Neon Future uses ambition and cloying vanity to paper over a vapid, derivative and insipid story. What merits it possesses function as a quasi-Turing test of its reader’s credibility, viz. heart-on-sleeve devotion to 1990s comics and the imitative sci-fi that slouched out from placental expulsion post-Matrix.
Those are its redeeming qualities. It gets worse.
If such if-then logic could be put down to pastiche, parody or passion project on the part of its many creators than it would be (almost) forgivable. Instead, Neon Future—whatever its title implies—reads as a proof of concept that it could have been an animatic, screenplay or EDM mixtape. “Neon Future,” it turns out, was the title of a 2014 EDM album by musician, DJ and record producer Steve Aoki prior to him expanding and yoking his brand to this comic’s publisher, Impact Theory.
In other brand-lending, Neon Future includes Eisner award-winner Jim Krueger along with pro cartoonists Neil Edwards and Jheremy Raapack and comics industry vets Keith Champagne and Clem Robbins, who add their talents on inks and letters respectively. Coloring becomes the bailiwick of Abe Lee, who is regarded as a “relative unknown” in the lengthy back matter by impresario-cum-co-producer-co-story-writer-co-scripter and CEO and co-founder of Impact Theory, Tom Bilyeu.
As the overseer to this team of creatives, Bilyeu, to his credit, chooses wisely. The art and visual storytelling of Neon Future eclipses competent, going so far as to enchant with one sequence a snobbish cinephile may see as borrowing inspiration from Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. Edwards, Raapack, Champagne and Robbins are all bonafides, and yet their presence as comic book artists on contractual assignment isn't enough to look past the slipshod narrative. To wit: when a movie has as many names listed under ‘story by’ as this comic does, it’s regarded as a by-committee bastardization co-signed in some sterile conference room. When the seals were broken at the creation of Neon Future one imagines less inviting environs, something a step or six down from an off-brand Regus™ workspace off the 405 and close to the airport. Here’s hoping Mssrs. Edwards, Raapack, Champagne, Robbins and plucky first-timer Lee got their money upfront while Krueger and Aoki took the lion’s share of backend points.
As for the story, Neon Future is pre-fab dystopic boilerplate. The cause célèbre of this world thirty years in the future is a catastrophic global recession pinned on the outsourcing of work to AI and automation. In the wake of worldwide joblessness a neo-Luddite American authoritarian government has risen to enact legislation to bring back jobs and
Make America Great Again restore the country to a technologically prelapsarian time. The glut of the unemployment results in civil unrest dividing the great unwashed into the ‘Augmented’ and the ‘Authentic,’ one of whom embraces implanted technologies and another who does not. Forged in this epoch of maniacal labor-saving machines and drudgery-reducing devices stands the only hero for such troubled times, a man sworn to lead the capital-A ‘Augmented’ to peace and prosperity, “the mysterious Kita Sovee” who bares a not-so-striking resemblance to Aoki. He’s not a lead-from-the-front kind of savior, instead he whiles away his time in what’s described as “an underground Mecca for plug-ins,” plug-ins being the slang term for Augmented. It’s not a Mecca in which plug-in pilgrims may visit to pledge devotion, but a cool clubhouse of steel and body-length observation windows that look out on empty hanger-sized rooms overseen by silhouettes holding assault-style rifles.
The details of how, exactly, all of human civilization devolved into anarchy while half (?) the populace simultaneously embraced cybernetics lies in shadow, for now. So too does the internet. There is a passing reference to posting a selfie, but what role the web plays in people’s virtual or real lives receives scant reporting. In a rambling introductory narration, the reader is told the events taking place are in a specifically unspecific “thirty years in the future.” A future, say in thirty years or so, where the internet does not continue to dominate the culture would be refreshing to investigate. Not so here.
It’s slapdash futurism or poor dystopia-making like this that makes it easy to cast a cynical eye towards Neon Future. Leaving tangential details of story to the reader’s imagination—even those central to the genre like the internet—is fine, but smacks of carelessness and begs sarcasm. It’s the prerogative of Krueger et. al. to place the blame for societal collapse on whichever straw man they like. But to ignore how technologies in agriculture, transportation and communication (to name a few) have shaped our world -- which is not much different from the one offered up in Neon Future -- and not explain what happened, even in a lazy offhand way, shows little thought beyond the need to construct a dystopia to fill out the story. What happened to the farms, airplanes and the internet while this global recession ran rampant and the robots took over? And about that: if AI and automation has driven the working class to obsolescence, where are the robots? Habeas automatos! All of which makes it easy to cast Neon Future as no more than the chance for Aoki to literally become a comic book superhero and Bilyeu to play out a Stan Lee fantasy.
If Kita Sovee née Steve Aoki is the Jehovah of this neon future than Clay Campbell is its messianic figure. Which the reader knows because ‘Clay,’ duh. Neon Future is narrator Campbell’s story, he's the tale’s Saul destined to spread the digital good news. Campbell serves as the “Authentic” face of the government. He keeps “America safe from technology” on “Return America,” a reality-TV program that’s shown for all the not-TV-owning masses on either giant monitors in public places or projected against landmarks like the Hollywood sign for all to cheer and jeer—it seems a global recession was the kick in the pants broadcast television needed to best the streaming platform.
After a car accident that (almost) kills Campbell, his barely alive corpse is stolen by Sovee’s cybernetic-enhanced minions (eyes mostly, some limbs) led by an upside-down-triangle-looking dude called Mars who favors a shaved head, accessorizing his turnout with pouches and blasting his biceps until the veins pop out. They spirit Clay away to the secret liar where the peoples “Authentic” champion gets Frankenstein-ed into [gasp] an “Augmented.” Besides installing implants in Campbell’s noggin, the process of transference includes a visit to a spiritual cyberspace that looks like what six storytellers would smear together between catered meals from Baja Fresh. It’s part Pandora from Avatar, ‘the Stacks’ from Ready Player One and the necropolis of the Terracotta Army. The one least derivative look in this lavender and periwinkle colored paradise is an Ouroboros of a Chinese dragon which acts as the gate where Sovee’s Matrix-y unnamed and masked stand-in tells Campbell’s penitent pledge, at sword point, that he must choose either “the blade or the butterfly” before being flung back into the real real world outside Sovee’s hidden fortress.
Pointing out Neon Future’s faults is easy, but gloomy work. As Benicio Del Toro’s Longbaugh tells Ryan Phillippe’s Mr. Parker in another (yet far more thought out) monument to kitchen sink fetishes and excesses, The Way of the Gun, “There’s always free cheese in a mousetrap.” The metaphorical cheese in this mousetrap is cherry picked 90s comic book signifiers like EXTREME accoutrements, gross anatomy and grungy darkness. With the distance of nearly twenty years of perspective, 90s nostalgia is ready for it's foreshortened close-up. Neon Future ain't it, sis. Bilyeu's love for 90s excesses appears genuine, but can't be trusted. Same goes for Aoki, surely he's in it to be the mysterious headman in a comic book and expand his brand, but that's not a crime, it's capitalism. The credibility gap Neon Future creates speaks to its shopworn and short-sighted world-building -- something the back matter insists was designed to be "as plausible as possible." Perhaps Neon Future works as a cool-sounding title for an EDM album by a Florida-born DJ; however as a comic its future truly is neon: colorless, odorless and inert.