In the annals of comic book history, the ’90s are known as either the Iron Age or the Dark Age of Comics. Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns had just come out, and people were blown away at how comics, once perceived as a kid’s medium, could portray darker subject material. Thus, comic companies started pushing for more antiheroes, grittier stories, and attempts at realistic topics and issues. Unfortunately, this was mostly unsuccessful, leading to dramatic bombs in the comic world, all of them trying too hard to be edgy and turning out dull, uninspired stories. Why do I bring this up? Because today’s comic seems to be embracing the spirit of that era.
Axcend tells the story of three troubled teens: Eric, who is reeling from the loss of his twin brother Erin; Rayne, a gaming popstar who’s hooked on the drugs and fame; and Ruiz, who gets bullied by his father and schoolmates for his sexuality. The three of them get selected for an online beta of a video game called Axcend, where they adopt avatars and screen names (Morn, Rain, and Ruin, respectively) and get to put themselves in a power fantasy with weapons, super moves, and the like. Soon, however, the game starts to become real, and these players can assume the form and abilities of their game characters, which can be a problem when three hurting and vengeful teens get handed powers and infinite freedom.
Let’s start with the positives, particularly with the artwork: It is gorgeous. The colors are vibrant and the palette is wide and diverse. Each character’s design, particularly the avatars, are unique, diverse, and pop to the eye.
I also have to commend the creative team for embracing the video game concept and integrating it into the story completely and effectively. Achievements, leveling up, and other features of gaming play a heavy role in the plot and the action, so it really feels like a video game merged with life. They really did their research, too, referencing things like Twitch gaming streams, betas, and different gaming styles. This really does feel like a gamer’s comic.
Unfortunately, this is all dragged down by the main problem: There isn’t a likable character in this book. Sure, some of the protagonists can be sympathetic, but it can get buried beneath the characters treating each other with disdain and disrespect. It’s just not fun to see characters we’re supposed to be rooting for bickering constantly, like a kid watching his parents fight all the time. The side characters don’t fare much better; Rayne’s manager supplies her with drugs while her friends make snide comments when she’s passed out, thugs at Eric’s school beat him up while saying that his dead brother hit back, and the people in Ruiz’s life are so horrible that he decides to bring a gun to the school dance.
This comes to a head when things get a tad… apocalyptic. Without giving too much away, a mass amount of death occurs later in the book and things get bleak. Except… things were already bleak. The creators took a world full of rotten, insensitive a–holes and killed a chunk of them, leaving us with a desolated Earth and population. We’ve essentially gone from bad to worse with nothing for readers to look forward to. What’s to stop them from getting turned off and simply closing the book? I feel like the creators are setting up for something, like this was a prologue to a bigger story, but it’s been two months since the previous issue and nothing’s been released yet. Add the fact that there was a five-month gap between the last issue and the one before and we may have a long wait ahead before these questions are resolved.
Many acclaimed writers have been singing this book’s praises, so I’m really trying to see what they’re seeing. It’s a visual treat with a really interesting premise, feeling like a true gamer comic. But I’d rather live in the world of Fallout, a nuclear wasteland filled with mutants and murderers, than the world of Axcend. If this issue is a setup for a bigger conflict, then it’s possible that things are going to pick up from here (besides, sometimes new properties need a few issues before they get into their groove). But whatever comes next is going to have to be excellent for me to keep reading this title.