20xx (#1 – 5) – Jonathan Luna, Lauren Keely

2 out of 5

Up front: I have a low tolerance for what I’ll call dumb sci-fi. This is an overly judgmental term that doesn’t automatically equate to “bad”: it’s just surface level sci-fi that connects A happens to B reason with a single, over-simplified step. I would separate this from “soft” sci-fi, which, to me, still has world-building elements and sub-concepts between A and B, just without the deep-dive science and tech of “hard” sci-fi; dumb sci-fi, on the other hand, is the kind of stuff you often see on TV: here are completely impractical see-thru, foldable cell-phones because they look futuristic. Here’s a new, wild term we’ve created for an everyday object because future. When this stuff is just set dressing, shushed off to the side, it’s fine. In other words: if your book, or show, or comic, or whatever, isn’t really sci-fi and is more actually a drama, and you are just sprinkling some stuff on top to flavor it a certain way, fair enough; if the remaining plot and characters are intriguing enough to distract me, I probably won’t notice. But when your near-future dystopia with viruses that give the infected “syms” telekinetic powers is, like, the whole focus, and it’s written in the dumb sci-fi format… I notice. Start tossing those impractical objects atop, and I will likely start to tune out.

The first issue of 20xx, by co-writer and artist Jonathan Luna and writer Lauren Keely, was incredibly promising. Luna’s stiff, straight-on paneling style worked just fine for the kind of dry pacing which leads us in to the premise, mentioned above: Mer wakes for work, excited for her new promotion, and then starts bleeding from her eyes. She’s contracted the Sym virus, from which most will die, but those who survive… do so with individualized powers: the ability to control (or “sense”) particular forms of matter. She survives. She’s shushed off on a path which has the government clamping down on Syms with regulations preventing the expression of their powers; she loses her job with a “sorry” and feels immediate persecution from both the “normals,” as well as other “syms” who don’t take kindly to her newbie status.

The way the story coasts through this virus (and sidesteps why it’s treated the way it is, except for the usual “because it’s different” assumption) is fine initially, in a dumb sci-fi way, because we seem much more focused on Mer’s experiences. This is also why Luna’s art works, because this reads like a humble, human story dressed up with some sci-fi extras. Some other elements are introduced which complicate matters – dueling Sym gangs – but again, it seems like Keely and Luna will stay with Mer, and stay with her feelings as her world changes.

And I think that was the intention, but 20xx makes the mistake of thinking that it’s not dumb sci-fi, and is maybe even a tricksy little action story, playing up this gang war and dropping world-building details. Unfortunately, both of these elements are heavily afflicted with the same “A because B” limitations, making it all come across as incredibly childish, and surface level, and with too many “future” affectations that stick out like the impractical thumbs they are, boffing any possibility of immersion, and lowering Mer’s character to a cardboard cutout amongst other cardboard cutouts, used to plug in to a story outline when some plot point needs expositing. As issues play at more action and intrigue, Luna’s flat style can’t keep up, and Keely – this being her first comic work – overwrites, with way too much dialogue that Luna, also lettering, lays out in a fashion that often had me reading out of order.

After the first issue interested me, I had planned on waiting for the first arc (or entirety?) of 20xx to come out before reading, and I honestly thought that the fifth issue was that point. It’s not – there’s a sixth issue forthcoming, but I won’t be checking it out. This is dumb sci-fi that made me tune out.