Aaron Cockle's two series, Annotated and Word & Voice, both carry a mysterious and frequently apocalyptic quality that centers around language. Using an elliptic storytelling style that deliberately presents the narrative as a series of loosely connected fragments and images, his comics are challenging, poetic and haunting.The first six issues of Word & Voice saw a man silently navigating what appeared to be a kind of post-apocalyptic landscape, until he found a woman and her family. When they finally spoke, what emerged from their mouths was gobbledygook.
Issues seven through twelve flash back to the possible source of the virus (a transmission from a space station), the silent recreation of a society on earth now through pure survivalist tactics, the way that a love relationship gone horribly wrong may have spurred the crisis, the horror of the breakdown of all languages, one by one, a shadowy and conspiratorial explanation for how the whole thing may have evolved and the ways in which the semiotic breakdown of reality may have caused an actual breakdown in reality. In other words, when language disappeared, the things that language represented sometimes disappeared as well. Cockle alternates ideas and images with each issue; one issue focuses entirely on survivors, while another shows the breakdown of language. His visuals are rough, but they get the job done and use a clever sense of design to orient and then disorient the reader on each page.
Issues 13 and 16 of Annotated are part of a single storyline, which is about various other perspectives about the "soft coup" from Annotated #10. #13 features a plane (and plan) in flight as an inventory of items necessary to make the coup go forward are read. Once again, the relationship between word and action is a key part of understanding Cockle's comics, as a seemingly mundane list is really an inventory of destruction and terror--even if the "great man" perpetrating it claims to be "just and benevolent". Of course, the video game consisting of triangles that we see the key woman in the story playing is really a powerful system that's destroying buildings and the opposition in general. In #16, one of the key individuals is captured and interrogated by, one would presume, the US government. The phrase "You know how this works" is repeated twice, as though the interrogator has already created a reality where she gives him information simply by invoking it. That dependence on code, that certainty that we have in language, in ideas and concepts, is lost by both sides here, as the mysterious "white", "grey" and "black" boxes of the terrorists either go down, take themselves down by their own volition or otherwise act in unexpected ways. The sins of the terrorists, it is implied, is not so much a moral one but one of vanity: the vanity and arrogance of certainty. Cockle grounds it all in the fallibility of human relationships, of how power is at the basis of the relationships even in this new utopia. Using mostly tight shots and profile drawings of characters, Cockle gets away with a limited display of the apocalypse by allowing us to see his characters' reaction to it instead.
Annotated 12 starts with a split narrative, "Deer Park/Loon Lake". The intersection between the two is unclear; the figure in the narrative on the left side of the page is bandaged (and a frequently recurring character/motif in this series), while the figures on the right appear to be lovers. Is the "he" mentioned by the bandaged woman on page 1 on the phone the man in the other narrative? What is the relationship between the two of them? Are they mother and son, as the woman reading a biography of Edgar Allen Poe might seem to indicate? Both stories are entirely mundane, yet contain a sense of desperation on the one hand and dangerous frisson on the other. There's a mundane tension that's almost unbearable. In the second half ot he issue, "U.S.A. 2014", Cockle uncorks a series of very funny short strips that explore the same sort of territory that Tom Kaczynski does in his strips: architecture and its effect on the psyche, the stilted nature of human interaction, and the relationship between technology and alienation. As heavy as all this sounds, Cockle treats these ideas in a joking manner, even managing to leave off strips with a punchline.
Annotated 14 features a more stripped-down, abstract style that continues to play on themes of architecture with stick-figure characters. Another running theme in Annotated is the use of characters giving presentations or committees presenting findings about information that's just a bit outside the reader's grasp, as there's a lecture commenting on the work of a man whose ideas were mentioned in the first story in the issue. Annotated is never meta for its own sake or to be clever; rather, it is constantly referencing a host of outside concepts that sometimes naturally intersect, sometimes in the interest of a narrative.
Finally, Annotated #15 is in many ways the most straightforward of the series. Titled "Surveillance", we see a group of people despairing that a group of "giants" are coming to crush them. A middle-manager (of the hilariously-named "Building Robert Gates") dresses down a scientist to losing to Building Donald Rumsfeld, bemoaning their lack of "good apps". Cockle nails whiny manager-speak to a "t", here, even as we slowly learn that the scientist and her colleague have the grim job of extermination put forth before them. It's a chilling tale told with the emotion and regret of the scientists, only their feelings have little to do with feeling sympathy for their subjects. Cockle's fascinating with geometry and graphs (especially the x-y-z axes) plays out extensively in this comic, once again giving it a unique visual presentation even if the actual draftsmanship is on the rough side.