“The biggest nightmares don’t need shadows.”
Normalcy. You look at any standard white guy in suit with a briefcase working a 9 to 5 job, and that’s what the world wants you to be. But it’s 2019, and that’s not who we are. This isn’t the 1970s… 1980s… 1990s… hell, this was never what the world was, it was what those in power wanted it to be. You think of a job or career and you already have an image in your head. You think of the typical people that work at those jobs, and the image gets clearer. We think we know what it means to be a working individual, but there are entire industries within and beneath those that we consider “professional” — industries that would make us squirm with nausea if we knew the truth.
You may think this sounds like a twisted and depressing Black Mirror episode, and you’d be right. Dystoptian fiction often highlights dark futures that could exist or that we have to prevent, but they can also create worlds out of darker elements that are already here. These worlds come with tropes or conventions, but we readers are only affected by the elements we can see. Dystopian fiction might present possible futures and imminent realities or shine light on a smaller world already existing within our own. We often consider a “utopia” to mean a perfect and ideal society, but it actually means “no place,” because it doesn’t exist. A dystopia represents that antithesis and our attempts at an impossible society that have fallen back to reality. Dystopias can and do exist because of their flaws and our failures, but they don’t have to. Dystopian futures are possible, but they are also preventable, and the ones that are already here can be changed. For every Evilcorp, Oscorp or Lexcorp out there, there’s an Elliot Alderson, Mary Jane Watson, or Lois Lane trying to expose the truth and bring them down.
Ordinary people can create change. Dystopian fiction is an educator and a motivator. It’s a tool to tell us what’s wrong, how it affects our future, and motivate us to do something about it. Would an ideal world simply be a society where we couldn’t imagine anything going wrong? A society where the inequalities, oppression, hatred, and violence that drive most dystopian societies are unfathomable? Dystopian fiction is meant to be a warning, a negative. Negativity is easy and straightforward, but it is also finite. There is a limitless amount of good we can do, and we all may be running toward unknown destinations, but all that matters is escaping the whirlpool of injustice.
It’s never been about entertaining the notion of a single ideal society. Dystopian fiction is supposed to make you run towards your ideal and do what you can as an individual. It’s part of why Mister Miracle resonates with so many people. Scott Free found his ideal, even if it wasn’t everyone else’s. It may sound selfish, but if we all strive towards the best we can be, won’t we all be better off for it? Test is about Aleph Null finding their ideal. They’ve been running most of their life, running from one company, job, experiment, or town and onto the next. All this time they’ve trying to use any money they’ve earned to improve and run towards their ideal, even if they don’t know what that is yet, they know they want to be better. Can we be better? What is better? Aleph sure doesn’t know, and they’re terrified as hell because of it. They may mask their uncertainty with lively conversation, incessant rambling, body modifications, and drugs, but deep down, they just don’t know who they want to be yet and whether or not they’ll be accepted for it. We may not share Aleph’s identity, personality, or world, but we have all felt the same uncertainty. We’ve all questioned whether or not people will accept our decisions. We’ve all asked if what we’re looking for is even attainable. We’ve all started running towards a place of acceptance. Chris Sebela, Jen Hickman, Harry Saxon, and Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou make Aleph’s quest to find acceptance a solitary one, but whether they know it or not, we, the readers, are running with them.
The creative team discusses this through the concept of experimentation, but what does that even mean? It’s essentially a procedure that makes the uncertain certain. It’s a step in the scientific method in which a procedure evaluate a hypothesis and conclusions are drawn based on analyzed results. Experimentation has been Aleph’s entire life. Companies pay them to be a human guinea pig. They fill Aleph with a drug and measure the results, good or bad. The lasting effects and permanent damage are of no consequence to whomever is doing the study, only immediate results. Even when Aleph isn’t being experimented on by corporations, they experiment on themselves with body modifications and drugs. We often think that there’s some sort of science behind it all and that experiments are just for confirming theories we’re pretty sure are true. The reality is that it’s all trial and error, and we have no f*cking idea, and that is terrifying.
