Culturally, there’s always something big going on that artists feel compelled to write about. For the last four years, Trump was on many comic creators’ minds, especially at Image. However, it’s no surprise a global pandemic is taking precedence in the minds of artists now.
So, here comes 20XX, an Image series with art by ALEX + ADA artist Jonathan Luna written by comic first-timer, Lauren Keely (a fact the marketing strangely doesn’t want you to forget). Taking place in a not-too-distant future, we see a reality where a virus kills anybody infected. However, if you survive…you become a Sym, a being with telekinetic powers.
Unfortunately, the government doesn’t want Syms to exercise their powers, so those with powers break into gangs: East and West. Meria is the protagonist, an ordinary gal whose life is changed when she’s infected, survives, and stuck between divided loyalties.
Firstly, Meria, our lead, is deathly boring. A huge pitfall of most sci-fi and fantasy comics is that they give the audience a blank slate that acts as an audience surrogate. Oftentimes, protagonists in these types of stories are little more than question machines: “Who? What? Where? When? Why? Do I have powers? What are my powers?” In all fairness, the writers throw in some moral quandaries Meria has to deal with: namely, controlling her devastating, lethal powers. But even those questions are cliche and tired in sci-fi and fantasy and since the dialogue and characterization is flat otherwise, these boring beats are hard to get past.
Meria has a love interest, but Soriya (I had to go back and look up her name) is just another stereotype: conflicted double agent who’s falling in love with a person from the other side. The world building is so uninspired, the gang rivalry is literally just East vs West side. 20XX is supposed to take place in Anchorage, but there’s never any sense of environment. A writer or artist could really milk the harsh wilderness for atmosphere and mood, but other than the comic being black-and-white, it’s easy to forget it takes place in Alaska.
On the topic of world building: I would feel remiss if I didn’t say the premise isn’t…good. Being so bluntly topical is a fine line to tread, but the virus in 20XX is almost incidental. It also seems fairly insensitive to, in the midst of a devastating global pandemic, come out with a comic that says: Oh yeah, it’s about people that get superpowers from surviving a virus!
While nods to Akira are appreciated in the gore and destruction department, the telekinetic element isn’t done in any exciting new ways to separate it from the billion other sci-fi yarns and comics with “legally we can’t call it the Force” powers.
Speaking of problems communicating visually: these pages are choked to death with dialogue. If you find Christopher Nolan’s movies hard to stomach due to exposition dumps, prepare to go comatose from the endless dialogue diarrhea in 20XX. Even when we clearly see telekinetic powers used to lift or levitate, characters have to explain the obvious to each other (well, more like to the audience). It’s unfortunately clear that Lauren is a new writer to comics, because her text suffocates the art.
The stakes are even harder to get behind. After finishing the trade and while I was first writing, I had more trouble recalling events of this than any comic in recent memory. Most of the tension derives from Meria’s cousin Lucas (had to look up his name as well) being tortured and in danger, despite the fact that her brother is also a torturing buffoon. Because of his lack of character or positive traits, it’s hard to care for this guy’s wellbeing. On top of that, all the stakes are wrapped up and the plot developments are happening not to Meria, our protagonist, but to somebody she hardly spends any time with.
But what about Jonathan Luna’s art? While I understand he’s worked on some respected comics, his work is exceedingly flat and dry. While it can’t be easy for an artist’s work to be choked out by endless text, that’s not a total excuse for the stale compositions. Rarely are characters not drawn at eye-line, looking straight forward, or in profile. Like Nolan, there’s little dynamism in the framing to the point where the amount of talking heads is almost parodic. Another problem is that the backgrounds are usually too sparse to feel believably lived in.
Overall, 20XX is unable to rise above its tired, desperately topical premise. The characters are stereotypes, the plot is weightless and cobbled together with cliches, and the art isn’t dynamic enough to make 20XX even visually interesting.
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