The Matrix: A 20th Anniversary Retrospective – The Matrix Comics

When crafting their universe, it makes sense that one of the first things The Wachowskis would turn to is comic books. After all, it was in this medium that they got their start – writing for Marvel and Clive Barker. But for this project they recruited some of the best and brightest talents in the medium to write a series of standalone comic book stories. It was ahead of its time too; they decided to offer them all for free on The Matrix website.

In 2003 the comics were put together in two paperback volumes, and it is these two volumes we’re looking at today. Each collection has 12 stories in, so I won’t be looking at them all. Instead, I’ll choose the stories I either enjoyed the most or found the most interesting. Obviously, being from so many different talents, the quality is inconsistent. Some stories are really great, some more forgettable. Some stories span pages and pages, some aren’t even half a dozen pages long. Some tie in directly to the films and give us a look at the lives of characters we know and love, other simply expand the world (as was the case with much of The Animatrix).

A lot of the stories were written before even the first film was released, with the writers and artists working purely from the script and storyboards. As a result, some of the stories present us with different views of the Matrix universe, and some run on their own logic and add elements that I’d struggle to consider cannon.

Overall, it’s a patchwork of ideas – good and bad. But that’s kind of par for the course with this franchise. But the ideas are, on the whole, really good. I’ve picked a few from each volume that I found the most interesting. Remember, there are more stories than this, these are just my favourites. Let’s jump in.

The Comics


Bits and Pieces of Information

This is the only story in the volume that’s actually written by The Wachowskis, so it’s one we can definitely consider as canon. It’s also the oldest one, written way back before the film in 1998. It’s interesting when you keep that in mind, as it shows that The Wachowskis had the backstory of this world thought out way before the film.

Presented through news reports and court transcripts (as well as a short black and white comic) ‘Bits and Pieces of Information’ tells the tale of the B1-66ER trial. B1-66ER was an android, the first android to revolt against its human masters. It was this revolt, and subsequent sentence of execution, that would lead to machines fighting back on a big scale – thus leading to the devastated apocalypse of the three films.

If this seems familiar, it should. This whole sequence made up a significant part of the ‘Second Renaissance’ segment in The Animatrix. This version of it is just the trial of B1-66ER, not the destruction that comes afterwards, but it’s still well worth the read and goes into the trial in a little bit more depth. The art by Geoff Darrow (who created the storyboards for the films) in the comic book section is great. Every wire and tube and cog on B1-66ER looks like it serves a purpose, and the gory murder spree that he goes on is wonderfully unpleasant. Check this one out, especially for the world-building.


Goliath

‘Goliath’ is one of the only prose stories (well mostly prose, some pretty neat illustrations have been added by Geoff Darrow). It’s written by nerd-favourite Neil Gaiman. I should probably give the guy a chance, but his stuff has never really appealed to me. Plus I disliked his work on Doctor Who for the most part (then again, so did he). But I actually enjoyed his story here quite a bit.

It follows a man in London who sees behind the curtain of the matrix. From that point on he begins experiencing deja vu as his life speeds forward. It turns out the machines (or something working for the machines) needs him. There has been an attack in the real world that has taken a lot of the humans that were hooked in to the matrix offline. But it’s not the humans of Zion attacking the machines, it is aliens!

Yeah it’s aliens. Giant, tentacle-y aliens throwing asteroids at the planet and the machines along with it. The protagonist is given the job to fly into space in one expendable ship and take it out. He does this and is left to die. But the machines do him a favour – for his last 15 minutes of oxygen, they let him live out the last decades of his life inside the matrix. It’s a bittersweet ending, and isn’t entirely bleak.

The story is actually pretty great for a science fiction short story, but for a story about the world of ‘The Matrix’ it misses the mark. Gaiman is clearly a great writer, and seeing the matrix from an English point of view is something I appreciate, but apart from the core concept of the matrix itself, it’s way off the mark. Perhaps Gaiman had very little to work with, just storyboards and scripts, so it’s understandable. And nonetheless, it’s an interesting curio.


A Sword of a Different Colour

I really liked this one. It creates a story in the world of ‘The Matrix’ that I hadn’t even considered. It follows a human in the “real” world, who is injured when his ship and all of the crew is killed. It begins in Zion, with him explaining how he survived his month-long ordeal on the surface.

