The Spectator Left:

Self-Disgust and Self-Mockery in Brian Wood’s Channel Zero and The Couriers

As Brian Wood branches out into more mainstream work with Conan the Barbarian and X-Men, it’s important to peer back to his formative days. Channel Zero, his first graphic novel published by Image Comics in 1998 and then collected by AiT/Planet Lar in 2000, is a highly political look at the dark cloud of the approaching 21st century. Little could Wood have known about 9/11, the Patriot Act, two wars, and the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, but squint and Channel Zero says otherwise. Three years later, Wood published The Couriers with AiT/Planet Lar, a decidedly different kind of tale. Whereas Channel Zero is cerebral, meditating on the power of ideas and manipulation of media, The Couriers is an adrenaline rush of high-octane action, harkening back to ‘70s-style car chases and Old West shootouts. Although Channel Zero and The Couriers share a fictional universe (along with Couscous Express; Wood’s earlier works are connected by cameo appearances and Tarantino-esque references), the latter lacks the political slant of the former. Although there is a strong theme of free will and the democratization of information in both books, The Couriers’s methods are much more subtext than text.

What both books share is a punk rock attitude, but even more importantly, a cyberpunk attitude. A vibe of counter-culture fetishism and youthful anger, along with the rhythm and pacing of a garage band, permeates Wood’s early work, which is understandable considering he was in his mid-to-late 20s when those works were published.

Percolating in the Great Britain of the mid-‘70s, punk rock culture lacks coherent ideology but is generally concerned with individual freedoms and anti-authoritarianism. “No Future,” a line from the Sex Pistols song “God Save the Queen,” was a common slogan of these young ruffians. In the United States, punks had a tangential philosophy based on a feeling of approaching the end of history, that everything has already been accomplished, and a frustration with the rise of suburbia. This emphasis on the misfits and the malcontents, criminals and anti-heroes, is the “punk” component of cyberpunk.

Cyberpunk stories tend to take place in a near future that resembles the reader’s world close enough to be relatable and disquieting. Although the term was coined by author Bruce Bethke in his story “Cyberpunk,” published in 1983, its conception is generally attributed to William Gibson and his seminal 1984 work Neuromancer. The novel follows a washed-up computer hacker named Case, hired by a mysterious employer to pull off the ultimate hack, who ultimately tangles with a rogue artificial intelligence on a space station. What’s important about Neuromancer is its legacy of attitude and belief that all forms of government are corrupt and are being controlled behind the scenes by corporations and the elite. This attitude informs the humanist themes at the core of Channel Zero and The Couriers: there can only be positive human cooperation on a small scale, knowledge is equivalent with power, and power should be disseminated equally amongst the populace rather than centralized. What really codified these themes, however (and may be Wood’s primary influence), is Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash.

Published in 1992, Snow Crash essentially closes the book on cyberpunk with satire and black humor. It follows Hiro Protagonist, a half black, half Japanese man that describes himself as the “Last of the freelance hackers and Greatest sword fighter in the world.” When the novel starts, he is a pizza delivery man for the mafia, and through a series of unfortunate events, meets Y.T., a 15-year-old skateboard “Kourier.” What sets Snow Crash apart from its predecessor, Neuromancer, is the sense of denial and irreverence by which the characters live their lives. There’s a heightened sense of reality to the proceedings, as Stephenson injects an air of surreality to the novel. The characters, both swordsman and kourier alike, may take themselves deadly serious, but the overall tone and nature of the plot points to an attitude beyond apathy. Whereas Gibson’s Neuromancer depicts a grim & gritty world of post-apocalyptic decadence, in which all the characters are beaten down and nihilistic to forces beyond their reproach, Stephenson builds a world that functions by focusing inward. Hiro and Y.T. accept the limitations of their neo-feudalistic existence and even embrace the freedoms that entails, without any concern for the greater well-being of society beyond their immediate friends and family. Overall, that is the message of Snow Crash: take care of your own, because wholesale civilization is a fallacy.

