March 30, 2018

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Retcon Vol. 1: Reverse Engineered, by Nixon, Cypress and Krotzer


Retcon Vol. 1: Reverse Engineered
Written by Matt Nixon
Illustrated by Toby Cypress
Letters by Matt Krotzer
Published by Image Comics

Retcon (from writer Matt Nixon, artist Toby Cypress and letterer Matt Krotzer) is the best kind of crazy. While reading Retcon, I felt like "this is a book where literally anything can happen". That's honestly not a feeling I get often enough in comics these days, and for that reason alone I highly recommend this book. But there are a lot of other reasons as well (spoiler: many of them include the words "Toby" and "Cypress").  If you love wild, psychedelic science fiction series full of the unexpected and bursting with imagination, then you absolutely need to read Retcon.

There's a secret black-ops force who's tasked with making sure that supernatural threats don't make their way into the public eye and don't cause harm. Recently, the leader of that group has become compromised and as a result has been ordering the "removal" of former agents of that group that might pose any sort of threat to mysterious plans that are afoot. Brandon Ross was a member of that group and tasked with keeping tabs on one of its former members.  That's where the story starts, and from there, things go pear-shaped and all sorts of vast conspiracies, ancient mysteries, and world-ending threats ensue. I don't want to say too much more about the details of what happens in the story because the weird twists and turns are something you should discover for yourself. 

Nixon and co. explore several key themes throughout the series.  One of them is built right into the title of the series. Retcon. To quote Battlestar Galactica, all of this has happened before and all of this will happen again. It's a clever conceit of the story that this isn't the first time that the existential threat has emerged, and that the Earth has been placed in peril and that a group of people have tried (unsuccessfully) to prevent its destruction.  This element adds richness and texture to the story; the idea that saving the world has been tried before really puts the reader in media res and gives the world of Retcon a lived-in feel. The reality that they've been through this (in some way) before also gives the story a sense of poignancy and sadness, as you can see the frustration and weariness in some of the characters as they ponder again trying to save the world.

That cycle of repetition is something the characters are obligated to repeat in the hope that eventually they'll get it right, and finally be able to stop the looming existential threat. That sense of obligation in the face of almost inevitable defeat ties into the other main theme in this comic, which is that of responsibility in the face of an impossible task. I'm reminded of the old Rabbinic teaching from the Pirkei Avot, "you are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it." In that text (as here) the work that needs to be done is repairing the world.  Here, it's clear in the story that the heroes can't really "win". Victory is either impossible or improbable, and some of the characters are aware that they've already failed multiple times and the world has been destroyed.  But for Brandon, he learns through interaction with others who've been at this longer, that victory doesn't matter. You have to try, in the hopes that this time they might learn something that helps them the next time around, or might do something that gives them an advantage the next time around. Otherwise, there's no hope at all, there's simply death and defeat. Retcon also traces the heroic arc of another character, who serves as something of an audience p.o.v. character. We see him go from skeptic to believer, to possibly the most noble, selfless character in the story. There's no "victory" for him, but there's hope that that what he's doing is going to make a difference, in this world or the next. Retcon actually ends up being a pretty strong commentary on (and demonstration of) responsibility and selflessness.  


But I fear I might've made Retcon sound like a self-serious tome on power, responsibility, and the futility of fighting evil. It's not. It's an absolute blast to read, and it's bursting with ideas, imagination, and WTF moments. It's got crazy escapes, creepy and unsettling images and characters, and exorcism. Nixon has written a terrific story with compelling characters and fantastic ideas, wit and humor, and Cypress' art makes these crazy ideas come to life and jump off the page. Cypress has a distinct, idiosyncratic style that perfectly suits the subject matter.  This story is about weird supernatural occurrences, and about the cyclical nature of reality - that calls for someone who can convincingly portray out-there ideas and make them make some amount of sense on the page. It's hard for me to imagine someone with a DC Comics house-style bringing this comic to life in the same way.

Cypress' linework feels very loose but at the same time also feels precise and detailed.  Tho loose linework really gives Retcon an alternative, underground comics feel which works well with the tone of the series (which is a story about the weird fantastical beings that live in the shadows of society). I also love the look and feel of the story in that the creators here don't see a line between science fiction and fantasy elements. The story has time travel, alternate timelines and a multiverse, but this is also very much a world of witches, demonic possession, and mythical creatures. I really like that they don't see a difference - it's all fantastical and all blends together in the interests of storytelling.  Cypress' work first grabbed me in The White Suits (which felt like grindhouse-Steranko work) but which really has blown me away in this series. When a character develops giant, indestructible demon arms out of nowhere in this story, you just sort of roll with it because Cypress' work in setting the background and feel of the story makes it plausible to accept what's happening on the page, and you realize as a reader that this is a story where literally anything can pop up on the page. That's a great feeling.

Cypress does fantastic character work in Retcon. Brandon is a reluctant participant in much of what's happening throughout the story, and that comes across in his face and body language (he's a hipster who also happens to have some pretty powerful and frightening supernatural abilities). Scary characters are frightening, sexy characters exude that quality without being objectified, and each of the characters in the story are imaginatively distinct. It feels like no two characters in the story look alike, and as a reader that conveys the sense that a lot of detail and care was placed into each page of the story. There are monsters and cyborgs in this comic, and they really don't look like other monsters or cyborgs I've seen in other comics. Along with all of the other work in this comic, the distinct character design makes Retcon feel like something original.

Similarly, with respect to color, letter and design work (with strong, appropriately stylized lettering from Matt Krotzer), Retcon feels like little else I've ever read. The colors are stylish and atmospheric and larger-than-life, but they're also so weirdly specific and different from page to page, even from panel to panel. This isn't the real world, this is the hyper-real science-fiction/fantasy world that Cypress is bringing to life. There's just a lot going on, on every page, and I love all of it. If you're looking for Kirby crackle and weird pixellation, and effects that look like something out of an early 1980's video game, have I got a book for you. Much like a lot of elements in the story generally, the colors are wild and psychedelic and outlandish and they work perfectly as part of the story, bringing the weird and impossible to life.

I really can't recommend Retcon highly enough. It's a blast to read, and an original work full of style and imagination.