Reviewed this week: Nate Simpson’s Nonplayer #2 and the first issue of the long-awaited sequel to Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. [SPOILER WARNING: Reviews may contain significant spoilers]
Nonplayer #2 (Image Comics)
Publisher’s description: THE SOLD-OUT SERIES RETURNS with a much-anticipated new chapter! Bent on avenging the death of his queen, game character King Heremoth seeks vengeance against Dana, an unwitting tamale delivery girl. Meanwhile, strange things are afoot in future Los Angeles as a police standoff at a fish market reveals a homicidal robot armed only with seafood. Artist/writer NATE SIMPSON outdoes his beautiful and multi-layered debut with an even more ambitious feat of world-building!
Outside of series relaunches that pick up the issue numbering of a volume published years prior (such as Brandon Graham and Simon Roy’s 2012 relaunch of Rob Liefeld’s Prophet, for example), the gap between the release of Nonplayer #1 and Nonplayer #2 might just be the longest in modern comics history, longer even than the infamous three year-delay between the publication of the second and the third issues of Damen Lindelof and Leinil Francis Yu’s Ultimate Wolverine vs. Hulk. For those readers who have lost track, it’s been four years and two months since the debut issue of Nate Simpson’s Nonplayer originally hit retail.
The good thing is that it’s just as easy now—or perhaps even easier—to get a copy of Nonplayer #1 as it was in 2011. There is still much that can be improved about the digital comics experience, but one thing that can be said about the emergence of digital comics distribution is that getting an orphan back-issue, even one published four years ago, can be as simple as going to the publisher’s digital storefront, clicking on the “Buy Now” button, and downloading the comic in the non-DRM format of your choice.
I have no insider insight as to how the 217 weeks between issue releases may have changed artist-writer Nate Simpson’s plans for Nonplayer, if at all, but there’s no mistaking the radical broadening of the miniseries’ seeming narrative remit in the second issue. The first issue of Nonplayer suggested a near-future science-fiction story about NPCs—artificial intelligence-controlled non-player characters in a massively multiplayer online role playing game (MMORPG)—exhibiting sentient behavior, with hints of social commentary about MMORPG addiction and the ethics of A.I. development. These are all genuinely intriguing themes, albeit somewhat well-worn ones in Japanese popular entertainment such as the Bandai-published .hack multimedia franchise, CLAMP’s Angelic Layer manga, and Rei Kawahara’s Sword Art Online and Accel World light novels.
With this second issue, the focus switches from the online game world of Jarvath to the “real-world.” The in-game politics and intrigue take a backseat to a new story thread involving the police response to a rogue robot on a rampage and their ensuing investigation of the incident, as well as a tertiary subplot about a programmer using advanced A.I. to create a gynoid (a “fembot,” if you like) romantic partner. Despite the radical shift in cast, narrative emphasis, and setting, the throughline of the ethical problems posed by A.I. is maintained. Simpson even manages to devote some space to character development amid all the plot advancement and in-context exposition, no easy feat considering just how much happens in the course of this one issue—Nonplayer #2 already has a higher-than-average page count of 30 story pages, but it actually reads like a much longer work, almost coming off as overstuffed in places.
Simpson’s rendering of the art is clean and bright, almost to a fault. I’ve read it described on some forums as “sterile-looking,” which isn’t too far off the mark. It’s a look that works with the comic’s in-game world of Jarvath and I wouldn’t be surprised if this was a style deliberately chosen to highlight the artificiality of that setting, but applied as well to the world outside the MMORPG, it threatens monotony. A bit more rendered texture, a willingness to dip into the less saturated portions of the palette, a freer hand with the line weights, and playing a little looser with physics and geometry here and there would go a long way towards further enlivening what is already a very good-looking comic.
Whatever qualms I might have with Nonplayer’s execution thus far are reduced to insignificance in light of the project’s scope and ambition in the service of its ideas, however. Simpson is tackling the theme of A.I. ethics via three different approaches, from multiple perspectives—there is the main MMORPG-based storyline, the cyberpunk police procedural “B” plot reminiscent of Masamune Shirow’s Appleseed and Ghost in the Shell, and the emerging A.I. romance drama (think CLAMP’s Chobits, or Jonathan Luna and Sarah Vaughn’s Alex + Ada). Whether or not Simpson can tie all these disparate storylines together into a coherent, satisfying whole by the end of Nonplayer’s solicited six issues, and if he can do it without further scheduling delays, is almost beside the point. It’s a work worth following just to see him try.
Fight Club 2 #1 (Dark Horse Comics)
From the publisher: Some imaginary friends never go away… Ten years after starting Project Mayhem, he lives a mundane life. A kid, a wife, pills to keep his destiny at bay. But it won’t last long; the wife has seen to that. The time has come… Rize or Die.
I discovered Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club when it was brand-new, almost twenty years ago, in my late teens, the age some would consider as ideal for a male reader to get drawn into the novel and fall in love with its message decrying both bourgeoisie consumption as the modern measure of a man’s worth, and the violent nihilism that is held up as its counterpoint (the latter is sort glossed over in David Fincher’s otherwise solid 1999 film adaptation). And as has happened with many of the novels that informed my outlook as a young adult—Albert Camus’ The Stranger, Franz Kafka’s The Trial, Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, José Rizal’s El Filibusterismo, Alan Moore and David Lloyd’sV for Vendetta—my view of Fight Club has changed over the years as I’ve aged, gained life experiences, and (hopefully) grown wiser, or at least, less ignorant about the world and people around me.
It was with a slight sense of disappointment, then, that I finished reading the first issue of Fight Club 2, Palahniuk’s comic book sequel to what is arguably his most well-known work. I had gone into the comic expecting, perhaps unfairly, a more nuanced treatment of The Narrator (now going by the name Sebastian) to go with the fact that the story is set a decade after the events of the novel. Granted, this is just the first issue, but it could be that readers are in for a fairly standard sequel experience, a recouching of the first novel’s violent coming-of-age story as a black comedy about male mid-life crisis.
If the rejection of empty consumerism for the visceral highs of bare-knuckle, no-holds-barred fighting was the first novel’s answer to The Narrator’s ennui, Fight Club 2 offers the unburdening of the demands of modern family and society and the dismissal of pharmacological aids to mental health as the route towards the individual anarcho-primitivism advocated by The Narrator’s infamous alter-ego, Tyler Durden. It’s a neat spin on the original, but the central emotional tension remains essentially the same: At this juncture, Fight Club 2 is still the same story about redefining masculinity in a world where the traditional signifiers of male heteronormative virility, success, and power no longer hold the same relevance in the day-to-day context that they once did. I can’t stress enough, however, that it is still too early to read too much into the work, and if I know Palahniuk’s writing, there’s bound to be some attempt to subvert reader expectations down the line.
None of this is to say that the comic doesn’t offer entertainment, or that it won’t satisfy those readers simply looking to revisit the characters and themes from the original book and film. Marla, now married to The Narrator, has some hilariously over-the-top scenes in the comic, including one where she indulges her pathological narcissism by posing as a patient with progeria in a progeria support group. Palahniuk also wisely lets artist Cameron Stewart perform as an equal partner in the task of storytelling, giving the Eisner and Shuster Award-winning artist the space to advance the narrative using nothing but sequential imagery and minimizing the use of caption and text boxes.
Ultimately, Fight Club 2 might best be viewed as a comic for those who just want to read more Fight Club. Those readers who want more than just Fight Club, though, will either have to look elsewhere, or wait it out and see if the rest of the sequel delivers what they’re looking for.