Top Comics to Buy for April 24, 2019: The Replacer, Criminal #4, and more

By Zack Quaintance — One of the things I’ve pushed against since creating this site is recency bias. All of us—fans and critics—have a shared tendency to praise and promote new #1 comics above mid-run installments or even finales. While there is a certain and acute level of brilliance required to create a strong debut, I think we as an industry tend to lose site of just how impressive and also difficult it is to sustain an interesting graphic sequential story for five, 10, or—as is the case with one of our...     

Read More

Zac Thompson talks THE REPLACER, a new original graphic novella based on a true story from his childhood

By Zack Quaintance — Writer Zac Thompson (Age of X-Man, The Dregs) has a truly powerful new graphic novella due next month, on April 24, to be precise. The work, which is called The Replacer, is illustrated by Arjuna Susini, colored by Dee Cunniffe, and lettered by Marshall Dillon. Set in the 1990s, it tells a story from Thompson’s childhood tinged with horror genre trappings to accentuate the feelings, fears, and events.

Read More

TRADE RATING: New graphic novella THE REPLACER is a powerful example of blending genre and honest storytelling

By Zack Quaintance — The Replacer is a different sort of comicbook release for a few reasons. First is the format. This is a 64-page, full color graphic novella. What does that mean? Essentially, it means that you’re getting about three issues worth of comics (for the price of two, btw) all at once, so the story doesn’t have to take breaks. The Replacer is a dense and concentrated read with a streamlined beginning-middle-end, enabling its narrative to move with patience and really build to a crescendo without periodical trappings like obligatory last page cliffhangers, first page recaps, etc.

Read More

REVIEW: Relay #4, an unsurprisingly mind-bending return with a new artist

Relay #4 is out 2/20/2019.

By Zack Quaintance — Relay has been on a break, presumably due to the departure of Andy Clarke, who drew the first three issues of the series. In fact, the last issue—Relay #3—came out on Sept. 5, just over four months ago. In just three issues, this comic has amassed a steady set of rabid fans, folks who were respectful-yet-forceful with me on Twitter in recent weeks, asking when they should expect a new issue (I’m not any sort of official representative friends, just an appreciator of this comic).

Anyway, the point is that all seems to be behind us now, with Clarke leaving the book in favor of another uber-talented imaginative artist, Dalibor Talajic, who is fresh off drawing Relay publisher AfterShock Comics’ first-ever original graphic novel, Witch Hammer (a book we liked quite a bit). Before we delve into the individuality of this specific issue, let me just say this about the art shift: 1. Clarke was doing singular and nigh-visionary work on this comic, and it is regretful that he has now seemingly departed; 2. Talajic is a more-than capable replacement and will also do strong work. These two thoughts can and do exist. They’re not bad or good as they apply to Relay (more discussion of that in a moment), they just are.

I suppose the chief question is whether this is still the book we remember from last fall. And yes, it absolutely is. Pretty much everything that made Relay such a mind-bending and intriguing sci-fi trip is back, as are the deep thematic interests and the always-earned and never-obvious plot twists. This is still a very, very good comic that I can endorse resolutely without any sort of hesitation.

The one visual change I noticed most was that Talajic’s work lends the proceedings a grittier feel than we had under Clarke. The way Clarke drew the sci-fi worlds in Relay, they felt like a false utopia, a world that’s surface was gleaming and enlightened but its deeper reaches were a maze of psychological misgivings. Much of that remains with Talajic, yet the danger seems a bit more present, just a bit more looming. This is also perhaps by design, as the danger has become more blatant as our story has gone on. I don’t prefer either rendering—they both work and work well. Although I will note that this issue feels like a bit of a come down from the absurdly trippy heights we hit in #3.

Now comes the hard part for me as a reviewer: parsing through one of the most complex stories in comics to tell you all what to expect in terms of quality and also maybe help you to understand what might be going on. Our main characters perceptions feel as muddled as they have from the start, his ideas about what might be true and false, and who might be pushing forward misleading information and why. There is mystery around all that, but—and this is massively to writer Zac Thompson’s credit—there is never disorientation. We have a close perspective with our protagonist that allows us to experience a clear story with him, knowing what he does while wondering all his same questions. It’s a great way to take an audience through such an intellectually-ambitious science fiction story, and Thompson nails it (yet again).

The way the Relay is depicted is a perfect example of this. We as an audience don’t really know what it’s for or why...but neither does our hero. He knows it’s always been apart of the world he’s lived on (Earth), and he knows that he’s always been told it is crucial to civilization, a benefit to any and all systems. He continues to doubt whether any (or all) of that is true, while searching for the answers. I don’t know what he’s going to find, but I continue to love being part of this journey.  

Overall: With artist Dalibor Talajic now on board for at least the next two issues, Relay returns and loses very little. This issue features all the deeply-smart sci-fi themes and perfectly-executed plot twists that made the first three chapters so exciting. 9.2/10

Relay #4
Zac Thompson, Eric Bromberg, & Donny Cates
Writer: Zac Thompson
Artist: Dalibor Talajic
Colorist: Jose Villarrubia
Letterer: Charles Pritchett
Publisher: AfterShock Comics
Price: $3.99

For more comic book reviews, check out our review archives.

Zack Quaintance is a tech reporter by day and freelance writer by night/weekend. He Tweets compulsively about storytelling and comics as BatmansBookcase.

Relay #3 by Zac Thompson, Eric Bromberg, Donny Cates, Andy Clarke, Jose Villarrubia, & Charles Pritchett

By Zack Quaintance — When I finished reading Relay #3, I took a moment, inhaled, and stretched a one-syllable expletive into five or six. I don’t use much profanity (or I didn't before November 2016, ahem), and I usually say words with the regular amount of syllables (because I’m not Pauly Shore in the ‘90s...anyone get that? sorry, never mind). This comic, however, is as intricate and complex as any I’ve reviewed, as laden with disparate and heady ideas as it is with plot twists and perils for our hero.

Relay is, simply put, a precisely-executed hard sci-fi book that sets out to disorient and misdirect its reader...and then wildly accomplishes its goals. It’s why I love this book, and it’s also why I, quite frankly, find this book a major challenge to review. I, however, will bravely soldier on (hold your applause) throughout the length of this series, because I think Relay’s complexity will attract a large and loyal audience, catapulting this book into a massive hit, and also I want to engage with it on a deeper level, hopefully catching as much of what’s happening as possible before my head explodes (no regrets!).

Phew. Okay, now about this issue: in some ways it’s utterly different from all that came before, yet how it expands your perception of this story is entirely consistent with the first two issues. What actually sets Relay #3 apart is the long stretches within where Andy Clarke and Jose Villarrubia absolutely decimate eyes and minds with their artwork.

I’m becoming (somewhat) used to Zac Thompson’s whip-smart scripting and the brain twists of the story he cooked up with Eric Bromberg and Donny Cates, which point one way while suddenly teleporting another. Until now, however, Clarke’s linework has been detailed and imaginative yet fairly grounded in a futuristic vision of reality. That changes here. There is a stretch in Relay #3 where the art is grotesque in its design but stunning in its execution, abstract in a way that disorients while also serving the goals of the story. It’s really impressive, and based on the cover for Relay #4, we’re surely in for more.

As with the end of the first two issues, the final panel of Relay #3 leaves our story with an entirely new status quo. As such, I think it’s becoming clear that part of this story’s ambition is a statement about reality, showing us how fallible our perceptions are due to the inherently-limited nature of the information we as individuals have access to. We just believe so much because it’s what we’ve been told, be it history, customs, religion, politics, power structures, technology. In past reviews I’ve talked about how this story’s interests are colonialism, conformity, and God, and I think all of that is still true, but I’m starting to also suspect Relay has a point to make about the very nature of reality.  

Overall: This book is becoming more engrossing with each issue, so much so that I suspect word of mouth will soon catapult it to much wider audience. I highly recommend jumping on board now. Start at the beginning, of course, but whatever you do, read this comic—this series is not to be missed. 9.5/10

For more comic book reviews, check out our review archives.

