FEBRUARY 20, 2021
MANY HISTORIES OF CYBERPUNK emphasize its literary precursors — its borrowings from hard-boiled detective fiction, for example, or the proto-cyberpunk elements in the science fiction of writers such as Alfred Bester, John Brunner, Samuel R. Delany, Philip K. Dick, James Tiptree Jr., and others. In addition to these literary influences, however, comic books also played a significant (and often unexamined) role in cyberpunk’s flowering into a recognizable literary and cultural phenomenon during the 1980s. On one hand, Japanese comics (manga) and animated cartoons (anime) such as Akira (1988) and Ghost in the Shell (1995) unquestionably helped shape (and were in turn shaped by) cyberpunk sensibilities. At the same time, however, European and American comics also served as a vital resource for cyberpunk aesthetics.
William Gibson, for example, cites the illustrated stories that appeared in the French magazine Métal Hurlant and its American version Heavy Metal during the 1970s as influences for the imaginative style of his cyberpunk novel Neuromancer (1984):
[I]t’s entirely fair to say, and I’ve said it before, that the way Neuromancer-the-novel “looks” was influenced in large part by some of the artwork I saw in Heavy Metal. I assume that this must also be true of John Carpenter’s Escape from New York, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, and all other artifacts of the style sometimes dubbed “cyberpunk.” Those French guys, they got their end in early.
Aside from the British comic 2000 AD (which introduced the story of the dystopian cyber-hero Judge Dredd in 1977), almost all of the earliest examples of what might be considered Euro-American cyberpunk comics appeared in Métal Hurlant and/or Heavy Metal. One particularly striking example is “The Long Tomorrow,” written by Dan O’Bannon and illustrated by Moebius (Jean Giraud), which was serialized in Metal Hurlant in 1976 and appeared in Heavy Metal (volume one issues 4–5) in 1977.
Despite the general absence of cybernetic technologies in the story, “The Long Tomorrow” can be regarded as a cyberpunk precursor because it tells a hard-boiled science fictional detective story (with noir sensibilities) set in a dystopian urban landscape on an alien world. In the story, a black private investigator, Pete Club, is hired by an upper-class white femme fatale, Dolly Vook De Katterbar, to recover her property from a public locker in a dangerous part of the city. While they are having sex after his mission, Club receives a phone call from a police lieutenant who reveals that Vook De Katterbar is an alien spy — and Club looks up from the phone in horror to discover that he is having sex with a repulsive blob of alien tentacles! The alien pleads with Club, clinging to his manhood as he attempts to tear her free. She claims to love him (despite having sent an assassin earlier to murder him), and she offers to shapeshift into any form that he desires. Unresponsive to her attempted seduction, Club rejects her as a “demon from space” before shooting her to death. The final frame of the comic is Club standing alone on a bridge, looking out over the city, musing that the whole encounter has ultimately been “meaningless” because it is “just a story. And there are eight million like it in this city, drifting through eternity.”
“The Long Tomorrow” expresses just one example of how cyberpunk-style stories often have troubling foundations in misogyny. As Julia Kristeva observes in Powers of Horror (1980), many forms of misogyny originate in the psychological dynamic of abjection, whereby the masculine subject, in order to achieve a sense of independence and self-possession, violently casts away an abject feminine filth-object that was, at an earlier moment, literally merged with oneself — often as a former sexual partner. Kristeva might suggest that “The Long Tomorrow” offers a story in which abjection — or the violent rejection of the feminine in order to achieve masculine self-possession — assists in restoring a feeling of self-contained masculinity that seems threatened by the changing economic conditions of the 1970s. O’Bannon and Moebius’s story suggests that the multinationalization of industry and finance during this decade creates a cultural environment in which a masculine sense of self-ownership, agency, and autonomy (anchored on economic self-sufficiency) seems to be threatened by increasing economic scarcity, outsourcing, and globalization.
