Comics have developed an extensive track record of representing fringe subcultures and ideologies since their inception as a vehicle for political caricature and social commentary. They’ve frequently been on the fringes of what’s considered popular media as well, being just relevant enough to be considered worthy of pop/geek culture discussion, yet maintaining a somewhat separate space in the annals of modern art when compared to film, TV and books. Stuck between a shaky history of mainstream and critical appreciation, and a voracious niche audience, the medium has often played up these elements and given voice to the weirdos and the outsiders, or in other words, the ‘counter-culture’. That sentiment is echoed all throughout Image comics’ recent psychedelic, space-exploration outing, Void Trip.
Void Trip, written by Ryan O’ Sullivan and illustrated by Plaid Klaus, is the story of Ana and Gabe, two free-spirited, star-faring, psychedelic-munching vagabonds and their search for the promised land, Euphoria. The duo find themselves up against a harsh universe that craves order, genocidal robots, cannibals (but not really?) and a nameless, taciturn mystery assassin dressed in all-white.
Part sci-fi drama, part roadtrip comedy, part dystopian fairytale, all tied together into a mash-up about the conflict between destiny and free will, trying to escape the inevitable, and the nature of chaos and order. It’s akin to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by way of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man. An off-beat, breakneck paced story with some heavy themes under the hood, if one cares to look.
The series as a whole is a breeze to read, not just because of its length, but also because the writing and art simply glide across the panels with ease. The 5th and final issue of the series offers a fitting resolution to the plot, though it feels severely rushed because of the limited length of the series. It has a quirky tone and most of the humour lands, though there are a few clunkers. Regardless, it’s fun while it’s there and (if treated as a short story rather than a sprawling narrative) has a lot to offer
The art and illustration go well together. Klaus’ human characters are animated and odd enough without resorting to unreal caricature. There’s great imagination on display throughout the whole book. However, the use of colours could have gone a little wilder for my taste (it is a psychedelic story, after all). All-in-all, Klaus does a great job of giving every major character and setting a distinct hue, so it’s easy to follow.
Sullivan and Klaus are indeed very good at compiling themes and interweaving them. The book draws its primary influences from the lexicon of the psychedelic counter-culture. Our two heroes are archetypal hippies; one’s a fierce yet often naive flower-child, and the other a more calm and rational yet somewhat over-the-hill, old school bohemian. The two act as a loose form of the tried and true Riggs and Murtaugh dynamic, with Ana being the brash trouble-maker and Gabe being “too old for this ****” but always along for the ride regardless.
They spend their days harvesting psychedelic froot and trying to survive in a dog-eat-dog universe. Now, they find themselves running from the forces that seek to add order to their lives. The clash is between various types of order and disorder. Their “free spirits” run up against robots with their restrictive programming and even the forces of entropy and death, embodying a different kind of “natural” order. All the while, they have to come to terms with responsibility and the nature of choice.
They often disagree with regards to the particulars of hippie philosophy, which is a fresh touch. For example, Gabe has misgivings about the ethics of stealing for survival. while Ana sees no problem with it because the idea of property seems ludicrous to her if the universe is all one big thing. I was delighted to see how the comic handled its depiction of the conflict between the harsh realities of the universe and the concept of natural harmony that hippies often embody. Depictions of hippies often don’t go into the ideology itself or end up depicting it as overly idealistic, so props to the creative team for that.
Gabe and Ana serve as the only two human characters in a universe of eclectic aliens and demented robots. Although, that’s not to say all AI or all aliens are antagonistic by nature. Since neither of the two main characters has any real sense of focus, the plot requires a straight man to form a wedge and keep the story moving. Their guidance system AI plays this part and gets a fair bit of character development, whilst being the “true” adult in the room and arguing the case for structure and order, having quite an interesting character arc of his own.
Similarly, Ana’s psychedelic visions often manifest as conversations with an alien spirit guide of sorts that acts as the key mentor-figure. This spirit guide’s existence provides a run of constant jokes revolving around the Joseph Campbell-esque archetypal story structure. The use of the monomyth is not without reason though, as it ties into the theme of accepting the inevitable. In this case, the “inevitable” is Ana’s own hero’s journey rather than avoiding fate and traipsing about the universe free, yet directionless. Without spoiling any plot points, I can definitely say that it does pay off in the end.
The book has several, significant shortcomings, however. As mentioned earlier, the pacing is really rushed. It’s forgivable but I can’t deny that it sacrifices some of the tone. The thing about psychedelia is that one is suppose to soak it in and groove to it, but a 5-issue run doesn’t always give the reader the time to breathe and be absorbed. It speeds past a lot of crucial moments and destinations that may have required more reflection. I’m inclined to think that the book was cut short by Image, for whatever reason, so they had to make do with what space they were given and sacrifice pacing.
It’s a shame because there’s a lot that the book wants to discuss, and it has the tools and the crew to do so. The pacing often makes the characterisation suffer as well. While the character arcs are great and well-written, there’s a sense of missed opportunity in their journeys. Aside from that, the book has quite a few gags that just don’t land alongside a few plot points that might be too silly even for what I’ve just described. Some of it is forgivable considered the off-beat tone of the whole story.
As I mentioned earlier, for what it is, it’s great. Seen as a short story, and as having the commensurate limitations, it reads much better. It’s also quite ambitious and clever, with great art to boot. The finale is fitting, even counting the rushed pace of the story. In the end, I prefer a tale that leaves you wanting a bit more than one that overstays its welcome.