Written and illustrated by K Wroten
Published by Fantagraphics
If you’re searching for a cyberpunk story, the corporate dystopic and the triumph of individual resilience, you’ll find one at the start of Eden II. A clutch of bohemian misfits scrapes by while watching the doomsday clock hit midnight in real time. That’s the beginning. I don’t (only) mean that they invent a new kind of virtual reality entertainment and the book slides into quantum-level chaos. Can we change the higher self inside and have it permeate the higher self of others? Kenny Wroten’s graphic novel also acts as an exploration of divine purpose, the kind of gnostic gospel that gets excised.
The first two stages are being and consciousness. The body exists within the physical world. The body produces a mind, a self. The third stage is the undertow of Eden II: the higher self. A locus of fixation shared by religion and philosophy. Is the world we create inside ourselves to perceive the one we live in capable of changing the course of its source? Well, one of the functions of art is to cross the gap between people. It’s a comic that presents its fair share of Mysteries, but Eden II also tells a story that needs no annotation. Wroten has a penchant for shocking the reader with a life recognizable as their own.
They’re crafting unspeakable things at the factory. And the algorithm won’t stop shitting itself on TV. The whole wall is a TV now- all of them are. There’s something in the nuggets. In defense against a nightmare of soul crushing everyday atrocities, a dream of a pearl begins to take form.
Eden II was the accidental collision of natural theology with video game design. Put aside for a moment that the corporation that financed it has taken ownership. Push it away if you have to. The new world in Eden II is in color, baby, you gotta be there. Though that’s debatable, as the science behind it enables users to go anywhere, see anything, conceivably even a world in black and white, like the real one. And reality is pretty weird to begin with.
The art takes mushrooms and melts. Of course it does, the long read of Eden II might prove Wroten a hierophant, but the thing you face page to page is the work of a magician. If those references made sense to you, you have a leg up on the text. And if not? You’re good. The sleight-of-hand writing has all of us looking away. The world is crumbling (though frequently off-page, doom is news rather than primary experience), which affects what is happening to everyone in the game world of Eden II, which follows a Satoshi Kon, David Cronenberg chain of logic that folds realities over and into each other. The contradictions are a part of the story, not explained away or even openly displayed by Wroten, but aspects of Wroten’s writing the reader must reconcile themselves.
Saying one thing and showing something else, Eden II’s enthymematic craftsmanship leaves the reader to sew the two together with whatever thread comes out of themself. Not only does it come in the form of plot, riddles the characters face and theories they form you solve yourself, but also in structure. Like the trick Jaime Hernandez pulls in his Locas stories: when you spend time with a character you’d like to get to know, they’re as obsessed over someone else as you are with them. The story about your favorite member of the ensemble ends up being occupied by somebody else altogether. You don’t learn what that person is like. You learn what being them is like.
There’s a slow realization that the cast of seemingly unconnected characters are actually deep in each other’s business. Their lives cross constantly, mostly without any knowledge of how direct an influence they have on each other. Here’s me, flipping back in the book to figure out which person at the factory #22 was (the guy on crutches who got fired for learning how to use them on the stairs). He’s a demon lord now in Eden II. So anyway, when everyone comes together to make big plot things happen, it’s easier than you’d expect. There aren’t that many folks tangled up after all. But each number at the factory leads at least one double life. And if a person and their persona can be at odds with one another, the gang’s reunion raises the internal conflict from crossed relationships factor by an order of magnitude.
Wroten hits you with a lot, fast, and without pause. Two pages will throw you down an intellectual rabbit hole concerning the nature of existence and the next two will pivot to a powerful empathetic emotional response where only the moment matters. The style shifts, and with changing literary terrain comes compounding cultural references. Sometimes the marriage of the soliloquy in the caption with the information of the image it accompanies tells a third story. All for the reader to decode.
The cryptic intensity isn’t an accident. Life isn’t about questions with succinct answers. Nobody arrives at a conclusion without making an effort to get there. At least, that’s how it is in Eden II. Often opaque. But confusion isn’t fought with, it’s followed until things make sense. Instead of competing realities needing a winner, what can be learned from what they share and how they’ve come together?
It’s a challenging and rewarding comic to deep read. Something you can’t properly consume without considering. Wroten asks of the reader a direct participation with questions of meaning that normally the critic asks the work. I want to send this thing to my philosophy professor (the one who taught classic literature using an RPG module).
A Jesuit Don Quixote of comics. Wroten reads like Cervantes riffing on sequential art. Subjecting innocent characters to exist within a comic book. Bad news for them!
Eden II is in part about telling stories, the history and theory of making up ideas. It takes you (as well as “the gang”) through how fantasy storytelling develops with use. A game starts out with simple tasks and complicates, fulfilling rising expectations for sophisticated satisfaction. Just look at the demon lord, he started out as a normal, okay guy. But wouldn’t you want to try to bend the rules? Otherwise an opportunity to experience the infinite could turn into a hall of mirrors. What should be escape shouldn’t be tied to the anchor of the past, but. Comics have spent the last hundred years going through this process of growing up (whether or not they have also matured is another essay), and that is present here in Wroten’s graphic novel.
Actually present. Once the audience’s attention is captured by Eden II’s violent, operatic, ludicrous yet inexplicably compelling beginnings, a scene of hipsters tunes out and does drugs and makes it sensible not serial. The possibilities of the medium are explored in a manner increasingly conscious of its own history and potential. A corporate parallel to the avant-garde retcons soap opera into modern mythology. Speculative fiction and realism can coexist rather than cancel. All the while, unpleasant and sad men trample in and out of the narrative, the structure, the business of the creative arts (too real, Kenny).
Eden II keeps reinforcing that the stuff outside of comics is magical, while what’s familiar about or points to comics is the stuff that’s underwhelming. It’s about how a video game- not a graphic novel- transcends identity. The creative minds that want to save humanity are inspired by physics textbooks, not superheroes. One could forget the format of what one is reading. Comics are present, incorporated, denied, acknowledged, why we’re here. And more.
So if comics are the quixotic, “more” would be where the Jesuits come in: recognizing the divinity present in everything. Each physical thing we perceive is a manifestation of an idea. A tree, in many forms, varieties from beech to willow, stages of life from acorn to stump, is a tree. We look at stuff around us and try to understand the unspoken secret of the world. Comics are a chance to for us to see ideas that the natural world hasn’t yet made effigies for. Or something it makes through us. A higher self, beyond us, that we are a part of. Eden II is a warning, quite overtly, about how powerful our art actually is and what a dire mistake we make when we put that power towards corporate development instead of personal growth.
The desire is to look to books that confront the problems we face for guidance on how to face it ourselves. What can I do? Eden II might make you sorry you asked. We all know where the story so far leads, we’re living it. So what Wroten gives us is a Philip K Dick exploitation of anticipation. What I wanted from the tale turned inside-out by its end. Satisfaction creates the conditions that consume us. Nature works in cycles, so truly moving forward means shooting the ouroboros in the face.
Eden II is available from Fantagraphics and wherever finer books and comics are sold.