Relay #1

Relay #1
Writer: Zac Thompson
Artist: Andy Clarke
Colorist: Dan Brown
Letterer: Charles Pritchett
Story: Zac Thompson & Donny Cates
Published by Aftershock Comics

I love different kinds of science fiction for different reasons. Some stories I enjoy just because they have a great sense of fun and adventure, spaceships, time travel, and you know, maybe some lightsabers. But there’s another kind of science fiction story I also love, that’s about more than just itself and telling a fun story. It’s usually about about some Big Ideas--a great way to both tell a story and say something about society right now.
It’s often easier to do that in a story set on another world, or in a distant future. Relay is just such a story. Through the first 2 issues (the free comic book day issue #0, and issue #1 out today), Relay is a promising debut setting up to be a great big story with something to say about some monolith-sized ideas. One note - I would strongly recommend reading issue #0 from Free Comic Book Day (FCBD), it’s meatier and more important to the story than the typical FCBD issue.

What to say about the story so far? I wondered about that for a little while, as there’s a lot that’s not entirely clear yet. I don’t see that as a storytelling flaw; rather, I think that Relay’s creators have made the decision to drop the reader into the story in media res, assuming that we will be smart enough to figure it out eventually and interested enough to want to come along for the ride. I think they succeed here on both counts, as I really want to know more about what the hell is going on in the story. 

The #0 issue tells the story of a man named Hank Robinson, who arrives on a “primitive” world of humans or human-type beings, and teaches them a number of things about agriculture and other societal developments. Eventually, he brings them a giant monolith called The Relay. It shows up one day, and changes everything, bringing with it science, advanced technology and knowledge, and the #0 issue depicts the dramatic way in which it alters society on this world.

Issue #1 picks up in the “present” of this world, right in the middle of the story as we see an advanced city with flying cars, in a world where interstellar travel is widely available. The comic focuses on Jad and William, employees of Relay (I will sometimes use the term interchangeably to refer to both the physical object, and the culture and company that are related to that object). The story follows them as they attempt to stop a protester against the Relay whose actions turn violent. The Relay is hardly ever out of sight or out of mind, as it looms as an imposing monument in the background (both literally and figuratively). It seems like employees of Relay also function as law enforcement or military on these worlds. It’s clear that protests against the Relay are not necessarily uncommon, but something they try to quickly suppress. 

William seems to be something of a skeptic, but Jad is a true believer in the power and the message of the Relay. Eventually they're joined by Victoria, another Relay employee, and by the end of the story they are off in a starship, as their mission also appears to include bringing the message and opportunity of the Relay to new worlds.

Relay is a story full of big and fantastical ideas, and some complex world-building from creators Zac Thompson, Eric Bromberg, and Donny Cates, with Thompson scripting the comic itself. But what brings it to life is the really spectacular art from Andy Clarke, with excellent, naturalistic colors from Dan Brown. 

I was not previously familiar with Clarke’s work before this comic, but he does some really thoughtful, detailed lines in these 2 issues (and makes me want to seek out more of his comics). I find that I often want different kinds of art in different kinds of stories. In a hard sci-fi story like this one, I tend to want art that leans more towards realistic and representational. Strong examples of this would be Michael Lark and Santi Arcas on Lazarus, or Steve Skroce and Matt Hollingsworth on We Stand on Guard, or Gabriel Hardman and Jordan Boyd on Invisible Republic. Those are all diverse stories being told by varied artists, but they all generally come within the category of more “realistic” illustration (as opposed to more stylized artists like Nick Dragotta, Wes Craig, Vanesa Del Rey, or many others). 

Clarke’s style fits the “realistic” category quite nicely. He’s got a really strong, expressive line, and the story he’s telling frankly has a high degree of difficulty. When depicting an advanced futuristic city, it helps to have a high level of detail and verisimilitude. Verisimilitude isn’t exactly the right word (since it’s a fantastical vision of the future, or a distant world), but when I see an advanced city skyline that’s been crafted with detail and care (in every skyscraper, ship, or flying car), and looks plausibly like a city of the future, that level of craftsmanship is much appreciated. If you’ve sold me on what you’re depicting as a futuristic city, then I’ll be more open to the specific story that you’re telling.

