It’s a truth universally acknowledged that a speculative fiction giant in possession of a long and storied career must eventually be in want of a graphic novel.
For William Gibson, author of Neuromancer and progenitor of cyberpunk, that graphic novel is Archangel. The five-issue comic put Gibson’s signature cyberpunk spin on the question that so many spec-fic stories have asked: What if World War II had gone a drastically, apocalyptically different route? As of this month, the answer to that question is available not just in the 2017 full-color comic featuring art by Butch Guise, but also as a full-cast radio play cowritten by Gibson and Michael St. John Smith and produced by Audible Studios. The production stars Josh Hurley, Victor Bevine, Elizabeth Jasicki, Gabriel Vaughan, Inés del Castillo, Eric Yves Garcia, Graeme Malcolm, Jonathan Todd Ross, Neil Hellegers, Scott Aiello and Mark Boyett.
From a production angle, this nearly three-hour radio play is a fun enough diversion. The performances are a bit schlocky and over-the-top, but that fits the pulpiness of the source material. The sound design is similarly unsubtle, but to make up for the loss of the illustrations that tell the original story, it needs to be.
Alas, it’s that original story that poses the problem; without the illustrations to tell the rest of the story as Gibson and Guise intended it, something is missing.
So what is the story? This particular World War II alternate history follows a couple of rogue resistance fighters from a nuclear-devastated 2016. They divide their efforts on either chronological end of a dimension-splitting time machine that is programmed to connect to the World War II of another dimension’s timeline, hoping to stop their own dimension’s malevolent Vice President (the son of their even more malevolent President-for-Life) from nuking Russia and yoking that world’s future to his and his father’s combined super-malevolence.
Aside from the fact that Gibson is squeezing an alternate-history arc inside another alternate-history frame, the audio version does little to demonstrate that these doubling narratives are at all interesting, let alone innovative. We immediately know that Major Lupe Torres is honor-bound to protect the humanity of the alternate dimension, for example, because it is signaled to us by her being wheelchair-bound (ableist imagery intended) to her own apocalyptic present. (Sample dialogue: “Ever the optimist, Torres.” / “Comes with being in the wheelchair!”) We know that her partner, the Pilot, is meant to represent Platonic heroism, because it’s signaled by the sneaksuit that renders him invisible to the Allied and enemy soldiers and by the fact that he is never given a name. We know that their enemy, the President-for-Life’s son, is evil…because he says fuck a lot (and also brutally murders his own grandfather). And so on, and so on, and so on. There is a wryly depressing twist to the story’s conclusion that, given the specifics of our current daily onslaught of bad news, might punch some in the gut. But everything that leads up to it is hollow enough that it’s not a given.
It’s entirely possible that these clichés, in the story’s original graphic novel form, would be less apparent to some readers. So much of what makes a graphic novel work is found in the nuance of the visual art beneath the words, in the lines, in the colors, in the shape and breadth of the frames. Sound design can only do so much to bridge the gap; a graphic novel script is not, at the end of the day, a radio play script. It may be that this genre just can’t survive the translation to audio, much as I (and Audible) would like it to.
Then again, the name the Very Smart Scientist gives to the alternate world he and Torres find on their third attempt, after two failures, is The Hat Trick. They find this endlessly clever, but in case you’re not a hockey fan, the term means the exact opposite of two failures plus a win. So maybe Archangel was doomed to mediocrity from the start.
In either case, I’ll keep hoping for a graphic-to-audio translation that knocks me off my feet. If anybody can nail the formula, it’ll be Audible.
Archangel is available from Audible now.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibiliophile whose writing has appeared on Forever Young Adult, Screener and Birth.Movies.Death. She’ll go 10 rounds fighting for teens and intelligently executed genre fare to be taken seriously by pop culture. She can be found tweeting from @AlexisKG.