7.5

Cyber Realm by Wren McDonald Review

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<i>Cyber Realm</i> by Wren McDonald Review

Writer/Artist: Wren McDonald
Publisher: Nobrow Press
Release Date: August 11, 2015

Nobrow’s final 17 × 23 series installment is Wren McDonald’s Cyber Realm, the story of an everyman reborn a la The Six Million Dollar Man to fistfight a post-cyberpunk tyrant. At only 24 pages, McDonald doesn’t have the room to stretch his longform muscles, but he favors the tightly woven narrative of a side-scrolling arcade game. Cyber Realm is light on story, but McDonald allows his stylized cartooning to carry the weight of the comic.

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McDonald doesn’t abandon narrative completely, and his characters portray interesting subversions of archetypes. Protagonist Nicolas is the classic “chosen one,” with the responsibility to save the day. But he’s inept: an id, driven by the all-consuming desire for revenge. He never develops the arc of a Neo or Katniss or Luke Skywalker, but that’s to Cyber Realm’s benefit. The author emphasizes a sensational experience over a linear, structured story, and Nicolas’ rage and anger provide that fuel. This keeps the narrative tight and lean, moving from set piece to set piece without a moment of rest. Nicolas bombastically fights an evil cyborg named Dark Edge before immediately gliding across the desert on a hoverbike. This expediency adds a level of engagement that sustains the book, and McDonald’s humorous, energetic style fully immerses the reader in the action. The rare beats of calm are more than welcome, though, allowing brief glimpses into the larger world.

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Cyber Realm Interior Art by Wren McDonald

The book’s MO feels most reminiscent of ‘80s sci-fi classics like The Terminator or Alien—movies where the world fleshes itself through off-the-cuff allusions and casual conversation. Take the existence of the titular cyber realm, for example; it’s a separate world populated by machines that exist literally beneath the real world. This raises more questions than it answers, but it delightfully teases a multi-faceted robo-wasteland. This informal development flows well into the wind-resistant story, enabling unbounded Kung Fury-style action. McDonald has left room to expand on these ideas, but he does an exceptional job of structuring his work to fit the minimal page length.

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Cyber Realm Interior Art by Wren McDonald

The above isn’t to say thatCyber Realm lacks concrete plot—quite the opposite. But McDonald packs it so tightly that exposition or explanation rarely emerge. The execution’s similar to this summer’s Mad Max: Fury Road: a lot happens in a well-developed world, even if a character never dissects it for the reader’s comprehension.

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Cyber Realm Interior Art by Wren McDonald

While his story is surprisingly dense, McDonald’s storytelling is light and heavily cartooned. The visuals maintain a puffed-up, goofy look, which contrasts well against the more gruesome elements of the story. As poppy as McDonald’s aesthetic might be, Cyber Realm is a dour, violent book. Loss and sacrifice are the most identifiable themes, and the author does an excellent job of blending them with a post-cyberpunk mid-apocalypse action tale. Moments of casual gore edges up against pessimistic plenitude, but McDonald is able to play these scenes for laughs.

The contrast could easily descend into a morbid, woeful tale of loss and loneliness—Nicolas’ lost son and subsequent (literal) dehumanization drives the action—but McDonald walks the reader right up to that line, turns on his heel and about-faces with a burst of laughter. That humor comes in the form of goofy pastiches, but oftentimes it comes in McDonald’s aesthetic. His thin lines and heavily diegetic style—similar to the zany dynamism of a Regular Show episode—are tailor made for silly, high-energy comics.