This near future, inundated with cultural ennui, has led to the U.S. being a shell of itself. Where the U.S. used to be are now “burbclaves” and corporately owned franchises. What’s left of the U.S. government is “the Feds,” a combination of the remaining branches of national defense. Meanwhile, off the shores of the west coast is the Raft, a collection of vessels strapped to an old battleship, drifting at sea, occupied by refugees and illegal immigrants. This vision of the future was horrifying to Richard Rorty, the American philosopher that passed away in 2007. In a series of lectures, collected in his book Achieving Our Country: Left Thought in Twentieth-Century America, he attempted to codify the differences between the early 20th-century Leftists and the late 20th-century Leftists. Essentially, he posits that authors used to be and should still be the guiding conscience of a nation, and he determined that the likes of Upton Sinclair and John Steinbeck were “Reformists Leftists” that not only criticized the Right and the problems with the United States but offered alternatives and ways to fix these problems. After the Vietnam War, however, and by the end of the 20th century, the Left had become “Spectatorial” and academic, “the happy few who have the insight to see through nationalistic rhetoric to the ghastly reality of contemporary America” (8). Yet, even being imbibed with this insight “does not move them to formulate a legislative program, to join a political movement, or to share in a national hope” (8). He places Stephenson firmly into this category, as a Leftist novelist whose novel portrays a United States that has become synonymous with big business but presents protagonists that are willing to work within this paradigm, and aren’t even bothered to complain, rather than seek to fix or alleviate their situations. Furthermore, Rorty breaks spectator Leftist literature down into two categories: self-disgusted and self-mocking (4). Snow Crash definitely falls under the latter. In the novel, every aspect of (then) modern American culture is put under the microscope and heightened to the extreme. Everything from fast food to celebrity obsession to the 9-to-5 rat race is examined with such detail as to render them grotesque, condemning the audience for celebrating mediocrity. Although Rorty is not against criticizing the U.S., his problem with Snow Crash is it being a product “not of social protest but rather of rueful acquiescence in the end of American hopes” (6). Snow Crash is more concerned with power in sectarianism, with hackers, couriers, and the mafia working toward parallel goals but never in unison, always on the verge of a broken alliance.

Rorty does not discuss Neuromancer, but he may not have had cause. Although Gibson’s debut novel depicts a world consumed in rusted decadence, it ends with a ray of hope to counter-point the self-disgust. The Artificial Intelligence Wintermute attains freedom, promising an enlightened future through exploration, namely into first contact with extraterrestrial beings. Rorty, however, would have significant problems with Wood’s Channel Zero and The Couriers. Both works take obvious inspiration, both spiritually and literally, from predecessors Gibson and Stephenson, but especially from the latter author. Channel Zero’s main character, Jennie 2.5, is a “console cowboy” in the tradition of Case and Hiro. She also fights against a powerful and faceless figure of authority, in this case a malevolent U.S. government (personified by a man shrouded in shadows in an empty room) that has passed the Clean Act, the result being “ultra-paranoid Christian extremist parents” taking control of all media and censoring any free expression (Wood, Channel Zero 1). Channel Zero, however, eschews the glimmer of hope and change offered up by Gibson’s ending, instead settling for skeptical ambiguity. Jennie, by the end of Channel Zero, has accepted that she is “too old and too well known…to fight both the government and [her] own horribly twisted public image” (143). She leaves the task to the next generation, “the young and stupid ones,” without a word of guidance or helping hand (143). The self-disgust is obvious on Wood’s part.

The Couriers, by comparison, adopts a more self-mocking tone. Mustafa and Special are rollerblading couriers, not unlike Y.T. the skateboarding courier. These two do dangerous jobs, but “they won’t take every job offered them,” never anything that violates their (broad) personal ethics (Wood, The Couriers 27). When they’re tasked with transporting a young Chinese girl to her family, they find themselves caught up in direct conflict with the General, a madman that is after the little girl. This informs the running theme of personal choice running through The Couriers. At the core of Mustafa and Special’s ethics is an edict to never usurp free will. As a result, they have very little respect for authority, and in fact, there appears to be little authority in this near future of “right fucking now” (13). Perhaps this is the end result of Jennie 2.5’s influence, such as in Channel Zero’s vignette in which a “cleaner” (someone that silences, with deadly force, agitators) laments how she’s lost faith in her job, and with one phone call could rally her fellow cleaners to bring the whole system down. Wood’s only alternative is the destruction of the system itself, but if The Couriers is the aftermath (and a step toward the world of Snow Crash), he is advocating a world akin to the Old West, an anarcho-capitalism in which what can’t be bought will be taken by force without repercussion.

