issue.
Campbell, Corcoran and co. really push the boat out in terms of concepts and creativity, making each issue have it’s own unique tone and style, which allows the books to be enjoyed in their own right as well as part of a whole. (A special mention here to colourist David B Cooper and letterer Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou who also do sterling work making this ambitious series look as unique as it does) This has allowed them to move away from the more campy 60s spy elements of the initial issues and move into more darker territory (what do you expect from the writer of The Edge Off and House of Sweets after all?!). While it would be nice to see more of those initial adventures with gorilla henchmen and radioactive monsters, this is a story which is going places and these two new issues really help to move things along in new and interesting directions.
A fantastically original, albeit disorientating read, Alex Automatic remains one of the small press scene’s most exciting and enthralling series.