THIS REVIEW OF ‘RELAY’ #2 CONTAINS MINOR SPOILERS.
By Mickey Rivera. The phrase “technology of power” appeared on my radar ages ago, in college, when I was putting a lot of effort into trying to understand who Michel Foucault was. The first thing I imagined—and this is not at all what Foucault had in mind—was a gigantic alien supercomputer capable of controlling people’s minds, sending out pincer drones to mow down anyone who resisted. Though the truth about this phrase is not so wonderfully pulpy, it’s pretty useful if you want to think about how an authority can exert influence without actually needing to exert itself. Certain historical thought-viruses, such as the notions of “progress” or “civilization”, have been used to repress, control, and enslave people without having to resort to physical force (at least not immediately). You can sell someone into behaving any kind of way you want if you can talk them into thinking it would be regressive or uncivilized to do otherwise.
You can find this kind of idea playing itself out in Relay #2. To summarize from Relay #1 (which was reviewed here by my DoomRocket comrade Brendan F. Hodgdon): An entity known as the Monolith runs a massive network and/or governmental structure called The Relay. It may or may not be under the control of some individual or committee, but it’s known that it was brought to Earth by mysterious man by the name of Donaldson. This system controls the world, but also seeks to conquer and homogenize other planets, as many as possible, spreading a totalitarian monoculture throughout the galaxy. Though the specifics of what this monoculture consists of have thus far been left to the imagination, from what we can glean from issue #1 it’s clear that it involves cyberpunk megacities with populations kept under strict military control, capable of Orwellian groupthink with only the occasional revolutionary agitator.
Relay follows the lives of Jad and his group of enforcers for The Relay, tasked with policing the streets and clearing out rabble rousers and would-be revolutionaries. Another aspect of their job, which we get to see in this issue, is to visit planets that have not yet been synced to The Relay. They offer the leaders of the world a chance to assimilate, an offer which, if refused, has pretty fucking dire consequences for that world. It’s through these enforcers that we get a glimpse into the thought process of people living under the Relay: There’s this cultish dogmatism that the center of Jad and his team that is so powerful it allows them to possibly destroy entire civilizations in service to it. This dogma doesn’t play like they’re merely following orders. These soldiers of The Relay truly believe in what they’re doing in one way or another.
More than anything, Relay #2 focuses on a discussion about the merits of living in an orderly and tightly controlled society versus one that is more accepting of natural chaotic variations. Where the first issue attempted to rock you with cyber-action, Relay #2 slows things down in a way that allows the plot’s main themes to shine brighter and more clearly. Readers are allowed to soak in a cerebral and disturbing exchange on which the lives of an entire planet depend. The matter-of-factness of Jad and his crew, the sense that this is just another job to them, really underscores their casual monstrosity, which is the hallmark of any technology of power.
As you may be able to tell, there are a lot of unanswered questions in Relay, and this both works in its favor and against it. On the one hand we get the mystery of The Relay itself and its omnidirectional grasp—it’s an ominous piece of technological engineering of uncertain origin with the power to control civilizations, with a mainframe that takes the form of a massive onyx slab that blocks out the sun. The inner workings of this behemoth are a source of wonder to me. Where did it come from and how does it exert its influence? Who is controlling it?
On the other hand, writer Zac Thompson has thus far obscured any feeling about the kind of society The Relay is looking to proliferate. Sure, there are a few shots of bulky soldiers surveilling the populace behind faceless visors, and there’s a glimpse of the kind of murderous mob mentality The Relay incites. Police states and murderous mobs are terrible, sure, but some exposition on the particular way these things are affecting society would go a long way towards bringing me in as a reader. There is a lot of philosophy driving Relay, especially in this issue, but philosophy is just a logic game without something that can relate to our lived experience.
Artist Andy Clarke took some notes from Transmetropolitan in the first issue, getting deep with the futuristic grit and grime. This issue is necessarily more pastoral, exchanging the clang and crash of urban noise with the soft rolling hum of Donaldson’s back-to-nature planet. But in spite of stereotypes concerning the simplicity of the rural versus the complexity of the urban, Clarke infuses his hills and fields and utilitarian country architecture with graceful details. He’s also a master of portraiture, carving out each close up of a face with linework that shows he knows how to balance details against readability.
All told, Relay #2 shifts its gears from cyberpunk thriller to a kind of comic book think-piece on colonialism and ideological control. There is an eeriness to this issue that hangs beneath every word, evinced by the fact that lives depend on the outcome of the conversation. Though it may feel preachy at times to some, the dialogue’s heady topic is going to be a treat for anyone who wonders what it is that makes and breaks a civilization.
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.
7.5 out of 10