Written by: TJ Behe
Illustrated by: Phil Elliott
Contraband is a story about the dangers of new technologies growing faster than society is ready for, social media in particular. It’s set in a bleak world where people are more interested in views than practically anything else, which is actually quite believable, but many other aspects of the story are so completely unrealistic that it’s hard to keep that in mind while reading it. With the titular app somehow making money from nothing, cell phone/hand gun/ knife/ flare combination devices, and school buses dropping off children to take snuff films on the way to class, it doesn’t really come across as a cautionary tale any more, instead feeling more like a wild action movie about a hellish life in a soulless world.
Perhaps I would have given the story more weight if the production values had been stronger. Instead of allowing myself to get involved in the story, I felt like the art and writing was fighting me every step of the way. The story starts with a mercenary in Afghanistan, hired for her expertise in controlling urban hot-spots. Except she’s wearing a corset and entering those hot-spots with a pistol in one hand and a cell phone in the other. No armor, no support, and no tactics at all. It’s hard to believe what the story is telling me with the evidence I’m seeing with my own eyes. And the story is never very clear about what it is trying to tell me, either. The characters switch sides on a whim, and I don’t have any idea what most of them want for most of the book. I also have no idea why the protagonist puts up with any of it and doesn’t just walk away. The ideas behind the story are solid, but the details and execution are a mess.
Sadly, the art style doesn’t help anything either. The book is black and white, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s a kind of black and white that looks hollow and lifeless, like there was meant for color to be there to finish it. There’s commonly no backgrounds at all, and it feels like half the panels are either of a cell phone or of someone looking at their phone. The sense of action is nonexistent, and even the most violent scenes feel static. There’s at least once when a gun goes off and I’m not even sure who was shot. It seems like an important moment at the time, but it has zero effect on anything going forward. I just don’t know what I’m supposed to be seeing there.
Contraband was originally released in 2007, which may explain why it seems so unrealistic when reading it today. It’s easy to forget how much the world has changed in those 14 years. Back then, Contraband was one of the first comics written with modern social media as its focus, and its image of what that technology might mean was hailed as visionary. And it was. But since then, so much has changed in ways no one could have seen, that much of that vision comes across as abject negativity. The warnings are so unrealistic that it feels more like an alternate universe, and the new release is best read as a historical note than as visionary science fiction.
What Was Once Visionary Now Just Seams Pessimistic
The story's ideas were groundbreaking at one time, but with all that has changed since its original publication, Contraband doesn't hold up well. The book's views on social media come across as alarmist and even unrealistic, and due to hindsight that's much more of a miss than a warning. Reading this is best taken as a history lesson rather than entertainment. It's much more interesting to see what people once expected out of cell phones than it is to try and make sense out of the story in today's context.