The SVK Experiment

READERS BEWARE! This post contains some spoilers. 

SVK is a limited edition one-shot comic, written by Warren Ellis and illustrated by D’Israeli (aka Matt Brooker), that is experimental in terms of its form, content and distribution.  It tells the story of Thomas Woodwind, a ‘recovery agent’ specialised in the art of finding lost things, as he returns to a security obsessed near-future London in order to locate a top-secret object that recently disappeared: the enigmatic ‘SVK’.

This is the first comic to be published by BERG, a design consultancy group based in London, and their desire to innovate within the medium should be applauded.

Did the experiment work?

In purely practical terms the invisible ink and ultraviolet LED torch (or ‘SVK Device’), being the most unique of the comic’s various selling points, work well. The ink becomes clearly visible under the UV light and I found that scouring each page, torch in hand, for hidden writing served to enhance the story and brought a novel tactile quality to the reading experience. Though SVK could be read without the torch, doing so would defeat the purpose of the comic: as readers we must use the torch to reveal a hidden ‘reality’ on the page that is integral to the story.

The obvious drawback to this feature is that it simply wont work in direct sunlight (although why anyone would read a limited edition comic outside is beyond me) and the effectiveness of the SVK Device is somewhat reduced in a well-lit room.

SVK sold out its original print run of 3,500 copies within a day or so of its release, so I think it is safe to say that the experiment was commercially successful. Warren Ellis and the team behind SVK were helped in this regard by a very astute use of social media to promote their comic. Warren Ellis has cultivated an impressive online following through his blog and twitter profile, enabling him to directly address his followers and generate an instant ‘buzz’ about his latest work. Fans were notified about an upcoming project called SVK and linked to a mysterious mailing list signup form which promised to notify you when SVK was ready to order (still available here if you want your own copy). This, in combination with the limited number of copies printed and mail-order distribution, created a sense of excitement and exclusivity around the comic which made it all the more desirable on release day.

The versatility of the comic/sequential-art form is such that SVK is able to experiment still further by including imaginative full-page advertisements (my favourites are the “4D Printer” and “Panda Bear Tears!!!”) as well as several articles relating to the comic’s central themes. The advertisements are themselves enhanced (or subverted) by the invisible ink when it is revealed by ultraviolet light; perhaps I spent a little too long scanning the ‘classified’ style double-page spread with my torch but I felt as though the ads acted like an extension of the world constructed by Ellis in SVK and provided an opportunity for him to showcase his sense of humour. The articles featured in SVK make for a good read too as they either expand upon the concepts in the story or are interesting in their own right.

As mentioned in my preview, a few people have complained that the UV ink can ‘bleed’ through pages (although I’m not sure what people are expecting to happen when shining a torch onto paper) but personally I didn’t find this to be a problem. Another recurring problem for BERG with SVK‘s initial release has been faulty or broken UV torches. According to their blog approximately 9% of customers have had to return their torch for a replacement, which must surely have dampened the enthusiasm of a high number of readers. Even with these issues taken into account I would argue that the experiment has proven to be very worthwhile.

D'Israeli's lines are bold, crisp and expressive.

Key concepts

Warren Ellis’s comics are often more about the exploration of ideas and concepts than they are about events or character development, and SVK is no exception.

The relationship between personal privacy and public security is never far from the foreground in SVK. From the very beginning of the story we see these conflicting imperatives as Woodwind enters the headquarters of the villainous Heimdall corporation: on his way upstairs he is harassed by the guards and we see that his face is blanked out on the security cameras, a “neat trick” that Heimdall’s staff race to understand and counteract. Similarly the successful implementation of the ‘Strategic Vigilance Key’ technology across London, against which Woodwind and his sidekick Bulmer set themselves, would represent the ultimate victory of monetised security concerns over the population’s profitless (yet still valuable) privacy.

Woodwind and Bulmer are technologically-astute, practical hacktivists; a pseudo Batman and Robin for the digital post-9/11 age, fighting for the privacy and free-agency of individuals against the invasive corporate-controlled security and proprietary technologies permeating their environment. Bulmer’s “batcave” is suitably equipped with the tools (and junk) that they need in order to fabricate subversive goods of their own, as well as being a real-world repository for the remarkable data-sifting software which they programmed and utilised to rapidly locate ‘SVK’ in the first place.

Obviously SVK is best enjoyed in the absence of natural light.

Another important theme in SVK is the concept of ‘augmented reality’. Woodwind’s disorientation and alarm at his initial discovery of the SVK-augmented perception turns to anger and contempt when he considers its ramifications. As readers our ability to use the ‘SVK Device’, thereby augmenting our perception of the page to reveal thought bubbles, is a precise replication of Woodwind’s experience of ‘SVK’ in the context of the story and effectively demonstrates the gross advantage we are given over the Londoners therein. The notion of augmented reality giving an unfair advantage is made explicit in the essay ‘Sight Licenses’ by Jamais Cascio, included after roughly two-thirds of the comic. Cascio argues that augmented reality holds the potential to quite literally separate us in to our own individual realities, some being more advantageous than others, warning us that “AR lenses will allow real time control – and pricing – of what we see”, with potentially severe consequences. If you thought that society might already be too fragmented then Cascio’s prediction that “any hope of a shared vision of the future should be set aside” with the advent of AR technology should be alarmed by this prospect.

Final thoughts

In my experience of reading comics SVK stands out as something truly unique. Ellis accomplished the rare feat of crafting a compelling and meaningful story within the limited space of a single-issue comic, and in so doing helped to contribute to the progression of comics as an artistic medium. The closest example to SVK of innovation with the use of ink in the comic form that I have seen was the stereoscopic 3D in Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neil’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier but that, though cleverly executed and beautifully drawn, was far from being the only example of its kind. In addition Brooker’s artwork, with its clean lines and simplistic pale blue, black and white colour scheme, is ideal for the tone of the story and blends perfectly with the ultraviolet light, giving the comic a distinctive aesthetic.

At £10 + postage some readers might be put off by the price but when you consider the additional costs involved in producing this comic (such as the invisible ink, the UV torch or the high quality paper), the limited print run, the overall standard of the product and how cool you will look when showing it off to your friends it is clear that the price is worth paying.

Ellis, Brooker and the BERG team can be proud of what they have achieved with their experimental comic. Hopefully they will be able to follow it up with another project in the near future.


Images are from BERG’s Flickr stream.
Click here if you’d like to see what it looks like on a real desk.

Get SVK here