Each week, Big Issues focuses on newly released comic-book issues of significance. This week, it’s D4VE #4. Written by Ryan Ferrier (Tiger Lawyer, The Brothers James) and drawn by Valentin Ramon (The Blackstone Chronicles), the penultimate issue of Monkeybrain’s digital miniseries delivers astonishing sci-fi action while maintaining a sharp sense of humor, making it one of the best values in the industry considering its low price point. (Warning: spoilers ahead.)
Comic books are an expensive habit. Almost no monthly comic books are printed for less than $2.99, and many titles at Marvel and DC carry a $3.99 price tag for 20 pages of content that can be read in just a few minutes. It’s not cheap to print comics, especially with the last decade’s shift to higher quality paper, but the rise of digital comics means that it’s possible for publishers to distribute comics to a massive audience without having to worry about those printing costs. DC has taken advantage of this by publishing weekly digital series at a lower price (Marvel is also releasing digital-exclusive comics, but keeping the price at $2.99), but those efforts pale in comparison to what Monkeybrain is doing with the digital medium.
Now nearing the end of its second year as one of the few exclusively digital comic-book publishers, Monkeybrain has built up a considerable library of titles covering a variety of genres, with work by both established professionals and up-and-coming comic creators. On April 15, the publisher earned Eisner recognition for its Mount Everest-set thriller High Crimes by Christopher Sebela and Ibrahim Moustafa, garnering two nominations for Best New Series and Best Digital/Webcomic, and the announcement falls on an exceptional week of new Monkeybrain releases.
Those four issues include the latest chapters of Copernicus Jones: Robot Detective (written by The A.V. Club’s own Comics Panel contributor Matt D. Wilson), the Eisner-winning Bandette, along with the debut of the new sci-fi series Skinned and the penultimate installment of D4VE. Ryan Ferrier and Valentin Ramon’s genre-bending sci-fi action comedy may have been passed over by the Eisners, but it deserves heaps of attention. All of these issues are $.99 with page counts comparable to those at Marvel and DC, making them very attractive even without taking into account the high quality of the storytelling.
For the price of one X-Men or Justice League comic, readers can buy all four of this week’s new Monkeybrain titles and be exposed to a wider variety of stories and art styles. To get the best bang for four bucks, you can purchase the first four issues of D4VE, which has quickly become one of the industry’s strongest titles thanks to its witty wordplay, clever social commentary, and exquisite sci-fi visuals that are as expressive as they are detailed.
Ferrier’s story follows the robot D4VE as he goes through the shitty routine of his life in a future Earth where robots have completely replaced humans; he’s stuck in a soul-crushing office job and a loveless marriage, dreaming of the exciting days of his youth when he traveled the universe beating up aliens. The tone is very similar to the films of Edgar Wright, telling a deeply personal, relatable story within extraordinary circumstances, and the emphasis on humor is what makes this book such an engaging read. Working with a cast of robots and aliens, Ferrier gives these characters humanity through comedy, and making the audience laugh is an easy way to get readers to care about these machines.
Much of the script’s humor comes from Ferrier’s wordplay, which incorporates tech lingo as robot-slang. Masturbating is “busting a nut and bolt”; “long in the tooth” becomes “blue in the tooth”; Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Steve Wozniak are lords whose names are taken in vain; and when D4VE’s son 5COTTY flirts with his aunt, his mother 54LLY tells him to “CTRL+Z” and undo his last action. Not all the gags are verbal, either, like the sequence where President H1LL4RY calls for her people to revolt before her broadcast switches to the dreaded Windows blue screen, much to the horror of those watching.
The comedy is the series’ major selling point, but Ferrier’s story has remarkable depth thanks to D4VE’s existential crisis. His struggle is one that is easy to relate to, focusing on a man who isn’t pleased with the role he’s been forced to fill by society and eager to return to his more liberated younger days, and the story becomes downright inspiring in this issue as D4VE rediscovers his potential in the face of overwhelming adversity. This is the chapter where he embraces the inner hero he’s kept dormant for years and wages a one-robot war against the alien invaders that have arrived to conquer 34RTH, a mission that ends up giving the entire planet’s robot population the drive to fight back against their extraterrestrial oppressors.
D4VE began as a high-concept satire of modern domesticity, but has since evolved into a layered exploration of the resilience of the individual human spirit (using robots). The story demands an artist who is capable of creating distinct robot designs that have a full range of expressions, and Ramon is more than up to the task, creating a cast of characters that have more personality than a lot of the humans drawn by other comic artists. Because the robots’ faces are static, Ramon relies exclusively on body language to capture the emotions of his characters, and he modifies posture, hand movements, and head positioning to make sure the art hits all the comedic and emotional beats of Ferrier’s script.
One of the most impressive aspects of Ramon’s artwork is the practicality of his designs. A film special effects team could bring all of his robots to life given the appropriate time and tools, and those sensible designs help keep the story grounded as events become more and more fantastic. Each of the book’s covers is a full-body shot of one of the lead characters that captures a specific personality without any need for text; the image of D4VE’s asshole boss, FR4NK, is immediately intimidating thanks to the bulky head that shoots out little horns of smoke, but from the neck down he has a typical manager appearance. That contrast of the robotic with the human is a huge part of this book’s appeal, and Ramon’s designs do outstanding work negotiating those two elements.
There’s a Geof Darrow-like specificity in Ramon’s linework, creating intricately detailed characters and environments that are given even more definition and texture when paired with Ramon’s evocative color palette. The alien queen features a gross design that incorporates a vaginal shape for the mouth and a sphincter on its belly, and Ramon amplifies the queasiness by adding bright green secretions that flow from the creature’s orifices. Like Darrow, Ramon doesn’t let the meticulous detail diminish the motion of his fight scenes. When D4VE dives into battle against a horde of aliens, that specificity gives the artist the chance to include crazy moments like a shot of D4VE ripping off an opponent’s flesh, revealing a full skeleton that includes the spinal cord D4VE uses to cut through the remaining fighters.
The craft on display in this title is simply astounding, and the fact that readers are able to experience it for just $.99 an issue shows why more companies should embrace the opportunities afforded by digital. Comic books may be an expensive hobby, but D4VE and the rest of Monkeybrain’s titles prove that it doesn’t have to be if readers are willing to expand their horizons.