REVIEW: Swordquest #0 by Chad Bowers, Chris Sims and Ghostwriter X

Written by Chad Bowers, Chris Sims
Illustrated by Ghostwriter X
Color Flats by Karl Fan
Lettered by Josh Krach
Published by Dynamite Entertainment

When it was first announced that there was to be a comic adaptation of an Atari game, even though I was unfamiliar with the original series, there was part of me that was apprehensive about the literary merit of yet another reboot for a modern audience. Even though Bowers and Sims (X-Men '92, Guardians of the Galaxy #1.MU) have proved themselves an outstanding comedic writing team on mainstream properties in recent years, it still felt unnecessary. Fortunately, my initial estimations could not have been more incorrect.

For those who are unaware, Swordquest is a series of real-world video games that were released in the 1980s for the Atari 2600, each with its corresponding comic tie-in, that promised a range of extravagant prizes for those in the audience who could combine the two and extract the clues. Prizes included a talisman made of 18K solid gold and a gold crown that had been encrusted with diamonds and rubies, each valued at approximately $25,000. Unfortunately, Atari fell victim to the video game crash of 1983 and the ongoing competition was discontinued.

Swordquest #0 picks up 30 years after this cancellation. Our protagonist, Peter Chase, is an ex-fan of the Swordquest franchise, and is now a 45 year old man, working late into the night at his office-job that, despite his lack of enthusiasm for, he dedicates himself to. He then learns something that throws his life into disarray, setting off a chain of events that drag him back into the fantasy world that he abandoned so many years before.

From the very first page, it's clear that Bowers and Sims are writing a love-letter to the video games that have been so formative in their childhoods. While the specific references to Swordquest are there, this a comic for anyone that has graduated from the all-consuming world of those pixellated video games into the real world, only to discover that it's not as fantastical and fulfilling as you might have imagined it would be.

While there is a definite morose air to this introductory issue, it is by no means a morbid cesspit of despair. Peter Chase has been stagnating in his life, but it is only now that he has no other choice, that he is forced to rediscover that zeal, that vigour, that so many of us lose as we enter into a life with rent, bills and likewise unavoidable commitments.

The sheer quantity of little details included in these panels is exceptional. Ghostwriter X inserts a character-select screen, heart containers and point counters into panels, fully immersing you in the video-game theme of this story, while also providing a stark reminder of how all-consuming video games used to be in your youth. Ghostwriter X captures the jagged retro style perfectly, juxtaposing it beautifully with an otherwise modern and clean art style.

If that wasn't enough, there are also these individual "Game Tip" panels at the end of many of the pages that will be very familiar to anyone that has experience with the game manuals and guides of a time gone by. However, instead of guiding a decision in a video game, they relate to Peter's next action in the story, guiding him with an undefinable dramatic irony to the place that he most needs to be.

They fluctuate from the recognisably vague "Keep an eye out for hidden treasure" to the oddly specific "Take a deep breath before heading into a fire to avoid smoke inhalation". Without knowing which of the creative team was responsible for this detail, the adulation will have to be assigned to each of them in turn. Bowers, Sims, Ghostwriter X: that decision was inspired.

Every aspect of this issue feels deliberate; each component feels deliberately placed, either there to build atmosphere or to directly drive the plot forwards. The art feels very grounded in reality in both the modern day setting and in the fantasy world, compounding again and again how important video games can be to young children and how bittersweet that feeling is when it disappears.

There was a part of me that expected this story to be a lackluster rehashing of a video game that, due to its age, would have had little to offer. Instead, Bowers and Sims have found a story to tell with much more poignancy. The real-life story of the Swordquest contests itself is baffling and fascinating in equal measure, epitomising a very specific period of time in the history of media that so many people can relate to.

Buy this book if you want to have your heart broken in the most poetic way: with the truth.

Swordquest #0 is free on Comixology right now - there's literally not a reason for you to miss it.