The GeeksverseREVIEW | Hacktivist (BOOM!/Archaia)

REVIEW | Hacktivist (BOOM!/Archaia)
Published on Wednesday, August 6, 2014 by
Don’t let the shaky opening chapter turn you off Hacktivist: it’s a reasonably thoughtful, fictionalized work on the interaction between Internet technology and the pro-democracy movement in Tunisia.

[Reviewer’s note: Unless otherwise specified, all reviewed titles are provided free-of-charge by their respective publishers or creative team personnel or sourced from public libraries. Click here to read more of our trade paperback and hardcover reviews.]

  • Hacktivist_HC_COVERAStory: Alyssa Milano, Jackson Lanzing, Collin Kelly
  • Script: Jackson Lanzing, Collin Kelly
  • Illustrations: Marcus To
  • Colors: Ian Herring
  • Pencil assists: David Cutler
  • Hacktivist created by: Alyssa Milano
  • Format: 112 pages, full color, hardcover
  • List price: $24.99
  • Sale date: 16 July 2014
  • Publisher’s description: From the creative mind of Alyssa Milano, with artist Marcus To and writers Jackson Lanzing and Collin Kelly, Hacktivist is a fast-paced cyber-thriller about friendship and freedom in a time of war. The world knows Ed Hiccox and Nate Graft as the young, brilliant co-founders of YourLife, a social networking company that has changed the way the world connects with each other. The world knows “sve_Urs3lf” as the largest white-hat hacking group on the planet, exposing information and sparking revolutions across the globe. What the world doesn’t know is that this is a lie. Ed Hiccox and Nate Graft are sve_Urs3lf. When their operation is discovered by the US Government, and their company is taken over by military contracts and CIA, Ed and Nate must face the real world beyond the code and choose between friendship and what they believe to be right.
  • Click here to read our review of Hacktivist #1.

A lot of the criticism of Hacktivist during the time of the miniseries’ first issue’s release centered around the perception that it lionized social media and the role it played and continues to play in the catalysis of pro-democracy anti-government protests in parts of North Africa and the Middle East. It also didn’t help that Ed Hiccox and Nate Graft, its two young American technocrat protagonists, come off in the first issue as smug, self-congratulatory nabobs, convinced that their development of social media makes them the unheralded true heroes of democracy to the masses fighting for comprehensive government reform in the North African nation of Tunisia. As IGN‘s Melissa Grey opined in her review:

[In Hacktivist,] brown bodies are used as background color to a narrative that emphasizes the heroic efforts of rich white entrepreneurs. Hacktivist belongs to a deeply problematic tradition we’ve seen played out in everything from celebrity Third World photo ops to Unicef ads on in-flight entertainment screens.

In our own review of Hacktivist #1, we did allow for the possibility that the characterizations of the protagonists and the seemingly simplistic parsing of current events were a red herring, and that a more nuanced narrative and characters with appreciable depth were waiting to emerge in succeeding issues. As it turned out, this was indeed what happened, at least to some extent, and I’m left to wonder if the eagerness with which critics dismissed the first issue as empty, borderline-offensive fluff was a failure of the serial comics format—would Hacktivist have fared better with critics had it been issued from the beginning as a complete graphic novel instead of a story divided into four monthly issues?—or if the book’s association with an actress and celebrity, even one with Alyssa Milano’s history of humanitarianism, philantrophy, and social activism, had an unintended negative effect on how people regarded the first issue.

Whatever the case, a reading of Hacktivist‘s full story with an open mind should disabuse readers of the notion that it is merely an exercise in what Grey termed as “white savior myth-making.” As the story progresses, it becomes clear that there are certain things that are beyond the reach of Hiccox and Graft’s considerable corporate and technological resources to directly affect and that their hubris and privilege have blinded them to both the reality of the Tunisian people’s struggle for a more democratic society, and the ease with which the US intelligence establishment can bring them to heel. Hiccox and Graft’s failure to maintain control over their attempt to steer Tunisia towards a more egalitarian government serves to humanize them, and in the book’s endgame, it is ultimately a member of the Tunisian opposition’s act of self-sacrifice that brings things to a head. While it may be the case that the opportunity to stage and coordinate a popular revolution has been made possible by innovations in Western technology, it is the Tunisians who earn their freedom, paying the price in blood—it isn’t gifted to them by outside actors from the United States.

It is to the credit of Hacktivist‘s writers, too, that the opposition to the Tunisian dictatorship isn’t presented as a largely homogeneous group of secular, educated, English-speakers raised on Western values. The role the shared faith of Islam plays in uniting the opposition is addressed, although I do think more could have been done to accurately present the twin nature of the opposition as a movement dominated by both secular and moderate Islamist factions. And while it is perhaps beyond the scope of the comic, some attempt to tackle the reasons why Tunisia’s post-dictatorship transition to democracy has been relatively non-violent (at least thus far) while that of places like Libya and Egypt continue to be marked by deadly unrest would have been very welcome. I would have also liked to see the dark side of social media—how it can be used by both local and foreign governments to track dissidents—acknowledged in greater detail.

The choice of Marcus To as the book’s artist may strike some as somewhat odd given that his particular style is more readily associated with superhero comics, but he acquits himself very well with this outing—even with Hacktivist‘s abundance of talking head sequences, To manages to find a way to keep panels visually interesting.

In five years or so, depending on how the young government in Tunisia works out, we will look back on Hacktivist as either a celebration of how the grassroots pro-democracy movement in Tunisia was empowered by technology, or as an overly-optimistic, naïve work. Either way, Hacktivist‘s creators took a chance in making a comic so intimately tied to current events, one so invested in a particular interpretation of history. In an industry that can frequently be frustrating in the way it seemingly rewards playing it safe over innovation, that’s a creative choice worth supporting.


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