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Review: Echolands #1

Generally, I’m pretty ambivalent about whether I get a physical copy of a comic or a digital one. I like reading on a screen a little better, but physical copies are sometimes larger and can be shared around easier. 

After two pages of reading my review copy of Echolands, I was certain that I had to get the physical version, because I now had a primal need to experience this story in the biggest goddamn format possible. With lengthy double-page panoramic shots across wide landscape-format pages, and dozens of art directions and aesthetics intersecting in fascinating ways, Echolands feels like a story so big that a screen struggles to contain it.

If you’ve ever read a book with art by J. H. Williams III, you know that you’re getting lusciously detailed art arranged in brilliant panel layouts. If you haven’t read a book by this guy, then fuck, here’s a great place to start. Frankly, Echolands would be great if it was in the hands of more conventional storytellers. In the hands of this virtuoso creative team, it’s phenomenal.

And though J. H. Williams III is the superstar name here, when I say “virtuoso,” that includes every member of the team. This book wouldn’t have the spark of life it does — not to mention it would be so intricate as to be difficult to read — without the vibrant heart provided by Dave Stewart’s colors. And speaking of difficult to read, panel layouts this ambitious eat lesser letterers for breakfast, but Todd Klein delivers. Each speech balloon is placed to guide you smoothly through the pages of the comic, which is a feat. On top of that, it delivers extra personality with a beautiful font and a slightly organic texture to the speech bubble itself. 

It would be a fool’s errand to try and guess which parts of the writing belong to J. H. Williams III and which to Hayden Blackman, because their creative partnership is so close that it all melds seamlessly together. They’ve been co-storytellers for years, and friends far longer, which makes for incredible synergy.

But in case you were wondering, Hayden Blackman can write your pants off. During the last big push Star Wars made with its expanded universe, The Force Unleashed, his writing managed to humanize Darth Vader’s “secret apprentice.” He took an unkillable uber-badass out of a parody of a parody of a fanfiction, and gave him the heart of a wounded puppy and a satisfying character arc. To underscore how difficult that is to do in a AAA video game: at any point in time, you can lose a pivotal moment in the story and need to rearrange everything because the ice level it took place on ended up being unplayable. Good video game writers are some of the most talented people on the planet. 

Now, once you get past the majestic lustre of its presentation, is the story of Echolands #1 good? Fuck yes, it is. Learning more about the characters and the world is a delight page after page. Every word and every panel draws you deeper in, until you find yourself at the last page thinking “fuck, now I have to wait for the next one?” 

The setup is a pretty straightforward first act so far, but I would argue that’s a very smart choice. When you’re shoving this much raw creativity in the audience’s face from the get-go, sometimes you need a more traditional story structure for readers to cling to, like a life raft in the middle of the ocean. We don’t need a complex story in the first issue, we just need plot momentum and engaging characters to draw us into this world of dreams and nightmares, and they more than deliver that. 

Hope and Cor are great, their dynamic is fun, and their goals propel the story along nicely. I don’t want to say much more than that, because it’s a treat to experience the rest of it yourself. 

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Home Sick Pilots #7 Review

Thinking back on some of the concerts I’ve been to, the ones I remember the most clearly and fondly aren’t my favorite bands. I mean, they’re bands I really love, but not at the top of that list, y’know? 

The concerts I remember the best are the ones where in between songs, while grabbing a sip of water or something, the frontman would tell us a story or crack a joke. Keeping a crowd of hundreds attentive while you do that is no small feat, and requires a ton of charisma, but it makes the experience much more personal and memorable. 

This comic is pulling that off and making it look effortless. If the second arc of Home Sick Pilots has proved anything so far, it’s that the creative team doesn’t need to be playing power chords to keep our eyes glued to the stage. 

The very first panel of #7 makes you feel the clear and crisp mountain air of the pacific northwest, the color palette and lighting immediately establishing a different feel for this scene than any other part of the series thus far. We’ve seen plenty of blue before, but this is the warm blue of a new day’s sky. Everything tells us that we’re farther than the ghosts than we’ve ever been.

And yet Ami still carries part of them with her. 

Caspar Wijngaard’s phenomenal art maintains a sense of continuity even as we immediately jump back to the previous arc’s climax, reinforcing warm daylight shades of blue as the natural world and the unnatural pink glow as a ghostly violation of that world’s order. 

