There are heroes who don’t wear capes or spandex, and the only super power they have is computer encryption. These are the superheroes that come alive in Hacktivist.
By Abubakar Adam Ibrahim
Nate Graft and Ed Hiccox are the computer age version of Batman and Robin: Silicon Valley execs during the day, and hackers by night, saving the world or at least trying to to remodel it.
Handsome Nate and calculative Ed own a social networking site, YourLife—a sort of mash-up of Facebook and Twitter. Nate is 31, Ed is 28, and between them they are worth some cool $12 billion. Nate is carefree and likes to party. Ed is reclusive and analytic (he is modeled after Twitter co-founder, Jack Dorsey). What most people don’t know is that behind YourLife, beneath the celebrity life and glam, Nate and Ed are the names behind the most notorious hackers’ collective .sve_Urs3lf (which, of course, is modeled after Anonymous.)
The budding Arab Spring, just shooting up in Tunisia, gives .sve_Urs3lf the opportunity to play their ace in global politics by aiding and abetting in a revolution that they believe will bring freedom to the world. But while their eyes are focused on the Tunisian revolution, trying to hack their way to world freedom, what they don’t realize is that they are about to lose theirs.
In steps beautiful redhead, Agent Brynn Ori of the CIA’s Cyber Command, armed with the secret identity of the hackers and government document, she crashes Nate’s #somethingreckless party and binds him into a slave contract, in which he and his partner surrender themselves and their know-how to the whims of the CIA, undermining everything that .sve_Urs3lf has been about.
At stake is, not only their freedom – with a threat of prosecution looming over their heads – and the future of their company, YourLife, but the Tunisian revolution, which incidentally sparked off the Arab Spring. Also in the line is the fiery Sirine, the amazing revolutionary, who comes closest to a superhero in this novel—what with her yellow veil trailing behind her like a cape— as she guides Tunisians to oust the oppressive government that has ruled them for decades.
When the revolution is at its most vulnerable, with the Tunisian government shutting down internet access, .sve_Urs3lf, identifies Sirine as one of the leaders of the revolution and contacted her, giving her access to the internet to continue organizing the revolution. That was before Agent Ori came crashing into the story.
While Nate becomes a dedicated slave to the CIA, Ed grows dark (he has been from the beginning), working on some secret encryption and studying patterns.
As the CIA’s grip on the hackers grow and their mission to perpetuate the Tunisian dictatorship becomes clear, driving a wedge between the lifelong friends, Ed decides to sacrifice everything and join the battle from the frontline, putting his life at risk for a cause he believes in.
Why is this graphic novel different? Well, it is set in contemporary times, with contemporary, relatable heroes. This is Alyssa Milano bringing her activism and social consciousness to comic-books through the pens of Jackson Lanzing and Collin Kelly as writers.
Credit has to be given to Marcus To for the exquisite art on this story. He brings the characters and the stories alive, contrasting the lines for the YourLife offices with the passion on the streets of Tunisia. This passion is brilliantly captured by Ian Herring’s coloring too.
Reading this, it is obvious how much research Lazing and Kelly had to do to get up to speed with hackers and their world. This was a plus and minus. You see the effort, but at the same time you see the struggle to get the details right, which they didn’t in some cases and this won’t help real geeks suspend belief enough to fully plug into the story. But for the average Joe, the children of the hashtag generation who are not into computer encryptions, most of these glitches will pass way beneath their radar.
For those keen on plotlines, perhaps because this is a slim volume, one feels that the character arc isn’t sufficiently developed. This becomes increasingly frustrating as these characters, all of them, are such lovely ones, characters you would really want to know about.
If you can get over the fact that the only black guy in the comic is a security man who appears in a single scene, and the white savior complex, where credit for the Arab Spring or its success is determined by some white Americans keen to promote freedom, you may find that Hacktivist is one compelling graphic novel. And not only for the amazing art and the contemporary story—half of this generation can actually see themselves in this story thanks to YourLife status updates forming an integral part of the storytelling— the political relevance is also important, as it stokes curiosity as to exactly what extent did the ethical hackers contribute to the Tunisian revolution.
This is Milano’s tribute to Dorsey, who penned a short intro to the book, and to the hackers collective Anonymous. With plans to bring Hacktivist to the small screen, it would be really interesting to see to what aspect of the plots the producers (wink-wink, Milano) would develop further. I would love to watch it, but with the hope that it will have a more colorful cast than the graphic novel. One can dream, right?
Hacktivist Vol. 1 Hardcover (2014) is published by BOOM! Studios/Archaia
Abubakar Adam Ibrahim is the Literary Editor of Daily Trust, Nigeria’s most influential newspaper. He is the 2016 winner of the Nigerian Prize For Literature, for his debut novel ‘Season of Crimson Blossoms’. You can follow him on Twitter: @Moonchild509