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

Top Comics to Buy for September 5, 2018

By Zack Quaintance — Phew, this week is packed tighter with great books than the shoebox where I used to keep my comics as a kid back before I shelled out the little bit of cash to get my first short box. That probably wasn’t as clever as I hoped it would be, but you get what I’m saying all the same. This? This is a good week for comics. In fact, we even had to write up six books instead of the usual five, and even then we were still force to make some tough choices.

In fact, it’s so good that it was a real challenge to pair down my list. I can usually confidently pick out the five comics I recommend most just by looking at what titles are coming out in a given week. This week, however, I had a near-crippling amount of indecision. Anyway, Leviathan, Relay, and Snotgirl all muscled their ways onto this week’s list just by virtue of being amazing comics.

Let’s take a look!

Top Comics to Buy for September 5, 2018

Batman #54
Tom King
Artist: Matt Wagner
Colorist: Tomeu Morey
Letterer: Clayton Cowles
Publisher: DC Comics
Price: $3.99
Dick Grayson-the original Robin-gets to spend some quality time fighting crime with his mentor for the first time since Batman popped the question to Catwoman. It's a walk down memory lane as Bruce Wayne helps Dick get over the loss of his high-flying acrobat parents, which in turn led to his crime-fighting career. Guest artist Matt Wagner (Mage, TRINITY) jumps on board for this special issue!
Why It's Cool: Cool is probably the wrong word for a book that seems like it's going to be a modern classic, a touching yet never saccharine examination of the father-son dynamic between Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson. Batman's recent Cold Days arc was a near-masterpiece, but it's heartfelt and honest single issues like this seems to be \that keep Tom King's Batman among my favorite recent runs on the character. 

Border Town #1
Eric M. Esquivel
Artist: Ramon Villalobos
Colorist: Tamra Bonvillain
Letterer: Deron Bennett
Publisher: Vertigo
Price: $3.99
When a crack in the border between worlds releases an army of monsters from Mexican folklore, the residents of Devil's Fork, AZ, blame the ensuing weirdness-the shared nightmares, the otherworldly radio transmissions, the mysterious goat mutilations-on "God-dang illegals." With racial tensions supernaturally charged, it's up to new kid in town Frank Dominguez and a motley crew of high school misfits to discover what's really going on in this town torn between worlds. 

Why It’s Cool: To quote our Border Town #1 ADVANCED REVIEW, Border Town #1 is a strong start for a reinvigorated Vertigo imprint, a relatable coming-of-age teen drama in one of the least understood yet most argued about parts of the country. The art is terrifyingly detailed, and the story leans enthusiastically into time-tested horror tropes, also finding new ground by adding Mexican/Chicano folklore and mythos.

Cover #1 (of 6)
Brian Michael Bendis
Artist: David Mack
Publisher: Jinxworld
Cost: $3.99
Years in the making, from the award-winning team of Brian Michael Bendis and multimedia sensation David Mack, comes a brand-new graphic novel experience. And it's all kind of based on a true story. Sort of... Deep in the American intelligence community, someone realizes that comic book creators, who travel all over the world to sell their wares, might make the perfect cover for operatives in the dangerous, topsy-turvy world of intelligence and counterintelligence...and that's when all hell breaks loose. This is the story of the time the world of comics and the world of international spy work smashed together-with unexpected results!

Why It’s Cool: The creative team for this book have both worked with the government at various times, I believe, in consulting capacities, bringing their unique knowledge about narrative threats and the like to bear on real-world problems. It's poised to give this book—which is shaped by an excellent concept already—an added layer of honesty and truth. I really enjoyed Pearl #1 last month, the first fresh title from Bendis' reborn Jinxworld imprint, but Cover #1 looks like it's on another level. It stands to be such an honest look at life for comics pros, intermingled with an espionage story and stunning David Mack artwork. All indications are that this six-part series is going to be one to remember.

Leviathan #2
Writer & Letterer:
John Layman
Artist: Nick Pitarra
Colorist: Michael Garland
Publisher: Image Comics
Price: $3.99
"'TIL DEATH DO US PART," Part Two...While Ryan DeLuca tries to piece together exactly how his friends summoned a giant monster, government defense forces take the fight to the depths of the Earth, where monsters dwell. Then, of course, they piss off the wrong monster.

