“Like the moment when the brakes lock and you slide towards the big truck”
Magnetic Press has brought us mouth-breathing ‘Muricans some nifty European comics over the past few years, so I’m always interested in seeing what they have, and I so I got Monolith, which is written by Roberto Recchioni and Mauro Uzzeo and drawn by LRNZ (not his real name). It’s translated (from the Italian) by Mike Kennedy.
Recchioni writes in an introduction that this story came to him fully formed and he tried to make it into a movie, but when he got the rights back, he turned it into a comic, and then it might have gotten back into the movies, too – the book came out originally in 2016, so who knows where that is. It certainly feels very cinematic, but LRNZ does a nice job making it comicky, which is neat. So the story begins with a commercial – we’re not quite sure it is at the beginning, but it turns into an advertisement for the Monolith, a fancy car at the cutting edge of technology, with armor plating, “multi-angle cameras and electronic proximity detection,” and “advanced on-board artificial intelligence.” All of these things, naturally, will be important to the story. We move from the commercial into a living room, where a small boy is watching the television on which the commercial is airing, and we meet his parents, Carl and Sandra. Sandra is leaving the house, taking their son – David – with her, and it’s kind of unclear why. Carl seems to be a controlling dude, but we only have Sandra’s word on that, and she is not the most reliable person, as we’ll see. She leaves in a dinky car that appears it will break down at any moment, and he drives after her in his Monolith and tells her to take it, because he bought it for her and he wants her to be safe. When he does, he tells her that she’s right about him, and he’s going to work on it, and he gives her control over it. She disables the tracking so Carl can’t find her, and she takes off. Things go sideways somewhat quickly. She ends up in the desert, locked out the car with David inside, menaced by a coyote, lacking cell service, and desperate to get back into the car. Of course, the car is impregnable. So that sucks.
It’s a tense story, to be sure. Sandra is terrified that David is going to die, and she has no idea what to do. She gets bitten by a coral snake, but the venom doesn’t kill her, just makes her hallucinate. She tries to out-think the car, but that doesn’t work, and she tries to out-muscle the car, which really doesn’t work. Her solution is kind of dumb but somehow works, but I’m not going to say more about it because of course there’s a twist at the end. Recchioni and Uzzeo do a nice job building the tension, showing Sandra go through all sorts of options, and they show how things slowly and inexorably get worse for Sandra. It’s a clever way to build a thriller – there’s no “bad guy,” after all, because the car is just programmed a certain way, and it’s not even if it’s being aggressive, because it’s just that the safety protocols are just in place. So the tension comes from the fact that Sandra needs to get into it and can’t – there’s no malevolence on the part of the car. Even the coyote is just being a coyote, and while Sandra has to act aggressively around it, it’s not like it’s being actively evil. So it’s an interesting way to create an extremely tense situation, and it works pretty well.
However … in a story like this, it’s kind of crucial that the reader care about the characters, and it’s difficult to do in this situation. Sandra, to put it mildly, is an awful human being. Yes, Carl admits that he’s at fault in the marriage, but it doesn’t seem like he’s all that bad – certainly not enough to drive Sandra away. It seems like she leaves because she’s unhappy with the fabulous life she seems to be living because she can’t do whatever the hell she wants because she’s in a marriage. She doesn’t seem to like her son all that much – yes, she freaks out when he’s locked inside the car, but we see some flashbacks that imply she didn’t want to be a mom in the first place, so her devotion to David in the desert doesn’t feel one hundred percent real. When she stops at a convenience store in the desert, she fucks some dude right near the car while her son is sitting inside, which is kind of obnoxious. Sandra simply doesn’t feel like someone to root for, while David, whom we’re supposed to care about because he’s a kid, is a cipher with no personality. He’s a symbol, to a degree, of Sandra’s desperation, but throughout the second half of the book, there’s a weird disconnect because it’s as if she’s just desperate because society tells her to be desperate, and not because she really likes her son. And we see, even earlier, that Carl gets her the car and while you might think it’s because he wants to control her, he still gets her a cool car, but she doesn’t listen to him, so she knows nothing about the safety features on the car, which of course turns out to be a big mistake. She’s an immature child, and it’s frustrating reading this because her predicament doesn’t hit us as hard because she’s not a person we care about. As we’ve said before, with protagonists, you don’t need to care about them, but in a story like this, it helps, because of the nature of the story itself. Sandra isn’t all that magnetic as a character, so that’s not helping, so we need to care about her, and she’s a lousy person, so we don’t. That means the story doesn’t work as well because we don’t care if Sandra lives or dies, and we don’t even really care about David all that much. It’s too bad.
The art, however, is gorgeous. LRNZ has a painted style, and it’s very nice to look at. Sandra herself is a great-looking character, as LRNZ does excellent work with her face, showing the panic slowly taking over as she realizes she’s locked out of the car. Her eyes are amazing, as they’re wide and blue, showing the terror behind them wonderfully. LRNZ makes her hair an indicator of her state, as it gets more and more stringy as she’s stuck out in the desert, showing the mess she’s in. He makes the coyote a nightmare creature with red eyes and ferocious teeth, almost a demon (even if it’s just doing coyote things and isn’t pure evil), so it makes Sandra’s predicament even more disturbing. The contrast between the deep blue of the sky and the hard orange of the desert is stark and superb, as it really shows the isolation of the car and Sandra as she “fights” against it. LRNZ’s Monolith is pretty keen, too – a big, almost square black slab with thin, upward-swooping headlights that make it look downright evil (even though, much like the coyote, it’s not). When Sandra starts hallucinating, LRNZ switches to a more traditional thin line style with flat colors, which is a weird and very cool shift. The art on the book is quite nice, and it adds a good layer of tension to the story.
Monolith isn’t a bad comic by any means, and the idea itself is pretty clever. I don’t love the execution, mostly because Sandra just isn’t that sympathetic a character, and in this kind of plot, it’s very helpful to have a sympathetic character at its center. It’s just hard to care too much about someone as dumb as Sandra, and it’s hard to care for just a symbolic character like her son. The plot works pretty well, and it’s fun to read this and see the whole “human-versus-technology” vibe Recchioni and Uzzeo bring to it, but it could have been better, and it’s disappointing that it’s not. Oh well.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