Marc Wagner’s “Dead Cells” : A Waking Nightmare?

There are times when it’s difficult to say what, exactly, is so fucking scary about Dead Cells, the new horror (in every sense of the word) comic from Sioux Falls, South Dakota’s Marc Wagner published by Skullmore Press, but it’s not hard to say why — Wagner’s paranoid stew of technophobia, techno-dependence, biological horror, and online conspiracy theories speaks deeply, if not necessarily clearly, to many of modern society’s most closely-held fears, and it does so in a way that accentuates the feeling of vague, all-pervasive unease they create while deliberately refusing to nail any of them down. These are the terrors that we can quantify, but not necessarily specify — the ones that can’t be pin-pointed as belonging anywhere because, hey, they’re literally everywhere. Omnipresent, to be sure, bordering on the omniscient.

A dying cell phone leads to panic leads to attempted abduction leads to confrontation with Lovecraftian monster leads to pursuit from all sides and all things — Wagner drops you in at the deep end and the only thing you can be certain of is that it is, in fact, very deep indeed. His crisply-drawn narrative lends itself to myriad interpretations, none of them pleasant — is an NSA-type agency behind this? Is the horror being transmitted into the real world via app? Is the whole thing a Lynchian dream? — but if you’re looking for concrete answers, you’ve come to the wrong place. There are no hard-and-fast explanations to be had, but there is a resolution to this story, of sorts — however, it’s a temporary one on its face. You can easily see this scene playing out over and over again to just about anybody, admittedly fantastical and OTT as it is — or isn’t?

Like everything else on offer here, the “cells” the title refers to also has multiple meanings — could be cell phones, could be literal biological cells, could be (probably is) both —but getting hung up on the details deprives one of the full force of the psychological mindfuck Wagner is serving up. This story is confusing, but not complex, provided you’re willing to go along for the ride and allow dull rationality to be fully subsumed by a tidal wave of dark subconscious fears. Doing so shouldn’t prove too tough a task, though, never fear — the art’s so damn good it leaves you with no choice.

Ah yes, the art — as multi-layered as the narrative, and every bit as dense. Wagner blends surrealism and concrete realism so seamlessly that any demarcation points between the two are swept up, swept aside, and ultimately swept away. His shading, his color choices, his cinematic composition, his eye for details large and small — this is a guy who doesn’t cut corners, even if his corners are as necessarily fluid as anything else he depicts. Indeed, solid and well-defined as his objects and people are creatures are, there’s a palpable sense that any of them can be converted into digital signals at any moment and dissipate into the netherscape of what’s purported to be “pure information.” — but is so often anything but.

We’re living in the age of QAnon, after all, of resurgent “flat earth” theories, of urban legends such as the so-called “slenderman” and “black-eyed children” being taken gospel by millions. The ones and zeroes that make up the images and words appearing on our screens may be incontrovertible mathematical realities, but they’ve been conscripted in service of communicating utter bullshit. Wagner, it seems to me, is actively exploring the concrete effects these nonsensical digital ideas have on the physical world, and in doing so he’s asking the most difficult question of all — is there any real difference left between belief and reality?

Hell, was there ever?

I don’t pretend to know the answer, and maybe I don’t want to know the answer. Thoughts and ideas and concepts that have arrived to people while dreaming have always had an impact on the waking world, but now the dreams have become nightmares at the same time as they’ve been collectivized. What the most paranoid and delusional person thinks now has the power of the meme available to it, and can spread around the world in the blink of an eye. And maybe that is the most horrifying thing that Wagner is tapping into here — the knowledge that we’re all at the mercy of someone else’s worst thoughts evolving to become dominant social paradigms at any given moment.

Who needs Videodrome when you’ve got Twitter and Instagram? This comic made me shudder precisely because it didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know — while simultaneously telling me about everything I don’t care to face up to.


Dead Cells is available for $7.00 from Marc Wagner at

Review wrist check – Ocean Crawler “Paladino WaveMaker” green dial model riding its factory-issue fitted orange rubber strap.

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