Cerebral Sci-Fi Returns in RELAY

Relay #1 variant
Credit: Christian Ward (AfterShock)
Credit: Andy Clarke/Dan Brown (AfterShock)

Imagine being able to go anyhere in the universe with a door that opens to every planet ever discovered - now imagine how it could go wrong.

Described by series writer Zack Thompson as a "love letter to Philip K. Dick," Relay plays upon this amazing science fiction concept to delve into deeper cultural and societal issues - monoculture, consumerism, and frankly - going where you may not be wanted.

Drawn by Andy Clarke, Relay debuted on Free Comic Book Day with a free #0 issue - which AfterShock has now provided Newsarama in full for its readers.

With the series proper debuting this week, Newsarama spoke with Thompson about this enterprising cerebral science fiction story, the big players, and the even bigger ideas.

Newsarama: Zac, set the stage for us - what's Relay?

Zac Thompson: Relay is a science fiction epic that harkens back to the heyday of 1980’s science fiction films. The type of big action, big idea films like Robocop and Total Recall but with a more literary bent.

Moreover, it’s about the conman who sold the universe its first monoculture and the man who is combing the universe looking for him. The Relay is a giant monolith that sits in the center of any planet who joins the Relay system. The Monolith controls all aspects of society - consumerism, technology, media – you name it, it’s refined by the Relay. 

This is unabashedly my love letter to Philip K. Dick. It’s a story asking hard questions about the nature of reality and what happens when bad ideas spread like a virus and pave over other cultures.

Nrama: That’s a bi high concept, but let's get personal - who are Jad Carter and Hank Donaldson?

Credit: Christian Ward (AfterShock)

Thompson: Jad Carter is a man who works for the Relay. He’s a peacekeeping officer who on his regular days patrols the cities of Earth and ensures that people are in compliance with the ideas and rules set out by the Relay. He’s also an emissary, sent to newly discovered planets to offer them the opportunity of a lifetime: a chance to join the Relay system.

Hank Donaldson is the legendary man who “created” the Relay. He was the first emissary of the Monolith. He is a deity on all known worlds in the Relay system. He is the man responsible for the monoculture taking hold in the universe, and he is the one thing The Relay wants. Legend has it that Hank Donaldson is hiding out somewhere within the cosmos. Jad Carter wants to find him.

Nrama: So where will he go looking - what planets will Relay visit?

Thompson: Relay takes place across a multitude of planets. You’ll travel to Earth in the first issue, and each subsequent issue will take you somewhere new. I don’t want to get into much detail just yet. But Earth itself is perhaps a more refined and utopian version of the one we know today. It’s like the future you’d see in Blade Runner or The Fifth Element with one key difference: sustainability reigns supreme.

Nrama: This is science fiction in the classic sense - not just lasers and space battles, but looking into social and cultural issues - in this case, creeping monoculture. What came first, the commentary or the cool tech... or was it something else?

Credit: Andy Clarke/Dan Brown (AfterShock)

Thompson: I write theme first. So, the social and cultural issues were the most important thing for me to refine before I put pen to paper. I wanted to look deeply at how a monoculture would shape our ideas of reality. When you only have one central idea of what “progress” looks like, things tend to get skewed. Once the creeping monoculture was defined it was easy to think about what kinds of technology would exist in this world. From there, I went wild referencing things from my favorite films to build an interesting pastiche that pulls from films like Total RecallMinority ReportA Scanner Darkly, and Alien to name a few. Everything exists organically within this world and none of it is done as a wink and nod, more so, just pulling things that make sense within this world.

For example, I wanted to ensure that the idea of sound was at play in a lot of the technology we’ve built for the series. Relay’s in their most traditional definitions utilize sound heavily. So we developed a crowd control weapon called the Gib Gun. A weapon that sends out blasts of sound and is only reloaded through rotating the barrel by literally spinning the gun. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg...

Nrama: What's the pushback from other cultures in this case with the Relay?

Credit: Andy Clarke/Dan Brown (AfterShock)

Thompson: Some people remember life before the Relay. There’s people who resist the idea of monocultures and believe that this hapless search for a mythological creator is a massive waste of time. People are disillusioned by everything being refined and perfect. They want chaos to reign once more and they’re will to resort to anything to create this more unpredictable world they seek out. You’d think it would be pretty black and white between those that work for the Relay and those that don’t but even there are those within The Relay who don’t believe in its mission.

Nrama: AfterShock tells me Relay is something you conceived with Eric Bromberg and Donny Cates - how'd that come together, and what are their roles going forward?

Thompson: Eric and Donny had an original idea for Relay that they gave me a bit over a year ago. A pulpy kind of throwback to Philip K. Dick stories of old. They built it off an old PKD short, “Souvenir.” When I was brought in, I was told I could do pretty much whatever I wanted so long as I built off their vision. So while the plot remained somewhat the same, I changed all the character names and motivations, developed the world building, and created a ton of new technology. 

Everything in here is my child. I spent some time with Donny early on in developing my new take on the material but this is still my book. Like any great idea there are plenty of fingerprints on it but going forward, Relay is entirely my baby. Where this series goes will blow people’s minds because I was able to build off phenomenal ideas from some of the best minds in comics.

Credit: Andy Clarke/Dan Brown (AfterShock)

Nrama: You're working on this with Batman alum Andy Clarke - what's it like working with Andy (and working with someone of his caliber)?

Thompson: Andy is an absolute god. When I first found out we were working together, I was floored. I’ve been a fan of Andy’s work for years and was immediately intimidated. He’s had a hand in telling some incredibly compelling stories in comics. Andy’s work is intimately rendered and wonderfully detailed. He’s able to take every idea I throw at him and completely dunk it.

So, early on, I leaned in as hard as I could. I gave him things that were so incomprehensibly difficult that I figured he’d tell me to go to hell but he’s killed everything. He’s built out this world in a way that I never could have imagined. Honestly, there’s a double page spread in issue #3 that is beyond anything I could have ever imagined. My script prefaced the spread with a letter to Andy apologizing for the insanity I was asking him to pull off. But he did it, and he did it better than I could have ever imagined.

Nrama: I get a very strong comparison to the Stargate franchise from this. What would you say to that?

Thompson: I absolutely loved Stargate SG-1 as a teenager. It was some of my favorite science fiction of all time. I can definitely see where you’re coming from and going forward I plan to lean into that even more. There’s going to be even more of that going forward.

Nrama: Big picture, what are your goals with Relay?

Thompson: I hope to get people thinking about the way we consume our world. I want people to analyze what “truth” means in a world that’s moving further away from objective reality with every passing day.

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