Style matters, even when it's inside your brain. Caitlin Kittredge's comic Throwaways may deal with invisible and mysterious forces, but there's nothing low-key about artist Steven Sanders' character designs. The telekinetic protagonist, a psychic on the run from a top-secret military project, foregoes urban camouflage to let his freak flag — well, his Black Flag — fly. When he faces down several war wagons full of government agents, his t-shirt emblazoned with that band's logo — to say nothing of his sassy cerulean mohawk — almost steals the show. The pieces of shrapnel dancing in the air around his hands feel like an afterthought.
There's something particularly stylish about the very concept of this comic, too. It's no wonder Kittredge, a history buff, was drawn to write about the real-life military Project MKUltra (as, indeed, were the creators of the popular Netflix show Stranger Things). Untrammeled government power is always scary, but when that power is being used to manufacture psychic soldiers, it's uniquely chilling. Not much is known about Project MKUltra, which was actually launched back in the 1950s. But Rolling Stone notes that "the transcript of the 1977 Select Committee on Intelligence is a fascinating read — and not only for the reference to the MKUltra subproject that studied 'magicians' arts as applied to covert operations."
Kittredge's characters have no need for flimsy "magicians' arts." After undergoing all sorts of horrible experimental treatments, they can move matter and kill with their minds. Unfortunately, they're also more or less at the mercy of the military that created them. Special forces heavies materialize around every corner as Dean Logan (the aforementioned mohawked one) and fellow project subject Abby Palmer (in a relatively low-key pink sweatshirt) try to flee. The project's overlords can "activate" them with a single word; one of the book's most compelling sequences is when a former subject mechanically executes six members of a veterans' support group, then kills himself, at a prompt from a cellphone.
Though the subject matter is flashy, Kittredge emphasizes that the power dynamics in play are on a continuum with the characters' personal lives. Dean isn't just at odds with the government, he's also embroiled in an obscure battle with his father, an anti-government protester who "went full-on David Koresh" when Dean was a child and whose current motives are unclear. Dean's too-good-to-be-true hacker girlfriend (with great hair) turns out to be a government agent. And Abby, a onetime refugee, seamlessly connects her life in the program with the experiences she endured before falling into the military's hands.
"It's not the voice of my drill sergeant ... in my head when I feel like quitting," she muses. "It's my mother's voice [saying] 'Get up, Abby. Keep moving. Keep breathing. If breathing hurts, good. That's the pain letting you know that you're alive.' "
The melodramatic tone of Abby's reflections would be eye-rolling if the whole story weren't such fun, and much of the fun comes from Sanders' deft illustrations. He can't seem to resist punctuating hard-core sequences with spots of kicky color. He's capable of imbuing action with real energy while simultaneously underlining the drama of pivotal scenes. In the aforementioned shooting scene, he captures the stuttering movement of time that surely characterizes such moments. His faces occasionally take on a fixed, rictus quality when the characters feel extreme emotion, but usually they're charmingly expressive.
Kittredge's brisk, economical storytelling snares the reader most effectively. Creations like a Machiavellian grandma, a sadistic psychic scientist and a mysterious girl who looks like a ghost all make for a rollicking good time. The real Project MKUltra may have accomplished little beyond serving as a particularly garish example of U.S. military excess, but at least it's provided fodder for tales like this one. If only out-of-control government power were always so stylish, it might be easier to bring it to the light of day.