Publisher: Titan Comics
Writer: Si Spurrier
Artist: P.J. Holden
Colorist: Jordie Bellaire
Letterer: Simon Bowland
Spoiler Warning! This review talks about the plot of the graphic novel being reviewed. I try to avoid mentioning anything I see as a major twist or reveal, but I don’t guarantee it. Read at your own risk!
Having recently read and enjoyed Si Spurrier’s X-Men: Legacy, I was very eager to read some of his non-superhero work. Numbercruncher has solidified for me the idea that even though I can never know exactly what to expect from Spurrier, I can be sure I’ll love it.
I cannot overstate how well-crafted Numbercruncher is, both in its writing and in its art. The concept is highly metaphysical. The book follows Bastard Zane, a “karmic accountancy” operative who works for the supreme being of his universe, the Divine Calculator. Numbers govern Creation, reincarnation, and the afterlife; the D.C. keeps track of it, and his operatives enforce it. The D.C. concerns himself with the achievement of “the biggest number there is,” the nebulous endpoint of the ever-growing complexity of the universe, and sin, depriving oneself or others of choice, contributes a negative value to that number. It’s a complex mythology Spurrier has built in Numbercruncher: fascinating, compelling, bizarre, deliciously labyrinthine.
Zane is looking for his ticket out of the operative business, and he thinks he finds it when a mathematician named Richard Thyme comes to the afterlife wanting another chance to be with his girlfriend, Jess. By signing a contract for reincarnation with Zane, Thyme can get it. The contract stipulates that at the end of Thyme’s new life, he will replace Zane as the Divine Calculator’s Operative #494, and Zane’s spirit can finally rest. If Thyme leads a life without sin, the contract is void. Thyme asks to retain his memories so he can work toward finding Jess, but as Richard Thyme, he dies in the late ’60s. In his next life, he is born in India in 2010, while Jess is already an old woman in England. Thyme doesn’t find Jess until the night of her death in 2035, and he dies shortly afterward in an accident arranged by Zane’s probability-bending gun.
This is where the story takes its first of many left turns: Thyme has entered a contract with another operative. This time, though, he knows how to control where he’ll be born from studying the math of the reincarnation engine. He finds a way to game the system again and again to keep being reincarnated while Zane tries to ensure their contract is fulfilled. To go much further into details would be to deprive you of the true joy of reading this rollercoaster: discovering all of the ways the story connects and loops, the way it feeds itself in an exquisite Moebius. My saying that Numbercruncher was “crafted” is a very deliberate word choice, because every bit of its plot was worked very specifically to a purpose. The ride is unpredictable and a whole lot of fun.
Apart from the twists of metaphysics and causality at which Spurrier excels, Numbercruncher exhibits other great hallmarks of Spurrier’s writing tradition. Zane lives up to his given name of “Bastard,” which is itself an example of Spurrier’s somewhat crass sense of humor. There’s swearing, innuendo, and metaphors about the posteriors of both elephants and turnips. I highly enjoyed the contrast between Zane’s lowbrow character and the high concepts in which he’s embroiled, but of course, if lowbrow isn’t for you, you should probably consider skipping Numbercruncher despite my enthusiastic recommendation. Through it all, I could empathize with Zane. All he wants is a way out of his serfdom, his servitude to the grand cosmic bureaucracy, but Thyme continues to give him grief. Both Zane and Thyme receive the benefit of complex, engaging characterization, and for all the jokes about reproductive organs and the Divine Calculator’s bad breath, there are some really great turns of phrase scattered through Numbercruncher. Zane may be thick of body and blunt of speech, but his internal monologue can be especially eloquent. Perhaps my favorite is when he notes that the D.C. “talks about [love] the way a snake talks footwear.”
The narration gets incorporated into the art in an interesting and uncommon way. Numbercruncher makes use of negative space wherever it can, whether that’s in the gutters at the top and bottom of the page or pauses in the imagery so the reader can give their full attention to Zane’s thoughts. Holden’s work is strong throughout, but where he really shines is in his depiction of the afterlife and its inhabitants: Zane, his coworkers, the D.C. Scenes on Earth are gorgeously colored by Jordie Bellaire in her vibrant manner, which especially jumped out at me in the 2030s, but the afterlife is always rendered monochromatically, even when its agents are visiting Earth. Holden conveys depth and shadow with just black, white, and shades of gray, and there’s a rough feeling to everything that contrasts with Earthly matters.
This is to say nothing of the abstract absurdity of the higher plane, where desks are suspended in thin air and the Divine Calculator’s filing cabinets and paperwork seem to stretch on infinitely. Words can’t do these scenes justice. They’re a rare, even unique, juxtaposition of the mundane and the fantastic. Zane remains constantly dressed in his striped suit and bowler hat, giving him the impression of an average Joe that Spurrier wanted for him. He frequently smokes cigarettes that give off numbers instead of smoke, and the occasional maelstrom of surreal calculation never fails to impress.
In an interview included in the collected edition, Spurrier says Numbercruncher defies a single genre and the elevator pitch. He claims to have had a difficult time answering the question, “What is Numbercruncher about?” It’s easy to see why, and I was a big fan of every page. Spurrier and Holden have made something immensely imaginative, and it fully deserves any attention it gets.