In 1998, Erik Davis published Techgnosis, an extended, historically grounded argument that the early internet served a mystical purpose that, like all communication technology, would change the humans who used it. For Davis, the chat-room, virtual reality, and other networked exchanges of information worked according to Gnostic principles intent on escaping the prison of the corporeal body in service of pure knowing. Beyond pointing out ways in which the internet was ideal for folks seeking to escape the physical confines of their parents’ basements, Davis was particularly interested in the ways the internet mimicked specific Gnostic assertions that the Creator of the universe had long abandoned “His” creation and had secretly been replaced by a Demiurge standing in the way of true enlightenment; as understood by Davis, a Gnostic version of the Biblical Garden of Eden would understand the serpent, whispering temptation about the tree of knowledge, as the actual hero of the story.
The twenty years that separate 2019 from the publication of Techgnosis have largely proven Davis correct, though any Gnostic objectives of purity regarding the knowing it has created should probably be abandoned: the internet’s single biggest “gift” to the modern world has been the rise and ubiquity of conspiracy theories, theories whose principal allure is the suggestion that the dominant version of the truth is actually a false god. Though it’s hard to argue against the suggestion that the internet’s forbidden fruit of self-selected information is inherently Gnostic, Davis may have overestimated the notion that mystical undercurrents would result in a unified experience of Revelation. Though the book certainly is aware of confirmation bias and human tendencies towards solipsism, Davis was perhaps less worried than he should have been about the possibility that Gnostic technology would, first and foremost, serve to undermine notions of truth itself, rendering facts into opinions, and evidence into fake news. Nonetheless, even if Davis was not entirely prescient about what would happen in the following two decades, the book remains a clear-eyed, eerily accurate set of predictions about how and why it would happen.
Set in the halcyon days of the early web, George Wylesol’s latest comic from Avery Hill Publishers, Internet Crusader, features a character known only by his internet name: BSKskater191. While BSKskater191 is not exactly what Erik Davis would have referred to as a Gnostic Infonaut Hell-bent on escaping the limits of the physical for access to pure knowledge, he does begin the book driven by the desire to escape parental constraints – presented very much as those of a demiurge – to view pornography. In doing so, BSKskater191 trips into a game that may or may not threaten to burn the world.
Without, for the sake of spoilers, delving too much into the aspects of the book that is a fairly straightforward meta-adventure about fighting demons in the name of a God-who-may-or-may-not-be-a-false-god, it must be said that the book is engaging and funny throughout. BSKskater191, avatar or not, is compellingly rendered as a disinterested hero whose biggest complaint about his call to heroism is boredom. Wylesol manages to stir empathy for a human being about whom readers know very little, especially since nearly every reference to his actual life is filtered through terrible spelling and internet slang.
Despite a compelling story, George Wylesol’s biggest accomplishments have to do with his rendering of the early internet itself; he brings the pop-up windows, dial-up modems, and weird things that routinely happened to the screen to life in such a way that, reading it, I remembered things about my teenage years that I never imagined I could forget. In doing so, particularly in service of a story about a young man who seeks forbidden images and ends up a pawn in war for the human spirit, Wylesol has created a comic that explores, in much more accessible and comical fashion, many of the ideas that were at the heart of Davis’s Techgnosis twenty years ago.
In Internet Crusader, every page is essentially a screenshot of our protagonist’s computer; the reader gets references to some “real” people who exist behind usernames and beyond the frame of what is shown, but the world threatened by the stakes of the comic remains entirely filtered through the visual idiom of early attempts at the virtual. On one level, this filtration allows Wylesol to create art that is nostalgic and funny at the same time; on a deeper level, though, Wylesol’s attention to detail unearths ways in which, even if the graphics and interfaces were rudimentary, the early days of the internet were guided by an almost fully formed ethos of disrupting the way we all understood what was real, true, and human. As engaging as BSKskater191’s downloads and exploits are, Internet Crusader’s real triumph is reminding us exactly how much the internet has changed, changes that have largely been possible because of ways in which the early internet managed to change all of us.
The story of Internet Crusader is a good one, well-paced with genuine stakes and some killer twists; however – fittingly for a comic with even fledgling Gnostic impulses – Internet Crusader’s real story is about the future we are living in right now, one in which this reader can’t help feeling like the powers of darkness have very much won.
Matt Vadnais has taught college literature and creative writing classes for twenty years. He is the author of All I Can Truly Deliver and a contributor at covermesongs.com. For more comics coverage and the occasional tweet about Shakespeare, follow him @DoctorFanboi. For short takes on longboxes, subscribe to his channel of video essays.