Four Great Things About 'Nonplayer'

by Matthew Derman

25 June 2015

It's been four years since the release of the first issue of Nonplayer, but it's been well worth the wait.
 

Worth the Wait

cover art

Nonplayer #2

Nate Simpson

(Image)
US: Aug 2015

Four years passed between the releases of Nonplayer #1 and Nonplayer #2, so the unavoidable question when going into the second issue as a reader was, “Will this be worth the wait?” Luckily, it was, and not just for the reasons I anticipated. I assumed Nate Simpson’s intensely lush and detailed art style would remain intact, as well as his wonderfully natural dialogue and the impressive character building that comes with it. All of that was just as present in Issue #2 and it was in the debut, so Nonplayer is still the same awesome comic today as it was four years ago. But the second issue also included the introduction of some new faces and storylines that I could not possibly have predicted, and which deepened and expanded both the world and narrative of Nonplayer in pretty exciting ways.

The series is set sometime not-too-terribly far in the future, in a world where video games have become truly, almost frighteningly immersive and complex, and where technology in general has reached awesome and scary new heights. There’s even a National Artificial Intelligence Bureau, cops who deal exclusively with robots and other tech advanced enough to count as intelligent. Some of those cops are themselves robots, with personalities as full and functional as any human’s.

From Nonplayer #2, by Nate Simpson, published by Image

All of this NAIB stuff is brand new; there was neither sight nor sound of it in the debut issue, which focused instead on protagonist Dana Stevens, a tamale delivery girl whose real passion is the game Warriors of Jarvath. This game is an enormously intricate, hyper-advanced VR MMORPG, and while it is central to the opening chapter, it still has some interesting wrinkles added to it in Issue #2. We meet for the first time Jeph Homer, owner and co-founder of the game, as well as Alan, an employee of Homer’s who has created something within the game that Homer is afraid might get them in trouble with the NAIB. So in addition to introducing the whole concept of a government body designated to policing artificial intelligence, we are already beginning to see hints of how that might come into play in the main plot.

That’s what makes the four years between issues feel so small now that Nonplayer #2 is finally available: it is a clear, direct continuation of what came before, but also somehow its own thing, adding details to the book’s reality like the NAIB that can be understood and appreciated in a vacuum but which carry more weight when connected to the events of Issue #1. Much of the second issue stands alone, making the time in between less meaningful, and it also builds so strongly on what preceded it that the time gap separating the issues gets filled in completely. Do I want to wait another four years before getting the next installment? Not ideally, but after reading Nonplayer #2, I wouldn’t complain.

No Shortcuts

There is a line Jeph Homer has in the opening scene Nonplayer #2 that resonated with me as a fan of the series. Describing the complexity and completeness of the Warriors of Jarvath world, Homer says, “When you’re running a planet, there are no shortcuts.” This feels very much like Simpson’s own philosophy in creating this comic, particularly when it comes to the artwork.

To call the art in Nonplayer detailed doesn’t say nearly enough about it. It’s realistically dense without being photorealistic, a distinctly comicbook aesthetic but one that bumps up against the look and feel of our own world. Even with the combination of futuristic and high fantasy settings, everything looks familiar because it’s all so meticulously rendered. This is part of why it took so long for Issue #2 to be completed, and in the back matter of Issue #1, Simpson admits that it, too, took several years to produce. Looking at the comic and knowing it is the work of a single artist, it makes sense that he might have to move slowly in getting it done. There’s an incredible amount of thought and care put into every image, even the establishing shots of new locations where nothing is really happening that matters to the story. It’s rich and alive, a fully realized reality with all the fixings.

From Nonplayer #1, by Nate Simpson, published by Image

Of course, the background details and tiny flourishes only go so far, but Simpson has the creativity to back it all up, too. I was particularly taken with his designs for the robot cops, who have weirdly long necks (for lack of a better word) and tiny heads/faces with no real features apart from their eyes, yet they manage to be quite expressive anyway. A fair amount of that is due to Simpson’s sharp writing, but he does a lot with the bizarre robot body language, too, emphasizing how human these machine characters are. Where he really shines, though, at least when it comes to his imagination igniting my own, is the creatures and characters who inhabit the Warriors of Jarvath world. Dana’s pet/animal companion Pookie is a favorite of mine, elegantly simple but still something new. It’s a giant cat—and I do mean giant—with white-gray fur and a sort of lynx-like appearance overall, but with huge, glorious, leathery wings on its back that allow it to fly. This enormous sky cat is quite a thing to behold, and we’ve seen only glimpses of it so far, and only in the first issue, so I’m itching to spend more time with Pookie and hopefully see her actually participate in some combat or other action soon. I have a feeling it’ll be visually marvelous if/when that moment finally comes.

