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Test #2 review: planned obsolescence

If it’s all too perfect, it’s not perfect at all.

Behold one of the most common exchanges of the human experience:

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-“How’s it going?”

-“Okay.”

There are an infinite amount of possibilities as to what that response could mean.  We say it to describe almost everything in our lives that isn’t tragic or euphoric. We say it all the time even though it isn’t how we feel, but we want to put on an image.  It’d be too damaging if people knew how we really felt.  It’s best if it’s kept bottled up or channeled into some sort of outlet, just not expressed outright.  We look around us and see friends, family, and strangers that all seem to be doing okay, but do we know? Do we really know how they’re doing?  It’s scary and real and appears to be getting better.  We’re seeing a world growing more comfortable with expressing how they truly feel because there so many ways to do so.  We’re reaching a place where okay is no longer who we are, it’s who we were.

You can see the place we want to get to reflected in today’s medium.  There are so many shows built around the idea that it’s okay to not be okay.  A lot of our favorite television characters, especially the ones in teen and family dramas, are so captivating because they’re so vulnerable.  As viewers and readers, we often have to see the emotion in order to feel it, and that leads to us witnessing reactions and behaviors often hidden from us in our everyday lives.  We don’t always get the privilege of an omniscient narrator or personalized thought bubbles.  But as the world grows to become a more accepting place, we’re starting to acknowledge the idea of not being okay.  There are always going to be bad days and the sooner we can own and admit that, the sooner we can move past them.  Trying to eliminate all flaws and negativity through denial has proven to be unhealthy and ineffective.  Instead, it’s better to accept that they’re a part of us.  After all, characters like Jessica Cruz, Peter Parker, and the Wonder Twins have shown that even heroes get sad or anxious sometimes.

Owning the bad days and negative feelings, in whatever ways you know how, can lead to change and growth.  We frequently wish to upgrade ourselves and make every aspect of our lives clean and efficient, but if we were perfect, we wouldn’t be human.  There’s people who say that without the bad days and setbacks, they wouldn’t appreciate the good days.  It may be a bunch of baloney, but it’s certainly interesting to think about.  Laurelwood is an experimental town.  It is meant to be the beta test for the next version of humanity.  Let’s just make sure that, amidst all the constant upgrades and bug fixes, we don’t accidentally erase what it means to be human.

Test continues to be about the individual struggling to survive in the world of groupthink.  It’s not something we talk about very much, is it?  the idea that so much of where we’re going is defined by natural selection, majority opinion, and all of those small, square checkboxes.  Aleph doesn’t fit in a checkbox; never has.  They’re not about building the future from existing information.  They are building the future from their own imagination.  But doesn’t the future require sacrifice?  Aleph certainly believes so, and is willing to give up whatever it takes.  They’ll endure the physical pain, social isolation, and emotional instability if it means they can evolve into something better.  What’s a little humanity lost here and there when the next thing could be so much cooler?  People can be pretty stupid anyways. We may not be able to relate to this extreme case, but it’s not exactly foreign either.  Think about the last time you sacrificed a little bit of morality, dignity, or integrity for a future benefit.  We’ve all done it, and it doesn’t feel great, but we justify it in our minds.  Christopher Sebela, Jen Hickman, Harry Saxon, and Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou are thrusting Aleph into the future and asking us to determine when we’ve gone too far.

Once again this creative team is bringing forth the future through ideas of experimentation.  Laurelwood has this hyper-focused drive towards observation and control that it barely even acknowledges what’s there.  Is that what we’ve become?  Are we so focused on the next big thing that we can’t appreciate what’s in front of us? Aleph’s life has been all about looking ahead and finding enough upgrades to always better themselves.  Now, they’ve found a town that’s three steps ahead of them.  Aleph acknowledges the sacrifice.  They call normal “sapes” naive because, “They want everything and never want to give up anything.”  The problem is, Aleph no longer knows what they’re giving up.  As they are ushered around Laurelwood, Hickman’s line work makes everything seem surprising… sape.  The neat and boxy line styles make this area of Laurelwood seem like any other suburban town, except when it doesn’t.  Every so often there’s a shape, a curve, or a little something extra sticking out that doesn’t belong.  Saxon’s colors add to this effect, constantly working with a very light palette of tans, grays, greens, and browns until a pop of blue that doesn’t really belong makes an appearance.  The threat of the future is hiding in right in front of us, and we don’t even realize it, just like Aleph doesn’t realize the chemical NDA in their bloodstream.

