Nightingale Protocol by Iqbal Ali with inks by Stephen Baskerville and cover art by William Heavey is an exquisite look at the implementation of machine doctors and nurses living inside their patients. The mystery driving this particular doctor and nurse is to determine why their patient Angiole had a heart attack without their activation triggering. However, the comic quickly becomes much more than its beginning suggests. Underlying issues of mortality and grief drive the actions of various characters. The fascination of the nano-doctors with bees asks how we expect devices to help us that are themselves capable of growth and introspection yet are unable to fully explain their own actions. A clever scientific solution wraps up the main story, while an epilogue allows for meaningful character growth.
This is the Nightingale Protocol‘s greatest strength, yet also its greatest weakness. Initially a science-fiction medical mystery, the shift to philosophic contemplation of its subject matter is refreshing, but occasionally frustrating. Most of this introspection comes from the character of the nano-doctor who distressingly lacks explanations for his behavior. The reader is led to believe from remarks by the nurse and another doctor that this is due to the latest update, but without previous knowledge of the character, we are unable to discern what may be different from the past. This leads the conflict between the nurse and the doctor over the direction of Angiole’s treatment to feel empty. On the other hand, the relationship between Angiole and her doctor has greater value as we see it build throughout the comic.
A character struggling to understand the limits of his job both pragmatically and ethically, the doctor is clearly a being of great feeling. As a foil, the nurse’s single minded dedication to their job regardless of the feelings of the patient feels underdeveloped compared to the doctor’s more nuanced characterization. Angiole’s actions and ailments push the narrative, but I wish there could have been more analysis of her dislike of the Nightingale doctors and nurses. In this way, the conciseness and precision of the story keep us from exploring the world Ali has created. However, on the whole, all three are written well and their interactions are key to the emotional power of the story. Uncovering Angiole’s motivations leads to an acknowledgment that sometimes we can only help those who want to be helped.
The cover by William Heavey is decent, depicting a doctor viewing the bloodstream of their patient. However, I do wish the cover was indicative of the themes of the comic, as it does not reflect more than the basic medical science-fiction premise. Additionally, I find the cover rather dull, with dark heavy colors used with little contrast.
As for the comic, drawn in black and white inks with heavy lines and shading, the art of the Nightingale Protocol is a fine example of less is more. With only one human character fully depicted, Ali and Baskerville’s rather uncanny faces for their nano-doctors and nurse are fitting in establishing that although they seem human they are only human constructs. Occasionally Angiole’s face can also seem off, but this is a small quibble as it does not detract from the emotions of the story. The lack of colour doesn’t hurt the comic either, as the thick lines help distinguish characters and offset them against each other. One concern is the lack of interesting backgrounds in the interior space of the doctor and nurse, as well as a lack of definition of Angiole’s room. As other places in the comic make clear, Ali and Baskerville are quite good at rendering distinct backgrounds, with the honeycomb of a beehive a particular favourite of mine.
On the whole, the strength of Ali’s work is in the balance of genre elements, mixing science with character motivations, culminating in a powerful meditation on the limits and benefits of technology. While the art has no specific strengths, it does not have major weakness which distract from the story. Ali has created a world which has great potential and which I would love to see returned to in the future.
The Nightingale Protocol and more of Ali’s work can be found from Mild Frenzy Comics. Have you been looked over by the Nightingales or interested in the project? Sound off in the comments or send us your thoughts on Facebook or Twitter!