Love it or hate it, the first Matrix movie overturned cinema as we knew it. And to my mind the wave of geekdom we are all riding now sees some of its origins in the release of that film. It had a massive effect on me in 1999 when I first saw it, so much so that I can remember all the details of my cinema visit that day the way previous generations talk about where they were when the first Moon Landing happened. I don’t even mean that hyperbolically. It was a MASSIVE deal for me. So, it’s more than a little bit embarrassing to admit that I’ve never read the Matrix comics. What’s worse is that I thought I had done. I was going to read You by Austin Grossman for my Virtual Reality Book Bingo category, but with all these seasonal interruptions going on, and my complete lack of speed-reading ability I realised yesterday that it just wasn’t going to happen. I dug the Matrix comics out of our book mountain late last night thinking I’d do a swift re-read and try to throw something together today, but when I flicked through nothing was familiar. I think I probably watched the Animatrix and got used to seeing the comics on the shelves and just kind of blurred those two things together in my mind. Either that or the machines are onto me and are mucking about with my reality …
Anyway, considering that the Wachowski siblings’ whole concept of the Matrix is now eighteen years old, and the images and ideas from the movies are as much a part of our subconscious as Hanna-Barbera cartoons and the Oxo adverts, the stories in these two volumes still feel pretty fresh and engaging. It’s a mixed bag of goodies produced by some huge names from the world of comics like writer Neil Gaiman, and artists such as Bill Sienkiewicz and Ted McKeever, Dave Gibbons and Gregory Ruth to name only my favourites. Some of the pieces are the briefest of vignettes, (“Sweating the Small Stuff” and “A Life Less Empty”, for example); some add depth and breadth to the Matrix universe, (“A Sword of a Different Color” and “The Miller’s Tale”); and some suggest or explore possibilities (“Goliath” and “Déjà vu”). The best ones, in my opinion, are the ones that capture the awful conundrum of the Matrix universe where freedom from the Matrix means a miserable battle to survive outside of the lie and phenomenal powers within it, whereas enslavement means being caught up in a VR so pervasive that you have no knowledge of your imprisonment at all.
The prize for Most Outstanding Story in the first volume goes jointly to “There Are No Flowers in the Real World” and “Hunters and Collectors”. In “There are No Flowers…” Mariner crew-member Rocket finds himself alone and trapped in the Matrix when his ship is attacked IRL and he, the only survivor, is critically injured. Inside the Matrix he is still apparently whole and able, he’s in a familiar location, and it may even be possible for him to make contact with the girl he left behind when he took the red pill. But his real life body is getting weaker and weaker, and his mind less and less able to keep up the fiction of his health within the Matrix. Ironically his last thoughts are of ‘saving’ his old girlfriend Mona from the Matrix even as his time runs out. It’s all drawn in punchy black and white by David Lapham, who also wrote the story, and it ticks all the boxes for me. As does “Hunters and Collectors”. Gregory Ruth is an incredible artist – check out his site here and check out these amazing portraits that he did of some of the characters from Frank Herbert’s Dune here – and this Moby Dick story is told as much through his elegant green-washed panels as is it through the dialogue. It’s a bleak tale of revenge, but there is also a hopeful note at the end about how myths and stories inspire people.
Volume one is, on the whole, fairly hopeful in tone, touching as it does on love and human connection giving people the determination to face ridiculous odds. Volume two on the other hand, is bleak. I don’t know how deliberate this was when the two volumes were compiled, and I don’t know the order in which the stories were originally put up online, but there’s not much hope kicking around, no matter how prettily drawn the stories all are. The absolute prettiest is Keron Grant’s “Run, Saga, Run”, which is eye-poppingly pink and purple in a collection otherwise dedicated to green, brown and grey. However lovely to look at it may be though – and it really, really is – the rebellious young Saga’s escape from a trio of agents really only plays into some nefarious plan of theirs in the end. The following story, “Wrong Number” by Vince Evans and Jason Keith, also gorgeously drawn, sees a Trinity-esque girl dead and a poor telephone repair guy left wondering if he killed her – it’s just six pages long and still it’s heart-breaking. And finally, rounding off this little trio of doom, is “Broadcast Depth”, again following directly on. The incredible Bill Sienkiewicz (who did the Delirium chapter artwork in Gaiman’s Endless Nights *heart*) tells the story of two girls wanting to surprise their mom on her birthday. By successfully doing so, they kill both her and her crew. Brutal. Even the final story, featuring the Kid from the Animatrix, which I feel is intended as a rallying cry after all the death, didn’t leave me feeling any better. I’m sure it is your turn now, kid, but your skateboard doesn’t inspire me with confidence. Sorry.
What I have realised, after immersing myself in these comics, is how much I still love the mythos of the Matrix. It’s got an allure to it, this world where nothing is as it seems, where we’re all being duped by a not-too-perfect VR simulation while we’re milked to power the machines. Maybe it’s because the daily grind can feel a bit like that sometimes. And on the flip side, once you see the lie for what it is, you can do amazing things. It’s definitely because the Matrix is the scifi equivalent of all that fantasy I love where there is a world beyond that of the everyday; I want to go down the rabbit hole, through the back of the wardrobe, up the bookladder; I’m waiting for the clock to strike thirteen; I’m looking for a way out of the maze of real life … and the Matrix is just another way to get there.