Get on the Wayward Path (Series Review)

Wayward 1-4
Written by Jim Zub
Line Art by Steve Cummings
Color Art by John Rauch and Jim Zub (#1-3), Tamra Bonvillain (#3-4), and Josh Perez (#4)
Published by Image Comics

Moving to a foreign country is never an easy task, regardless of your situation. Rori is the child of an international marriage, and after spending most of her life in Ireland with her father, she's headed to Japan to move in with Mom. Whether it's being criticized for her differences or trying to use a second language on a daily basis, life's tough for Rori, but she's determined to manage it.

That's when Rori finds herself attacked by turtle men, defended by a teen girl who controls cats, and discovers that Japan--and her own family--harbor many magical secrets in this delightful new series from Jim Zub and Steve Cummings that hooks you right from the start and just keeps getting better every issue.

Ages ago, Jim Zub spoke to me at a convention from his vendor table. He was clearly polite about it, because anyone who hard-sells me (especially the jerks who go "Hey here's a man's comic for you!) turns me off immediately. I remember talking briefly, but not the details. I know he put a copy of Skullkickers in my hands, basically literally, and said he just about guaranteed me I'd like it.

He was right.

Now Zub is working on a new series, and it's my turn to say: If you like fantasy stories, comics that feature a female protagonist (particularly if you are a fan of Amelia Cole), or cross over between Western comics and manga, this is a series I can just about guarantee you'll like. It seamlessly builds a world, ramps up the tension with each passing issue (particularly the climax of issue four, which builds off the revelations of issue three), and keeps the story moving at a breakneck pace. This isn't a comic where you need to read an entire arc to understand or appreciate it. As with Skullkickers, Zub's scripts are designed to tell a long-form story while also giving readers a reason to check in monthly to find out what's happening.

That's especially crucial in a first issue. Let's not kid ourselves here--there's a ton of comics out there right now. It's impossible to read them all, even within a given sub-genre (in this case, urban fantasy), and it's easy to lose track of the good ones. If you aren't a big enough name to generate base-level sales from the start* the only way to ensure your ongoing series will succeed is to grab the reader by the throat from the word go, and make them want to come back every month.

Zub does this with his plotting and script, which is in some ways very similar to Skullkickers and yet completely alien from it in others. His ability to create characters you want to learn more about shines through here again, as does his commitment to having a varied cast. We can relate to Rori because instead of making her a typical fangirl of all things Japanese (which would have been all too easy to do), Zub instead shows her as earnest, split between two cultural worlds, and trying to appreciate her new surroundings while not giving up who she identifies as.

Immediately, artist Steve Cummings works hard to ensure that we are immersed in Rori's world. It's clear he's taken the time to research the differences in a Japanese school setting, what a modest apartment would look like, and how to layout the streets and buildings so it feels authentic instead of generic. The school uniforms would fit right into any manga I've ever read--and I've read a lot--and while I won't swear to the authenticity of everything we see in Wayward, I feel like it's authentic, and that means that it's easy for me to become immersed in Zub's world.

Quite frankly, if that's all there was to this story, I'd read it. It's a great coming-of-age concept, and Zub's portrayal of Rori is so compelling, it could easily be a shojo manga-like plot. But then this goes to the next level, with our heroine developing magical powers that enable her to interact with a world she had no idea existed. Now not only does she have to try and assimilate on a normal level, she'll also try to deal with random attacks and why they're happening, along with pulling together an unlikely--and immediately engaging supporting cast, that includes the cat-whisperer, a young man who eats demons, and a new figure who may be more powerful than the others combined--if he's able to control his abilities. Before they're prepared to do so, Rori and her young allies are thrust into fights they can barely handle, and it looks like it's only going to get worse.

Naturally, there's an opposition, and they're looking formidable, holding all the answers while Rori has only questions. This part would fall into the slightly stereotypical fantasy trope, except that Zub adds a twist that will put a smile on the face of Brian K. Vaughn fans, further complicating matters.

Let me remind you again that this is all in the first four issues. Zub and his collaborators aren't messing around here. There's action on just about every page, but it's handled in such a way that the reader doesn't feel overwhelmed. Despite all that we know already, there's so many more questions to ask, giving Zub and Cummings plenty of room to explore the world, add further complications, and continue the pattern of steady revelations. At the same time, however, I don't feel like there's too much information being thrown at me, which can be just as bad as giving out details as if they were an endangered species. It's a very fine balancing act, but Wayward holds everything together in a way that's extremely impressive to me.

In addition to the overall world-building that artist Cummings creates, he's also very good at panel construction and making the characters feel individual and real. When Rori is dealing with the fact that everything is going insane, particularly in issue one, we can sense this without a ton of cues from Zub because of Cummings's reaction looks. There's not a ton of lines or details on the faces, but thanks to the eyes, viewing angles, and body posture, so much is revealed. Cummings's best work, however, comes from the cat-girl. She bounces around the panels like, well, a cat, but there's a grace to the movements that shows it's nothing new for her. Balancing making her feel like a cat (with funny lines and actions to go along with it) and yet still be a dangerous, powerful character requires walking a fine line, but Cummings handles it quite well.

Aiding in all of this is a variety of color work from multiple contributors. I'm not quite sure why there are so many colorists on this one, but fortunately, it doesn't hurt the overall artistic flow. There's a lot of general shading going on, with certain pages displaying a main color scheme that influences the look of the rest of the shades on the page, such as when we see a strange machine at the end of issue three or issue two's blue hues for when Rori follows the strange energy to find Shirai, It's not quite like the use of color per page of Lee Loughridge, but I like the way it changes up the look of Wayward  from section to section, making the mystical elements really pop against mundane locations.

With a book that features a lot of action, it would be easy to fall into one of the problems, ironically, of shonen manga, where you can barely tell what's going on. That's where the panel construction comes in. Every fight scene is choreographed with clarity, even when the numbers grow almost overwhelming, as we see in issue four. We get to see key actions, there's a nice balance between Rori's "team" members, and a sense of fluid motion permeates each panel. Cummings's work on Wayward is a perfect complement to Zub's scripting.

To top it all off, Wayward also includes short history lessons in the back about elements of Japanese mythology and culture. They're optional, but I like it when there's back matter in a single issue comic. It adds a little extra to your month to month experience.

I look over this review and feel like, despite going nearly 1500 words, I've barely scratched the surface. There's so many things I could go into, such as how Zub uses teen protagonists but doesn't talk down to the audience through them--in fact, if anything, this may be more adult than Skullkickers. In some cases, Zub's got more going on in a few pages than other comics do across an entire story arc, and it's such a breath of fresh air.

Wayward is doing quite well so far across its first few issues. It's holding sales (Zub is always very honest with his numbers), which is unusual for any series, and it's easy to see why. This is such an amazing creation, one of the best new series of 2014, and pretty much a slam-dunk for my favorites list--maybe even at the top. Wayward gets my highest possible recommendation, and should go on your physical or digital pull list now, while you can still catch up easily.

*I'll let you guys argue over who qualifies for that definition.