Why It’s Cool: The second issue of the new book from Layman and Pitarra (who are an unbelievably complimentary team, btw) really hints at a much different book than I was expecting. I won’t go into detail about a comic that’s not out yet, other than to say that if you liked issue #1 you’ll love this one, and, even if you didn’t like #1, I’d still recommend giving this a chance, because it’s quite possible this book is up to more than you think.

Relay #3
Writer: Zac Thompson
Story By: Zac Thompson & Donny Cates
Artist: Andy Clarke
Colorist: Jose Villarrubia
Letterer: Charles Pritchett
Publisher: AfterShock Comics
Price: $3.99
In the future, the galaxy is united under a monolith known as the Galactic Relay. Although the towering monument is meant to inspire conformity of ideas, technology, and progress, it is not without its enemies and many have begun to resent the foreign structure. And now, Jad Carter, a Relay employee, has found the Relay’s mythological creator. An interstellar mug causes a complete breakdown of reality. Jad travels inside the Monolith but it raises more questions than answers.

Why It’s Cool: The most complex and intricate sci-fi book on the shelves market that is booming with great entries in the genre. Relay #3 expertly builds on the themes and complexity of its first two issues, while giving artist Andy Clarke some space to blow readers minds the way the story by Zac Thompson and Donny Cates has so far. This entire creativity team is firing on all cylinders. This book is a slow burn, but I’m starting to suspect it might end up being a mega hit. If you haven’t been reading this, I’d highly recommend grabbing all three issues this Wednesday, setting aside roughly 90 minutes of very quiet time, and diving all the way in.

Snotgirl #11
Bryan Lee O’Malley
Artist: Leslie Hung
Colorist: Rachael Cohen
Letterer: Mare Odomo
Publisher: Image Comics
Price: $3.99
NEW STORY ARC! Chapter 11: "MY SECOND DATE.” While her friends have some concerns, Lottie just wants to take her relationship with Caroline to the next level-which is why she's keeping it a complete secret!

Why It’s Cool: I mean, it just is (that’s a joke from the issue). As I Tweeted immediately after finishing this issue, there's a lot of comics that comment on our times, but Snotgirl does so in a really unique and refreshing way. Its interests are seemingly innocuous, but look closer and this book is often just as scary as comics about war or fascism. Content deals heavily in social media, vanity, modern priorities and values, and the price of appearances, all through an incredibly relatable and terrifying prism of neurosis.

Recommended New #1 Comics for September 5, 2018

  • Bully Wars #1
  • Dreaming #1
  • Jinxworld Sampler #1
  • Old Man Logan Annual #1
  • Silver Surfer Annual #1

Others Receiving Votes

  • Captain America #3
  • Cosmic Ghost Rider #3
  • Dead Hand #6
  • Death of Inhumans #3
  • Deathstroke #35
  • Eclipse #10
  • Giant Days #42
  • Immortal Hulk #5
  • Justice League #7
  • Paper Girls #24
  • Seeds #2
  • Thanos Legacy #1
  • Unexpected #4
  • Unnatural #3
  • Walking Dead #183

See our past top comics to buy here, and check our our reviews archive here.

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

REVIEW: Relay #2 by Zac Thompson, Andy Clarke, Jose Villarrubia, & Charles Pritchett

The Relay features a story conceived by Zac Thompson, Eric Broomberg, & Donny Cates.

By Zack Quaintance — The Relay, as those who read the first issue are aware, is an epic science fiction story about messiah figures, the evolution of ideals, the safety of conforming, and colonization. In issue one, we glimpsed daily life on Earth—complete with dissident unrest. In issue two, the focus shifts to how denizens of powerful Earth interact with colonial worlds. The Relay #2, however, is far more than just a statement about imperialism, which has been done often in modern sci-fi.

No, in this issue the book places a welcome and heavy emphasis on ideological debate. It’s nearly impossible to go into specifics without tipping the twists—of which there are nearly half a dozen—but I’ll try my best now to discuss what this story is about and why I found it so engaging.

Essentially, The Relay #2 examines what happens when a dissident’s original teachings evolve into dominant rule, inherently turning them against the values of the dissident who created them. If it sounds familiar, that’s because it’s likely intended to be. There’s a Jesus allegory at work here. Historically, Christianity in its earliest throes was subversive, a loving approach to life under Roman oppression. Christianity ultimately won, of course, and so the society we live in now is shaped by its rule. Basically, the same teachings that were once subversive have assumed power, gaining the ability to do the oppressing or to grant rationale for colonization (it’s all a good deal more complex, but that’s my own abbreviate, comic book review take).

In The Relay #2, this allegory is clearly tipped when one character is surprised to meet another, blurting Jesus, you’re really him, to which the subject character responds, I’ve been called many things, but never Christ-like a line as one could conceive of. It’s all very complex, and this is a text-heavy issue, to be sure, but the team has done such great foundational work establishing mystery and stakes (what’s more important than the fragility of a protagonist with a beloved and deeply-held world view?) that simple conversations in this issue are as tense and compelling as any laser battle or lightsaber duel could ever be.

In my The Relay #1 review, I drew comparisons between that comic and the writing of Ursula K. Le Guin or Philip K. Dick. This second issue re-enforces that comparison, especially to Le Guin, whose own anthropological sci-fi is such a clear influence. Le Guin is my favorite science fiction writer, as well as one of my favorite writers period, which is perhaps why I’m loving this comic so much. Simply put, for fans of hard sci-fi or complex societal explorations in comics, this series is not to be missed.

Overall: The Relay #2 continues establishing this series as one of the smartest comics today, diving deeper into the anthropological concerns of the debut. Heady and dense, the stakes here involve our perception of reality itself. Is there anything more consequential? This book makes readers work hard, to be sure, but the intellectual payoff is well-worth the effort. 9.5/10

For more comic book reviews, check out our review archives.

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

Best New #1 Comics of July 2018

The new comics fireworks started July 4th and just kept coming. Groan, I know. But anyway, the most impressive thing about this month’s new #1 was the wide variety of stories they told. So many boxes got checked by these books: New Orleans plus horror and drugs? CHECK. Encouraging new direction for Amazing Spider-Man? CHECK. Ethereal exploration of death that reads like literary magical realism in graphic format? Somehow also CHECK.

July’s variety of #1 comics speaks to a major change in the industry: a broader and expanding audience is fostering broader and expanding demand. You know what that means? That’s right—broader and expanding supply. Or, more and weirder comics. With this in mind, it’s easy to be bullish on comics right now, and the entries on our list today re-enforce why.

Let’s do it!

Quick Hits

The Long Con #1 came out the Wednesday after SDCC, telling a story about a never-ending apocalyptic con. Its timing was perfect and its concept sharp. Read our full review.

Cliche alert! Catwoman #1 was a (fancy?) feast for the eyes. The story and art—both by Joelle Jones—were phenomenal. Most importantly, though, Jones gets Selina...the aesthetic, narration, villain...nigh-perfect.

I saw Donny Cates at SDCC on a panel about Image Comics. Someone was Cates, obviously, put Pantera on his phone and growled into his mic, WELCOME TO IMAGE. This is also the aesthetic of his latest Marvel #1s: Cosmic Ghost Rider and Death of Inhumans, which are both madcap and grandiose.

Mariko Tamaki and Juan Cabal had to follow Tom Taylor’s excellent 3-year run on All New Wolverine. Tough challenge. In X-23 #1, however, the team meets it, preserving the best of Taylor’s work (the heart) while also heading in a horror-tinged new direction.

Everyone said read Bone Parish #1 by Cullen Bunn Jonas Sharf. They said it was excellent, frightening in a way I wouldn’t expect. Everyone was right. Bunn’s latest horror book (of an estimated 19) is frightening in a way you won’t expect, either. Now I’m the one urging you to read it.

Speaking of horror, check out Clankillers #1, a gritty story about gaelic mythology. Read our full review.

