While reading graphic novels has less of a stigma than it used to, I’ve learned to use my position as a person who works in libraries to advocate for graphic novels. This means making sure that I’m always reading new ones and catching up on any classics that I may have missed. When a coworker found a recent list of the “30 Best Sci-Fi Comics” by Popular Mechanics, I was curious to check out some of the ones I hadn’t read. Among them was a cyberpunk story called Heavy Liquid, written and illustrated by Paul Pope and originally published in five issues by Vertigo Comics from 1999 to 2000. I’m a total sucker for any cyberpunk story, so when I heard this described as a dark, edgy classic cyberpunk, I had to check it out. In this case literally, since my local library was lovely enough to get it for me.
At the start of Heavy Liquid, a Finder (an advanced kind of private detective) named “S” finds himself involved with a dangerous new drug known as “heavy liquid.” The strange substance is as heavy as a hard metal, corrosive to the touch and can be used either as a deadly explosive or a mind-altering, performance enhancing trip. After his old partner Luis was killed when they stole a shipment of “heavy liquid” from a street gang, S must finish selling the rest of the score before the gang catches up with him. But things are rarely that simple and S quickly finds himself with another mission, this time at the beck and call of yet another gangster. Struggling with his addiction to “heavy liquid,” can S complete his new investigation and evade the gang out for his blood?
Heavy Liquid feels like the strange, trippy lovechild of Transmetropolitan, Neuromancer and Sin City. While the future imagined by Pope is more akin to the disconnected people and overreliance on tech expressed by cyberpunk, it has strong flavors of Frank Miller’s dark, cynical noir universe. Throughout the story, S’s predilection for augmenting his senses with “heavy liquid” show a reliance on the drug that overshadows all of his relationships. While he is helped by several different women, Pope appears to view women about the same as Miller did. As someone who was constantly annoyed by the use of women as puppets for sex or betrayal, I wasn’t much more fond of Pope’s writing in Heavy Liquid. I was never particularly interested in S, the task he was hired to complete, or even any of the minor characters so it made it difficult for me to feel invested. Even the details of the drug “heavy liquid” felt contrived and silly, like someone had an acid trip and decided to give it a bit of cyberpunk flavor.
While the story didn’t win me over, I did like the art. The heavy lines and shadows were an interesting contrast to the soft pastel shades (lots of blues, purples and pinks). It made the darkness feel less overwhelming than it often did in Sin City and even the more violent scenes seemed somehow toned down. It was a bit unfortunate to be intrigued by the art and yet be so irritated with the story itself.
Yet again, I’m reminded that the “best of” lists are always hit or miss. While this particular list mentioned some of my favorites and some others I am curious to try, Heavy Liquid was definitely a miss for me. Even as a big fan of the cyberpunk genre, I found myself mostly bored by S and his drug-fuelled mystery. If you’re interested in the cyberpunk genre, I’d recommend Transmetropolitan or Ghost in the Shell over Heavy Liquid. On the other hand, if you were a big fan of Sin City, this may be more up your alley than mine.
Next week, I’ll be starting the ramp up to the 2018 Denver Comic Con with a return to the DCC Showcase. I’ve picked fifteen comics industry writers and artists whose work I’ll talk about in the hopes of enticing you to see check out the panels they’ll be on this year. If this year is anywhere close to as good as last year (and based on the guest list, I’m expecting it to be), you won’t want to miss it!