Indie Comic MANIA Plants the Seeds for Sci-Fi’s Next Big Universe
There are certain stories that do more than introduce us to new characters and narrative arcs, they ignite the imagination by showing us exciting and intriguing new possibilities to explore. These stories exist in expertly built worlds that are just familiar enough to make them relatable and easy to understand, but different; there is something unknown about them that sparks readers’ curiosity and makes us hungry for more. This is most common in the genre of sci-fi, where alien planets and futuristic perspectives provide ample opportunities for the imagination to run wild. Star Wars, Star Trek, Firefly, Mass Effect, The Fifth Element, Blade Runner, The Matrix; all these beloved franchises have distinctive settings that invite further inspection and attachment. MANIA, a new comic from A.L.Ex Studios, takes a page from these giants of fiction to create such a world in New Renard.
New Renard, the setting of MANIA, is a dystopian future-version of Los Angeles, if Los Angeles were a massive city-state that declared its sovereignty from the United States. It is run by a corporation, called Fahrenheit, which has enforced required cybernetic “upgrades” for all citizens in the form of a brain-chip called the ARC, or, Augmented Reality Chip. This was an attempt to create a crime-free utopia, but as so often is the case, there were some unintended consequences. And that’s just the setup. Within the first few pages of MANIA #1, “The Shift” the stage has been set, and we’re thrown immediately into the action of what day-to-day life in this world is like. Certain people have developed superhuman abilities in New Renard, and though the reason why is not fully explained in Issue 001, the creators have made clear through supplemental content and marketing that the powers are linked to mental illnesses and disorders. The precise origin of these individuals, known in-universe as “Supermanics,” is sure to be a long-term mystery as the story unfolds. Specifically in Issue 001 however, we get the sense that the facade of New Renard is not all it’s cracked up to be, and that individuals known as Supermanics are being registered and tracked by the authorities with little to no public protest.
The varying mental states of our super-powered heroes are more hinted at than expressly defined: Jumpstart, the main protagonist of the first issue, is a wisecracking everyman, but his internal monologue and leap from the top of a tall building at the start of the story indicate a rather hopeless worldview. Midna, our first villain, is like a blend of Batman’s Joker and Jessica Jones’ Kilgrave, appearing to care for nothing but wanton destruction and mayhem and using a sort of mind control to compel any random stranger to do her bidding. Midna seems to be a deliberate callback to the sort of representation traditionally offered to the mentally ill in the comic book landscape. Cartoonishly villainous and proudly “crazy,” she is an obvious danger to those around her, glorifies her own misdeeds by way of live broadcasting, and would serve as an easy scapegoat for a shady corporatocracy to justify heightened surveillance and security for anyone with mental disorders or other neurodivergence. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s clear that Midna has relatively little control over the city and that New Renard has problems beyond criminal masterminds pulling off heists. In other words, the villains we are used to seeing— those “crazy” people who are destructive for no reason — are not the ones we should fear most in this world. They’re just one piece of the puzzle.
Issue 001 is a solid offering from A.L.Ex Studios. The art style is bold and dynamic and lends itself well to scenes of explosions, car chases, and gravitational powers. The story is simple but hints at a larger narrative and universe. It generally satisfies expectations for the first issue of a comic book. But it’s obvious that Issue 002, “The Light” is where the MANIA creative team hit their stride and really got comfortable with the world of New Renard. Every element of the comic is visibly improved, the art is more consistent, lettering is more dynamic, and the writing is more precise. In the second issue we’re introduced to more new Supermanics, Iris and Prism. Prism works for Fahrenheit, and attempts to capture her ex-girlfriend and collaborator Iris, and bring her to them. We are also introduced to Alex, a mysterious hacker who played a role in Jumpstart’s escape in Issue 001, and is now trying to recruit Iris to his cause.
“The Light” shows us another glimpse of the city through the train Iris rides to work, and delves deeper into the lives of Supermanics, both within and outside of the sphere of Fahrenheit’s influence. Prism feels like she is preventing more violence and destruction by working with Fahrenheit, while Iris lives her life under constant threat of invasion because she refuses to submit and give up her freedom and privacy. The inclusion of an interracial lesbian relationship in the second issue of MANIA sets a solid precedent for a commitment to diversity, and once again the nods to the experience of living with mental illness are subtle while still remaining clear and realistic. Iris has OCPD (Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder) and her internal monologue shows a meticulousness and reverence for efficiency and order. Prism’s ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) is manifested in her rapid pattern of speech and tendency to go off on tangents, sometimes prompting Iris to remind her to “focus.” These characters and their behaviors are therefore believable and familiar, even as their powers make them seem larger-than-life.
A.L.Ex Studios is currently raising funds via Kickstarter for the production of Issue 003 of MANIA, “The Faces” which is set to feature Jack of Many Faces, a character we’ve gotten glimpses of in both Issue 001 and 002. I’m certainly going to back it and stay tuned. After seeing the jump in quality from “The Shift” to “The Light”, I can only imagine how much better #3 and beyond will be. I hope the franchise continues to be successful, because in just two comics, MANIA has already set itself up to be one of the great sci-fi stories, the kind that excites us, scares us, and teaches us all at once.