Review time! with <i>Prisoner of the Mind</i>, volume 1

Look at that! It's a comic I received in the mail, like magic! Those are always fun!

Allan Linder was nice enough to send me his graphic novel, Prisoner of the Mind (volume 1), and I appreciate it. I'm always amazed when I get comics in the mail, because it implies I have some cachet, when we all know I'm just some schmuck in Arizona with access to the Internet. But I do like reviewing comics, so let's check this sucker out! Linder is serializing it on his blog (the link in the title of the book), and he appears to be a little less than halfway through this volume. So, obviously, if you want to check it out, you can do so!

Prisoner of the Mind is a somewhat typical hard science fiction thriller. The main character, Cole Blackburne, is an agent of some shadowy government organization, and he's having some problems.

At the beginning of the book, he wakes up outside in the pouring rain next to a corpse. It's pretty clear the dead person committed suicide, and Cole decides that's a damned fine idea. He manages to survive two different suicide attempts, but there's something not really right about him. In the hospital he's visited by a psychiatrist, Dr. Zane, who wants him to talk about his father. Apparently, his mother was killed in a boating accident and then, a year later, his father tried to tell him something important about Cole's birth but was abducted and killed before he could say too much. Cole doesn't remember much about his childhood, but obviously there's some secret in his past that's rather important. When he gets out of the hospital, he gets together with a fellow agent, Alicia, to try to figure out what's going on. Apparently the dead guy in the beginning was another agent, a guy who was on the same "team" at the "academy" with Cole. The third member of the team, Cole's ex-lover, is still alive, but Cole and Alicia think she might be in danger too. When Cole reminisces about his time with Tommy - the suicide - and Jasmine - the ex-lover - he can't remember what happened the night of their "final exam" - they penetrated the office of their superior and saw something, but his memory stops there. When he tracks down Jasmine, she's kidnapped, and Cole is told to stay off the case. Meanwhile, he finds out that "Dr. Zane" is a fake, too - the real doctor is a woman who's never heard of Cole. So Cole doesn't know who to trust, and presumably he's not going to stay off the case. Why would he?

This is just a brief summary - there's some more going on, but that's the general outline of the plot. As you can tell, it's your standard paranoid-conspiracy kind of plot, set a few years in the future so that Linder can add some "futuristic" touches like hover cars and stealth technology. Whenever you read fiction like this, you need to suspend your disbelief a bit, because while the book is set in the "near future," Cole was born in the 1970s and there was obviously some weird technology in Linder's world back then. (It's perhaps relevant to point out that Linder has been working on this book since 1995, so back then, the "near future" was probably early in the 21st century. There's a reference to some operation in Iran in 2010, for instance. It's a tough consequence to setting something in the "near future" - if you don't watch out, you could easily catch up to that time period, and then the book feels dated.) But as with most stuff, it's all about how Linder tells the story. Unfortunately, he doesn't do too much to make this stand out. A lot of what he does is in the art, which I'll get to. The writing isn't all that great, although the plot could certainly work.

As it's "volume 1," it's difficult to really get a grip on where the plot is going to go. This is a great deal of set-up, and it's set-up we've seen before - the agent who can't trust his senses or anyone around him; the higher-ups who all seem to be part of a vast conspiracy; secrets from the past that, if they come out, will lead to a lot of death. Linder doesn't do too much with the personalities of the characters, either, which is another way to get around the problem of the plot being familiar. Cole isn't really a character, he's a plot device, as is everyone else. His past is explored only as it relates to the "secret," and we haven't yet gotten any sense of his relationships to other characters - they interact simply because they're supposed to. When he sees Jasmine again for the first time in years, everything he says to her advances the plot. There's a brief narrative box in which he thinks about what she means to him, but we see no evidence of it. So it's kind of difficult to really get into the book because the characters exist only in the service of the plot. And, as much as I hate to point it out because apparently it doesn't matter to many people, there are a lot of grammatical and punctuation mistakes in this book. It was tough to read in places, because I was constantly stumbling over unnecessary commas (or the lack of commas) or "your" instead of "you're" and other nagging problems. That might be only a problem for a Grammar Nazi like me, but I'm the one reading this, aren't I?

Linder's art is strange, too. He has talent, and some of the pages of the book are really stunning, but it's clear he has the same problem a lot of artists do - he's fine with static images but falters a bit when it comes to more dynamic action. The first splash page of the book, a few pages in, shows Cole waking up next to Tommy, and it's a powerful image - we're looking down at the two men, and the rain is pounding on them. At the top of the page is a briefcase (the case is important, but we don't find out why in this volume) and on the right of the page lies Tommy, part of his head blown off. The blood has mingled with the rainwater, flowing off to the edge of the page. It's a weird and creepy image, and Linder's attention to detail is very impressive. There are a lot of very cool panels and splash pages like that, and they show off Linder's ability quite well.

However, his storytelling isn't that good, and some of the simple panel-to-panel work isn't all that good. Late in the book Cole gets in a fight with a bad dude, and in six panels, Linder shows more ability to do fluid action than he does in the rest of the book, and it gives me hope that he's getting better. As I mentioned, he created the book over several years, and you can see the changes in styles and even material he uses - some of it's thin pencil and ink, while on other pages he uses a thicker brush, and the changes happen seemingly at random. He uses clip art in too many places, too - on one page Cole will be driving a car that Linder drew, and on the very next page he'll be driving something that has been Photoshopped in, and he doesn't do a good enough job to integrate the computer-generated stuff into the line art. Some the comic is absolutely gorgeous, and some is not very good at all. It's frustrating.

On the whole, I didn't really love Prisoner of the Mind. It's certainly ambitious, and Linder has put a lot of work into it, but unless you've never read a conspiracy thriller before, there's not a lot here that will hook you. It would be nice to get more about the characters so that we care about them beyond just the plot, and Linder needs to get more consistent with the artwork, because some of it is so good that the stuff that doesn't measure up is all the more disappointing. I'm always happy to read comics that are the work of one guy, doing everything including the printing and distribution, and I certainly encourage you to go to Linder's blog and see some of the book yourself. That's the beauty of the Internet!

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