This is reflected in the setting of “The Long Tomorrow” and other proto-cyberpunk comics stories. In these stories, male protagonists often feel hopelessly disempowered in the face of growing class and wealth inequality. The stories themselves take place in dystopian cities (divided between the rich and the poor) dominated by massive corrupt multinational corporations that are immune to government regulation. As Carl Freedman has argued in his book Critical Theory and Science Fiction, this mapping of economic and social conditions is often registered in cyberpunk stories in an uncritical and hopeless way. In “The Long Tomorrow,” the path to recovering masculine agency is fighting the increasingly corrupt capitalist system itself. Rather, this goal is achieved by abjecting feminine figures, such as the radically alien Vook De Katterbar, in order to achieve a hard, self-enclosed, and tragically isolated masculine autonomy.
In addition to “The Long Tomorrow,” Heavy Metal was a key site for the emergence of other proto-cyberpunk comics, such as Stefano Tamburini and Tanino Liberatore’s RanXerox, a story about a mechanical antihero made from photocopier parts, which was originally published in the Italian magazine Cannibale in 1978 and then appeared in Heavy Metal in 1983. Enki Bilal, a Yugoslavian-born artist and writer living and working in France, was also a regular contributor to Métal Hurlant, and his three-volume saga The Nikopol Trilogy may also be regarded as an early cyberpunk precursor. Originally published as La Foire aux immortels (1980), La Femme piège (1986), and Froid Équateur (1992), The Nikopol Trilogy features a number of cyberpunk elements: a science-fictional noir tone, a dystopian near-future setting, the techno-magical augmentation of the human body, and experimentations with strange drugs that make it nearly impossible to distinguish between reality and hallucinations.
La Foire aux immortels (A Bedlam of Immortals) takes place in a fascist-controlled Paris in the year 2023. Wealth inequality has reached oppressive levels and women have been stripped of most of their rights. As the story begins, the French government is conducting negotiations with the ancient Egyptian gods, who have arrived in a space pyramid demanding a tribute of oil. One renegade god, Horus, decides to liberate Paris. In order to accomplish this, he psychically bonds with a former astronaut, Nikopol Nikopol, who has been cryogenically frozen for 30 years. Horus replaces Nikopol’s damaged leg with a metal prosthesis, and together they become a techno-magical cyborg figure — a human-god-machine hybrid with two minds inhabiting the same body (although Nikopol is usually in control, Horus sometimes seizes command of their shared body in order to accomplish godlike feats). Together, Nikopol and Horus overthrow the fascist Parisian government. But in the end, the Egyptian gods (who function as a symbol for global oil interests) re-imprison Horus (leaving Nikopol mentally damaged), and they install Nikopol’s son as the leader of a new political regime pliable to their own economic agenda.
The second volume of the trilogy, La Femme piège (The Woman Trap), is told from the perspective of Jill Bioskop, a female journalist with striking pale skin and short blue hair who writes about ethnic conflicts in Europe and the Middle East. After Jill’s lover is murdered, she begins experimenting with his stash of strange red and yellow pills in order to escape her grief and pain. Under the influence of these pills, Jill semi-hallucinates a variety of sexual encounters. In at least two instances, she believes that she kills men who attempt to sexually assault her. While the story unabashedly fetishizes Jill’s body as an erotic spectacle, it is notable less for its stereotypical portrayal of Jill as a feminine fantasy object and more for its exploration of radical subjective instability: it is ultimately impossible for the characters or the reader to distinguish which elements of the story are real and which are hallucinations. Unlike many noir tales, in which a detective-figure ultimately uncovers the horrible dark truth of an uncertain situation, the “truth” of Jill’s experience remains radically uncertain — particularly during the story’s conclusion, when Nikopol and Horus (who have been dreaming about her) witness John (who may or may not be a time-traveling ghost) visit the deeply traumatized Jill in order to help her calibrate her incorrect use of his weird drugs.
