For all its cool, grit, and darkness, it can be easy to miss the humor in William Gibson’s work. From Neuromancer to his scattered forays into culture criticism, there’s always been a current of sharp wit beneath his techno-apocalyptic topsoil. Hop over to Twitter, where Gibson’s handle is @GreatDismal, and you’ll find his timeline littered with retweets of missives both dire and hilarious.
Archangel, the foundational cyberpunk author’s first foray into comics, alongside co-writer Michael St. John Smith and artists Butch Guice, Alejandro Barrionuevo and Wagner Reis, isn’t “funny haha,” but in the series’ final panel, it’s clear the narrative hinges on a bleak, cosmic joke. As the sci-fi adventure concludes, our unnamed, tattooed hero, the Pilot finds himself in 2016. Fresh from preventing the deranged Vice President Junior Henderson from rearranging history back in 1945, the Pilot finds his world’s no longer an irradiated wasteland, but it’s… well, it’s something else. Something familiar. It’s a classic Twilight Zone twist, asking: What if all the timelines are pretty bad? What if the true dystopia is whatever dystopia you happen to inhabit?
“…change winds have been blowing over Archangel since we began to publish,” Gibson writes in the afterword. For those doing the math, issue one debuted in May 2016, and its five issues came out every couple months throughout one of the strangest presidential elections in history. The book concluded this month. Power-hungry politicians, complicated conspiracies involving Russia, U.K. and U.S. agents caught between shifting national allegiances, strong-willed operatives pondering the justification of their actions — Archangel’s felt at times deliriously contemporary. But it’s never felt pedantic, employing a pulpy, quick tone that renders it an utter blast. Filled with wild shoot-outs, far-out technological concepts, and hilarious dialogue, and it’s easy to see why the book earned an Eisner nomination for Best Limited Series. No matter how heady or dense, Archangel zings by, charged with electricity.
Stepping in for Guice, Reis and inker Tom Palmer do a terrific job with the final chapter. The issue’s almost exclusively devoted to climactic action. Set mostly in a plane carrying a B-29 bomb above the Russian port at Archangel, the fights are confined to a cramped, claustrophobic setting, but Reis makes the most of the limited space, focusing on tight, close expressions and the occasional splashy outburst. Though they originally intended Archangel for television, Gibson and St. John Smith seem perfectly at home in with the graphic format, focusing on a few key characters and tossing the reader directly into the fray. They delight in each “BLAM” and “KRAK” sound effect.
Though Gibson and St. Michael keep the story relatively streamlined, they subtly riff on big concepts, too, making clear that no matter the outcome of war — be it World War II or some distant future conflict — the human toll is always high. In some cases, it means sacrifice — like the one Major Torres, operator of the Splitter which sent the Pilot back, undertakes to complete her mission — but often it means bystanders, collateral damage. “Soon, we’ll know the number dead. Like London. Berlin. Dresden… number, but not their names,” British operative Dr. Naomi Givens says upon learning of the successful bombing of Nagasaki. In Archangel, immense loss of life is a given. The places and people change, but no matter who’s ordering the bombs dropped, they always fall. Perhaps that’s what makes the end of the series so effective. For all the time travel, sophisticated weapons technology, and loopy violence, something about it all seems so plausible.
It’s been a great time for literary figures in comics, with writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates, R.L. Stine, Margaret Atwood, Benjamin Percy, Roxane Gay and others recently putting forth compelling work in the medium. After decades of his novels powerfully influencing comics and manga, you can add Gibson’s name to the list. With Archangel wrapped, here’s hoping his jacked-in prophet in the wilderness voice makes it way back to the page soon. The more absurd our present gets as it morphs into the future, the more we need imaginative cackling like his to accompany the process.