Now we’re back at the initial question: With all this going on around us, what does it mean to be okay?  According to Sebela, Hickman, Saxon, and Otsmane-Elhaou, that word doesn’t really have any meaning anymore.  At one time, everyone had a general idea of what “okay” meant.  Now, okay could mean the bare minimum of being alive or the pleasant state of doing fairly well.  People ask the question all the time as a common courtesy, but many don’t really care what the answer is.  If you have the ability to answer the question, that qualifies you as doing okay, and if you’re doing okay, that means you can continue to be exploited until you aren’t.  That’s what’s been happening to Aleph all of their lives. They are already experimenting on themselves in order to upgrade, why can’t others push things a little further?  When you’re deemed okay, that allows other’s to act, and the consequences may not, in fact, be okay at all.

It is at this point where we’re introduced to something weird and slightly off-putting.  We’re introduced to these viewing rooms that are behind every mirror in the town and act exactly like a one-way mirror in an interrogation room.  Pretty scary, right?  What do you even do with that information?  You don’t quite get how they’re watching you, but you know it isn’t right.  You’re presented with the idea that there’s a lot more going on than Aleph or us readers know about, and that is uncomfortable and a little confusing. It’s the sort of content that makes you mentally look around a bit without disengaging from the story.  You’re in suspense and just a little wary before continuing.  Sebela accomplishes this through murky answers riddled with jargon to Aleph’s more direct questions.  Hickman is able portray an intense amount of surprise and fear amidst displays of apparent normalcy.  Saxon’s colors are able to make the uncanny stick out just enough for you to notice it right before your eyes move to the next panel.  Otsmane-Elhaou adds a rushed, slightly deranged looking font that makes you pause a little.  All of these elements are combined in Test #2 to create a unique reading experience.

Once we learn a little bit more about Aleph Knull’s past and their experience with sacrifice and control, the issue becomes even more tense and concerning. They talk about allowing themselves to experience pain in order to grow in ways they couldn’t without it.  Is that healthy?  Aleph seems to seek out pain because they believe it’s the only way.  They want to force the future, and we’ve seen that play out dangerously in a number of scenarios.  It’s about adapting or dying, and Aleph’s doing everything they can to put off the latter by forcing the former in painful increments.  They’re addicted to self-modification, and it never stops.

“It’s for your own good.” Those are the words repeated frequently throughout Aleph’s past, and it’s all they need to hear to go through with it.  They believe it will make them better in the long term, no matter the cost.  There’s always a cost or hidden agenda, right?  For Aleph, that cost is planned obsolescence.  They’re threatened with the possibility that every modification they’ve ever had is designed to fail if necessary.  What are you even supposed to do with that?  It’s terrifying.  Aleph has to live in that uncertainty all the time, and it’s draining.  They’ve learned to cope, but it hasn’t been easy.  There’s been pain, sacrifice, and loss around every corner.  As Aleph gets offered the job of a lifetime to be the ultimate guinea pig for this experimental town, they have to decide: does it ever end? All the while the aura of uneasiness and discomfort persists throughout the issue thanks, in part, to Otsmane-Elhaou’s lettering.  While it doesn’t have as many unique word balloons as the previous issue, it uses a clever balance of placement, careful selection between dialogue and first person narration, subtle panel outlines, and clever, overlapping interruption to always keep you on your toes.

After every issue, it’s worth asking the questions, “What can we do?”  and “How can we fix this?”  Sebela didn’t seem to offer any answers in Test #1.  Test #2 seems to suggest more vulnerability and admitting when things aren’t okay coupled with an increased appreciation of the present rather than always sacrificing what you have now for feature gain.  That’s easier said than done of course, but the dialogue’s been started.  Ultimately, this journey is going to be a personal one, both for Aleph and for us.  No matter what you decide, your truth is yours alone, and maybe it’s worth occasionally taking a step back to realize it.

Is it good?
Sebela, Hickman, Saxon, and Otsmane-Elhaou use Test #2 to help us realize that "No pain, no gain" can be easily abused, and that it's okay to not be okay.
This book is visually subtle while remaining narratively blunt and hard-hitting. A truly effective combination and collaboration.
We're sucked into this chaos and uncertainty right along with Aleph and rooting for them the whole way.
This is a story filled with profound, relevant ideas. You're going to be thinking about this one for a while.
It's hard to become completely immersed in a story filled with so many unsettling elements, but maybe that's the idea.
9
Great
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