The final Nikopol volume, Froid Équateur (Cold Equator), is even more surrealistic than La Femme piège. The story pays homage to experimental French cinema, opening with Nikopol’s son Niko viewing an unfinished avant-garde film featuring his father and Jill. Niko eventually travels to Equator City, a metropolis in East Africa run by a strange crime syndicate. Nikopol and Horus go to Equator City to compete in chess boxing, a hybrid sport that alternates between boxing and speed chess with short breaks between rounds. In a weirdly surreal example of life imitating art, Bilal’s fictional portrayal of chess boxing directly inspired its emergence as an actual competitive sport. At the end of the story, Horus rejoins the Egyptian gods, Niko Jr. is launched into space on an ark filled with cryogenically frozen animals, and Nikopol and Jill (who can no longer remember each other, despite having had a child together) meet for what feels to them like the first time.
Frank Miller’s Ronin (1983–’84) — an iconic work that is sometimes regarded as the first mainstream popular cyberpunk comic — encompasses a variety of what are now considered cyberpunk elements: a noir sensibility, a critical reaction to the rise of corporate power and the recessionary economics of the 1980s, and a speculative engagement with emerging technologies (such as cybernetics, artificial intelligence, and biotechnology) — during a moment just prior to the publication of Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), which more broadly popularized such cyberpunk elements in the popular SF imaginary.
At the same time, however, Ronin is starkly reactionary in its deflationary view of humanity. Almost everyone in the story is centrally driven by greed. Women, neo-Nazis, and black gang members are all ultimately drawn to the power and charisma of violent alpha-males — a theme that Miller further explores in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986). Without such powerful men guiding humankind toward order and law, people will inevitably degenerate into savages, like the “bums” and “kids of winos” born in the subway tunnels under New York in Ronin’s imagined future. These figures have become cannibalistic “cave men” — inhuman monsters to be shot, stabbed, and chopped apart so that the Ronin hero of the story can rescue a woman of color, Casey McKenna, from an unthinkable fate.
As this suggests, Ronin also unabashedly participates in the violent misogyny that too-often characterizes early cyberpunk comics. Billy Challas, a mentally disabled young man whose psychic powers enable him to appear as the titular Ronin of the narrative, is portrayed as an infantile figure trapped within the overbearing cybernetic womb of an AI called Virgo, who manipulates him by explicitly assuming the role of an emasculating mother. Billy’s final line, “Shut up momma,” precedes the explosion that annihilates Virgo. This moment again dramatizes the primal violence of abjection that defines many hard-boiled masculine cyberpunk comic narratives.
In contrast to the deflationary noir aesthetic of “The Long Tomorrow” and Ronin, Alan C. Martin and Jamie Hewlett’s Tank Girl expresses an expansive, rebellious, and inflationary punk attitude. Tank Girl is a is a mercenary outlaw living in a near-future Australia who drives a huge tank and has a variety of weird adventures with her boyfriend Booga, a mutant kangaroo. Tank Girl, which was first published in the underground UK magazine Deadline in 1988, notably rejects conventional narrative techniques, favoring instead an absurdist, satirical, and anarchic style. If many cyberpunk comics revel in the grim-dark pessimism of noir, Tank Girl reads instead like a punk rock Looney Tunes cartoon that unabashedly celebrates sex, violence, intoxication, and the joys of rebellion.
On one hand, Tank Girl is a problematic figure who represents a juvenile male fantasy of sexual liberation. She is a psychotic-pixie-dream-girl whom the comic itself describes as “a wet dream in biker boots.” Martin and Hewlett’s specific flavor of punk rebellion often involves finding ways to get Tank Girl as naked as possible within the bounds of censorship laws, and the 1980s equivalent of a suicide girl riding a giant phallic tank is not exactly the kind of cyborg feminism that Donna Haraway would describe as progressively empowering. Furthermore, Martin and Hewlett’s decision to set the entire story in Australia (which was inspired, they admit, by the fact that they liked Crocodile Dundee at the time) often results in a parade of shallow Australian stereotypes as well as an astonishingly bizarre series of story lines in which Tank Girl implausibly incarnates a spirit of liberation who drinks and fucks her way to freedom on behalf of colonized aboriginal Australians.
