Loved this. Well, loved it with reservations at least. Loved the genre bending nature of it. A sci-fi love story, A Matter Of Life And Death meets Inception, Spurrier writing it twisty and turny, Holden’s art leaping off the page – his best work yet (and he’s been doing great things on Dredd for a while over at 2000AD).
My only real problem with it? a feeling that it could have pushed things that little further, a sense that somewhere along the way Spurrier reigned it in just a little. I’d have really liked to have seen this go way, way, way out there. Instead I’ll have to simply enjoy it being a damn good, twisty and turny piece of great comic work.
Numbercruncher is karma writ large against a visual backdrop straight from the beautiful and brilliant Powell and Pressberger A Matter Of Life And Death, which if you haven’t seen, you really should. Really, really should. It is a work of genius.
But back to Numbercruncher, which takes A Matter Of Life And Death out the back, roughs it up a bit, gets existential, gets weird, gets loud, gets sweary, and gets violent.
Up in the black and white afterlife, the ‘Divine Calculator’ does his divine calculating thing while the Karmic Accountancy makes sure all the checks check and the balances balance, that creation runs according to the rules, one of which involves the full colour real world tale of a young mathematician Richard Thyme, a dying genius who’s worked out the numbers behind the universe, and in doing so gets a shot at bargaining for reincarnation, a chance to redo, a chance to rediscover the woman he loves.
However, karma has ways and means, The Karmic Accountancy is a big deal in the afterlife, accountable to the Divine Calculator himself, and here in Numbercruncher karma has agents to keep things the way they’re meant to be. These agents are big, nasty, and violent, and it’s their job to see that all the big numbers balance, that the figures make sense.
Agent Bastard Zane, he of the sharp pinstrip suit and surly expression on the cover, is one of the biggest, the nastiest, the most violent, wielder of “The Accident Gun”, ‘designed solely to collapse atomic superpositions .. that’s fuck about with chance to you and me’
Zane gets the job of delivering Thyme his extra life, in exchange for which Thyme’s expected to take over Zane’s role when the time comes. And Zane needs this, wants this, he’s way beyond tired in an afterlife where time doesn’t exist.
Thing is, Thyme really is a mathematical genius, and has managed to work out just how to get around the rules of reincarnation, over and over and over again. On the opposing side, both the Divine Calculator and Bastard Zane have a vested interest in making it as difficult as possible for Thyme to find his true love and get it right. First reincarnation he’s reborn in a Mumbai slum, the woman he’s done a deal to change reality with half way round the planet and sixty years in front of him. By the time this particular genius works his way up and out, she’s 80 and on her deathbed.
That’s one to the black and white team, but thanks to careful manipulation, working out the maths of the universe, and a great deal of dealmakin gwith other Karmic Accountancy agents, Thyme keeps getting another shot at love.
How do you manage to really piss off a hard bastard like Bastard Zane? Cheating him of his retirement seems to work just fine….
Cue lots and lots Thyme trying to outwit Zane, Zane coming back each time to kill the boy genius in new and ever more annoyed fashion, failure in one reincarnation just meaning more calculations and another attempt in the next carefully, cleverly calculated life on Thyme’s part and another reincarnation to derail for Zane.
Zane’s determined, Thyme’s clever… who’s going to win and just how? In between then and that, we have so many deliciously fun moments of inventive life and death….
The story accelerates, careering out of control, the contest between Zane and Thyme condensed, incarnation after incarnation, time after time after time, Zane always there, years, months, days, hours, minutes after Thyme reincarnates, but the result is always the same and Thyme is back to calculating, the next reincarnation already planned out.
Spurrier’s story is complicated, clever, complex, and plain fun. It’s always good to read something that absolutely refuses to simplify itself for the sake of the reader, even better to read something that doesn’t even have a need to simplify itself, with the storytellers behind it to make a complex, twisting tale entertaining and complex AND perfectly told. Ingenious solutions to Thyme’s problems are thrown out so quickly, the pace picking up as things go on, Spurrier not afraid to send ideas flying out, building his plot to a hugely satisfying crescendo, a very enjoyable payoff.
Likewise, it’s always grand to read a story where the author is clever enough to create characters with depth, characters we can empathise with, characters who aren’t simply good guy #1 and bad guy #1, and thus it is here, with both Thyme and Zane proving worthy of our sympathy, our understanding, their characters such that we can see both sides here, can appreciate just how clever Thyme is and just why he’s doing this, but also appreciate how dedicated, driven and deserving of retirement Zane is by now. And we can really, really enjoy the laughs Spurrier throws in all the way through, Zane’s delivery just beautifully done…
The Matter Of Life And Death stylings are well done, a good idea sure, but just as with Powell and Pressberger’s film, the story idea of monochrome afterlife and technicolour reality needs someone who can shepherd the ideas to a finished piece. Thankfully PJ Holden’s art is just revelatory at points here. He’s always been good whenever I’ve seen him in 2000AD, and recently he’s be excellent, his art getting better and better. But in Numbercruncher he’s taken it all, refined and refreshed. The colour work is very much as I’ve seen in 2000AD, just that level up (take a bow colourist Jordie Bellaire), but his black and white work at times is sublime, his style shifted and softened somewhat, absolutely perfect for the story.
Numbercruncher still disappointed slightly, as I told you right at the start. The cleverness of the idea is nearly matched by the cleverness of the execution, but not quite. It’s difficult to explain without picking examples from the key moment of revelation, but suffice it to say, Spurrier had accelerated his tale so much that when it came time to assemble the final pieces, for Thyme and Zane to come to a reckoning, the pace was still hitting high-gear, when truly it needed to slow down, to allow us more time to explore and luxuriate in the wonderfully clever solution they all found for their problems. I could have done with it being longer, going a little more out on a limb mathematically, looking more at the ideas of a maths to underpin reality, going deeper into all of Thyme’s reincarnations, and then allowing both characters and reader the luxury of slowing it down to enjoy the resolution more.
But in the very end, that whole last paragraph boils down to me complaining that it wasn’t quite perfect enough, that this brilliant comic book that was clever, complex, funny, unusual and bloody entertaining, didn’t manage to be 100% in everything. When I’m complaining about something only managing 95% in all things, I really think I should shut up, re-read, enjoy it once more, put the light out and head to bed, safe in the knowledge that you’ll understand you need to buy this, missing 5% or no.