Using comics to teach teenagers about online privacy is a noble goal but also a difficult one. Certainly a science fiction comic is a great way to explore both the benefits and dangers of technologies that allow us to share our lives with the world. However, this sort of comic will fail if the plot is steered not by the demands of the narrative but by the author’s desire to work through a list of real-world concerns. In Networked: Carabella on the Run, author Gerard Jones tells a bewildering story that stumbles into all the aesthetic blunders and fruitless moralizing of a classic after-school special.
The main character of Networked is Carabella, a college-aged alien girl who fled her own oppressive world and somehow manages to hide out on Earth despite her obvious blue skin. Carabella previously starred in two online video games produced by Privacy Activism, the same non-profit organization that funded Networked. Carabella’s mysterious past has made her sort of paranoid about online information sharing, but not so much so that she thinks to stop her friends from tagging her in photos on Facespace or including addresses when they make public posts about parties. After a shared photo attracts the unwanted attention of a cult of Princess Leia worshippers, Carabella chops off her Leia-esque bun-shaped alien anti-privacy social-control hair extensions but the hairpieces follow her out on a date with her shoe designer boyfriend who picks them up in secret and uses them to complete the design of his ominous social-media-enabled sneakers. Soon Carabella and her friends are fighting a desperate battle to keep humanity free from Carabella’s ruthless brethren and their color-coded social engineering (which explains Carabella’s blue skin but doesn’t explain why no one on Earth ever asks her about it).
Perhaps Jones believed the strangeness of this story would ratchet up the entertainment value and keep readers invested enough to take the privacy lessons to heart. Instead, the laughable plot of Networked makes the privacy lessons seem silly by association. It’s hard to sell the threat of “don’t let yourself be tagged in online photos or a bunch of unbalanced Star Wars cosplayers will start texting you and showing up at your door.” At the same time, one might be able to suspend one’s disbelief and enjoy the absurd plot on its own terms if it didn’t insist on grounding itself now and then with the mundanities of social media. It’s a mistake to assume nonfiction can’t be interesting enough for teen readers or that fiction can’t teach life lessons without blunt real-world references.
While the writing is undone by the contrast between the absurdity of the plot and the pragmatism of the message, the art has no such conflict. Everything about it is bizarre and cartoony. The color palette shifts wildly from page to page. Characters’ faces and bodies contort unexpectedly, defying both character models and human anatomy. This bombastic style is a decent match for the more outlandish aspects of the writing but ultimately the art ends up feeling sloppy rather than energetic.
The sheer weirdness of this book is hard to reconcile with the note at the beginning that relays Privacy Activism’s desire to “communicate information visually, in order to make the complexities of privacy law and policy more accessible to people with no specialized expertise in the issues.” This suggests that the folks at Privacy Activism thought the transition to sequential art would bring clarity but in Networked: Carabella on the Run this is unfortunately not the case.