‘Hacktivist’ has noble ambitions but not enough time to crack its problems

(Archaia Entertainment / BOOM! Studios)

My mind is split with this comic.

On one hand, it’s an extremely timely and socially conscious title with the laudable aim of bringing attention to important issues that increasingly affect us all whether we’re aware of it or not, whether we care or not.

But therein lies part of the problem as well: if you already care about—or are at least partially interested in—the societal and technological issues it grapples with, you will likely enjoy it on some level and have mostly positive things to say about it. But if you don’t have much interest for said issues to begin with,  I’m not sure this comic will win you over to the cause.

This hardcover edition of Hacktivist collects the  four-issue limited series that attracted a fair degree of publicity buzz well before the release of its first issue. That’s because its creator is Alyssa Milano—yes, none other than the star of the 80s TV show Who’s the Boss that guys of my generation grew up drooling over.

For those who weren’t aware, Milano is quite the activist and on top of other personal causes like animal rights, vegetarianism, etc., one of her current interest areas is the potential of social media to be a tool for social and political change. She became inspired by the ongoing exploits of the anonymous collective of hacker activists (“hacktivists”) known, appropriately enough, as Anonymous who are known for wearing Guy Fawkes masks and for hacking into various government, corporate and religious websites (including PayPal, Visa, MasterCard and the Westboro Baptist Church). And, of course, social media, particularly Twitter, has been one of the predominant media channels through which the cyber-adventures of Anonymous have become more widely known.

Milano took this kernel of inspiration, superimposed it with her friendship with Twitter co-creator Jack Dorsey, and came up with an idea for a story in which one of the heroes was a social media entrepreneur like Dorsey himself. She took the idea to the editor-in-chief of Archaia Entertainment (now merged with BOOM! Studios) who loved it and the series went into development.

So there you have a bit of the back story behind this title which does have some of the makings of a great comic: epic scale, high stakes political intrigue, immediate real-world relevancy and a touch of Tony Stark-esque sparkle and glamour. The problem is as I’ve stated above. Basically, the comic feels like it’s preaching to the converted.

(Archaia/BOOM! Studios)

First of all, the hacker lexicon and technical lingo does add an air of authenticity and will make tech-savvy hipsters feel like they’re in the know. But those who lack the technical familiarity may get lost in the details (as I admittedly did despite having a rudimentary familiarity as a novice web admin).

Next, if you’re not interested in the political issues explored in the comic it’s quite likely you’ll get bored. It’s not because the issues at stake here are not inherently compelling. They are, but a story needs interesting characters and relationships to carry the plot. Having only four issues severely limits the space a comic has to develop its characters and relationships.

The greatest potential here is between the main characters Nate and Ed, billionaire entrepreneurs-cum-tech geniuses and founders of the social media site YourLife (which, by the way, is actually a very cool and prophetic idea for a next gen social media site). They’re not relatable but that’s okay; not every story has to have relatable characters. But it must have interesting characters.  And the only  inherently interesting character here is Ed as the dapper, e-cigarette smoking prodigy. His love-rivalry relationship with Ned has a lot of potential for dramatic tension with Ned being the more realistic, publicity-loving one and Ed being the slightly smarter and more passionate one. But the comic, beholden to keep driving the plot forward, just doesn’t have enough time to fully mine this relationship nor to further develop the brief glimpses of character nuance.

As a result, the reader is left to care on more of an abstract level about the political issues rather than on the immediate, emotional level of the characters.  Unfortunately, if any story is to win over an audience that is either not as smart as its writers or its characters (or is not as invested in its topical issues), then it must have characters who engage us emotionally. This is why I didn’t care much for the film Primer even though it was an intelligent film with some very cool ideas, and why I never felt truly connected with this comic either.

Mainly, I think it’s a matter of space. If Hacktivist had more issues to work with and to further develop the characters and relationships, I do think the end result could have been quite better. As it stands, it’s trying to do too much in too little time.

Hacktivist does employ perhaps the coolest lettering technique—by Eisner-nominated letterer Deron Bennett—for foreign languages that I’ve seen. Instead of simply using angle brackets ( < > ) or an asterisk and footnote indicating which language is being spoken, it weaves in the name of the language in its original script into the speech balloon (see image below). Hence when you see  “العربية” or “français” along the speech balloon’s perimeter that is the language being spoken.

(Archaia Entertainment / BOOM! Studios)

In terms of the art, Marcus To’s smooth lines and curvatures are subtly manga-influenced (most apparent during close-ups of characters’ faces, mouths, noses and jawlines) and are attractive if not particularly unique or spectacular, which is fine since the art is not intended to be the main event here.

Now, in a way this comic is right down our alley. One of PopMythology’s missions is to promote the use of pop culture as a tool for improvement of self and society, to engage young people into thinking and learning about issues they might not ordinarily be inclined to. This is why I’m very appreciative of what Hacktivist is trying to do. Its chosen task is a decidedly more difficult one than to simply entertain or make money because it is trying to do those things and more. But despite its promise, with only four issues at its disposal, it isn’t given a chance to better accomplish that task.

About The Pop Mythologist

The Pop Mythologist
The Pop Mythologist is the founder and editor of PopMythology.com. He has been a staff writer for the nationally distributed magazine KoreAm , the online journal of pop culture criticism Pop Matters and has written freelance for various other publications and websites.

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