Arguments about what exactly constitutes comics as a form always seem something of an unnecessary distraction. The elasticity of that definition is surely one of the medium’s greatest strengths, allowing it to constantly revitalise and reinvent itself. After all, comics continue to explore new territory and find alternative ways of expressing themselves. It’s something I have been speaking about regularly over the last year in regards to the work of Peony Gent, for example, and it’s an observation that graphic novelist Karrie Fransman, herself a pioneering practitioner in that respect, made when I interviewed her here at Broken Frontier a few years back saying “I think what excites me the most about the medium is how young and open it is. Unlike cinema, photography or fine art, comics are still being defined. And it’s a medium which is open for any of us to define it.”
This capacity to surprise with evolving and new applications of the pure visual language of comics is an ever delightful one. Broken Frontier Award-nominated Internet Crusader by George Wylesol is a project that embraces those potentialities and, for all the critical acclaim it did receive last year, it still feels like it’s one of 2019’s most underappreciated graphic novels. Published by Avery Hill, the importance of whose contributions to indie comics publishing have been immeasurable over the last several years, it’s the second Wylesol book to have come to us via the London publisher, after 2017’s Ghosts, Etc..
Set in the early days of the web, Internet Crusader is told not through the on-page interplay of its characters but rather via screenshots of their online interactions. These take the form of a series of retro graphic interfaces including throwback chat rooms, video games and rudimentary early web design. In this manner Wylesol spins a strange tale of doomsday cults, computer viruses and Satanic influence.
Our protagonist is ‘90s internet user BSKskater191 whose online time is spent having teen strops in his web journal about school, participating in inane chats with friends Nate and Katie, and eventually making his first forays into the more dubious areas of the emerging net. Wylesol introduces us to his character’s world not simply through his own thoughts and relationships with the wider cast, but also by building up a bigger picture of him through the array of open windows, graphics and applications on his computer screen; peripheral visual details always feeding into and advancing the greater narrative.
Egged on by his friend Nate, BSKskater191’s tentative initiation into the world of digital porn leads him to the site of the devil-worshipping The Church of the Holy Light and a conspiracy to take over humanity’s free will by use of a demonic computer virus. With Satan using emerging technology to strike back at the mortal world, our hero finds himself deluged with e-mails from someone claiming to be God. With the world in spiritual peril its only hope rests in the skills of one teenager and his ability to stop this supernatural scheme through the ominously named video game Portal 2 Hell…
Wylesol’s story impresses not just for its innovative approach to the comics page but for the dark humour that rests at its heart. Ultimate evil and the impending apocalypse sit side by side with some cracking computer-based gags surrounding parental controls, force-quitting and passwords that are made all the funnier for the surly, teenage moodiness of its central character. Our visual detachment from the cast also ironically somehow makes our connection to them feel all the more solid in its realisation, as their plight begins to echo our own existences and the self-imposed shackles of our own dependence on the online arena.
While the ambiguity of its denouement may feel a little anticlimactic to some, Internet Crusader is a graphic novel where the journey is far, far more important than the destination. Wylesol’s kaleidoscopic use of colour and busily jarring but enticingly nostalgic imagery ensures that this is a dizzying and hypnotic story with a genuinely unique presentational structure. As I said when we made it our ‘Comic of the Week’ last year, graphic narrative that pushes, probes, tests and even breaks the boundaries of what comics can be is our manna here at Broken Frontier. So you can be assured that when we find something as innovative, perceptive and clever as George Wylesol’s Internet Crusader it’s always going to get the heartiest of BF recommendations.
Not just one of the very best books Avery Hill have ever published but also one of the most important.
Review by Andy Oliver