“Test” #2

“Test” #2 continues Aleph Null’s strange, overwhelming and expansive journey through time, space and Laurelwood.

Test #2 Cover
Cover by Jen Hickman

Story: Christopher Sebela
Art: Jen Hickman
Colors: Harry Saxon
Letters: Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou
Publisher: Vault Comics

“Test” is an interesting comic. It’s visually stimulating and narratively complex, and doesn’t offer readers an easy road map. With plenty of dialogue and a roving cast of characters in these first two issues, as well as a surreal landscape presented without preamble, “Test” risks losing its readers in its miasma. But, that seems to be the point.

Sebela and Hickman are doing something that feels impossible: mapping our lives. To add “digital” as an adjective is unnecessary because technology has become a driving force in how our consciousness changes and, in the case of younger generations, forms. Many comics examine this, struggle with this, react against this. Sebela and Hickman go a step further down a path not too many have trod before by treating technology not as an intrusion or an overt antagonist but as an entity that has grown beyond emergence. It’s here, it’s in control and it’s altering the reality we depend on for meaning. It’s inevitable without a threat level that’s easy to define.

Is that a bad thing? Not clear. Despite Aleph’s turmoil and the sinister presence of the Repo Men, Sebela, Hickman and the team are playing their cards close to their chest. We do learn a little more about Laurelwood and what’s going on – or what seems to be going on – but the overwhelm and clever dependence on readerly sophistication to accept shifts not just in time, but also space, seems to be building to something.

As for Aleph, well. Aleph is sympathetic in their ramblings as well as in Hickman’s birdlike, femme detail, but Sebela uses their complex narration as a tool to keep Aleph locked into their role as a catalyst. We struggle to get closer, to understand, much as Aleph hurtles through life chasing all sorts of dragons. Aleph appears more in this issue as an axle around which everyone else turns, which flirts with wunderkind territory, but Sebela’s proven adept at undermining that archetype in other work and in “Test” #1. Hickman enhances Aleph’s isolation and stillness by situating them in contained panels, with small movements prompted by the actions of others. The back of a police car, the table in a bookstore, the center of a living room – all spaces in which authority of some sort has pinned them before. Or maybe they’ve bucked all attempts to do so, but, again, it’s hard to trust any whiff of consistency or coherent perspective so far.

The Future itself is an abstract bleeding into the present, and Hickman plays with tech and landscapes that lack a lot of hard edges. Plenty of visual details signify knitting together rather than isolating, severing or erasing. The town is innocuous until it’s not, the secret of it round and strange and dislocating and even the thread in the bookstore scene is neat instead of regimented as it soothes, heals and holds Aleph together. Can we trust this womblike enfolding? Probably not, but Hickman’s choices do their job well to tempt us into submitting.

Saxon’s palette blends the innocuous colors of a small, previously “sleepy” town with a hint of the false, pastel camaraderie of our current advertising and culture hellscape. Everything from car insurance to meal kits to healthcare is a posh spike delivered to our frontal lobes and wallets in the perfect shade of mint, rose, shell or periwinkle. Saxon plays with this aesthetic in Hickman’s surreal landscapes to great effect, but turns the hues just a bit sickly. Everything feels infected, desiccated and heavy with ill intent without going high-contrast neon or noir. The horror of “Test” is that it happens in broad daylight, at least so far, and it’s very effective.

Otsmane-Elhaou has a bit of work to do in “Test” because it relies so heavily on strange visual detail and a ton of dialogue, but the work gets us there. There is one spot in particular where balloon placement on top of an intricate close-up panel means the text is hard to read, but there’s simply no other place to put that dialogue on the page. Otsmane-Elhaou makes the best choice possible given the script. Perpetuating the illusion of chaos while maintaining artistic control is difficult, and Otsmane-Elhaou pulls it off with a wobbly font that exhausts us just enough to get at that narrative strain so key to success in this book. 

“Test” #2 deepens the alarm and intrigue to a nice degree and does get at some plot beyond the noise from Aleph and everyone around them. There is something strange going on, it does seem to be rooted in some kind of reality and it is pretty hazardous to everyone’s health. Whether it’s the control mechanism throttling this Future or the Future itself remains to be seen.

“Test” will have to play out to its conclusion to seal the deal. In the meantime, this book’s got chutzpah to spare and is well worth checking out.

The Verdict: 8/10 – “Test” #2 takes chances that largely pay off, with just the right amount of narrative overwhelm to maintain the book’s momentum.

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