Relay #1

Cover to ‘Relay’ #1. Art by Andy Clarke and Dan Brown/AfterShock Comics

By Brendan F. Hodgdon. Despite what some cultural and political forces might desire, the world we live in becomes more and more interconnected each day. Cultural and economic shifts bind us all together in increasingly irreversible ways, opening us up to the greater potential for our species as a whole. Of course, there are many who fear that such growth and change threatens their identities and their freedoms and oppose it, regardless of the possible benefits. It is this world that is reflected in the blackness of the titular obelisk in Relay #1, an intriguing new science-fiction parable from AfterShock Comics.

Writer Zac Thompson (working off a story by Donny Cates, Eric Bromberg and himself) and artist Andy Clarke spin an unsettling-yet-action-y science fiction tale in this debut issue. Wrapped up in its buddy cop architecture are serious musings about the existential conflicts many of us wrestle with today. The “heroes” of the series, cops named Jad and William working to enforce the will of the mysterious Relay of the title, openly grapple with the nature of the society they help to protect throughout the issue. If the story were set in modern times it would read like preaching, and to the book’s detriment. But since they’re describing a world that (on the surface, at least) is purely fictional, their questions serve as an intriguing form of exposition.

And while its themes are very familiar ones, Thompson delivers them effectively here. In Relay priority is given to the greater good, and balance, and progress, all of which sounds great. But of course, it seems such gains can only come at the expense of individuality—and with a great deal of authoritarianism. Based on the tone of the book, the creative team appears to be suspicious of the idea of monoculture, and that suspicion will very likely lead to some nefarious revelation about the Relay, the monolith at the center of things, down the line. It’s a dynamic that’s been explored in the genre before, but I’m willing to bet that this team has greater places to go with these themes before the tale is told.

This is especially true when you factor in the events of the #0 FCBD issue, which isn’t necessary to read but definitely adds a lot to the experience. That issue, which gives us a glimpse of the now-deified Hank Donaldson who brought the Relay to so many cultures, conveys the long-form impact that the monolith has on a society in anxiety-ridden terms. The epic scale of that prelude adds a lot of weight to the stakes in #1, while also possibly foreshadowing catastrophes yet to come. Reading both issues provides a juxtaposition of the macro and the micro of this world in a way that both humanizes this bizarre society and drives home its dangers.

While Donny Cates’ voice is a little more muted here (given that he’s only credited with developing the story), Zac Thompson’s voice is loud and clear throughout. The whole issue has the same intangible Otherness that marks his collaborations with Lonnie Nadler, while playing on the most epic scale of his career yet. The Philip K. Dick-esque nature of the concept is a natural fit for Thompson’s voice, and it makes good sense for him to be the main scriptwriter here. The squirmy anxiety of books like Come Into Me is less overt here, but you can still feel it slithering around deep in the heart of this story. I would be happy to see more of the heavy metal aesthetic that marks Cates’ work with Thanos and Cosmic Ghost Rider, or perhaps the mournful frontier vibes in books like God Country or Rednecks. I could see either one playing into the wide-open world of Relay, and I’m curious to see if either does.

Regardless of which writer is ultimately holding the reins of this series, it’s providing a wide-open playground for Andy Clarke to go wild in, and boy does he ever. He’s taken the expansive worldbuilding of his past AfterShock title Replica to new heights here, though this world is considerably more serious. Clarke’s art helps to communicate the repressed, cluttered reality of the Relay’s world, aided nicely by the desaturated colors by José Villarrubia and Dan Brown. As the series takes our protagonist on his galactic journey, I imagine there will be a lot of interesting concepts for Clarke to bring to life. Based on this opening chapter it’s clear he is more than up to the task.

Relay would be cool just as a fun AfterShock Comics jam session, veteran creators for the publisher coming together to whip up something different. But Thompson, Cates, Clarke et al., being as talented and ambitious as they are, didn’t stop there. Instead, they delivered an epic and unsettling take on classic sci-fi ideas, one that will satisfy your eyes even as it gnaws away at your brain.

AfterShock Comics/$3.99

Written by Zac Thompson.

Story by Eric Bromberg, Donny Cates and Zac Thompson.

Art by Andy Clarke.

Colors by José Villarrubia with Dan Brown.

Letters by Charles Pritchett.

8 out of 10