You’re familiar with the internet, right? You’re here, so you must be, unless you’re some 90 year old granny at the public library who sat down at a computer looking for that new-fangled digital library card system and happened to find the browser open to yeshomo dot net. In which case, welcome to the internet! You should probably ask a librarian for help.
There was a time when everyone was like you, granny. No one was familiar with the internet, and people had all sorts of outlandish ideas of what it was like, or what it would be like in the not-so-distant future. Remember Hackers? Johnny Mnemonic? Snow Crash? What if the internet had actually turned out to be like that, a cross between the Matrix and Second Life ruled by godlike hackers who could own your life with a keystroke?
Crossed Wires is a love letter to those ideas, visions of a digital world accessed only with a VR headset and those gloves with like, all the wires on them. Hacker gloves. Awesome.
Alan Winters – aka Ultra Drakken – fancies himself a hacker. He’s got a cool alias, based on a cool cyberpunk novel, and a cool dragon guy avatar with a cool sword and a cool leather kimono. He can’t finish a job to save his life, but that doesn’t stop him from bragging to basically anyone who will listen about how he’s a cool dangerous hacker who lives on the edge. But when he meets the mysterious hacktivist Theresa – aka Vrrmn – in his college creative writing class, there’s finally someone to put him in his place.
Alan is one of the most insufferable protagonists I’ve ever enjoyed reading. He’s got no social graces, no taste, no tact, no ability to think ahead, and absolutely no self-awareness about any of these things. But we’re clearly supposed to relate more to the exasperation of all the other characters who ever have to deal with him, and the fact that he thinks he’s cool is the comic’s biggest joke.
It’s still not super clear just how different the world of Crossed Wires is from our own world, though it seems to be set at a roughly equivalent time to the real-life present. Jay has so far been excellent at revealing bits of the setting at a slow and even pace, as the events of the story bring them up. I know this is basic show-don’t-tell stuff, but Jay is really good at it, okay? The only expository speeches come from Alan himself, in the form of arrogant and melodramatic monologues of dubious veracity, which are honestly kind of a treat.
And thank god, but basically all the hackers seem to be queer and/or trans, which is as it should be, imo. I’m sick of stories about “countercultures” where everyone is a cishet – it destroys my suspension of disbelief! It’s just not realistic. Alan is trans and has a friend who makes avatars who’s nonbinary, but I also get a trans vibe from Cass, the sysadmin at Alan’s university – plus far-to-the-side characters like Ala5, who uses neutral pronouns. There hasn’t been any romance so far, but there’s a lot of background gay hints: Two of Alan’s roommates share a room and don’t appear to be a man and a woman; Cass and Theresa seem to have some sort of messy history; Alan used to engage in homoerotic Kingdom Hearts roleplay over instant messenger. It’s not stuff that most straight readers would pick up on, but a nose like mine can sniff out the signs: this comic is gonna get gay. In fact, I think it’d be fair to say that it already is gay, and it just hasn’t come up yet, which is a writing strategy that I approve of. EDIT: An astute reader has pointed out to me that there are a number of clues that Theresa is trans as well, which I really hope is true!
The only thing that really takes me out of my enjoyment of Crossed Wires is how Jay draws facial expressions. Most facets of art have little effect on the quality of the story, but the emotions expressed on a character’s face are a major exception, since those emotions are critical to telling a good story. Jay’s faces are honestly a little wonky, and it can result in those emotions getting lost or seeming artificial, like an actor trying too hard or not hard enough. It’s not a consistent problem, but when it does crop up, it wrecks the atmosphere of the scene.
At least it seems like the story is finally kicking into gear. I thought this was just a sort of slice-of-alternate-timeline-life hacker comic, but recent updates have introduced an actual villain! Exciting stuff. It does mean that we’re a lot earlier in the story than I had originally thought, but there’s still more than a hundred pages to read in the archives, if you find yourself so inclined. Although the library’s closing soon, so you might want to ask your grandkids to help you figure it out at home.
Final verdict: If you miss the heyday of unrealistic cyberpunk, this will take you back there. If you like stories about young homos fighting evil corporations, this comic is up your alley. And if you love to hate annoying protagonists, Alan Winters is definitely your man.