It is today. A reactionary right-wing US government has just passed a swathe of laws known as the Clean Act that allow for the censorship of any dissenting voices in the American media and effectively destroy the right of free speech therein. The news that does make it through the censor is a mix of comforting patriotic rhetoric and endless, mindless media gossip. The real news is simply not presented.
In Brian Wood’s superb Channel Zero - a work of fiction, it should be pointed out - Jennie 2.5, a media-savvy performance artist, and her fellow revolutionaries against the Clean Act are having to fight the apathy of their fellow Americans as much as the Act itself in their attempts to get the ‘real world’ noticed and acknowledged. But’ Jennie has to ask herself, does using an anaesthetising media to get her message across to hypertrophied American viewers count as a cure or make her simply another part of the problem?
Forget most of the story within; it’s an interesting and necessary hook to hang some of the ideas and rhetoric upon but it’s a relatively slight part of the book. Channel Zero is over two years old now but, worryingly, is only becoming more relevant as time passes. The heart of Channel Zero is Wood’s MESSAGE that WE’RE BEING LIED TO; and not only are we being lied to but WE’RE LETTING IT HAPPEN. His call to arms isn’t simply repeated for us to learn by rote (or not, as the case may be) but is hidden away in the beautiful, harsh, black and white artwork throughout; between panels, secreted in images, in little ‘subliminal’ messages, news tickers, cheeky piss-takes of advertising slogans and God knows what else, so as to make you actively look for added meaning in the pages, not simply skim over the pretty pictures and speech bubbles.
These little tricks, because of the unspoken challenge to the reader, serve to make Channel Zero surprisingly more fun to read, not, as could so easily have happened, a sort of ‘Where’s Wally?’ for media students.
This really is a comic for grown-ups - and thinking, engaged grown-ups at that, pushing the limits of the form just a little bit further and showcasing where the strengths of the comic media lie. Channel Zero isn’t a book you can read as a novel with lots of pictures - the ‘pictures’ are the most important part, which, given that Wood is addressing some of the inadequacies of other graphical media such as TV and the internet, came as something of a ‘Duh!’ moment for this reviewer: surely if you’re going to write a critique of visual media and our numbing acceptance of the nonsense that is often passed off as news and entertainment on it (I’m talking to you, makers and gossip-mongers of Get Me Out Of Here, I’m A Celebrity!) then you need to do it in a visual form rather than a purely textual one?
That’s what Wood has done here, and it works astonishingly well. Lord Reith might have loved Channel Zero; it educates, informs and entertains, which is rather a rare thing these days.