Despite these significant problems, Tank Girl has nonetheless at times been adopted as an icon of revolutionary transgression. Reflecting on Tank Girl’s popularity, Deadline publisher Tommy Astor commented in 1994 that, “The boys love her, the girls love her. In London, there are even weekly lesbian gatherings called ‘Tank Girl nights.’” According to Ben Browne, Tank Girl’s “alternative look, unabashed hedonism and her empowered attitude made her a popular gay icon” in the UK, and protestors made Tank Girl T-shirts, posters, and underwear to display during 1988 protests against Margaret Thatcher’s homophobic Clause 28 legislation.
One of the most striking things about Tank Girl, when read in this light, may be the way that the comic ultimately represents a transgressive and inflationary punk aesthetic that embodies the opposite of the hypermasculine and deflationary noir sensibilities of other cyberpunk comics from its era. Tank Girl substitutes the transgressive sexual fetishization of women for the psychodynamics of abjection present within many other cyberpunk narratives. She demonstrates that women are often inescapably framed as figures of libidinal excess within the work of male cyberpunk artists, yet she also reveals that the gap between abjection and fetishization opens possibilities for transgressive symbolic appropriation that are unavailable within hypermasculine noir cyberpunk comic narratives.
During the late 1980s, when Tank Girl first appeared, cyberpunk themes and images were becoming widespread and recognizable within worldwide popular culture. The dystopian cyberpunk film Akira was released in Japan in 1988 (and in the United States in 1989), and Ghost in the Shell began to appear as a manga in 1989. Both ultimately made powerful contributions to popularizing cyberpunk as a broadly recognizable genre. In the world of comics, William Gibson’s Neuromancer was adapted as a graphic novel by Epic Comics in 1989, and Howard Chaykin’s satirical comic American Flagg! appeared from 1983 to 1989.
By the early 1990s, many were arguing that cyberpunk’s critical energy had become exhausted. Few comics embody the toothless commercial appropriation of cyberpunk elements more than Frank Miller and Geof Darrow’s Hard Boiled, which was published in three issues by Dark Horse Comics between 1990 and 1992.
Similar to Miller’s other works, Hard Boiled is a deflationary hypermasculine celebration of grotesque violence and abject misogyny that also embodies a nearly perfect crystallization of Freedman’s argument that cyberpunk can offer no alternative to the grim world it depicts. In part this is due to the book’s images, which were drawn not by Miller himself but by his collaborator Geof Darrow. Originally an animator for Hanna-Barbera (where he worked on Scooby-Doo, Richie Rich, and The Smurfs), Darrow met Moebius in 1982 and later moved to France, where Moebius connected him with Métal Hurlant. Moebius also introduced Darrow to Frank Miller, who was at the time already famous for Ronin and The Dark Knight Returns.
Darrow’s astonishingly detailed ligne claire (or “clear line”) style, which was originally popularized by Hergé’s work on The Adventures of Tintin, eschews the use of hatching (the use of closely drawn parallel lines) to create shading effects. Darrow also articulates tiny details (such as bullets, gears, shards of glass, and pieces of mechanical assemblages) with obsessive accuracy. Darrow’s work on Hard Boiled attracted the attention of the Wachowskis, who enlisted him as the conceptual designer for all three of the Matrix films, and later collaborated with him on The Matrix Comics.
Darrow’s visual work on The Matrix distinguishes him as one of the major figures from the world of comics, like Moebius, who has had an extraordinary (and often-overlooked) influence on the visual and tonal aesthetics of cyberpunk in a larger sense. Darrow’s work on Hard Boiled, however, was only the tip of a much larger iceberg of cyberpunk creativity occurring in comics during the early 1990s. In particular, cyberpunk aesthetics began to work their way into mainstream superhero comics during this period.
