The new comic book Invisible Republic, by Gabriel Hardman and Corinna Bechko, offers a fresh and intriguing take on the post-Apocalyptic genre. With moody, evocative artwork and spare, confident storytelling, it has the feel of a work of classic science fiction literature (its visual references to Blade Runner are very apt) and manages, at least in its first issue, to avoid cliche. Even though a lot of ground is covered in the first issue, it offers each story element a rather generous amount of narrative scope without resorting to excessive use of voice-over or elaborate world-building.
The story is set in the year 2843, but the character interaction feels very contemporary. It’s made clear from the beginning that this isn’t Earth, but the planet Avalon, in the “Gliese System”, but then the astronomical terminology is dialled almost completely back. It could just as easily be Blade Runner’s “Los Angeles, 2019”. In a few short lines of dialogue, we are introduced to our main character, a scholar and researcher, trying to dig up clues from the recent past, involving the collapse of the “Malory Regime”. No one’s talking. Eventually our hero, who is a former novelist named Croger Babb, buys a big stack of paper from a man in the street, intending to use the documents to build a fire.
The depiction of urban decay is interesting in this case because it’s not set hundreds of years after the fall of civilization, but relatively soon after the collapse of a major political and economic power. Society is still more or less intact, but basic urban services, among other things, have broken down. Police, fire or garbage removal are all gone, and widespread homelessness and unemployment feed the danger and discontent. There’s very little about that scenario that screams “science fiction”. It has occurred and undoubtedly will occur again in the long history of the human species. Which makes it all the more effective and unsettling here.
The loss of information and history is, if anything, more unsettling. Babb is trying to figure out what happened in very recent history, and nobody else seems particularly interested. That sort of cultural amnesia is very common in authoritarian states, especially around times of regime change. Certain Pharaohs, for example, would sometimes desecrate temples or otherwise attempt to erase their predecessors from history and memory. (We don’t need to go back to ancient history to find a group of people who practice systematic historical amnesia, of course.) Babb is up against some formidable cultural inertia.
The key bit of information Babb discovers is the handwritten memoir of a woman named Maia Reveron. As he sits down to read it, we are transformed back to another time, seemingly in another era entirely, on a rocky seaside. Maia and her cousin Arthur McBride have been driven to the sea by forces beyond their control. “We were driven from the farm,” Maia writes, without getting into too much detail. Her and Arthur live a very basic existence, catching some sort of alien version of a crab and something even less appetizing called a “tuber”.
Notably, after one page making use of first person narration from Maia’s writings, Hardman and Bechko drop the device entirely and allow the sequence to play out, one step at a time. They allow a whole page to show Maia catching an alien fish, and linger over such detail as bringing the fish back to the camp. When Arthur and Maia are confronted with some sort of authority figure/cop types, they let the whole interaction play out in detail, like a Tarantino film. It’s about 50% more dialogue than necessary, and I love it. Comics sometimes try to cram far too much into each page, but this one feels almost leisurely, and it’s much appreciated. We spend so much time on this sequence that one can almost feel the sea spray.
It turns out that the quasi-military types are in fact recruiters, a science fiction version of the old “press gang”, and while they, on the surface, ask Maia and Arthur to join them, they’re really not asking. And that’s when Arthur fights back, and we get a six page fight sequence, told blow by blow, and when it’s over, the two emerge victorious, having beaten the soldiers to death and fed them to the fish. It didn’t appear that Arthur was some sort of Kung Fu master, but that’s the sort of skill he exhibits. Maia is nervous, and says so in her diary (“I thought I knew him and what he was capable of. I was wrong.”)
The big reveal here is that Arthur was an incredibly important person in the Malory regime, and that discovering Maia’s diary provides an essential historical insight into the rise of that political force. Babb, being now as desperate as anyone else, tries to sell the rights to the story. And it’s here that the first issue ends.
I was intrigued and entertained and absorbed by the skill with which this story was told. Digging through the past to discover buried secrets is a very appealing story, modelled on classic film noir gumshoe-type narratives. In this first issue, we get very little information about the “Malory Regime” and what it stood for, but everything we’re shown is so skillfully crafted that we end this first issue immediately wanting to know more. It’s definitely a new title worth following.