Ever think to yourself: I’d love to read Miami Vice meets Fast Times at Ridgemont High? Of course not, few probably have, but someone is writing it as a comic and it’s a winner. The Mall by Don Handfield, James Haick, and Rafael Loureiro is a solid debut, rich with ‘80s camp. Recommended.

James Tynion IV and Alvaro Martinez nailed Justice League Dark #1. In a summer of strong new directions for DC, this is one of the strongest, with stellar art and gleeful depictions of the publishers oft-underused bench.

Vault Comics (one of our favorites) has had a great year, and Submerged #1 is the latest book to become a part of it. Vita Ayala and Lisa Sterle craft a story with intriguing family dynamics, a natural disaster, and a potpourri of mythos. 

It’s tough to evaluate Brian Michael Bendis’ debuts via Superman #1 and Action Comics #1001. Bendis is a prolific and veteran writer, a student of superhero history who thinks in eras, not in single issues. So far, he’s established tones and started unveiling his the vanguard of his plans. The full scope of his aspirations, however, largely remain to be seen.

Top Five Best #1 Comics of July 2018

Unnatural #1 by Mirka Andolfo

This book lives in an intriguing world of dystopian reproductive laws, one that has enabled Italian comic auteur Mirka Andolfo to craft a story that is at once poignant, tantalizing, and horrific. This issue is the first of 12 parts, and I knew about halfway through reading it that I was onboard for the long haul.

To quote our Unnatural #1 Review: Andolfo clearly has strong thoughts about the intersection of sex and government, but she is also well-aware that those thoughts are best served by first and foremost telling an entertaining story. As a result, Unnatural #1 is not to be missed. And we very much stand by that.

Captain America #1 by Ta-Nehisi Coates & Leinil Francis Yu

Early indications are strong for Ta-Nehisi Coates & Leinil Yu on Cap.

This debut fittingly dropped on July 4, and it’s the best single-issue Captain America story I’ve read since Ed Brubaker’s all-time great run ended. Ta-Nehisi Coates is a writer I first became aware of via his articles in The Atlantic, before then reading his non-fiction works, specifically Between the World and Me. When he came to comics in the spring of 2016 to write Black Panther, I enthusiastically added the comic to my pulllist.

And Black Panther has been decent enough, a little wordy and dull in parts as Coates struggled to reconcile the new medium with his writerly instincts. With Captain America #1, any and all growing pains are clearly behind him. Coates and collaborator Leinil Francis Yu have made a declarative statement with this book...this is going to be a dark and action-heavy take on Cap, one that will test Steve Rogers with problems that grow out of his past continuity as well as the modern state of the U.S. It won’t be heavy handed, no, on the contrary the book seems bent on making its thematic intent slow-burning and subtle. Come along if you dare. Read our full review.

Amazing Spider-Man #1 by Nick Spencer & Ryan Ottley

I think it was in one of those retailer columns on Bleeding Cool that I read about someone saying a back-to-basics well-done Amazing Spider-Man book could be the industry’s top seller. Well, we’re about to find out if that’s true. Nick Spencer and Ryan Ottley’s debut on Marvel’s flagship title is almost indisputably those two things: well-done and back-to-basics.

We here at Batman’s Bookcase, however, have now written two full pieces about why we like it, so rather than trying to find a facet of the comic we haven’t explored, we’ll just wrap up quickly here by pointing you toward our Amazing Spider-Man #1 Review and our 5-Panel Amazing Spider-Man Explainer.

This is easily one of our favorite covers in recent memory.

Euthanauts #1 by Tini Howard & Nick Robles

Remember way back at the start of this piece when I mentioned an ethereal exploration of death that reads like literary magical realism in graphic format? Well, here we are. The Euthanauts #1 is a unique comic, as self-assured as any debut issue in recent memory. It does understated and deliberate work familiarizing you with a relatable character, one who is maybe even a bit on the mundane side, before fitfully plunging you into a world where life and death intermingle.

