The 1980s was a time of political turmoil and social change, when the birth of home computers and digital technology changed the world forever. It was also the decade that gave us Russ Abbott’s Madhouse, Roland Rat and Butterscotch Angel Delight. These two worlds collide in Dan Whitehead, Conor Boyle and Jack Davies’ exciting and thought- provoking new graphic novel Hex Loader, just in time for Thought Bubble.
Publisher: Dan Whitehead Comic
Writer: Dan Whitehead
Artist: Conor Boyle and Jack Davies
Price: TBC from danwhitenead.net or go to Table 54 in the Red Shirt Hall
Hex Loader tells the story of David, a young computer programmer living and working in Manchester in 1987 who dreams of creating a game as earth-shattering as Manic Miner or Jet Set Willy. One day he receives a message from old school friend Declan Miller, now a legend in the world of games design who’s gone AWOL. Declan it seems has been mixing nascent computer technology with ancient magic, opening doorways that should perhaps be left closed, letting all sorts of unpleasant dark forces in as a result. A mysterious figure known as Floss contacts Declan, telling him that he wants him to use his abilities to manipulate and sell the very concept of creativity. David has to decide how to both help his friend and stop the increasingly powerful Floss.
Dan Whitehead is a veteran of both the computer game industry and comics, having written about the supernatural and the technological in Frankenstein Texas and Ella Upgraded. With Hex Loader he tells an interesting tales that works on a number of levels. It’s easy enough to read it as a fun romp in which everyman figure in the form of David finds himself slap-bang in the middle of a fast-moving adventure that mixes Harry Potter-style thrills with a whole lot of 80s nods and winks to readers of a certain age (my age, actually…). Where Hex Loader gets interesting is when we start at how the different characters earn their livings and how they justify this to themselves. Duncan sees himself as superior to David because he’s not working for a corporation; he’s creating things that nobody else has before, his own passion projects. The one profiting from this though is Floss, increasing his ability to control the creativity of others. We see Floss representing a number of creative types and their work, this slick media operator and his ilk aggressively selling ideas to the public whether they want them or not. A small number of increasingly-powerful media organisations controlling a greater number of creative IPs, making fortunes from prequels, sequels and spin-offs, shrinking choice at the same time. I wonder where Whitehead got this idea from?
The majority of the art comes courtesy of Conor Boyle whose distinctive and impressive artwork has recently graced the pages of Action (Hookjaw) and The ’77 (The Screaming Hand). There’s a lot of mixing of genres here from horror, with the Dementor-style demons that are constantly hunting David, sci-fi and comedy (Combat Wombat is the most memorable gun-toting funny animal since Rocket Raccoon). Boyle takes all of these challenges in his stride in a story that is also a period piece with his art bringing the Eighties back to life, for better or worse. The final part of the graphic novel is illustrated by Jack Davies. Davies is a fine artist as you’ll know if you’ve read and enjoyed Alex In Space. His more exaggerated style is quite different to Boyle’s however and at times this difference can be quite jarring.
Hex Runner is a fast-paced and engaging story with a flavour of the best of Eighties action. There are moments that made me think of Hellraiser (walking pathways in a certain way in a game can summon demons in the same way as twisting the box in a certain way does so in Hellraiser), War Games and perhaps most of all, the Black Mirror special Bandersnatch. There are also moments where David finds himself trapped in a game of Pac-Man that reminded me of 80s British comics and comic strips Lode Runner and Computer Warrior. As a self-contained story Hex Loader is well worth investigating and it ends in a way that suggests that there are more tales to be told in this world. Perhaps the best is yet to come!