For the most part, I never got the appeal of alt-histories. I had nerdy high school friends who would carry around hefty Harry Turtledove tomes about “the second American civil war” or apocalyptic visions of a Nazi-run America. Given that we’re currently living in what feels like a spin on that latter alt-history, maybe I should have studied up, but can you blame me for rejecting fiction that seemed specifically designed to give creatively vacant white dudes with a history boner an easy paycheck? I did, however, make exceptions for sci-fi works hinging on inventive twists on when and how we developed certain technology. The Fallout franchise’s depiction of a future that looked like what the ’50s thought it would and fell prey to that era’s atomic nightmares, for instance. Or the simultaneously optimistic and cynical notions William Gibson had about what cyber culture would wrought. This seems to be the sweetspot Cryoclaire and Io Black were aiming for when they created their webcomic Drugs & Wires, a dystopic work about an alternate 1995 where the ’90s obsession with virtual reality tech translated into real industry and the Cold War never ended (well, turns out it never ended in our reality either, but…). Naturally I am immediately a fan.
Drugs & Wires is a successor to Cryoclaire’s impressive motion comic trilogy Dreamspace both in narrative and aesthetic, merging the gif experiments of that work with more traditional webcomics techniques and expanding on the Dreamspace tech with a larger, more character driven story. The comic’s protagonist, Dan, is distinctly in the Gibson mode, a “pissy misanthrope and recovering VR junkie” who has had to replace his VR addiction with a pretty serious drug habit. There is a mystery at the heart of Dan’s story involving some mysterious VR malware called “Skullfuck.exe” that outright killed a number of his fellow trippers and left him unable to access his VR brain implant without serious problems. But Drugs & Wires, which recently wrapped up its third chapter, is taking its time to reveal much about that mystery.
And honestly, that’s for the best. Outside of Cryoclaire’s imaginative mixed media techniques and enviable knack for character design, Drugs & Wires’ best characteristic is the depth of its world. Set in a “Slavic banana republic” where pro-Western sentiments and ample Soviet bureaucracy clash regularly, Drugs & Wires looks like Hackers by way of Stalker. Dan’s only real friend is Lin, a black market cybersurgeon who’d get along well with Little Shop of Horrors’ dentist, and everyone else in his life, including himself, is similarly a fuck-up of the highest order, albeit usually less fatally so. Cryoclaire and Black pack every page with intense amounts of history and detail, and the interstitial material between chapters does an excellent job expanding on that world even more. It’s clear that these creators have thought about every single aspect of their fictional world, and their passion for it is contagious.
This isn’t to say that the story is cluttered or unfocused, though. The elements of the malware mystery that are dropped in, and the corporate malfeasance that permeates this world, leave you eager to peel back the curtain even more. But Cryoclaire and Black’s discipline and dedication to letting their story unfold naturally and in its own time keep the narrative flowing smoothly, offering a welcome respite from the exposition heavy, bloated sci-fi works that are too frequently put out by mainstream and indie publishers alike.
It helps that the team has put similar dedication into the alt-history angle, making it far more than a gimmick but a viable world of its own. You’ll notice discarded newspapers in the background warning of the threat of CDs, and the VR software mocks Windows in ways obvious (the design of its branding, the ’95 serializing) and subtle (a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it dig on the company for spending thousands of dollars to get a “washed up New Wave artist” to do its start up music). Cryoclaire’s use of motion in the comic also adds a layer of complexity and richness, restricting the gif segments to hallucination sequences and glitches to make it clear this isn’t your everyday sci-fi comic, it’s a no-holds-barred exploration of underground tech culture mixing internet tech, slang and drama.
With Drugs & Wires, Cryoclaire and Io Black have created something that builds on the works and artists they’re influenced by, connecting the cyber gutter noir exploration William Gibson built a career on to the current generation’s obsession with vaporwave and early cyber trash aesthetics as well as our fears and anxieties from living in an increasingly globalized society. Where too many other alt-history works only provide surface-level gimmickry and commentary, Drugs & Wires is clever and nuanced, fearlessly delving deep into the ephemera of the not-too-distant past and the future we thought would arrive much sooner to make light of the bullshit that follows us no matter which timestream we travel down.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover