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Contraband Paperback – March 11, 2008
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Virtually tomorrow in England and Belgium (and one presumes the rest of the West), real sex and violence rule the media. The mayhem on Contraband, which broadcasts via mobile phones, is so popular that to meet the demand it pays for new content, which has made even, perhaps especially, young kids (their small size helps them video unobtrusively) entrepreneurs of sleaze. Older young (22) “citizen journalist” Toby is discovered videographing Contraband proprietor Tucker doing something (never specified) illegal and is coerced into finding Charlotte, star of Contraband’s top-ranked video, recording her capture by terrorists in Afghanistan. A complicated chase ensues, which Behe and Elliott relate in chapters alternating between London in May and Belgium in June. The talk is nonstop, fraught with tech speak, Tucker’s terminally cynical take on everything, and extreme-entertainment protester Jarvis’ tough propagandizing. Toby digs his own grave deeper by not divulging that he has met (heck, slept with) Charlotte until just before the showdown. At times barely comprehensible, Contraband is a disturbingly plausible vision of future media heading toward wall-to-wall snuff films. --Ray Olson
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The story opens in Afghanistan, February. Two mercenaries, Charlotte and Tucker, are in Afghanistan to stir up trouble and make rival factions fight each other rather than the occupying forces. Charlotte ends up captured by some terrorist cell or other and becomes just another hostage video star. But her videos are posted to Contraband, a video-sharing mobile phone app that has begun not only to broadcast news but to dictate it as well.
Then we hit the first of many jump cuts in the book, something Behe does with some mixed results. This is why Contraband will be seen as a difficult book by many unwilling to go with these time shifts and switches in the narrative flow of the story. It all takes work on the reader's part (you have to pay attention to the date on the pages kids).
It's now 4 months later, June. This boy called Toby is running around Belgium trying to track down Charlotte from clues on Charlotte's Contraband video posts. He's desperate to find her, aware that only he can save her life. Another jump and Toby's in London. It's May. A month before he's dashing around the Belgium countryside but three after the Afghanistan abduction. He bumps into Tucker in an Internet cafe and gets himself strongarmed into the search for Charlotte. It transpires she's now working with a fellow called Jarvis who's doing his best to bring the Contraband network down.
Told you it got confusing didn't I?
After this the story keeps switching between the two periods in Toby's life as he runs round trying to find Charlotte in both. Characters come and go, the plot twists and turns until coalescing towards the end as it accelerates to a finish. A very satisfying and exhilarating finish indeed.
Contraband has much to say about the spread of mass media coverage, the concept of citizen journalism, the emptiness of coveting celebrity without merit, the insipid and dangerous effects casual violence has upon a psyche and much more. Behe uses Contraband as a direct reflection of many disparate elements whether it's YouTube violence, soldiers in the Gulf and Afghanistan using their own phones as a better source of information than the official media or these same soldiers then using their phones to post their violent and abusive videos to file sharing sites. At times he pushes his message a little too far and it begins to overwhelm and interfere not just with the story but with the art. There are a few pages where the speech bubbles are everywhere. But these mistakes are few and far between so we'll forgive them easily.
For a début fiction writer, Contraband is certainly an inspired book. It's clear that Behe has written extensively about the facts behind the future tech on display throughout Contraband and his knowledge and passion for the subject shows on every page. Of course, if you hadn't heard of Thomas Behe before, I'd be prepared to wager you may have heard of Phil Elliott; veteran of the Euro-Brit comics scene. And the art is unmistakeably Elliott's with that beautifully clean and clear style he's always drawn in. In a book this dense and text packed it would be too easy to become overwhelmed as an artist. But fortunately for us Elliott is more than up to the task of keeping the script on track. His clean Euro style is perfect as a way of grounding what could easily become a confused mess if dealt with by a lesser artist. The scale of the book, both in size and in scope means that his art often has to do without detailed backgrounds to get a story moving well, but when he is allowed (or allows himself) room the results are typically Elliot. Which is to say that they're extremely good indeed. He's ably assisted here by the grey tones of Cherie Donovan, who sets the each panel perfectly to create a background that emphasises the main characters and action for each panel. A little touch, but something that really adds a lot to the art.
So Contraband is far from an easy book. Anyone looking for a brain-dead bit of high-tech thriller may as well not bother. This is no 5 minute thrill ride. The time jumps and the complex writing makes you work to keep up, but that's no criticism, it's a good thing to be made to think as you read. Behe throws twists and turns into the book and packs a lot of story in between the covers. Phil Elliott's visuals keep everything flowing nicely but it's incredibly text heavy in places as the complexities of the story play out. What seemed at first like a slight, small book becomes something far more involved and satisfying. You'll find yourself reading slowly, refusing to skate over a scene as the complications and intricacies of the plot play out on the page and in your head.
Contraband is a thrilling sci-fi crime thriller with a hell of a lot to say about modern society and current attitudes on violence, technology and the encroachment of both on our everyday lives. Definitely one you should look out for. - RB (FPB)
The art is mediocre and the facial expressions rarely seem to match the character's language. The villain of the piece makes those chatty Bond villains appear mute--he talks and talks and talks and never makes much sense. All in all a bad read, something I rarely say about graphic novels. I had to go read a bunch of Neil Gaiman to get this one out of my head.