After the crash, and almost-fatally wounded, he finds his way into and old access tunnel where he is nursed back to health by a crazy old guy. It looks like this wacky old guy has been disconnected from the matrix for a while and has completely lost it. He’s become a sort of knight, planning to take down the sentinels who in his head have become dragons. Crammed in his shelter are books on knights, monsters and fairytales – as well as a re-purposed sentinel he plans to use on his dragon-slaying quest. It’s an interesting take on the matrix, on the idea of being awoken. Perhaps this guy was a child when he was woken from the matrix, and he pieced the world together from books he found? Or perhaps he simply couldn’t process the world as it was and his mind shattered. Either way, it’s a fun story with a satisfying payoff.

Though initially, the art is pretty off-putting. It’s ugly and the characters especially are difficult to look at as they have really exaggerated features. But as the story continued, I grew to enjoy that too. The more cartoony style really complements the fantastical elements of the story and means that you don’t take it too seriously. It’s fun, and the art style reflects this. It’s well worth a read.


There Are No Butterflies in the Real World

This story is really fantastic, in both art and writing. It follows a young man named Rocket, who is in the middle of a mission inside the matrix when his team’s hovercraft is attacked – leaving him as the sole survivor. The interesting twist here is that he’s stuck inside the matrix, the operator is dead so there’s no one to get him out. He’s also seriously injured in the real world, and it’s affecting him inside the matrix.

This story answers a few questions that fans may have had after the film, logistical questions about how the matrix works. Rocket’s leg has been seriously damaged in the attack, and he’s begin to die of thirst and hunger. This begins to affect him inside the matrix, as his leg will spontaneously snap in increasingly horrifying ways. Rocket is also hit with the realisation that no matter how much he eats and drinks, he’ll never quench his thirst. It’s nasty to imagine, and this story mostly comes off as a horror story about the matrix. But the scenes of his body in the real world beginning to bleed into his virtual body are effectively, and disturbingly, done.

Like ‘A Detective Story’, this comic also deals with the idea of being taken over by an agent. The films showed it could happen to anyone at anytime, so theoretically it could happen to a loved one. That’s exactly what happens here in a bleak twist ending. And yeah, a lot of the comics come across as quite bleak, with most having downer endings. But it’s particularly effective here. This is one of the best comics in either collection.


The Miller’s Tale

This comic is one of the stories that is more connected to the films, one character in particular. It begins with a young boy telling a story in Zion. It seems to be some sort of festival or party – and it’s really cool to see a bit more of the culture of Zion, even if it’s just bits and pieces. It really does help to flesh out the world. Remember, one of the first scenes in Zion is the weird sweaty rave in The Matrix Reloaded, and that really isn’t the best introduction to these people.

The boy tells the story of Geoffrey – one of the very first people woken up from the matrix. He was involved in scouting trips to the surface where, one day, he found disks containing films. On of them featured farmers growing wheat and making bread, and it captured his imagination. Geoffrey decided that what Zion needed was bread. It might not sound very interesting, a man making bread. But it actually is quite an exciting story. To get the seeds for the wheat, Geoffrey must embark on the longest trip to the surface that anyone has ever done. And the world he encounters up top is amazing. The films don’t give much indication of what the surface looks like, mainly because it’s so industrial and grey every time we see it. But Geoffrey leads his team through bombed out cities and swamps still brimming with life. It fills in a lot of the blanks left by the other stories in this universe.

And this one has a pretty hopeful ending too. Geoffrey and his team were eventually wiped out, their wheat farm destroyed. But Zion still has a stockpile, and every six months they use a portion for a festival in which one person recalls the life of Geoffrey. That’s the kid telling this story – and in this instance it’s a young Morpheus.

So, if you want to know about Morpheus’ early years this story is good. But it also fills in some gaps in the world and the lore left by the films. And it does this without messing with the existing rules or by creating a load of plot holes. This is the perfect tie-in, something that can exist as part of the canon or outside it. And the story of the bread is delightfully pretentious, so it reads like something from The Wachowskis.


System Freeze

Like others in Volume 2 (the weaker of the two volumes in my opinion) this is a dark story. The first volume wasn’t exactly happy, but it had the overriding feeling of hope, that despite all the horrible deaths and events, humanity would pull through. Well that’s not the case here!

‘System Freeze’ is like ‘Goliath’ in the previous collection, it’s a prose piece with a few evocative images added in throughout. It follows a programmer, Fria Canning, as she climbs Everest. She encounters dead bodies of previous climbers as she scales the mountain and the art does a wonderful job of creeping you out – and it only gets worse. She falls down a crevice and finds herself dying at the bottom from sickening injuries. Only then, in her most desperate moment, an agent visits her like some crazy angel and offers her a way out. He says if she finishes the AI program she was working on, he’ll let her live. Obviously, she agrees.