Both of these tendencies — the shallow commodification of cyberpunk style and the use of recognizable cyberpunk sensibilities to interrogate contemporary life — are present within mainstream superhero comics during the early 1990s, including Marvel’s “2099” series of comic books featuring established characters such as Spider-Man reimagined in a dystopian future setting.
Perhaps the most fascinating mainstream cyberpunk comic from the early 1990s, however, was DC Comics’ The Hacker Files, which was published as a 12-issue limited series starting in 1992. The Hacker Files was written by Lewis Shiner, one of the original contributors to the literary cyberpunk movement and an influential early theorist. Shiner acknowledges that his concept for The Hacker Files was adapted from ideas from his unpublished first novel, Red Weather, which was about a young programmer who discovered that he was working for a corrupt computer company (issue 1 page 25). Illustrated by Tom Sutton, The Hacker Files centers on the exploits of Jack Marshall (a.k.a. Hacker), a former employee of Digitronix World Industries. As the series begins, Marshall is a rebellious freelance computer specialist who is called upon to help various recognizable figures from the mainstream DC comics universe with various information security problems.
The Hacker Files stands out as one key comic from the early 1990s that demonstrates a thoughtful and critical cyberpunk sensibility. Rather than depthlessly mining cyberpunk as a repository of styles and already-cliché narrative tropes, The Hacker Files offers thoughtful and well-informed commentary on real-world events like the Morris Worm, Operation Sundevil, the Tiananmen Square Massacre, the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the complex (and often corrupt) globalization of the tech industry. Most strikingly, The Hacker Files succeeds in offering what Shiner calls “a book that tells the truth about computers and the people who use them, a book that fairly and honestly represents the hacker underground” (issue 1 page 26).
It is additionally interesting to note that certain portions of The Hacker Files (as well as some covers) are illustrated using computer-generated images, which while still rare was becoming increasingly common during the 1980s and early ’90s. The little-known cyberpunk comic Shatter (1985–1988) was probably the first comic entirely illustrated using computer methods (Garcia). Shatter was followed by Batman: Digital Justice (1990), the first major mainstream comic that was entirely computer generated. Written and illustrated by Spanish artist and video game designer Pepe Moreno, Digital Justice is a cyberpunk narrative set in a future version of Gotham City. In the story, James Gordon’s grandson fights a series of VR battles to defend the world’s business and banking systems from a sentient computer virus created by The Joker.
By the time Hard Boiled, Spider-Man 2099, The Hacker Files, and Batman: Digital Justice were appearing in the early 1990s, cyberpunk had entered the Euro-American popular imaginary as a repository of science fictional ideas, images, and concepts. As a result, there was a widespread emergence of other cyberpunk comics during this time as well. Nathan Never, a charismatic cyberpunk special agent, started appearing in Italian comics in 1991, and Gess’s violent cyber-noir story Teddy Bear started publication in France in 1992. Another French cyberpunk comic, Nomad (1994–2000), tells the story of an African agent working for the US Secret Service who has the ability to access computer systems with his mind. James O’Barr (who ultimately became famous for his work on The Crow) wrote a cyberpunk Wizard of Oz story called “Frame 137” which appeared in the anthology series Dark Horse Presents in 1992, and Kabuki, the story of an assassin who works for a secret government agency in a near-future Japan. In 1996, DC also launched a short-lived special imprint called Helix Comics, whose most notable title was undoubtedly Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson’s Transmetropolitan (1997–2002) — a series that outlived the Helix imprint and ultimately became part of DC’s more successful Vertigo line.
Transmetropolitan tells the story of Spider Jerusalem, a cynical and disillusioned gonzo journalist modeled on Hunter S. Thompson who uses news reporting to battle corruption and abuse of power in a dystopian SF future. Ellis frames Transmetropolitan as a science fictional version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas that draws barbed critical attention to the role of the media in society, the corruption of major political figures, the unsettling power of advertising and consumer culture, and the racist politics of police violence. The series offers an especially cynical view of transhumanism, suggesting that any optimism surrounding progressive possibilities for technological transcendence will always be undermined by human failings such as greed, shortsightedness, and insensitivity.
