April 21, 2015

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The Temptation of Empty Promises in Frontier #7 by Jillian Tamaki


Frontier #7
Written and Drawn by Jillian Tamaki
Published by Youth in Decline

Opening with an invocation of the early days of the internet, “The file was uploaded July 26, 1996,” Jillian Tamaki’s Frontier #7 (a.k.a. Sexcoven) reminds us of just how much of an untested frontier the ‘net was before it became the commoditized ad-ridden platform that it currently is. Tamaki describes the mp3 file named “Sexcoven” as “... a six hour atonal drone? A sound so profound that each chord shift feels like a new tear in the Universe? Sonic mindfuck gets close. Listeners report cascading feelings of dread, fear, love, and euphoria.” I kind of would like to hear that. A whole youth culture develops around this mp3 file as its effects mostly only work on anyone younger than thirty years old. Tamaki’s story begins as a mockumentary on this file, presenting the facts about it. But by the second half of the book, it becomes the personal story of Raven, one of the many people who were once so enraptured by this file that they ran off to join a commune to plumb the depths of it.

Like her artwork in This One Summer, Tamaki’s art in Frontier #7 perfectly captures the tone of the story. As the story develops and a whole culture develops around the mysteries of the Sexcoven file, there’s a youthful innocence to Tamaki’s artwork that gives way to a harder and more jaded conclusion. She draws the sounds of the files as these tendrils that snake through the air. It’s slightly sinister that the sound becomes this wispy, physical manifestation that ultimately infects its audience until they become something other than the world around them. While Tamaki concentrates on the audio file, her art with its shifting perspective keeps us apart from the music, as if we’re too old to understand the effects of the audio ourselves.


The second half of the book shifts from a distanced view of the culture that grow up around Sexcoven to the more intimate story of Raven, a devotee of the file who is feeling more and more distanced from its culture. Tamaki’s story tracks with the development of the internet, from the oddity underground knowledge that it used to contain through to the point in time where societies developed around internet tribes. Raven’s part of the book is about when the excitement of these new societies became the same old doldrums of real life. It’s not that those new societies weren’t real; it’s more that there was nothing fulfilling around them. The dreams of sex and enlightenment gave way to the dreams of orders and fulfillment. 

Maybe it’s not a problem with the developing tribal society around the Sexcoven file; maybe it’s just that it’s a young person’s game, much like the effects of the file. The life that Raven has that we see in the end isn’t defined by mysterious files or sex tribes or even any kind of counter culture. It’s defined by the rules that we all struggle against and chafe at while we’re young that end up being the things that we accept as we get older. Maybe that’s why the allure of the Sexcoven file is lost on anyone over a certain age. As it represents a type of youthful rebellion, Raven seems resigned to admitting it’s a mystery that we end up outgrowing. 

Tamaki’s movement through this story is ambitious. The way she begins with a look at a larger society and focuses the story to finally be a very personal tale is a skill that you just don’t see that much in comics. And for as much as it is a personal story, it’s also a story about how the internet has changed and changed us since those wild frontier days of 1996. As if her work in last year’s This One Summer wasn’t enough, Frontier #7 establishes Jillian Tamaki as an artist that you can’t ignore. Her seductive storytelling makes you want to hear the music of the Sexcoven file even while her story warns you about the false allure of these internet phenomenons.