Surfing The Deathline...
Surfing The Deathline is Cyberpunk-genre graphic novel series, stretching to 236 pages in its full, single-volume edition.
The plot centres on two people - Eddie Cartridge, and Janelle Tan, Machine Intelligence researchers and former partners. Their separation following the takeover of their mutual employer, which saw Eddie made redundant, has lead them to radically different lives. Eddie is homeless, and down to his last few dollars, when someone contacts him with an offer that will clear his debts, and help him return to his childhood home in the countryside. The catch, is he has to reconnect with Janelle, who is now engaged to their former employer, living in a penthouse, and travelling by helicopter to work. Janelle still has access to contacts who can supply Eddie with The Deathline - a neuro-accelerating hallucinogen which he will need, if he's to succeed in his task.
The setting is a world in which American overreach against a third-world trade block triggered an aborted nuclear war. The supreme power, and new arms race, is Machine Intelligence. While America has fractured into three separate nations, new Machine Intelligence-equipped non-geographic distributed states are beginning to emerge. This story's events take place in a middle-class-totalitarian city state, where the streets are clean, and the welfare system puts medical tracking implants into unemployed people.
Readme (Minor Spoilers) >
Surfing The Deathline is a work that began life with its seeds in the late 1990s, when I was in my twenties. It was finished in the late 20-teens, when I was in my mid-forties. Proud of the work as I am, it carries that fundamental compromise in itself. It is both a relic of when it was made, and love letter to the original Cyberpunk genre works of the early 1980s.
The major criticisms I’d level at it, are primarily regarding the art. I started the book when I was trying to draw in a manga style, with a very digital-post-production-heavy compositing and shading technique. Granted, I was using real airbrush and watercolour for a lot of the early books, but the need to be neat with digial stuff eventually made the work a chore to produce. I can recognise places where perhaps I just wanted to be done with it. By the time I was finishing the book, I’d been through six years of art school, learning to draw like Alberto Giacometti, and falling in love with working quickly & roughly at large scale with analog materials. If you look up my art-school project The Metaning, you’ll see the difference. That said, there are panels, and pages I look at, and feel quite content.
The other big thing is a real lack of obvious ethnic diversity in the characters. That’s largely down to me again being overly reliant on learning from other comics, and not thinking consciously about it. Perhaps you can head-canon an in-story explaination for it - why is there an unsettling lack of ethnic diversity in a place where welfare benefits are tied to submitting yourself to medical testing? Why are the streets so tidy in a cyberpunk-ish story? There’s a Stepford-Wives-esque neat suburban normality horror I find more unsettling than any dystopian junkyard.
Surfing The Deathline was born in a world of dialup internet, of pre-ubiquity for cellphones. There’s also a big player missing on the "World Politick" map, which reflects how different the geopolitical situation was back then. Then again, the Soviet Union is still in the genre’s seminal works, so I can cut myself some slack for failing to forsee that.
For all I criticise the art, I am still proud of the story. It may seem a bit derivitive, or a bit too tropey-genre, but I think it works. Given the mutations it underwent, frankly, I think it works well. I like the way the second half acts as a kind of mirror to the first - where Eddie was popping pills in a sewer, Jan is mainlining in a penthouse.
Perhaps the story’s biggest weakness, comes from it originally being a prequel to a longer story about The Dealer’s obsession with The Reef, and its central AI fAIth. Sometimes, I go back to the pencil roughs for it (incomplete, they outnumber Surfing The Deathline’s pages), to see earlier versions of Blank and fAIth, and enjoy Blank trying to make smalltalk in an inner-city terrace-house Goth party.
One day, I might resurrect that book, but for now, this story is done.
Development History >
Surfing The Deathline has been through multiple incarnations on its journey towards ts current version. Starting from a stack of laser-printed pages read in person, it has mutated back and forth between print and digital. Each stage, has been an excuse to play, edit, correct, expand, "improve", or in whatever way, get the work to scratch whatever creative itch I was feeling.
In 1994, I was living the dropout burnout life, in the industrial-zoned artspace warehouse "Cyberspace", in Sydney’s inner-west. In this scavenger-aesthetic environment, nocturnal, amongst the ubiquity of networked computers, drugs, and poverty, I started work on a Goth-themed cyberpunk comic book. Although it never reached publication, over the next few years alternating between conventional housing, and retrofitting disused industrial spaces, I’d have moments of inspiration, get the pages out, and start writing & drawing again.
