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Comic Book Review: Contraband

Writer: TJ Behe
Illustrator: Phil Elliott
Inker: Ian Sharman
Toner: Cherie Donovan

In an unspecified time just ahead of ours, social media is heavily regulated, so people consider it boring; for their thrills, they go to the dark web. The most popular site is Contraband, which offers money to contributors for the ‘best’ videos, leading to people setting up incidents to film violence, spying, voyeurism, privacy invasion and other unsavoury content. Welcome to the future.

The main character in the story is Toby, who works in an internet café in north London; he films Tucker and his friend Plugger harassing a woman in the café. Tucker and Plugger discover this so they force Toby to film some violent content and then blackmail him into helping them. They want Toby to find Charlotte, who is aiding an activist called Jarvis Stephens, who is trying to bring down Contraband by hacking into the software behind the app. Charlotte worked as a mercenary in Afghanistan, helping to control hotspots by specifically stirring up unrest among the locals; she worked with Tucker, a former special forces guy turned mercenary with a fetish for disturbing video footage, who accumulated thousands of hours of it while on his tour and set up Contraband afterwards. Now, Toby must search for her while there is live video footage of her being held hostage …

This comic book was originally published in 2008, so it is an impressive piece of speculative fiction; Behe work in the tech of social media networks, so he’s not only immersed in it but also thinking about its effects and where it will lead. The rise of the smartphone and social media sites and mobile video sharing is reflected and extrapolated to an ugly conclusion – the basis for the story is a smart idea on which to hook a tech-based thriller, even if the majority of protagonists are male and there is a ‘damsel-in-distress’ plotline (making it feel a bit retro).

To tell a taut thriller, the storytelling should be taut as well; however, this 148-page graphic novel could do with some tightening up. There is a lot of exposition to explain this set-up – occasionally, Behe gets bogged down in tech speak to demonstrate the mechanics behind the systems (it’s clear he knows his stuff, but he doesn’t know when to stop demonstrating his knowledge), which can lead to pages filled with word balloons as someone dictates the plot details to another character. This might work in a novel, but it doesn’t work so well in comic books, where art should tell more of the story. Comics have been streamlining over the decades, with a particular move to having fewer words per balloon so as not to overwhelm the art, something that is missing here.

This word balloon overload might be overlooked if the dialogue had a zing to it – an obvious parallel would be to Warren Ellis and his love of new tech, but Ellis pares things down to essentials while also relaying character and story in minimal, punchy dialogue with humour and pithiness. Behe doesn’t achieve that – the character of Tucker spits out observations about the nature of people watching Contraband and the state of various aspects of the world with some colourful expressions, but it is excessively wordy and doesn’t have the same sharpness.

The other aspect about the dialogue is the abundance of typos littered throughout the text. I thought perhaps it was because I’d been sent a copy of the original 2008 publication; however, I was also sent a PDF of the current version and they haven’t been corrected. My day job is as a medical editor, so perhaps I’m more sensitive to it than others, but it was really distracting – I’m not talking about the usual issues with punctuation and typesetting problems, or the inconsistency of using numerals for numbers or writing them out in words: ‘intentially’, ‘becuase’, ‘obligitory’, ‘exercizing’, ‘shrapnal’, ‘Antwerpt’, ‘bayonete’, ‘turbin’, ‘erradicate’ are a few of the misspellings that should not be found in a book that has been published twice.

Back to discussing the storyline: the plot jumps between timeframes of the current search for Charlotte and back to Toby being integrated into Tucker and Plugger’s world of Contraband. This makes for an interesting narrative device, but it’s not clearly indicated, which makes for a disjointed read. The timeline is noted only by a small narration box for the date; there’s no attempt in the art to depict the different sections, no change in style or use of a different gutter frame or similar device. Even a simple ‘THEN’ and ‘NOW’ could have helped distinguish the separate threads. This muddies the storytelling, jumping around the timeline without making us care why or using it as a contrasting technique.

On the artwork side of things, Elliott’s plain artwork depicts the ordinary, the mundane, the straightforward, but it doesn’t make for a visually arresting comic book, which might have helped for a thriller; when action does arrive, the flow isn’t smooth and the action isn’t dynamic. He is an accomplished artist who knows how to tell a story, but there are some odd jumps between panels that don’t always make sense of the transition. It also feels odd to have a very basic art style, particularly for the graphical elements of web dictated on phones – web design is very slick now, even for basic websites, yet the depiction here is early 2000s instead of an indeterminate future.

Contraband is an interesting story that isn’t told well enough to serve its premise. The excessive word count isn’t used productively – it never explains how the Contraband website makes all its money so that Tucker can offer several thousand pounds to contributors of top videos (viewer subscription? Advertising? Selling off the data?) – and the words that are used don’t give the flavour they should. For example, Tucker and Plugger are from South Africa and Toby is from the USA, but there’s no indication in the words they use, which all sound like standard London speak. All of this together is slightly frustrating considering the message this book has about the dangers of social media, cyberbullying and corporations profiting from the data; there is a good story here, but this graphic novel doesn’t fully succeed in producing it.

Contraband is published on 10 May by Markosia UK.

Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.

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