The detailed linework extends to wear and tear on ships, cracks on sidewalks, and the lattice of lines on plants that line the city streets. This feels like a city that people actually live in, a city with a history. There are also intriguing, slightly odd advertisements that fill out the landscape and make this seem like a place where people shop. They’re odd ads, often depicting Donaldson without a face (as it’s forbidden to draw it). It gives the ads the feel of propaganda, and otherwise adds a weird, sinister element (in addition to selling soda) - sort of like those odd posters with the guy with the apple in front of his face. There’s also something of a strong Asian influence in the signage and restaurants - combined with the futuristic cityscape, the story has a little bit of a Blade Runner vibe to it, but not as obviously a gritty noir story.

The verisimilitude wouldn’t be possible without the rich color work done by Brown. The colors chosen here feel authentic without being photorealistic. From the rich colors of the sky, to the varied depictions of the skin color of the characters, to the weird, bright retail signage hanging outside of shop walls, each of the color choices feels like they’ve been made with great deliberation. A specific choice I enjoy about the comic is that unlike a typical superhero comic (for example) where the colors are bright on the page, this comic has a slightly muted quality to it, sort of a matte finish that makes it feel like an older work (even as it is a depiction of the future). It’s not gimmicky and it’s not enough to make the book seem artificially gritty, but instead, it gives the book a really timeless quality. Matt Hollingsworth has done something similar in works like We Stand on Guard or Tokyo Ghost, and it’s an effect I just really enjoy.

Clarke’s character design, facial acting and expressions are all first-rate as well. Each of the three main characters in issue one has a completely distinctive feel to them, as he’s got a great grasp of human anatomy. Jad is drawn with great care as an African-American man, and William is Caucasian. I’ve read more than enough comics where it feels like the same basic character template is used for more than one person while swapping out skin and hair color. That’s not the case here, as hair, nose width, facial structure,  and all other details all bring to life a diverse group of people. 

Jad has a youth and strength to him, and you can really feel the age and weariness on William’s face (along with his impressive handlebar mustache). And Victoria’s driven nature and seriousness of purpose comes across in her face as well. There’s great interplay between the characters, and there’s a lot of very expressive storytelling that happens in the characters’ eyes. Clarke and Brown really do a lot with those eyes, as each character has distinct eyes that have a lot of life behind them, and the expressions of the characters and glances between them do a lot of the heavy lifting, story-wise.

The level of detail and care extends beyond the geographic design of the world and the look of the characters, to the structural elements of the panel layout. There is some highly varied, innovative panel design in the first few issues of the comic, particularly in issue #1. There’s a double-page spread that requires the comic to be turned vertically (like a centerfold -- er, so I hear), in order to capture the way that the Relay dominates the city skyline and partially blocks out the sun. Similarly, there’s a chase sequence through the city and into a shopping center where, in order to effectively capture the chaos of the scene, Clarke lays the panels out on the page as if the page is a screeching alarm, and the panels are scattered on top of the page like a deck of cards spread out on a table in a manner that at first glance seems disorganized but is actually easy to follow and effectively tells the story in a way that the panel structure itself conveys the chaos of the scene. That’s effective and clever sequential storytelling.

One panel in particular also really sticks out to me. Jad and William encounter an artist who’s taken it upon herself to create a detailed mural showing Donaldson leading a group of farmers and other people to the mythical “first world” where it is said that Donaldson can be found. The officers inform the artist that this will have to be covered up, as depiction of Donaldson’s face is forbidden, but the mural really brings to life what the people of this society think (some of them, at least) about Donaldson. He’s depicted as this heroic, larger than life figure. It’s got a great “Soviet Communist propaganda” vibe to it, with rich, vibrant colors from Brown, that are brighter and more joyful than almost anything else in this comic. The mural comes to life as more than state-created propaganda; to me, the vibrant color and details is an illustration of love and worship of a kind. It’s skillful, thoughtful artistic storytelling (and this page, without coloring, is provided below).

Thinking more broadly about the story and the mission of the people that support the Relay, it’s hard to even imagine the impact that the Relay would have in one of these less “developed” civilizations. If they’re some sort of nomadic hunting society, they’re probably living a difficult, spartan existence where starvation is always a real threat. And the dangers are likely very real and omnipresent. Or perhaps the society has made some advancements into agriculture, but it is still at the whims of the weather. 

All of a sudden, out of the sky, comes a spaceship, and off of the spaceship come people who tell of incredible technology that will save lives, and bring a prosperity and a future that these farmers or hunters could not have even imagined. It sounds great, right? Maybe? After all, who doesn’t want a flying car? I’m being glib, but it’s hard to even imagine the mindset of the people who are faced with that choice. However, as the story seems to intimate, it’s not really much of a choice. The worlds that are offered the opportunity to become part of the Relay are essentially given a choice of “evolve rapidly or die” (clearly a very different ethos than the more friendly "first contact" of Star Trek).

