You have probably, by now, seen at least a few of the "Flash animations" proliferating around the web. Calling them "animated" is perhaps a bit generous -- they reside somewhere between the realm of flat comics, and true animation, using static images which can be superimposed on each other and moved around. The URLs of Flash shorts may be catching up with the Good Times virus warning in the race for "most redundantly forwarded text." Most are humorous, if somewhat simplistic, and enjoy fifteen minutes of fame -- during which all our attention are belong to them -- before fading away.
Still, one can find some fairly impressive uses of Flash as a medium, such as the satirical Apocamon: The Final Judgement (subtitled, "The Book of Revelation, reinterpreted as manga"). Among the most interesting of these is Broken Saints, the peculiar creation of Brooke Burgess, a former game producer and political radical. How peculiar is it? Burgess's acknowledged influences include Terry Gilliam, David Lynch, Neil Gaiman, Kahlil Gibran, and Lao-Tzu. His mix of Western artistic surrealism with Eastern philosophical mysticism has a kind of hypnotic charm. Burgess's soapbox rants, posted on the website and included in the periodic newsletter, have the flavor of Sixties student demonstration rhetoric, spiced up with modern cynicism, but also an optimistic sense that the distributed activism of the last few years -- the kind that gets organized in realtime using email and cell phones -- may eventually achieve meaningful reform.
The story is enhanced by the colorful art of Andrew West and the moody synth music of Tobias Tinker. The art is reminiscent of Japanese manga, and some of the more recent western comics. The sketch lines are often visible, and convey a sense of rawness and motion, despite the fact that the images are not fully-flowing animation. The whole package is tied together by Ian Kirby, whose mastery of Flash pushes the quality of the animation to the limit of what the medium affords.
The world of Broken Saints is a protestor's nightmare. A shadowy corporation conspires with corrupt government officials and military officers, seeking world domination. The people of "Coast City, USA" seem to have lost interest in any kind of altruism, or even in determining their own fate, having fallen to their various addictions: mind-numbing entertainment, rampant drug and sex industries, genetically modified (perhaps soporifically drugged?) junk food, and so on -- all of which presumably play into the Capitalist Master Plan. Meanwhile, those nobly trying to preserve their cultures, or the natural state of their small corners of the world, are ruthlessly trampled by the corporate machine. As the story opens, four individuals, scattered around the world, begin to experience frightening visions of a future even bleaker than their present, dominated by a great red eye and a strange skyscraper surmounted by a cluster of communications dishes.
The first of these is Raimi, a bitter corporate drone working on a project he doesn't quite understand, at a corporation he despises. He's a brilliant hacker, and his curiosity leads him into an attempt at uncovering what his job is really all about. But it seems the company is ahead of him. Security countermeasures crash his home supercomputer, and he has a brush with death. But what really happened? Electrocution? A seizure induced by the strange lights and sounds his machines emitted just before going dead? Whatever has happened to him, he finds, after this accident, that his mind has been strangely accelerated and enhanced. His memory has become perfect, his comprehension of the code sublime. Naturally, he sets about using his newfound talent getting himself into even more trouble. . . .
Meanwhile, in the Arabian desert, Oran, a Muslim radical -- freedom fighter or terrorist, you decide -- has a falling out with an old comrade. After a bloody fight, he loses himself in the desert, meditating on the Quran to calm his mind, but is assailed by terrifying visions of shadowy demon assailants. Eventually, parched and starving, he is picked up by UN Peacekeeping forces, and shoved on a plane bound for a US military facility.
Over in Japan, the old monk Kamimura protects a religious relic from a foe who wishes to use it for some unspecified evil. Kamimura's spiritual power not only lets him vanquish his foe, but capture his soul. In sifting through the enemy's memory, he discovers some hint of a larger danger, and sets out for America.
Finally, on an idyllic South Pacific island, Shandala, a white girl washed ashore as a child, falls victim to a strange illness. Just after she awakens from her coma, a mysterious yacht arrives, bearing a man who claims to know her true identity. She too is drawn towards Coast City.
Naturally, the four eventually find each other, through luck and circumstance. The "eventually" should be emphasized -- the plot takes a long time to get going, as the series takes a leisurely tour of images, literary references, and philosophical musings about the decay of spirituality and compassion in the modern world. Although there may be moments when you'll want to strangle the authors for this preachiness, even these parts have a mysterious allure, as you try to piece together what's really happening to the characters, and what their visions mean. If you've had any exposure to Lynch, or to more abstract anime (such as the Utena movie, which may or may not be an exploration of adolescence and the realization of mortality, through the metaphor of a high school fencing team), you may have seen this kind of weird visual storytelling before.
Even if that's not your cup of tea, persevering long enough will get you to the part where people start doing kung-fu, and things start blowing up. It appears that the conspirators have control over some kind of space-borne, super-accurate weapon. So, Our Heros are on the run. Raimi has some thoughts on who's after them -- he did, after all, poke his nose into his company's business, and he knows they were working on some kind of dirty black ops project. He knows he knows too much, but he's not sure how to put together the pieces he's uncovered to form a coherent picture. Even as the action accelerates, the sense of creeping dread continues, as the omnipresent eye watches over all.
Personally, I haven't the slightest clue what's going on. Just four episodes remain in the twenty-four part series, and I'm still mystified. But Broken Saints lends itself to wild speculation at least as well as conspiracy-based TV shows like The X-Files. My favorite theory, one which I've nursed since the first few episodes, involves the idea that somebody has tapped into the Divine Broadcasting Network -- some kind of magic frequency on which people normally receive the compassion and love of the universe, and in turn radiate their own. Think of it as the ultimate form of advertising. All ads appeal to the idea that you would be happier if only you'd be a good little sheep and do as you're told. Only now, the people in control really can turn your happiness on and off with a switch.
That's just me. If you want to debate the details of the series, and see what other people think, the website includes a forum. There, you can chat about the story, rant about the latest crimes of the Military-Industrial Complex (or the destructively idealistic views of the Radical Left, if that's your taste). You can even learn how to use Flash to make your own psychedelic entertainment. Broken Saints probably isn't for everyone. But if you think you might like a hybrid of abstract anime and political allegory; if you enjoy conspiracy theories, dystopian cyberpunk technothrillers, and the odd bit of Lovecraftian horror; then you might want to give it a whirl.
R Michael Harman is the New Media Reviews Editor for Strange Horizons.