As one might expect, however, Transmetropolitan also engages in troubling misogyny. Spider throws his ex-wife’s frozen head off a building, and the women toward whom he is not actively violent are often relentlessly sexualized and objectified. One of his assistants (Channon Yarrow) is a former stripper. Another (Yelena) is a daughter-figure with whom he has a one-night stand. And Spider knowingly allows yet another assistant (Indira Ataturk) to be drugged into participating in a public orgy, which results in her becoming the central figure in a popular porn video called “Kali in Heat.”
Ellis explicitly frames Spider as a morally reprehensible figure similar to Raoul Duke in Fear and Loathing, who watches passively as his attorney Dr. Gonzo violently intimidates a waitress after propositioning her for sex. Artists are under no obligation to make their protagonists admirable, and many great works of literature explore flawed antiheroes. Nevertheless, Transmetropolitan’s treatment of women (like many portrayals of women in cyberpunk comics) either frames them as figures for violent abjection (like Spider’s wife) or as objects of sexual fetishization (like Spider’s various assistants). Moreover, while Spider is a flawed character, the story invites readers to find him charming because he is less flawed than the villains he’s fighting against. In this manner, Transmetropolitan minimizes the abjection and fetishization of women in comparison to other supposedly more serious problems.
In addition to Transmetropolitan, Vertigo also published Jamie Delano’s cyberpunk comic 2020 Visions (sometimes called 20/20 Visions) starting in 1997 and Paul Pope’s 1990–2000 series Heavy Liquid. The latter strikingly participates in a unique late-’90s synthesis of cyberculture, psychedelic counterculture, and underground music culture. By the late 1990s, cyberculture, psychedelic counterculture, and rave culture had all reached a point of recognizable hybridization — particularly in their mutual aspiration to break through the stifling boredom of a false simulated reality through consciousness-hacking — and this was visible in a variety of cyber-drug narratives that ultimately reached their apotheosis in The Matrix (1999), a film in which “reality” is an prison-like virtual simulation and stylish hacker-rebels use “red pills” to fight the system (to the driving beat of super-cool techno-industrial electronic music).
Like The Matrix, Heavy Liquid centrally rejects the simulated nature of social reality. At one point, the story’s protagonist (who is only known as “S”) muses that
they killed art years ago. They killed it. Then replaced it with a simulation. Then life was replaced with a simulation. People going to see the Mona Lisa, not to look at it, but because it’s the Mona Lisa. Then they quit going to see it at all. They’d just stitch it in on a screen. A picture of a picture on a screen.” [original emphases]
S and his friends reject mainstream society in search of something more authentic; they pursue a doomed Baudrillardian rebellion against a world that has become nothing more than simulation and simulacrum. Like The Matrix and Jeff Noon’s drug novel Vurt (1993), the romance of breaking through to a more authentic reality depends, in Heavy Liquid, on the use of strange speculative drugs. By the end of the story, S has become a kind-of drug-cyborg — his DNA literally intermingles with the alien entity residing in the Heavy Liquid, and together they become a posthuman hybrid entity, with the drug itself functioning as an information technology enabling their communication and coordination.
With of the massive success of The Matrix, cyberpunk became so firmly established as a recognizable science fictional genre that it became subject to widespread creative imitation, reimagining, and reinvention. As a result, there was an explosion of cyberpunk comics in the late ’90s and early 2000s that has never lost momentum. The Matrix had its own series of sanctioned spin-off comics, released online from 1999–2003, which were eventually published in two collected volumes. Paul Pope also went on to write 100% (2002–’03), a cyberpunk comic notable for its imaginative portrayals of cybersex. Other significant cyberpunk comics from the 2000s include Channel Zero (1997) by Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan; Accelerate (2000) by Richard Kadrey and the Pander Brothers; Resistance (2002) by Jimmy Palmiotti, Justin Gray, and Juan Santa Cruz; Singularity 7 (2004) by Ben Templesmith; We3 (2004) by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely; The Surrogates (2005) by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele; Livewires (2005) by Adam Warren and Rick Mays; Silent Dragon (2005) by Andy Diggle, Lenil Francis Yu, and Gerry Alanguilan; Elephantmen (2006–) by Richard Starkings; Fluorescent Black (originally published in Heavy Metal from 2008–2010) by M. F. Wilson and Nathan Fox; Hacker (2009–’14) by Alexandre Eremine; Tony Parker’s comic adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (2009–’11); and Fall Out Toy Works (2009) by Pete Wentz (from the rock band Fall Out Boy), Darren Romanelli, Nathan Cabrera, Brett Lewis, and Sam Basri.
