Review: Test #1 & #2 (Vault Comics)

The latest book from High Crimes’ Christopher Sebela is a cyberpunk mystery that follows a technologically altered young woman on a search for meaning in the mysterious town of Laurelwood.

Publisher: Vault Comics
Writer: Christopher Sebela
Artist: Jen Hickman, Harry Saxon, Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou
Price: £2.49 from ComiXology

Test is a book that is built around questions. From the moment we meet our heroine Aleph in the front of the cab of a truck as she hitchhikes across the US in search of a high tech shangi-la, we are questioning who she is, where she is going and what this world is all about. What we learn early on is that Aleph is a troubled young woman who has experimented on herself to add in various hi-tech add ons – including an internal digital assistant – but she is still searching for meaning in her life. She is on her way to mysterious town called Laurelwood, where she hopes to be able to find some answers. However, Laurelwood is full of more than just the answers for her questions, it is a place which itself is a test base for the future of the world, but who should Aleph trust – the book shop revolutionaries or the powerful matriarch of this curious All American town.

The characters’ constant searching for answers in Test is an interesting way to tell a story and certainly works well for the genre. The concept of ‘a girl with a secret’ goes to a ‘small American town, with an even bigger secret’ is one we’ve seen plenty of times before, and reminded us of everything from Psycho to Twin Peaks to The Prisoner – but with a William Gibson aesthetic thrown in for good measure. It also has a very Warren Ellis feel to the whole thing with its use of forward thinking technology that intreats with the human body in different ways. (Not to mention, the Transmetropolitan inspired Variant cover). Mixing up a present day story with flashbacks looking at how and why Aleph is here and why she has been experimenting on herself, continue the feeling of uncertainty and there are definitely a lot of ideas being thrown against the wall on every page, with some sticking and others falling by the wayside (at least for now!)

Sebela relies on a lot of exposition within each panel to get the character of Aleph across, reiterating her junkie past and how her need to improve herself is part of an addictive personality, which in turn helps to exacerbate the confusing and disorientating nature of the story. It can be a bit over whelming at times as there feels like there is a lot of extraneous dialogue on each page which makes reading it quite hard work, however you get the feeling it is very much part of a considered style of story telling and that even if the words have no immediate meaning they are there to create a complex tone for the book, if nothing else. This is definitely a book which you either have to take at face value and wait for it to explain itself, or is one you need to read in a big chunk to really make it make sense.

Artist Jen Hickman does a fantastic job balancing the multiple genres which Sebela throws at her, giving Aleph a kind of Lisbeth Salander look, while the town of Laurelwood is like something straight out of a Frank Capra movie. The artwork is unfussy but really well conceived and has just enough of an edge to it to make it interesting, without it being too over stylised. The muted colours from Harry Saxon, help give it a very organic and weathered feel, while Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou’s lettering is very scratchy and pointed which again helps to prevent it from being too cartoonish. (As does the excellent package design, something which nearly all Vault Comics benefit from).

A bit like its Vault Comics; stablemate, Friendo, Test is a book which is going to require time and effort to really get into. It’s an ambitious story, packed full of clever ideas and told in a really interesting way, however it is not one which gives immediate gratification or resolution. It is clearly part of a larger story and we are only just beginning to get a glimpse of what is happening, but based on these first couple of issues Test is definitely a book with experimenting with.