Someone on Twitter asked me recently if this comic was good, and I told them yes, very good, but pretty abstract and best consumed in a way where it just sort of washes over you—read twice for good measure. That’s how I read it, and it has been haunting me ever since. I can’t wait to see what this creative team has in store for this story. Oh, and I should also note that as mesmerizing as Tini Howard’s ideas are, this without question seems to be one of those ideal books wherein her and artist Nick Robles lift each other, both seemingly poised to do career best work. Read our full review.

Relay #1 by Zac Thompson, Eric Bromberg, Donny Cates, & Andy Clarke

While reading Relay #1, I got a feeling I’ve maybe only previously had while emerging from a classic sci-fi novel. Basically, this comic reads like layered and complex sci-fi being doled out by an engaging plot line, one with evident shades of the masters of its genre, namely Philip K. Dick and Ursula K. Le Guin.

I really dug Relay #1, to the point when someone recently asked me what books I was reading (always a difficult question to answer on the spot), I stumbled around for a moment before just blurting out: Relay. For more on why I enjoyed the first issue of this book so much...that’s our full review here.

Thanks as always for reading, and make sure to come back this week for our Best Comics of July 2018, period.

Check out more of our monthly lists here.

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

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.

REVIEW: Her Infernal Descent #3 by Lonnie Nadler & Zac Thompson, Kyle Charles, Dee Cunniffe, & Ryan Ferrier

By Zack QuaintanceHer Infernal Descent is the story of Lynn, a mother literally marching through hell in search of her recently-deceased family. Put simply, it's one unique comic. A loose retelling of Dante’s Inferno, it stars a fairly typical mom plus a host of dead celebrities, from Jimi Hendrix to Homer (Odyssey not Simpson) to Kafka, ironically serving as a judge.

This issue is three of five, and in it, the qualities that made the first two installments so interesting have been upped: dry humor, surreal encounters with departed artists, and the melancholy motivating Lynn to traverse literal hell. There’s quite a bit to be impressed with, both holistically as well as within this singular issue, but let’s start with the writing.

The duo of Lonnie Nadler and Zac Thompson are on the rise, catching much buzz with their work on Marvel’s Cable, taking over Valiant's Bloodshot, and writing the excellent body horror book Come Into Me. Although it’s early in their careers to brand them with a regular motif, I’d still say this book seems like a departure, at once under and overstated—understated with its characterization of Lynn and overstated with the absurd hell unfolding around her.

The cover of Her Infernal Descent #3 is an excellent summation of what this book's art does so well, juxtaposing the protagonist's outward normalcy with her madcap and macabre surroundings.

The mom-ness of our hero is so well done, especially in interactions with deceased members of the intelligentsia. She’s unimpressed but tolerant of William Blake yet thrilled to meet Agatha Christie. When Andy Warhol tells her he’s trying to be nice, she replies Try harder. She uses old school mom-typical expressions like Hey buster, Oh for Pete’s sake, or ...that time I smoked the danged reefer. Obviously these writers aren’t mothers, but they seem to be working hard to see and convey their own moms' perspectives. The result is a character who is utterly relatable.

The real heart of the book, however, is Lynn's regret over her lost loved ones. In this issue, hellions try to torture her with her own memories in a poignant spread that nearly brought me to tears. We also see Lynn recall that normal life had perhaps pushed her to drinking. Like the earlier charm, these tragedies are never belabored, and that's a credit to the scripting.

The visuals, of course, also deserve much credit. Kyle Charles and Dee Cunniffe are a versatile team, capable of both quiet emotions and of depicting hell. They bounce between these modes, often integrating them into shared environs. The cover to issue three is a great example. We see Lynn with her practical haircut and dress navigating a labyrinth of the macabre. Within this cover, Charles and Cunniffe so thoroughly convey her driving mission so well that ifI think about it too long I’ll get emotional.

On that note, I’ll conclude by noting this book is built to hurt your heart, badly, the moment she reunites with her family, and I for one am there for the devastation.

Overall: In Her Infernal Descent #3, the qualities that make this comic so enthralling are ratcheted up, resulting in the best issue yet. This is a literary comic of the highest order, a well-constructed story rich with melancholic moments, intelligentsia in-jokes, and a layer of subtle charm. 9.0/10

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