Sebela, Hickman, Saxon, and Otsmane-Elhaou unveil the dangers that surround heavy experimentation. What motivates an experiment in the first place? Is it really the desire to be better, or is it the lurking idea that something is wrong with how we are? Whether it be a product that isn’t cheap enough, a service that isn’t convenient enough, or a technology that isn’t efficient enough, are the experiments we’re doing motivated by an altruistic desire to be better or a disdain for what we have? Are the two even different? Is cheaper, faster, and more convenient what’s really going to better our society? We are driven to experimentation by the idea that the status quo is wrong, and that can be dangerous. Not knowing who you are is one thing, but trying to become someone else because society doesn’t accept who you are is completely different. Experimentation can be a good thing, and no one is faulting Aleph for trying something new and wanting to discover the best version of themselves, as long as it’s not because society doesn’t respect the current version.
An uneducated experiment is just trial and error. Doing trying new and different things until you get it right. But what if there is no “right?” It comes back to the idea of a truth vs. your truth. Aleph may be experimenting to find their own truth, but they may also be experimenting because they’ve never found a truth others have accepted. Chris Sebela has always been honest, often brutally so. He is unafraid to speak his mind and his truth. Using Jen Hickman’s dynamic line work and meaningful use of space, Harry Saxon’s brilliant mix of faded and bold colors, and Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou’s versatile lettering, Test #1 looks to tell Aleph’s truth, one that could only be told through an independent publisher.
Aleph Null has been a corporate guinea pig all their life. Now they want to get away from those watching over them and find Laurelwood, a town that supposedly doesn’t exist testing technology which isn’t supposed to exist yet in order to become better. Right now, however, Aleph is alone. Their only companion appears to be Mare, a mobile AI who behaves like a therapist with nothing to say. It curiously asks questions and is eager to learn, but offers little guidance or advice beyond basic resources. The corporations Aleph once worked for are after them, eager to run more experiments, and everyone in Laurelwood just stares uncomfortably. “I’m used to being stared at,” Aleph says, but that doesn’t make it okay. The rest of Laurelwood comes off as a town of inaction, seeing someone distressed and possibly in trouble, but doing nothing about it. They’re paralyzed by the fear of something different. Even a friendly truck driver offering to give Aleph a ride is put off by their well-intentioned chattiness and drops them off early. Aleph is brutally alone in the world trying to figure out their truth, and there’s a lot of frustration and anger behind that. This is an issue where Sebela is able to unleash his frustrations with the hidden side of marketing, focus groups, and experimentation. There’s a blatant anger at our collective and conscious choice to ignore that this industry exists and thereby allow it to happen. There’s a frustration at our willingness to standby when people who just want to get or be better need help. Otsmane-Elhaou’s lettering is crucial in this issue as he uses overlapping balloons to show how preoccupied people can be with themselves and hearing their own voices. There’s a great mix of dialogue and first person captions used to keep us invested in a story focused almost exclusively on a single protagonist.
Aleph is, however, a bit of a tough nut to crack. Almost all of us have felt what they’re feeling in some way, but they are still very isolated. They don’t seem to interact with other people enough for us to fully empathize with them yet. A lot of our character is revealed by the way we interact with other people. You become invested in a character not only because of who they are, but because of their relationships and actions as well. Right now, we just don’t know enough about Aleph’s choices to be fully invested yet.
As you’re reading, the question inevitably arises, “What can we do?” “How can we fix this?” And right now, the best part about Test #1 is that Sebela doesn’t seem to have an answer. He’s creating a dialogue rather than simply providing a direction. He’s encouraging us readers to reach inside ourselves and find our own truths. Aleph’s solution to get away from experimentation and life as a guinea pig is more experimentation. That may not be the correct solution, but it’s the only one they know. Test #1 is an issue that asks you to find your truth and run towards it. It’s a book about striving to be better in a world that often leaves us feeling alone.