The human (and humanoid) characters from Warriors of Jarvath are well-done, too, and subtly different from the humans in the future, who are more similar to ourselves. In Warriors of Jarvath, everyone is a little heightened, a little better and larger than life. It makes sense: these are people created by other people, designed specifically to be ideal versions of whatever role they play. So the king is a hulking, imposing warrior archetype, the queen an impossibly beautiful, thousand-ships-launching figure, and so on. You understand everyone as soon as you see them, but that’s not to say they are flat characters or they have no nuance. On the contrary, it’s clear that we’ve still only scratched the surface of the entire cast, but when it comes to the fantasy characters, they are certainly immediately recognizable. Simpson appears to genuinely love the tropes of the fantasy genre, and he has great respect for them, so he uses them quite well and adds his own touches to make it all fit together with the sci-fi stuff from the other half of the comic.

Worlds Collide

So far, in the two issues that have come out, Nonplayer’s story is split fairly evenly between the high-tech future setting and the classic fantasy world of Warriors of Jarvath. Little by little, these two sides are beginning to blend with one another, so that in the long run I imagine we’ll see them become one and the same, at least to some degree. This blending of genres is nothing especially new, but Simpson adds freshness by having them begin as distinct, separate places, one existing within the other but still isolated from it, and then slowly bringing them together through the momentum of the narrative. Even the fact that the NAIB isn’t introduced until Issue #2, along with all the associated police procedural material, is a part of this approach. Rather than simply starting out in a world that is a mishmash of familiar elements from different genres, Simpson takes it all one step at a time, showing us each genre on its own before gradually combining them into something grander and better.

From Nonplayer #1, by Nate Simpson, published by Image

There is also, of course, the one-two punch of this being a comic book about a video game, two hobbies that historically have a decent amount of overlap between their respective fan bases. Simpson has a background in games, so his appreciation for and understanding of both cultures is evident throughout the book. While there aren’t as many direct references to comic book fandom as there are on the gaming side of the equation, Simpson does play with layout, transitions, and other such structural tools in a way that makes his study of the medium glaringly apparent. So both comics and games get highlighted in this title as forms of entertainment with huge potential to grow and influence culture over time. Warriors of Jarvath is an outright phenomenon within Nonplayer, and the series itself is an exceptional example of comics in our world.

More of Everything

There are a lot of moving pieces in Nonplayer, several different story threads and an ever-growing cast, and every tiny piece of it makes me want to see more. I could read and thoroughly enjoy a whole comic just in the Warriors of Jarvath setting, or one that follows only the NAIB, or even a simpler version of this same stoey where Dana is the only character we truly get to know or follow. Instead, Simpson gives us all of that at once, and everything is equally effective in grabbing and holding my interest.

Much as he does with his artwork, Simpson takes great pains to develop all the shades of every character’s personality, and to create for his cast a world that’s as complicated and complete as they deserve. You can tell already that Simpson knows more about every person and place in Nonplayer than he’ll ever be able to share with the audience, and also that he chooses what to show us carefully, so that every panel counts and there’s no fat to trim. It’s exactly the way comics should be put together, or really any narrative fiction, never leaving out anything important nor wasting time on stuff that doesn’t matter. It’s not that often that something succeeds at this in any medium, so it’s particularly impressive whenever encountered. As the sole creator on Nonplayer, Simpson gets to carry out his vision from start to finish, and the comic is better for it, because, as I said, he obviously knows all the ins and outs of everything we see, and only exposes to the reader the pieces we’ll need to comprehend and enjoy this specific tale.

From Nonplayer #2, by Nate Simpson, published by Image

That said, there’s a part of me that almost wishes Simpson would waste some time with the non-essential stuff, because I’m sure it’d still be fun to read, no matter what it was. The same comprehensive conceptualization of the series that empowers Simpson to tell his story so well means that he could tell just about any story in this reality, from the most epic to the most mundane, and it’d have something of real value to offer a hypothetical reader. I guess what I’m saying is, I wish I could climb inside Simpson’s brain for a while and explore Nonplayer from his point of view, getting all the backstories and subplots and other details I’m sure he’s figured out for himself but had to leave on the cutting room floor so his primary narrative could have the space it needs. He’s making smart choices in that regard, but knowing that doesn’t stop me from wanting more of everything. What’s present is so universally strong, and there’s so much weight and untold history behind it, I’m itching to see it further explored, prepared to spend as much time as it takes to have every question answered and curiosity satisfied, no matter how insignificant. I know that would be an unreasonable thing to expect or demand from Nonplayer, but I crave it nonetheless, because the comic’s actual content is so damn gorgeous, detailed, and compelling that I doubt if I could ever get enough.


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