Cyberpunk tropes became so ubiquitous during this time that a variety of popular media franchises experimented with cyberpunk spinoffs: the Batman Beyond animated series (1999–2001) is one example of this (it was adapted into a comic series that ran from 1999–2011), and Buffy the Vampire Slayer also had a cyberpunk spin-off comic called Fray (2001–’03) that tells the story of a future slayer battling vampires in a dystopian New York City. A number of artists also began experimenting with using digital media to create cyberpunk web comics in the early 21st century. One of the most innovative among these is Nawlz (2008–’11), a 24-episode cyberpunk adventure created by Australian artist and designer Stu Campbell (also known as Sutu), who is also known for his work with Big hART to adapt Australian Aboriginal stories into digital texts. Nawlz is an interactive online comic (with sound effects and a musical soundtrack) that expertly utilizes its digital medium to portray overlapping layers of augmented reality and virtual reality in a manner that transcends the traditional representational capabilities of print comics. Other notable cyberpunk web comics include Old City Blues (2011–’13) by Greek artist Giannis Milonogiannis as well as Dreamspace (2013–’14) and Drugs and Wires (2015–) by Mary Safro and Io Black.
The boom of cyberpunk comics continued in the 2010s with books such as Nonplayer (2011–’15) by Nate Simpson; Tokyo Ghost (2015–’16) by Rick Remender and by Sean Murphy; Arcadia (2016) by Alex Paknadel and Eric Scott Pfeiffer; Killtopia (2018–) by Dave Cook and Craig Paton; r(ender) (2019) by Leah Williams and Lenka Simeckova; and The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys (2013) by Gerard Way, Shaun Simon, and Becky Cloonan. (This nostalgic hipsterpunk comic was a sequel to the 2010 My Chemical Romance concept album Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys.) Certain comics from this period are particularly notable for hybridizing cyberpunk with other popular speculative genres: Empty Zone (2015) by Jason Shawn Alexander, for example, offers a cyberpunk zombie horror narrative that explores the exploitation of soldiers and the trauma of wounded veterans, while Goddess Mode (2018–) by Zoë Quinn and Robbi Rodriguez is a mashup of cyberpunk with the popular “magical girl” manga/anime subgenre.
One of the most notable consequences of the early 21st-century boom of cyberpunk comics is that a much greater diversity of artists and writers contributed to the genre during this time. Malaysian-born creator Sonny Liew’s Malinky Robot (2011), for example, offers a collection of science fictional short stories with cyberpunk elements set in a dystopian future, and acclaimed Argentine artist Eduardo Risso worked with Brian Azzarello on Spaceman (2011), a story about a genetically engineered NASA astronaut. Spanish artists Marcos Martín and Muntsa Vicente worked with Brian K. Vaughn on the cybernoir comic The Private Eye (2013–’15), and Chinese artist Huang-Jia Wei collaborated with French writer Jean-David Morvan on Zaya (2014), a futuristic story about a cybernetic super-assassin. Captain Rugged (2014), by Nigerian artists Keziah Jones and Native Maqari, is a multimedia story about a superhero who fights corrupt corporate interests in Lagos. Vietnamese American artist Dustin Nguyen won a 2016 Eisner Award for his work with Jeff Lemire on the cyber space opera comic Descender (2015–’18), and Asian American writer Jon Tsuei worked with Latinx artist Eric Canete on Run Love Kill (2015), a story about a former assassin who is being pursued by a military organization determined to capture or kill her. In 2018, Toronto-based comic creator Ho Che Anderson, a black artist who also wrote a comic biography of Martin Luther King, released Godhead.