There’s clearly a tremendous cost to refusing to join the Relay, but what about the societal cost if you join? After all, if you can barely eke out an existence, and food and clean drinking water are luxuries (or fantasies), and a high infant mortality rate is just accepted and expected, why wouldn’t you want to take the opportunity to radically evolve and improve your society? The Relay is offering everything. 

Well, as it happens, in this story and in this world, the cost of everything is everything. What the Relay demands in exchange for all of these shiny technological advancements is the complete abandonment of a society’s indigenous culture. Their art, their religion, their music, everything that makes that world and its society unique? It all has to be completely removed. The Relay achieves peace and prosperity through conformity. There’s no warfare because there are no competing ideologies. There are no competing ideologies because there are no competing truths. Everyone shares the same culture, and so everyone shares the same truth. That is the vision of the Relay.

So, there’s a lot to unpack in Relay. There are clear parallels to the cruel and long-standing history of colonization in our world. A more technologically advanced society arriving to another place, and telling the natives that their culture, and religion, and everything that makes them who they are as a society? All worthless. All of it is something to just discard, in exchange for the opportunity to participate in a a bigger, better, more “advanced” culture...with the ever-looming threat of military violence. From the treatment of indigenous people in North America, to cultures all across Asia and Africa, the ugly history of colonization is present all over the world. Converting people to a different religion, making “better” use of the natural resources, enslaving or otherwise oppressing the local population - all of these things have happened (and continue to happen) around the world, and the parallels in Relay are quite clear. (Prism Stalker by Sloane Leong takes a different approach to the same themes.)

What’s interesting about Relay is that the choice (that’s not really a choice) to join the Relay means that once a new world joins, it isn’t a colony of the Relay, it presumably becomes an equal world and is just as much a part of the Relay as any other world. That seems to be some of the appeal of the Relay. Culture and society are the same everywhere, and so no one world within the Relay is any better than any other world. 

It is, in some ways, an alternately idealized and even more insidious form of colonization. If you join, you become an equal. But you have to completely give up anything that made you unique before. It’s erasure of indigenous culture on an incredibly systematic level. Presumably, after a few generations, nobody on that world will even remember the old culture and the old ways. That world will simply be one more world that’s part of the Relay.

Relay makes me think of the history of colonization, but it also makes me think of Starbucks. I type this as I am sitting in a lovely, pleasant Starbucks in Harvard Square. I ordered a grande cold brew, and I was almost certain (and comforted by the fact) that this cup of coffee would taste exactly the same as every other cold brew I’ve had at Starbucks. And that’s proven to pretty much be the case - no matter where I’ve gone to Starbucks, I’ve pretty much stepped into the store and felt comforted that this was the same as all the other ones I’ve been to. Now, there are some non-chain coffee shops here, but I can tell you that there are a lot more chain stores in Harvard Square than their used to be. What were those more unique shops and restaurants? I can tell you the names of a few of them, but I can’t remember all of them, and as far as someone coming to Harvard Square for the first time would be concerned, those stores never existed.

So what’s my point - that monoculture is bad? No, my grande cold brew would tell you that I think monoculture can be delicious and refreshing, and its consistency can be comforting. No, my point is that the idea of a powerful civilization bringing a homogenous culture to a place and completely wiping out anything about that society that’s different or special or unique? That’s not science fiction, that’s only a slight exaggeration of the world we’re currently living in. Now are there cases where what the monoculture is offering is better than what was already there? Certainly. My coffee choices are way better than they were 25 years ago. But the message the Relay sends is that this is the right culture, the dominant culture, and it’s the only one worth having. 

Our world isn’t quite like that, and there are plenty of places to the contrary. But certainly in different parts of America I’ve visited, a big street full of stores in Massachusetts might as well be in Texas or Florida with a few adjustments for weather and politics. There are plenty of places where unique or local culture exists, and places that priced themselves on it, but you have to go more out of the way to find them.

The ideas about the effects of colonization and monoculture present in Relay are the best kind of science fiction idea to me. It’s an idea that seems outlandish and disturbing until you really think about it and realize that it’s only a slight exaggeration of the world we already live in. I think Relay's creators have just scratched the surface of these big ideas. Relay is a gorgeous, ambitious comic, and I strongly recommend it.