“Ugh, look at you, how disgusting! You make me feel nauseous. Ugly, weak, stinking anthropoid! You hold in your pitifully under-evolved claws the first issue of the ONLY tried and tested braingasm-inducing substance, BERSERKER!”
So begins the editor’s letter (I use the term here very loosely) of Berserker—a new publication by Breakdown Press—penned by Low Priestess Kleax Nix Vizz, a fierce, potentially flesh-eating messenger of the intergalactic gods, or rather “The Many Bellied Prophets of the Celestial Viscera.” A good proportion of readers will already have switched off from this article, repulsed by the infantile language and its allusion to a particularly puerile streak of intergalactic sci-fi fantasy. But if, like me, you filled your pre-pubescent (and a large proportion of post-pubescent) evenings and weekends amassing a collection of Warhammer 40,000 armies, creating immaculate corpse-riddled sets for fictional battles, and voraciously consuming the editorial of White Dwarf magazine, then this snippet from the mouth of the low priestess will have filled you with a palpable nostalgic excitement. Which is exactly the point.
“I think indulgence is the operative word,” says co-editor Jamie Sutcliffe. But indulgence is not the only word. Berserker has a purpose beyond mere teenage thrills.
“Berserker was sort of birthed from a lot of different angles,” says Tom Oldham, the publication’s second editor, “which sounds disgusting, appropriately so. There’s a lot of people producing comics who are working in genre, whether that’s formally or in terms of content. There’s also a lot of contemporary art floating around that’s sort of mining genre narrative and genre narrative aesthetics. We just wanted to do something that presented that work, and the format and mode that we chose to present it in was that of a European science fiction anthology comic à la 2000 AD.”
Back to Sutcliffe. “The interesting thing for us working together on editorial is finding this blurred space where genre work tips into something that’s maybe self-reflective and critical, or where fine art practise, which is declaratively critical, tips into a different mode. That’s the spirit that animates the publication.”
At the most basic level, Berserker is a collection of new comics and sequential art, and some interviews with the people that make it. Which means Sammy Harkham grilling Robert Beatty on the whys and wherefores of his visual and musical practise, Benjamin Marra creating erotic comics for an audience that gets off on guns but hates drugs, Hardeep Pandhal making “brownsploitation” vignettes that are both familiar and disorientating, and an essay on the literary and cinematic significance of the golem by master of the occult Peter Bebergal—plus a heap of other mad shit to get stuck into. That the whole package has been brought together with anachronistic design by Leon Sadler and psychedelic illustration from Beatty serves to make the first issue feel like an instant collector’s classic.
But why this format, and why now? Could it be because of the dearth of comics criticism available in the UK in 2017 and the inability of the art world to take the medium seriously? Very much so, says Oldham. “In the UK people aren’t literate in the language of comics and don’t understand what good fucking comics are. The idea that there’s nobody writing about comics in an interesting or exciting or provocative way is bonkers.”
“It’s kind of crazy that in 2017 there are these distinct disciplinary boundaries still drawn,” continues Sutcliffe, to whom it seems the worlds of fine art and sequential narrative have been kept separate by the proponents of both, despite the existence of practitioners who actively straddle the two. “I think there’s still a lot of work to do to de-partition those fields and find a middle ground where you could bring a different form of critique to comics.”
Berserker is by no means the first publication of its kind. It follows in the footsteps of Landfill Editions’ Mould Map, but with some very distinct differences. Notably Mould Map is geared towards the production of original fictions rather than exploring their critical context. Also, “there’s a politics that’s made explicit in Mould Map in terms of these narratives thinking through things like ecological catastrophe, financial speculation, and the encroaching virtuality of life,” says Sutcliffe. “I think there’s a different sort of politics at play with what we’re looking at, and that’s totally to do with introspection and private worlds, and what kind of ruptures and weird frictions occur when private worlds tip over into something public.”
Even the name of the publication comes with a meticulous conceptual backstory. “Do you know Gray Goo Theory?” asks Oldham. I don’t.
“One reason posited to why there’s been a lack of communication with intelligent life, despite the fact the universe is probably teeming with sentient beings, is that any technologically advanced society will eventually start developing nanotech, and will develop nanotech to a state where it can essentially do anything. In order to do anything, it will need be able to build things out of nothing, so it will have to consume things and break things down into their constituent molecules in order to have raw materials to build more of itself and to build other things. If that gets out of control or something goes wrong, then this nanotech would effectively consume planets, consume entire star systems—it would just turn everything into grey goo because it would be reproducing out of control.
“The macro end of that idea is Berserker Theory, which says that there was a massive intergalactic war and civilizations built these Death Star-style destroyer things. The war is long over, but what’s left are these berserkers floating around destroying stuff because they think they’re still in a massive intergalactic war. No intelligent civilizations are communicating because they don’t want to give their presence away to these giant war machines.”