“As Per Instruction”: TETRA, a graphic novel by Malcom Mc Neill, reviewed by Zachary Vaudo

Brilliant worlds and creatures, subversive metaplot, meticulously crafted art. Tetra is at once a product of its time and ahead of its time. Created by Malcolm Mc Neill, Tetra is a fantastical sci-fi journey through space and dimension.

Opening with a look into the past, Mc Neill’s introductory essay details his interactions and collaborations with William Burroughs, how girlie magazine Gallery (and their chomping at the bit to break into the sci-fi trend) allowed Tetra to be born by giving him more freedom—and money—than either Heavy Metal or Marvel would, and how to present nudity without sexuality in this medium. It’s a strange kind of success story: an artist paving his way through a variety of unconventional means to tell the story in his head.

Tetra follows the protagonist, without name or direction or … well, clothing, rescued from her life as a pleasure unit. Upon her freedom and through a series of mishaps, she discovers her true calling as savior of the planet … and promptly rejects it, electing instead to seek out the author of her destiny. Accompanied by a very sentient ship, our nameless protagonist dodges danger, encounters fascinating new planets and civilizations, and discovers a meaning for her life and for the key known as Tetra.

The art is positively stunning and entrancing, every panel a painting. Gorgeous backdrops compliment what can only be best described as a continual study of the human(oid) form. Tetra treads a very fine line between being sexist in its presentation of the female form and deconstructing the sexuality of nudity—a precarious balancing act that comes from publishing sci-fi in a Seventies girlie magazine. One has to take into account the time and medium, of course. Viewing this work from over forty years ago through the current lens of storytelling, science-fiction, and human perspective puts an interesting turn on things: now the viewer can compare the original intentions to the modern standard. Was it as revolutionary as Mc Neill had aspired for it to be? Only time can tell.

In addition to pushing the boundaries on nudity, Mc Neill dedicated a lot of his time to bucking the system of the current sci-fi trends, opting to include the tedium of in between the adventures. Space travel is not episodic, and while Tetra may have been released in an episodic format, the in-between is just as important as the points of conflict. These in-betweens not only capture the beauty and expanse of the universe Mc Neill has created, but also inject some realism into these strange alien characters. When our Chosen One protagonist is given, in GRAND detail, the full history of her planet and key details to the prophecy, the text fills roughly two-thirds of the page. An absolute onslaught of words geared to bore most readers, and this is highly reflected in the protagonist as well. Is it important? Most likely, but that doesn’t change the tediousness of its details, captured by the distraction on our yawning hero’s face. Mc Neill took things further, also bucking the norms of his medium at the time: sculpting and casting heads to draw, foregoing thick outlines to let the art blend with the scene more naturally, etc. Mc Neill dedicated inordinate amounts of time and effort to ensure that every frame of Tetra was its own work of art. Any one of these panels could easily grace your walls (some more risqué than others, of course).

As a whole, Tetra puts style before substance—this is not a sleight against it, as Mc Neill’s visual art is his cornerstone. This is a story that requires visuals to enrapture you. As text alone, the story is intriguing and fun, but getting to truly see the universe through Mc Neill’s vision: that’s the payoff. (That, and the fact that Mc Neill chooses to not always translate the strange alien languages he’s concocted. Without visuals, you’d be as in the dark as our protagonist seems to be). Complete with concept art, sketches, and a layout of Mc Neill’s unique artistic process, McNeil’s mind is open on these pages.

Regrettably, Tetra came to a rather abrupt end: though it wraps up some of it points, there’s a looming sense of more that was cut off before its time. Part of it comes from a significant lack of PR, as the medium for the story was hard to push to a wide audience. Part of it comes from the very natural flow of work in an artist’s life: when a project comes along that you absolutely must take, it can make the decision for you. This entire book is simply Prologue and Chapter One for an epic that will never be. Call it a permanent tease; it goes with the art. Fortunately, what exists of Tetra is preserved in these pages, with insight into the mind that birthed this universe into ours.

Tetra, by Malcolm Mc Neill. Santa Fe, New Mexico: Stalking Horse Press, July 2018. 136 pages. $21.99, paper.

Zachary Vaudo is a writer based in Atlanta. He enjoys long walks on the beach, comic books, and delving into the dark recesses of the human mind. He is the author of the Talon’s Grasp urban fantasy novella series (like a big, hairy Buffy, trying to work his day job of keeping creatures of the night in check), available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. He is also a writer, voice actor, and foley artist for audio drama horror anthology series The Blood Crow Stories (available on iTunes, Google Play, and other podcast mediums). Additionally, he served as Executive Producer (among many other things) for the Uncanny X-Men web fan series, available on YouTube via ThrowbackStudioz. You can follow him on Twitter at @eyeofkaos.

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