There’s one complete book, another half finished, and six more in pencil sketch form. That story created the world of Surfing The Deathline, and features Blank, fAIth, The Reef, and The Dealer as established characters and components.
In February 2001, I came to the conclusion that the project had grown so large, I needed to come up with something quicker and shorter (famous last words). I decided to use an idea I’d had while living in Enmore, sometime between 1997 and 1999.
The idea was about swinging on the end of a bungie pendulum, over lava - of being able to stretch the pendulum to go faster, but risking over-stretching, and hitting the molten ground. That concept of reaching to go as fast, to get as close, but never to touch, was the basis of The Deathline.
My protagonist was named after a guy I met in my first tech job - the first person responsible for buddy-training me in the ways of tech support. At least, his first name.
The character’s surname was in honour of an object that was stacked and strewn across my desk in those days - the publishing industry’s ubiquitous Syquest Cartridge.
February 2001 marked the start of Surfing The Deathline’s production. By the end of 2004, the first draft was complete. I work very slowly.
Alpha Release »
The first version was part 1 & 2, but without the Janelle character or subplot. The subterranean sections from the beginning had no environmental shading - just the form toning of the original airbrush art. The panel design featured a drop-shadow style that I still like, for the way it plays with ideas of flatness and layering in the comic format. It was a small, contained, pure, and bleak story.
The feedback from a local comic creators’ meetup was that it needed something to show a "what could have been" alternate path for Eddie, to contrast against his current deprivation.
Beta Release (PDF. Preview 1.0a) »
In August 2006, eighteen months after feedback on the Alpha, the Beta version was released. Announced on the aus.culture.gothic newsgroup, It was available online as a free .pdf for a couple of months.
The Jan character was added as Eddie’s ex-partner who had gone on to wealth and success, and a relationship with their former boss, after Eddie had been pushed out of the company. Jan was given the role of intermediary for The Deathline between Eddie and The Dealer, which had previously been a bit of a hole in the story. This involved adding two pages for Eddie’s initial conversation with his client, and his call to Jan. Jan’s scene added a further twelve pages to the project.
The underground scenes in the opening of this version were reworked with new, dark environmental lighting. Jan also replaced The Mugger in the flashback sequence at the end of part 2.
Version 1 (Print. Episode I & II) »
The first Print edition was released in October 2006, and used the before and after of the exploding mugger scene, to split the book into two. A page was added at the end of part 1 to get the number of pages right for print purposes. The first page of book 2 opened on the reveal of the aftermath of The Mugger’s explosion.
The addition of a second issue required a new splashpage, and set of words on the inside front cover, which set a pattern for the rest of the series.
Version 2 (Print. Episode I, II & III) »
The addition of book 3, whose production started late in 2008, brought with it another format change in order to reduce printing costs. The size was reduced to fit within A5 dimensions, and the book’s spine changed from stapled to glued.
Part 1 & 2 were reprinted to match the new part 3, which debuted in the new format in 2009. Stylistically, this edition dispensed with the frame dropshadows, but gained a coloured background that progressively changed through the book, as an attempt to convey a sense of the emotional content of the events depicted. Book 3 also saw the introduction of The Reef, who had been mentioned in part 2. With The Reef, came a dramatic widening of the story’s scope.
Version 3 (Web. Episode I, II & III) »
In 2011, I published a web-based version of the books. It was made available for free, with a "donate" button as an option. A major change of this update removed the coloured backgrounds - instead using a black or light grey spine, fading out to dark or light grey, so that the page would have an overall brightness, which keyed to the ambient light of the scene, or mood.
Version 4 (EPUB. First - Fifth Dose) »
In 2014 I reworked the books as EPUB files, and put them on the iBooks Store. As a part of this shift, I took the opportunity to change the naming format from "Episode (X)" to "(X) Dose". This version of the project also saw the story concluded, with the publication of parts 4 & 5 in 2016 & 2017, respectively.
Fourth and Fifth Dose had originally been intended as a single book, which would have had a multicolour cover theme, after the green, red and blue themes of the preceding books. Since it grew to two parts, the black and white themes rounded out the spectrum, and Blank was able to get her own cover.
The tones of the backgrounds were refined for this version, and there were some shifts in Broodmother’s script at the end of part 2, to be less messianic and biblical.
A final update added two new pages to the beginning of part 2, to address a problem it’s always had, that it opened on what was originally just a page within the book. The new pages are more in keeping as “opening shot” layouts.
Version 5 (Full Course) »
The final collected edition, intended to be the definitive completed version.
- Matt Godden 2021