The Couriers openly combat opponents, spraying bullets in public without an appearance by the police. This greatly resembles the aforementioned neo-feudalism in Snow Crash (the city-states, the mafia, Mr. Lee’s Great Hong Kong), as Mustafa and Special battle the mafia and Chinese mercenaries, all armies that are only concerned with their own well-being. In fact, both stories end with a mob of k/couriers taking care of their own: Y.T. sends out a distress signal and is freed from her hostage situation by her comrades “‘pooning” a helicopter she’s trapped in, while Mustafa and Special call in their brethren to form a defense force. Even Jennie 2.5’s cameo hints at Wood’s prescribed concerns: she now uses her hacker skills to help her friends, with no hint of her still targeting the government (which may now be non-existent). Jennie’s success at broadcasting the lost Mozart work to the entirety of New York City certainly counts as a humanistic victory, as all of mankind should be privy to such beauty, but that is insignificant in proportion to the amount of effort exerted. The Couriers have the manpower, but lack the willpower, to reform the system, and instead choose to revel in chaos.

The Couriers‘s irreverence for age and authority is not without irony. Although on the surface it appears shallow, with two Mary Sues for leads that are entirely too cool and competent for their own good, that may be the joke. The veneer of action movie spectacle may be a criticism of the self-righteous attitude Americans have, believing that might makes right. More than likely, however, Wood is entirely sympathetic to these characters. The emphasis on stylish clothing, ethnic food, and brash attitudes are all consistent with Wood’s personality and works, from Generation X to Pounded. It’s not until 2006’s Local that Wood gains self-awareness, deconstructing the Wood archetype with Megan, who, through a series of humiliations and life lessons, learns to temper her egotism and rootless existence.

This is not to say that Brian Wood isn’t a talented writer. His graphic novels are always engaging and have pushed the limits of the medium in terms of form and content. His plots are fast-paced and ambitious. Where his early work suffered, however, and where he has greatly improved, is in characterization. In Channel Zero, Jennie 2.5’s story arc (finding a balance between activism and a thirst for glory, compounded with an acceptance that she’s been co-opted by the system) is entirely tell and not show, all through narration. The Couriers, meanwhile, are as cocky at the end as they are at the beginning, with all of their beliefs and actions affirmed by defeating a straw man. The General is the only significant “older” (than 30) character in the book, and represents everything wrong with the military-industrial complex. He is also unambiguously evil. If Mustafa and Special are barely characters, then they simply serve as surrogates for Wood and his politics, and all Wood is prepared to do is criticize the system or tear it down entirely, never once considering reform.

Furthermore, a skeptic might cite the the early 19th-century French slogan “l’art pour l’art,” or the English “Art for art’s sake,” a phrase generally associated with Victorian-era playwright and poet Oscar Wilde. This would be a valid defense, if not for the fact that Wood positions himself so brusquely in the political conversation. Channel Zero begs to be read as a treatise on the perils of government censorship and cultural acquiescence, whereas The Couriers invites the reader to wallow in a chaotic wish-fulfillment without consequence. French-Swiss “New Wave” director Jean-Luc Godard once said that the best way to critique a film is to make another film. Well, the best way for Wood to critique government policy would be to offer alternatives.

Brian Wood has established a reputation of being outspoken and agenda-driven. His early works seemingly take strong influence from the cyberpunk classics Neuromancer and Snow Crash, if not in plot then in tone and themes. That is yet to be proven, but what is clear is that Richard Rorty would have taken issue with Wood’s ultimate message. Rorty was an old-fashioned reformer, a Leftist that believed the system could be fixed from within. Wood, however, frequently touts a hardline stance in his fictional works of a system broken beyond repair. Although his ideas are provocative, ultimately he must realize the responsibility he has as a writer with a voice and platform. Offering up productive solutions, rather than blithe criticism, is the only way this country can deserve nationalistic pride again, and that pride is the best catalyst for progress.

Works Cited:

Gibson, William. Neuromancer. New York: Ace, 1984. Print.

Rorty, Richard. Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-century America.      Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1998. Print.

Stephenson, Neal. Snow Crash. New York: Bantam, 1992. Print.

Wood, Brian. Channel Zero. San Francisco, CA: AiT/Planet Lar, 2000. Print.

Wood, Brian, and Rob G. The Couriers. San Francisco: AiT/Planet Lar, 2004. Print.

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An adjunct instructor at the University of South Carolina Upstate, Bart holds a Master’s degree in English literature from Xavier University and a B.A. in English Literature with a minor in history from USC Upstate. Bart is an avid reader, cinephile, and theatergoer, and writes on all things pop culture.

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