We also see some of our first real splashes of bright orange in our protagonists’ outfits, as if they’re adopting the colors of the day to ward off the terrors of the night. Ami’s orange beanie even covers up her Danny Phantom hair when it goes ghost (so of course it immediately gets lost right before she uses her powers). 

This issue also includes the first scene where the colors go fully natural, and it feels very deliberately like no other scene in the comic. Watters tees the scene up with richly three-dimensional characters and a great eye for choice of scene, and Wijngaard knocks it out of the park with outstanding character acting.

Seriously, I could talk about the storytelling and symbolism in Wijngaard’s color choices for the rest of this review, but I’ll spare you because I figure you get the point by now. It’s really fucking good.

Like in issue #6, excellent character development and worldbuilding keep the reader invested through the downtime. Of the two, this one’s heavier on the character development. The developments in the status quo for our protagonists feel natural and earned. The time skip was a fantastic idea, because it forced the characters to adapt to new circumstances and reexamine their priorities in the wake of what happened in California. Everyone from Ami to Meg to the Old James House itself has a strong new goal driving them forward, which gives the story momentum and really engaging stakes. 

Where the first arc was about surviving trauma, this arc seems to be about living with it. The ghosts-as-PTSD metaphor has an incredible amount of potential, and Dan Watters is doing great work bringing it to the fore. 

Any Home Sick Pilots review would be incomplete without mentioning Aditya Bidikar’s lettering. The borderless speech bubbles don’t get enough credit for how they help define the look of the comic, and a familiar jagged speech bubble’s return takes an incredibly eerie page over the top.

Every time I write a review for this series, I find myself wondering if I’m going overboard with my praise — but the thing is, they’re never content with repeating past hits. Every issue has been another step forward, evolving their sound further by doing something you didn’t think a punk/ghost/mech story would attempt and nailing it. I’m just impressed.

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Comics

Infinite Frontier #1: A Multiverse of Possibilities

Infinite Frontier #1 is a gorgeous, engaging, occasionally very clever comic that seems to shoot itself in the foot every five pages. It’s turned the repercussions of DC’s last event into a genuinely compelling story about people grappling with the implications of the multiverse and manages to make several short scenes with many characters across multiple worlds all feel like part of a cohesive story.

However, the book begins with Batman’s Semi-Evil Alternate Universe Dad-Who-Is-Also-Batman arriving on another alternate Superman’s earth in yet another alternate Superman’s rocket. I’m all about reinterpreting superhero symbols and stories by putting them in other contexts, but this feels like it’s lost all meaning in the process. Now, maybe Flashpoint Batman has a lot to add, but even if I believed he was necessary to this story, his introduction is such a jarring instance of superhero Mad-Libs that it isn’t worth it.

The surprise wore off as I realized that the DCU contorting itself around Batman is, for better or worse, the most natural thing in the universe. Smart money says he’ll join Justice Incarnate, filling in that Batman-shaped hole on the roster. 

The bit with Batman is used as an example of “multiverse insanity impacting regular folks,” which segues directly into a gorgeous two-page spread. We see the shape of the multiverse, while online comments give us ordinary people’s perspective on suddenly learning of the existential crisis. This opening is involving enough it let me forget about the convoluted setup of the first few pages. And it’s all anchored by Tom Napolitano’s incredible

The text boxes are designed in such a way that they’re clearly excerpts of social media, but they’re kept clean and streamlined enough that you parse the dialogue immediately. It’s hard to pull off, but the effect feels like the reader is pulled into the world of the comic just as the panels zoom in on Earth-Prime.

The story moves naturally to follow the Green Lantern Alan Scott and his team of reality-protecting heroes and villains who formed in the wake of the last crisis. Despite being queer, I’ve never cared much about Alan Scott, but his dynamic with his son Obsidian is fun and hints at a lot of character depth for both of them. Obsidian is understandably tired of duty after duty calling his father away, escalating from protecting a city, to the world, to the whole damn multiverse. What keeps this character beat from feeling like a trite retread is that Obsidian gets it. He’s a superhero, too; he knows the pressures, the demands, the responsibilities. He doesn’t begrudge his father for what he’ does, but he wants things to change, too. 

Reintroducing Agent Cameron Chase and Director Bones is an easy sell to fans of the characters, but if you’ve never seen them before, their first scene will make you love them. At the same time, it digs into the fact that people learning of the multiverse is causing existential crises on a global scale, bringing a new and appreciated non-powered perspective of an Event Comic’s™ fallout.