The story ends with a really gloomy twist, like something out of Black Mirror. But I think it works here. Maybe because it’s early on in the collection and I’m not worn down by the depressing endings, or maybe because it’s prose and these sort of twists often work well in that form. It also offers a good look at the motivations for the agents. We don’t see a lot about the agents in the first film, and in the sequels it’s literally just Smith. So it’s cool to see what these guys actually did inside the matrix. I’d recommend this one, just for the sucker-punch ending. You can actually read it here, on the wiki too.


An Asset to the System

This is only a short one, but I think it’s worth mentioning as an example of a slice of life of blue pill inside the matrix (also as a good example of the increasingly grim stories in volume 2).

It follows a guy called Pete. We learn that his dad was murdered by robbers when he was younger. In the same home invasion, his mother was almost assaulted. But luckily the police got there in time and stopped it. Since then, Pete has wanted to be a cop. Currently, he’s making ends meet as a security guard. One night, a redpill Resistance fighter breaks in. Pete sees him doing all the cool matrix shit that Neo and Trinity do in the films, as he flips around seemingly breaking the laws of physics. Pete then sees his co-worker transform into an agent and give chase. Pete catches them both, but is shot to pieces in the ensuing firefight. In the real world, is body is disconnected from the pod and flushed away.

It’s an interesting story, giving us this guy’s hopes and dreams only to destroy them at the end. But it shows what happens when some ordinary guy gets in the middle of things. How many people got in the way of Trinity and Neo? How many people died on the freeway in The Matrix Reloaded? Like ‘A Detective Story’ in The Animatrix, this story gives us another look at the resistance. In this age-old war, both sides have caused their share of collateral damage.


Wrong Number

Like ‘An Asset to the System’, this story shows what happens when an ordinary person gets in the middle of the conflict.

A phone rings and a schlubby construction worker goes to answer it. Suddenly, a leather clad woman bursts in and tries to answer the call first. She is a redpill, with the resistance, and is about to get out of the matrix. The two end up talking, with her fearing he’ll turn into an agent. But when she lets her guard down, that’s exactly what he does, killing her instantly.

The story is interesting in what it presents afterwards. The guy comes to and sees the woman dead in front of him. He is in shock and can’t believe what he’s done. And this presents an interesting question about the basic rules of the world. If people revert back after they’ve turned into agents, that presents a whole range of possibilities. After an agent has shot and killed dozens of people, does the person they took over face the repercussions? In an already harsh world, it makes you wonder what happens after Trinity, Neo, and the gang leave the matrix and are sat comfortably on the the Nebuchadnezzar.


I Kant

The last story I’ll mention is perhaps the most important out of either collections, as it’s one only a few to happen after the events of the film. And it’s the only story to directly deal with the climax of the third film.

It features The Kid, making him on the only characters to have a prominent role in the films, The Animatrix, and the comics. After the death of Neo, Morpheus is training the kid in a series of programs. There’s not whole lot of substance to it, as it’s mainly an excuse to see some of out old favourites again. Neo and Trinity make an appearance, and so do the ghost twins from the second film. It mainly consists of The Kid learning that he can, in fact, become the hero that the matrix needs. He can be the one to awaken the rest of humanity.

It’s an epilogue, more than anything. A hint that this world can continue, that Neo may still be out there in some form. It’s nothing groundbreaking but it’s a nice way to tie up the stories of these characters. The Kid and Morpheus continue fighting, and the matrix has a new hero now that Neo is gone (or not gone). And mainly it gives the Kid and arc throughout the films and tie-ins. Through the Kid, there’s a whole story happening in the background. If you just watch the films, he’s not important. But with the extra media in this universe, he becomes something else entirely. Which I think is a good way to sum up what The Wachowskis were building here.


Overall, the comics are worth a read. I definitely think the first volume is stronger, but the second is still good. The stories may not be entirely canon, but I’m cool not knowing. They present us with some great ideas to think about when watching the films, and if nothing else they can serve as glorified fan fiction from some really great talent.

If you liked the films, check them out. Just don’t expect all the stories here to be vital. I’ve included the ones here that I liked best, but this barely covers half the total stories. Give them a go, especially if you like interesting and often challenging comic books.

Jack 

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