In addition, a number of indigenous artists have created what Grace Dillon calls “indigipunk” graphic narratives. These works simultaneously reference Euro-American science fiction and cyberpunk and subvert their sensibilities from the perspectives of indigenous epistemologies and moral systems. Anishinaabe writer, artist, and designer Elizabeth LaPensée, for example, has created several indigipunk graphic narratives, such as The West Was Lost (2008) and They Who Walk as Lightning (2017). Polyfantastica (2009–’10), a graphic novel by Native Hawaiian artist Solomon Enos, is an epic science fiction story set in an alternate universe where Native Hawaiians were never invaded and colonized by outside forces. Sioux Falls (2016) by Z. M. Thomas (with art from Amelia Woo, J. Wichmann, Wilson Tortosa, and Rueben de Vela) offers a Native American steampunk narrative inspired by the events of the 1862 Dakota Uprising, and Dakwäkãda Warriors (2017) by Cole Pauls is a science fictional Southern Tutchone language revival comic. Meagan Byrne is also due to release of Hill Agency in 2020, an interactive indigenous cybernoir detective comic from Achimostawinan Games.
Among the boom of 21st-century cyberpunk comics, one graphic novel that particularly stands out is Tokyo Ghost (2015–’16) by Rick Remender and Sean Murphy (with colors by Matt Hollingsworth and letters by Rus Wooton). Set in the year 2089, Tokyo Ghost tells the story of Debbie Decay and her partner Teddy (who becomes known as Led Dent after he is modified to become a cyborg killer), who both serve as “constables” or private security officers in the employ of an insane Trump-like corporate executive named Flak.
One of the things that is the most striking about Tokyo Ghost is that unlike many earlier cyberpunk comics, it centrally problematizes misogynistic models of masculinity. Teddy’s defining weakness — the character flaw that drives him to become the hypermasculine Judge Dredd–like figure Led Dent — isn’t just his addition to soporific media streams and technological enhancement. It is also his inability to accept that a girl can fight more effectively than he can. Debbie, the daughter of a police officer who taught her how to stand up for herself, rescues Teddy from an assault when they are attacked as children, and her actions to protect Teddy are ultimately “the worst thing that could have happened to the young lovers. It shone a bright light on his weakness […] and that drove poor Teddy nuts.” The story of Tokyo Ghost centers not on Teddy but on Debby, who realizes that she must break out of their codependent relationship, especially after Flak manipulates Teddy into destroying Tokyo, one of the last sustainable green spaces in the world.
Tokyo Ghost’s exploration of abusive relationships and toxic masculinity marks it as qualitatively different from many other traditional cyberpunk comics. From “The Long Tomorrow” through Ronin and beyond, cyberpunk comics have often been characterized by dynamics of abjection, wherein masculine hero figures violently cast away the feminine in order to achieve strength, power, and autonomy. Tokyo Ghost problematizes this celebration of abjection by showing Led Dent as a character whose demented fixation with powerful autonomy is destructive to himself, his relationships, and the entire world around him. In this way, Tokyo Ghost carries forward the now nearly half-century legacy of cyberpunk comics while also offering a near-complete reversal of the misogyny that has characterized them.
An abridged version of this history originally appeared in The Routledge Companion to Cyberpunk Culture (2020). We are grateful to Routledge and to the Los Angeles Review of Books for allowing us to publish the unabridged version here.
The Routledge Companion also includes an excellent chapter on “Manga” by Shige (CJ) Suzuki that explores Japanese cyberpunk comics. Avoiding overlap with this chapter is the only reason why we do not address Japanese cyberpunk comics in greater detail here.