The standout art moment of the book comes when Barry Allen tries to access the multiverse’s new mystery world, Earth-Omega. He’s forced through different art styles and different modes of reality, seemingly just from talking to one of its inhabitants. It’s great to see Xermanico and Romulo Fajardo Jr. flex, but this doesn’t just look gorgeous, it makes you stop and process how surreal this moment must be from Barry’s perspective. The splashes of red between panels make you feel like violence is being done to the page itself, and I’m living for it.

Of course, this ends with Barry in a bad position — one he could have avoided entirely if he just waited for the rest of Justice Incarnate before heading off into the unknown. It feels like an oversight more than a believable mistake, which is a shame because there’s a lot of great writing surrounding it.

The last scene of the book might be my favorite because it just begins with random people in a diner discussing their hazy memories of the end of the world and the implications of the multiverse. It makes the world feel tangible in a way that superhero comics have trouble with as it engages with some interesting ideas — particularly once a crisis-denier starts talking, going off on how he’s never seen any of the crazy shit like gods or apocalypses in person, and it’s all probably being used to keep us in line. 

That hits different in 2021, as we deal with our own constant string of crises and horrible reveals about the nature of the world, and some people retreat into their own constructed realities to avoid reckoning with their beliefs.

There’s an opportunity for Infinite Frontier to expand on those ideas, and use the comics medium to talk about how people handle (or hide from) the craziness of our world. For all of my criticisms, none of them are deal-breakers if you’re used to DC comics madness, and there’s a chance this comic could be something really special. All of the right ingredients are there, and the creative team is on fire, but we’ll have to wait and see what Williamson has cooking before we can call this a success. 

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Comics

Home Sick Pilots #6 Review

I’ve always heard that it’s the sophomore album that’s the tricky one, particularly if you find success early. It’s where you have to prove that you weren’t just a fluke, that you didn’t catch lightning in a bottle without any way to repeat it. It’s a struggle just to meet that high watermark again.

So changing your setting, your perspective characters, and your vibe at the start of your second album is a pretty risky call, right? 

Home Sick Pilots doesn’t give a damn about that. The feel of this arc is immediately, distinctly different, and the way it plays against the tone of previous issues makes you feel like the team is in full control of the story they’re telling. There’s great characterization, eye-popping visuals, and genuine emotion in the first four pages, and it only builds momentum from there.

Writer Dan Watters manages to quickly recap previous events without ever feeling like a recap, which is great because a lot of this issue is more exposition. That usually would feel like it’s slowing things down, gating the juicy story progression and character development behind little lectures. Not here.

Issue #6 feels like having a backstage pass, getting a private tour of the things that go bump in the night, and it handily manages to develop the world at the same time as it propels Meg and Rip’s characters forward. 

It’s tricky business, revealing what’s behind the curtain for the mystery villains of the last volume, but the team nails it. They feel human, relatable, intelligent, fun, and incredibly dangerous. There’s a certain honesty to everything they say, which is impressive considering how manipulative they are. In another, less self-aware version of this story, they’d be the heroes. In Home Sick Pilots, they’re the band that sells out.

Caspar Wijngaard’s colors edge towards warm yellow and sunlight for the first time in this issue, really making you feel the distinct shift in tone and location. However, the color schemes remain deliberately restricted, muting and desaturating some hues to make the blue, pink, and blood-red really pop. It’s a tool that’s used to remarkable effect, subtly directing the feel of each panel and page. 

For me, the thing that really seems to make the color scheme work is Wijngaard’s commitment to it. Most comics would have some anchoring details that keep one foot in reality, but Home Sick Pilots doesn’t even give its characters typical flesh tones, letting them reflect the light of the scene and rendering them in blue or purple or another cool color. (That’s cool in the “color warmth” sense, though it is also very cool in the “fucking rad” sense.) The effect is a sort of dreamlike heightened reality, and I’d love to see more creators explore the space it creates. 

The lettering is uniformly excellent, of course, but when Aditya Biyakar gets the chance to cut loose and hand-letter something absolutely deranged, he kills it. Seriously, just look:

And that’s only one highlight. When a character screams, you feel it. When something explodes, it does so with a sound effect that doesn’t just seamlessly blend with the art of the page, it enhances the composition and storytelling.

My biggest criticism of the series so far is that General Rzor and Rip have pretty similar designs. They’re easy to tell apart when right next to each other, even wearing the same outfit, but their jawlines and dark floppy hair make them look like they could be brothers. 

And if that’s the worst thing I can think of about this book, I’d say it’s a pretty big success.