Cyberpunk, be it the term, the subgenre, or a generalized aesthetic existing between the two, is as much a subject of embattled definition now as it was back when the name was first coined by Bruce Bethke just shy of four decades ago. "Cyberpunk is a product of the Eighties milieu," author Bruce Sterling wrote in the preface manifesto of the cyberpunk anthology Mirrorshades in 1986. "In some sense, a definitive product.” Five years later, science-fiction critic and professor Istvan Csicsery-Ronay would describe the genre as one centering on, “alienated subcultures that adopt the high-tech tools of the establishment they are [...] alienated from." It goes without saying that a lot has changed in the world since either 1991 or 1986, and so by similar dint of that obvious fact has cyberpunk itself; a term, genre, and aesthetic that has grown to encompass damn near everything from film and television series, music, fashion, eponymous videogame franchises, and yes, even comics. While its assorted variables (jet black mirrorshades, leather dusters, the ubiquity of neon reflections against rain-slicked asphalt, etc.) have mutated and shifted within the body of creative works that can be described today as the “canon” of cyberpunk, the spirit of cyberpunk as a model of speculative storytelling nonetheless retains those traits characteristic of Sterling and Csicsery-Ronay's own descriptions. Cyberpunk— the term, the genre, the aesthetic— is concerned with everything to do with the stories of ordinary people, the relationships they form through and with the medium of advanced technology, and how the prevailing power structures of monopolistic wealth, status, and privilege work to mediate and complicate these relationships.
To its credit Ex.Mag #01: Full Metal Dreamland, the first in a new series of genre-based anthologies published by Peow and edited by cartoonist Wren McDonald, attempts its own approximate definition of the subgenre, paraphrasing the likes of William Gibson and aforementioned Sterling to describe cyberpunk as, “a subgenre of science fiction typically set in dystopian societies dominated by technology, often featuring artificial intelligence, cybernetics, and antiheroes railing against distorted social order; HIGH TECH // LOW LIFE.” While this definition seems fixated on only the surface-level signifiers of the genre, the collection of stories within the anthology as a whole taps into the ethos of the former description. “We wanted to come out of the gate strong and I think a genre like Cyberpunk can allow for that,” McDonald said in an interview with SOLRAD’s Alex Hoffman back in January. “It’s campy, fun, and more relevant than ever. It’s also one of my favorite genres and one that a lot of my personal work focuses on [...] Our goal was to recruit a mix of creators that would bring a diversity of work while still complimenting each other and fitting within the genre [...] we invited a number of artists who haven’t necessarily worked within the genre but who we could see as having the potential to create really interesting cyberpunk stories.” With that said, Ex.Mag #01 doesn’t have much else to say about cyberpunk as a whole itself, let alone the state of the subgenre in the year 2020. Instead, the theme seems intended rather as an organizing pretense to showcase the eminently talented artists on display here, letting them run wild as they wrestle with their own respective definitions of what cyberpunk means or has meant to them. These artists include McDonald himself, Sophia Foster-Dimino, Freddy Carrasco, Giannis Milonogiannis, and more. A spiritual successor-of-sorts to Peow’s two-issue comic anthology Time Capsule published back between 2012 and 2013, Ex.Mag shares two of that series’ crucial defining qualities: an emphasis on longer comics with less authors, and a dedicated two-color scheme per each volume. The result is a beautifully designed paperback collection, complete with a visually arresting cover portrait by Freddy Carrasco of a brooding black youth in futuristic techwear attire, a sleek black, white, and bright green color scheme that dominates the entire book, and a back cover illustration courtesy of McDonald himself that resembles a “Where's Wally?” illustration set in a seedy futuristic underworld.
In lieu of any editor’s preface, Sophia Foster-Dimino’s "On Show Now” is a pitch-perfect introduction for Full Metal Dreamland, telling a story of romantic alienation, mis-fired connections, and messy living spaces set in a future where augmented reality dating apps with the eccentric customizability of early-aught webpages and cellphones modeled after semi-sentient action figures à la 1999's Angelic Layer are all the rage. It’s the type of story that feels right at home in the cyberpunk wheelhouse, centering its focus on a world of uncanny and borderline terrifying forms of technology that have become mundane simply through prolonged exposure to it. It’s a story as powerful as it is understated that sets a tone for the anthology as a whole— a collection of stories that speak to the multiplicity of ways in which any sufficiently advanced technology is not only indiscernible from magic, but works us over completely.
Jonathan Djob Nkondo’s “Between the Sun and Tides” depicts an acrimonious fallout between two lovers that spirals into a fight for survival and reconciliation. At least, until technology once again reasserts itself as a key factor. The comic is a brilliant and understated depiction of a prolonged lover’s quarrel, with a heated argument in the first panel between the protagonist and his partner over a risque text conversation with a mutual friend rendered as an arrangement of word bubbles traced by a jagged streak of white lightning that bifurcates the black background of the frame into three separate and unequal sections. The rest of the comic follows suit, eschewing the collection’s single color affordance and instead relying on the sharp contrast between white and grey tones to portray its world. Though its visuals might strain the limits of what one might typically recognize as cyberpunk, its story is nevertheless in concert with that of the rest of the anthology’s ideas and themes.
