Jason Shawn Alexander has created a masterpiece with Empty Zone. But be warned this dive into a dystopic future will not be for everyone. Still, if Alexander’s dark and moody cyberpunk comic with overtones of the supernatural were reduced to prose, it would be a contender for the Hugo award.
When William Gibson introduced the world to cyberpunk, he was following the New Wave writers of the 1960s who showed that there was a dark side to technology as well as a human cost. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (from Philip K. Dick source material of course) cemented this dismal vision in the American psyche for a generation. During the 1980s, cyberpunk became a popular sub-genre of science fiction. Even Bill Shatner tried his hand at it with the Tek War series (although rumor has it that SF legend Ron Goulet actually ghostwrote the books.)
Like punk rock, cyberpunk’s musical sibling, the genre petered out and pretty much disappeared. From time to time someone will try their hand at it, but what was once a new breath of fresh (or fetid) air, has now become forced and unoriginal.
With Empty Zone, Alexander parties like it’s 1983 again. This is not a slight. He has truly captured the original spirit of cyberpunk.
I long ago became bored with dystopias. Too many lazy writers use them to show how “cool”, “relevant” or “edgy” they can be. The “dark and grim” future has the depth and creativity of the sets of a High School play.
But, Alexander is not lazy and isn’t interested in showing us how cool he is. He is interested in creating a real world, and showing how real people function in it.
Everything he does either advances the story, or provides insight into the characters. And even the character development advances the story.
The protagonist, Corrine, at first appears to be that overused character flooding fiction these days: the tough but damaged woman, with a dread secret in her past. This type of character is the new multi-tool in the slothful writer’s tool chest. When Hammett and Chandler created their hard-boiled private detectives, lesser talents photocopied these characters again and again, until only the barest traces of the original could be seen. But, the talented Robert Parker was able to shake up that genre and create the incredible, multi-faceted Spencer.
Similarly, Alexander has taken a tired and overused device and created a well realized person. Corrine is tough but wounded and how she became that way is at the heart of the story. While I am normally put off by sex scenes and gratuitous violence, Alexander’s R rated panels, while disturbing, are important for the evolution of the story and the understanding of Corrine’s character.
Alexander’s art is dreamy and more than a little hallucinogenic, as Corinne gets sucked into either a waking nightmare, a neural connection or spiritual contact with her dead comrades. Combining elements of realism, noir and horror, Alexander has created a unique and disquieting visual tour-de-force.
Corrine is introduced to us waking from a nightmare involving her ghosts, torrid love making, and the loss of her arm. Her nightmares are slowly revealed to be shadowy, but not too inaccurate depictions of her waking life. Her ghosts, real and imagined drive her through days that she is not sure that even she wants to complete. However, when her past impinges on her present, Corrine must find a way to lay her demons to rest.
While the tone and art are dark, Alexander does not wantonly torment Corrine for our sadistic pleasure. This is ultimately a tale of redemption, if Corrine can find it.