Pullbox Reviews: Wretches #5 – Bots & Hunters & Aliens, living together & blowing each other to bits…

Sean is forced to help the twisted bot who’d kidnapped him in the first place, as he attempts to infiltrate an alien city and rob the local drug-lord. The reward for his aid in this violent raid- the “promise” of getting Shea back in one-piece once they succeed. After being taken through their slums, Shea begins to recognize that the average bots and their wants aren’t any different than those of humans – to live their lives in peace. Unfortunately for her, these bots are still under the rule of a power-hungry tyrant, and her execution is imminent.

Shea & Sean have been making a living hunting down rogue androids, on the fringe of an intergalactic society where the term “living” is always in flux. The androids have been rallying under the command of a charismatic but increasingly unpredictable leader, Carter, the very bot who years earlier had murdered the siblings’ parents in cold blood. It’s been a long road, but events have conspired to bring the twins closer to their enemy than they have ever been & it’s only a matter of time before the confrontation erupts.

In the realm of science fiction, there are niches. You’ve got your clean, idealistic version typified by Star Trek. There’s the grand, bombastic space opera made popular by Star Wars. There are more subtle brands of sci fi that play on the Everyman with a destiny idea, as shown in flicks like The Last Starfighter (sure, aged a bit but still a personal favorite of mine). Truth be told, there are as many flavors of sci fi as can be dreamed up by the minds of visionaries & tellers of tales. But right now we need to pay special attention to the rebellious rabble rouser of the genre, cyberpunk, which found its own champion in the classic Blade Runner.

Cyberpunk is generally dirty, gritty, with shades of noir thrown in for style. It’s in that more cynical nook that Wretches finds its home. Set in a universe of hardship, crime lords, & decay bot moral & physical, it’s pretty easy to draw the obvious comparisons to novels like Snow Crash, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (the basis for Blade Runner), & Neuromancer. But it also embraces action with all of the enthusiasm of a direct to video flick directed by a Bruckheimer wannabe who’s off his meds. It’s because of that all or nothing attitude that I really got into this title.

James Roche didn’t just settle for a violent action comic, which honestly I probably still would’ve liked. He wanted something with a little more meat on its bones, for readers who want a little more than “shoot, punch, kick, repeat”. Hence the story elements that lean into themes of addiction & decay, of rebellion & loyalty. Having achieved sentience, the androids in Wretches aren’t all on the same page, to say the least. They do share a need for independence, but they’re not all sold on Carter’s more ruthless path. There are as many motives & means behind the bots in this story as there are among the people of any society. Likewise there are seedier elements of this fictional society; androids indulging in addictive, self-destructive vices, committing crimes in the name of profit rather than for the good of all robots. So there some pretty dark themes here, but Roche doesn’t let them get so out of control that they drag the story down. Tapping into a subtle use of humor, he keeps it from getting melodramatic to the point of monotony. It’s not a pressure release that all writers are able to use without derailing their intended tone, but Roche does it well here.

With a story this determined to separate itself from the herd, it wouldn’t do to rely on run of the mill artwork to tell the other half of it. The illustrations by Salo Farias are anything but average, his style working to embrace all of the story elements that James Roche presents. The bots are in various stages of decay & disrepair, their physical deformities heightening their sense of menace. The humans are physically perfect, almost ironic given the sci fi trope of robotic flawlessness being the often used threat to human dominance, and the aliens are varied enough to imply the scope of the universe being created. And when the action kicks in, Farias is able to convey swift, precise, violent motion that never comes across as clunky or awkward. If I had to come up with comparisons, I’d say that Farias starts out with a bit of Humberto Ramos, dips into a dash of Moebius, & tops it off with {Aeon Fluxx} in his approach to figures & anatomy.

Giving Farias’s work depth & adding the finishing touches to the worlds they’re building, Chunlin Zhao’s colors hit the mark. Shying away from darker tones that might have been in line with Wretches cyberpunk themes, Zhao sticks to a bright & well defined color scheme. I’m pretty sure that there weren’t many colors left untouched in the crayon box by the time the work was done. Also, there’s a great use of lighting effects to help move a reader’s eye across some of the sweeping action panels.

Finally, there’s a big nod going out to letterer/editor Chas! “Totally Serious About That First Name” Pangburn. The speech bubbles in Wretches help to drive home the differences between humans, bots, & aliens, as each species has different effects… depending on what alien was talking, I could easily imagine various qualities- warbling, higher pitch, a deeper growl- to their voices. That’s all cool, but I really thought Pangburn’s work shines in the more creative uses of sound effects. Comicbooks have evolved well past the use of the standard “BANG”, “Zoom”, or “SWISH”, & Pangburn shows us just how many different ways a blaster can sound. Okay, yeah… there are some “PEW, PEWs” in there, but I kinda wonder of Pangburn wasn’t chuckling a little when he threw them in.

I’d have to say that for an action heavy comic title, there are more layers in both the story & the visuals than I might have expected. Robot rebellions aren’t new to fans of science fiction, but Wretches gives us enough different to make this one feel less familiar. Roche’s bots aren’t only morally flawed, but have physical ailments & decay to deal with… not usually something you see in science fiction where the common threat to humanity posed by androids is in their sheer physical perfection.

Altogether, its unusual tactics & qualities add up to a very cool comic that was a lot of fun to read & gave me just enough twists to the old tropes to keep it all interesting. With issue 5 about to hit to the proverbial stands, & a collected trade coming soon, this one’s a solid addition to the pull list.

Final Score: 9

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