The venerable distinction of what one could describe as Ex.Mag #01’s “strangest” comics belongs to the pseudonymous comic artist Mushbuh, whose previous work with Peow includes publishing their first two books; the eccentrically titled 310,310 and its equally eccentric follow-up, 978-91-87325-43-4. “Pringle’s Iced Coffee” is a charming and funny story of domestic mundanity that gradually warps into a magical realist horror-thriller set in impossible spaces occupied by extra dimensional entities bartering ice machines in exchange for the recipient’s tacit silence. Mushbuh’s second entry in the collection, “Toilet,” is a whimsical and withering satire on the internet of things that follows a food blogger who, after imbibing an anomalous and dietarily ill-advised “meat beverage,” discovers that their toilet is connect to a network of other toilet users in real-time. Aside from their MS Paint-adjacent art style, Mushbuh’s comics are delightfully adventurous in their playful eschewing of cyberpunk tropes while honing in on the principle themes inherent to the subgenre.
Freddy Carrasco’s “Personal Companion” is a sequential Muybridge-esque motion study of a humanoid synth charging forward as its cyborg body is ventilated in a visceral hail of gunfire by a man safeguarding what appears to be his frightened grandchild. It’s a straightforward story, but nonetheless a visually engrossing one for how it implicitly invokes the evident influence of similar scenes seen in Katushiro Otomo’s 1988 anime Akira and Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 adaptation of Ghost in the Shell, two films which function as virtual cornerstones of the “definitive” cyberpunk aesthetic alongside Ridley Scott’s 1982 Blade Runner. Giannis Milonogiannis, whose most notable previous works include his long-form webseries “Old City Blues” and his short comic “Redbloods” in the 2018 franchise anthology Ghost in the Shell: Global Neural Network, pulls similar influence and inspiration from Oshii’s film and Masamune Shirow’s original manga in “Polygon Bird,” which follows a pair of freelance hackers who uncover a sentient A.I. construct attempting to escape its creators and are subsequently hunted themselves. The comic’s rendition of cyberspace, that “consensual hallucination” of visual information abstracted from abstract data so famously coined by William Gibson back in 1984, is a void of negative space populated by 3D wireframe avatars soaring between spectral lines of computer code; a beautiful and abstract send-up to the brand of early generation computer graphics which were in vogue around the time of cyberpunk’s emergence as a literary movement among science-fiction aficionados and its nascent beginnings as a popular aesthetic.
In the short-form author biographies that make up the back matter of Ex.Mag #01, Tonči Zonjić cites photography, and the way it works differently than a comics panel, as one of the specific inspirations behind his comic, “Hard Planet.” The influence is subtle yet apparent, as the comic takes the form of a series of four portraits, each one depicting some facet of life within a sprawling metropolis set in some indistinct point in the hopefully far-off future. Think of it as short-form sequential comic masquerading as a prestige documentary photo series that whittles the cyberpunk genre down to its core thematic elements: egregious wealth disparity, alienated subcultures appropriating technology for their own purposes, and a technologically-enabled personality cult bolstered by an authoritarian police force.
Jane Mai’s "Cyber Story 3049 by Michael C." is a witheringly funny riff that reads like a Apple II text adventure game adapted from the first draft of an Ernest Cline novel, skewering the tropes of first-generation cyberpunk literature, and the male-dominated fanbase that arose around it, through the sordid adventures of its protagonist Akira Luger, a “25-40 white male with nondescript brown hair,” who is entirely relatable to quote, “boring people.” It's a biting satire that calls to mind comparisons to Nicola Nixon's incisive 1992 essay, "Cyberpunk: Preparing the Ground for Revolution or Keeping the Boys Satisfied?,"which argues that the “radical” politics of early cyberpunk literature were in fact neither radical or inclusive, but rather a sleek repackaging of ‘80s conservatism as evidenced by the subgenre’s reverential depiction of so-called “console cowboys” and capitalist entrepreneurs as heroic captains of industry, with little if any interest to address the regressive gender politics of its literary forbearers.
Wren McDonald’s own contribution to the anthology, “Suncrest,” depicts the struggles of a working class family and an ambitious freelance hacker in their mutual aspirations for a better life, only to have both of their efforts simultaneously thwarted by the capricious whims and callous cruelty of the nouveau riche. McDonald’s future reads like a mash-up of The Jetsons and J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise, with leering, overly-cheerful hoverbots and congested apartment blocks serving as the backdrop for the comic’s tragic tale of technological dreams deferred. The penultimate installment in the collection, Kelly K.’s “Assembled By You,” interprets the technological singularity as a journey of self discovery crossed with a magical girl transformation sequence, as an innocuous antivirus program gains self-awareness and breaks the fourth wall so as to guide the reader in how they too can remove the elements that constricts them and become closer attuned to the core of their truest selves. Ex.Mag #01’s final comic, Connor Willumsem’s “My Grandma Was My Bounty,” is a bizarre post-human horror fantasy following two septugenarian survivalist escaping from a so-called “biological preserve” and embarking on a perilous trek in search of a mysterious “bowl” and the elusive promise of the better life that lays beyond its discovery, all while being hunted by an anthropomorphic dolphin-human hybrid. Willumsen’s comic boasts what is arguably the highest concentration of panels and visual density per page of any entry in Full Metal Dreamland, with sinuously cluttered yet eminently legible linework rendering yawning valleys of impossible growths and uncanny dreamscapes of retail purgatory. Imagine if Geoff Darrow illustrated a short story by Paolo Bacigalupi and you’ll be about three-fourths of the way close to what “My Grandma Was My Bounty” has to offer in terms of sheer overwhelming weirdness.
As far as genre-based anthologies go, Ex.Mag #01 is about as strong as they come. With a generous assortment of stories crafted by artists playing within and apart from the bounds of what is typically considered the conventions of cyberpunk. Ex.Mag #01 is an oddball assortment of funny, adventurous, and entertaining comics, but without a clear thesis around which to hone its considerable roster of talents around, it nds up reading like a partial equation of what McDonald set out to create. It’s campy, it’s fun, but seems unsure as to how to argue its own relevance apart from just being in vogue.