“SVK” has popped up on everyone’s radar because of its unique presentation. The first comic published and distributed by mail order by BERG, a London design consultancy, “SVK” has a rather unusual gimmick: thought balloons printed in ultraviolet ink that can only be read by a UV flashlight packaged with the book. That BERG also got Warren Ellis and Matt “D’Israeli” Brooker to make that idea work is another reason why “SVK” managed to sell out its initial print run after going on sale last week. The 40-page graphic novel is a slick book, and the gimmick is worked into the story in a smart way.
“SVK” features a simple story: Thomas Woodwind is hired by an old acquaintance that runs a London security firm to recover something that’s been stolen from the firm. It’s possible the developer of the item stole it or that he was testing it outside the premises and something happened to him. Backed up by a techie, Woodwind needs to track down the item and figure out what it is, not trusting his old acquaintance to have not made something positively monstrous. What he finds isn’t far off.
Woodwind is your typical Ellis protagonist: very gruff, very smart, very moral in his own way, and very good at what he does. There are small things that set him apart from the likes of Richard Fell, Jack Cross, and other Ellis protagonists, but Ellis’ voice is strong here, which helps in a situation like this. Essentially a short story, having that basic Ellis-ness acts as shorthand for those familiar with his work (i.e., the target audience), making a lot of exposition unnecessary. The story is direct with very little fat on it and is a reminder at just how good Ellis is at writing smart, economical comics.
Working once again with D’Israeli no doubt helps matters. He uses a very clean, open style with lots of white space and unshaded figures and objects. While panels don’t lack detail, they’re often uncluttered with clarity being the main goal. The use of a light blue spot color adds an extra level of depth to the art, while being as unobtrusive as possible. D’Israeli’s simple, cartoony figures are very expressive, adding to the clarity of storytelling. He also crafts layouts that don’t tip off the hidden thought balloons and, yet, maintain space for them.
The first time I read “SVK,” I didn’t use the UV flashlight, and the comic reads completely fine without it. That’s both a positive and a negative. Obviously, being able to read the comic without the discomfort of holding the small UV device over the page is a good thing. However, that the story functions more or less the same with or without the flashlight reveals the gimmick as not much more than that: a gimmick.
Reading the comic a second time with the UV flashlight illuminating the hidden thought balloons, not much was added to the experience. Random snide thoughts were pretty much it. Only one scene gains a significant amount from seeing the thought balloons and, there, the dissonance between what the character is saying and what she is thinking is so stark that it’s also the most intelligent use of the hidden thought balloons. Creating a comic that reads perfectly fine one way and, then, reveals new information that changes everything when ultraviolet light is shone on it is a bit of a tall order and, for a first attempt, this is far better than one would expect.
Despite being BERG’s first comic, they deliver great production values and some interesting extra like a foreword by William Gibson and essays by Jamais Cascio and Paul Gravett. Even the ads included are fun and make use of the UV ink. “SVK” delivers an entertaining story with a cool gimmick that done about as well as anyone else is likely to. When BERG get more in stock, give “SVK” a look.