Chances are that it would be almost unbearably pretentious, not to mention way less clever than it sounds, if I were to refer to Alex Degen’s latest Koyama Press-published graphic novel, Soft X-Ray/Mindhunters — which originally began “life” as a 44-page comic and now stands, expanded and extrapolated upon, at a whopping 392 pages — as “a visual feast… for the mind!” or somesuch, and yet…
Yeah, you guessed it. that’s definitely what it is. And I’m just as definitely kicking myself for not coming up with some genuinely unique, as opposed to glib, way to describe it — because “A.” (as the cover would have it) Degen’s cartooning is, in fact, consistently unique, and deserves same in return. Bursting at the seams with information, if not words (barring its gloriously, deliriously verbose chapter titles), there’s so much here to partake in, to parse, and to ponder over, that one scarcely knows where to begin — but for all that, by the time all is said and done, this hermetically-sealed, inventively self-referential work not only makes perfect sense, it goes the extra mile and actually imparts a genuine feeling of (oh God, here I go again) magic upon its readers.
You want color? This book is positively exploding with it! Degen, having already proven his proficiency with the black-and-white page in his previous long-form OGN, 2015’s Mighty Star And The Castle Of The Cancatervater, is out to burst eyeballs this time around, and the results are spectacular — his vaguely post-utopian (the remnants of some sort of collectivist society, now crumbling, worn, and running on mental fumes) sci-fi world is a visual marvel not only for what it contains, but for how it goes about displaying those contents: sex, violence, adventure, exploration, mystery, and physically impossible (as far as we know, at any rate) creatures and environments (again, as far as — ah, shit, I digress) rush by at 100 MPH as our titular mindhunters “liberate” the brains of the long-deceased despots who have established a dynastic reign “managed” from beyond the grave. Fast and frenetic and at times frazzled, to be sure, this is a “romp” in the truest sense, every page promising delights, delusions, and dementias hitherto unforeseen — and, crucially, delivering on those promises, plus interest.
Here’s the thing, though: as densely-packed as most of these panels and pages are, Degen’s cartooning is never anything less than intriguing, dare I say even open, each image an invitation for readers to delve deeper and explore its minutiae, to appreciate and absorb a stylistic continuum that finds inspiration in equal doses from the Far East and Eastern Europe, from futurism and dystopianism, from Chuck Jones and George Romero. Of course, Degen filters all this through his own decidedly generous and inclusive vision, but then he ups the ante by throwing all his stylistic and thematic precursors, as well as his wholly original conceptions, into a blender, setting it on “high,” and trusting in his ability to help navigate us through whatever it is that comes out. Feel like going for a ride? ‘Cuz he’s definitely going to take you on a really freaking wild one.
To Degen’s credit, though, you never feel lost within this work, even when it’s objectively overwhelming — which is, it must be said, pretty damn often. Aspects of this fictitious (let’s hope) future civilization may be alienating, indeed may even thrive on alienation and atomization on a global scale, but this comic never puts you at a remove, comfortable or otherwise, from its characters and events; it compels your attention from the outset, rewards it almost immediately, and then consistently grabs hold of it again, not so much stuck in an endless loop of “one-upping” itself as it is concerned with peeling away successive layers of its metaphorical “onion” and revealing new aspects that build upon each other, visually and narratively, on the way toward — well, that would be telling, but it’s no “spoiler” at all to say the final act here will leave you very satisfied indeed.
Count me, then, as being something quite a bit more than merely “impressed” with Soft X-Ray/Mindhunters. Annie Koyama has been, as the young folks say, positively “killing it” with her Spring 2018 slate of releases, and Degen’s thoroughly immersive and absolutely singular take on classic “free-individuals-vs.-a-totalitarian-society” science fiction themes and tropes may just be a strong contender for the very best title in the bunch.