Archaia, who makes a strengths out of the crossroads between comics and other visual media, has taken on another estuary zone in HAWKEN: GENESIS, bringing a comic based on a free internet gaming hub, HAWKEN to readers. Flood zones between visual media can be tricky, especially in gauging the right audience for a comic, since there’s not a one to one correspondence between gamers and comics readers in this case. But there is overlap, and Archaia are setting out to find out just how wide that swath is, and how much interest gamers might take in comics and comics readers might take in gaming. What they’ve produced, however, is a graphic novel true to the traditions of comics, featuring the aspects of the comics medium that can even more fully explore the world of HAWKEN in a sci-fi tradition. Add to that a commitment to bringing in comics artists who are well-versed in the medium to interpret the world of gaming into sequential narrative.
HAWKEN: GENESIS is a hardback collection with a strong design throughout, courtesy of Scott Newman, suggesting that quality graphic novel creation was one of the priorities of the team. It not only contains individual “chapters” of the narrative, drawn by individual collaborations between artists and colorists based on the unified writing of Jeremy Barlow steering the story-creators Dan Jevons, Miles Williams, and Khang Lee, but also “interstitial story” elements between chapters that convey meta information by Andrew Nielson and Heather Nuhfer. This is an interesting choice because it harks back to gaming elements, but also ties into the kind of comics extras provided in dense comics works like WATCHMEN and LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN. These extras convey a sense of total world creation and heighten the suspension of disbelief in the comics experience.
The “interstitial” material takes the form of featured technology like tablets and news screens conveying the wider events in the world of HAWKEN and also providing a first-person narrative voice from the perspective of a reporter seeking to uncover the machinations of the two big corporations dominating a colonial planet established to gather valuable resources. The technology featured is recognizable from a twenty-first century vantage, but also suggests the tactile world of HAWKEN, both technologically advanced, but isolated, and struggling to maintain distribution of technology to its beleaguered, often life-time contract workers. Like a video game, the material gives the sense of “being there” and inhabiting the world of HAWKEN, even though the agency in a video game is absent and the narrative of the graphic novel is controlled for the reader.
Main characters give the wide-ranging story focus and chronology, and highlight the role of competition and antagonism between the corporations, Sentium, and Prosk, that the characters play off against. All around special forces agent Rion Lazlo schemes to bring his former colleague James Hawken into defection status from Sentium so that both can work to give Prosk the upper hand. There’s an impressive handling of deep themes in HAWKEN that takes a long-term historical perspective as the choices of two men, one blindly ambitious and amoral, and the other a somewhat out of touch scientific genius, set the stage for what may be a tragedy or what may be a finally liberating trend for the planet they inhabit. There’s something even a little Shakespearean about the way that readers know, due to a prologue, that something disastrous may occur through the unregulated push toward technological innovation at the hands of big industry, and yet don’t know exactly how it’s going to come about. This keeps the reader guessing, and also creates empathy for the characters, who know less about their own future than the readers.
The art styles of HAWKEN:GENESIS are one of its biggest selling points, aside from a solid story concept. Working in the sci-fi comics tradition, using a wide range of artists gives the vast range of possibility in sci-fi art its due without going too far into jarring idiosyncrasy that might break down the narrative cohesion in the work. It was a smart move to give different colorists free range in the chapters, and its intriguing to watch their choices in action. You find yourself asking how each creator and colorist might view the subject matter differently, and are surprised by what they have in common. All seem to imagine a somewhat gritty alien-urban landscape, with traces of ethereal possibility in the construction of a new world with a very short history. If the planet Illal is a form of Eden, it’s an Eden rapidly fallen into the same limited and controlling factors that have ravaged Earth’s environment.
The prologue focuses on light-infused blues, greens, and golds to suggest the harsh outlines of a world already in decay but not yet devoid of mesmerising qualities, while the interactions between characters in later chapters, often taking place in closed spaces like labs, takes on a sepia tone or more moderate hues. Some chapters make the leap between painterly styles that are not out of place in video game storyboarding and a nearly indie art style with ragged inked lines and a focus on facial expressions and psychological realities. One of the biggest surprises in HAWKEN’s artwork is the contribution of comics great and master of mood Bill Sienkiewicz, working with Sid Kotian, and it’s work that feels very much at home in the volume, suggesting that as a comic, HAWKEN works, and it works to build upon the potential of comics to embrace new material in its own way.
Art styles swing between photo-realism and a more cartoony tradition of comics interpretation, and this works, too, because of the wide range of imaginative possibilities when it comes to creating atmosphere in science-fiction. HAWKEN: GENESIS is an omnibus of sci-fi despite its unifying story-structure, a pattern that could provide some interesting cues to other sci-fi works. The current comics industry is full to the brim with great artistic talent, and it makes sense to bring in those varied perspectives and their respective strengths when telling such a sweeping tale.
Props to the writers of the graphic novel, however, too, since the details contained in the narrative and in the meta data show intensive research and careful construction of consistency for the historical context of Illal, and its tragically ambitious characters. Readers will find parallels in recognizable earth-history elements, such as the competitive relationship between the USA and USSR during the cold war, including the concept of “defection” and the careful monitoring of passes and information moving between the two corporate entities. The unlikely friendship and ambition of the two main characters might also remind you of rivalries between technology moguls like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, both friendly and at, times, at odds. There’s no doubt that an admirable amount of work and detail-oriented inspection of the combined elements of HAWKEN went into making the book, and the quality shows at every turn. This may be the key to appealing to both gamers and comics readers. Gamers are used to high-quality graphics and intelligent world-building in their often expensive products, meant to bring hours of interaction and entertainment home with them.
Comics readers are expecting strong story-lines, identification, and a subtle use of suggestion to create imaginative realities. HAWKEN toes the line between these demands, without taking short cuts on any of the features the two groups might be looking for. If they find that the overlap is fairly wide between sci-fi gamers and sci-fi comics readers, all the better, but they haven’t made any foolhardy assumptions that would jeopardize the balance of the hybrid they’ve created.
HAWKEN is a graphic novel produced with a lot of confidence about what is both visually and narratively appealing to pop culture right now, and poses the suggestion that total immersion in a narrative world is a common feature of both gaming and comics. It’s a bold suggestion, and one they argue well through fluency in the comics medium.
Title: HAWKEN: GENESIS/Publisher: Archaia Entertainment LLC/ Creative Team: Dan Jevons, Miles Williams, Khang Le, Story/Jeremy Barlow, Writer/Deron Bennett, Letters/Andrew Nielson, Heather Nuhfer, Interstitial Story Materials/Scott Newman, Design/Francisco Ruiz Velasco, Alex Sanchez, Kody Chamberlain, Sid Kotian, Bill Sienkiewicz, Bagus Hutomo, Michael Gaydos, Federico Dallocchio, Nathan Fox, Christopher Moeller, Artists/Grant Goleash, Derek Dow, Eddy Swan, Chad Fidler, Logan Faerber, Colors.
Hannah Means-Shannon writes and blogs about comics for TRIP CITY and Sequart.org and is currently working on books about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore for Sequart. She is @hannahmenzies on Twitter and hannahmenziesblog on WordPress.