REVIEW: Relay #1 by Zac Thompson, Andy Clarke, Donny Cates, Dan Brown, & Charles Pritchett

What is The Relay and who is Donaldson? These questions give The Relay #1 an intriguing foundation to build its action and philosophy upon.

By Zack Quaintance — Relay #1 is a complex and impressive comic, one as visually stunning as any book in ages. At its core, though, this is a hard sci-fi story with big philosophical ideas in the mold of Philip K. Dick and Ursula K. Le Guin (those all-time great K. writers)—both of whom series creator Zac Thompson has cited as influences. Relay must do a lot to stand out from the half dozen or so other excellent science fiction books released so far in 2018, and, simply put, it does.

Indeed, this year has launched some truly stellar sci-fi comics, including Skyward, Vagrant Queen, Wasted Space, and The Weatherman, among others. Where Relay sets itself apart, though, is in its scope. This is a book concerned with civilization, with the evolution and shaping of society, and it approaches this by incorporating organic discussions between characters about history, religion, power structures, the role of the follower, the role of the good soldier, etc.

It’s a lot, but the book never gets unwieldy. To the contrary, it’s actually a fast-paced and entertaining comic that does a great job of avoiding the first issue pitfall of bogging itself down with excessive exposition. We get a protagonist on page one we can relate to: Jad, just a guy trying to get to work. Then Jad gets a simple task: keep the peace (oh, and find Donaldson if you can), and off we go. Easy. With solid and well-done grounding, our writer Thompson (who conceptualized Relay with red-hot Marvel writer Donny Cates) is free to put us through action sequences as easily as philosophical discussions about this world, all of which remain fascinating because he also establishes mystery: what does The Relay really do and is Donaldson out there somewhere to be found? This is good storytelling 101.

Lastly, Andy Clarke’s artwork is phenomenal throughout, evoking names like Frank Quitely, Jon Davis-Hunt, and Ramon Villalobos. My favorite work sees Clarke impressively transition to a frenetic page design for effect. Not to reveal too much, but sound is used as a weapon. The page design really makes you feel the sonic disruption by ditching traditional panel structure for one that’s jagged and uneven. Once the attack is stymied, the book immediately returns to a normal scheme. Rarely have I seen design so effectively stimulate non-visual senses. Impressive stuff. Dan Brown’s colors are also expert, both gritty and pretty as required by the tone. It all adds up to a fantastic debut comic.

Overall: There’s so much going on in Relay #1, so many ideas and concepts, all of them fascinating, and expert storytelling by the creators keeps the book from becoming unruly. In a market thoroughly-saturated by great sci-fi comics, Relay stands out, a must-read for fans of Philip K. Dick and Ursula K. Le Guin. 9.5/10

Relay #1 is out July 11. See a preview via our friends WMQ Comics now!

Zack Quaintance is a journalist who also writes fiction and makes comics. Find him on Twitter at @zackquaintance. He lives in Sacramento, California.