Written & Created By: Brian Joines
Illustrated By: Jake Elphick
Colored By: Doug Garbark
Lettered By: Jim Campbell
Covers By: Marco D’Alfonso
Publisher: Oni Press
Available: November 18, with a cover price of $19.99
Sometimes, all a girl wants is to drink herself into oblivion and forget the fact she got a loved one killed.
Allyson Levy, former wheelman extraordinaire, had been doing just that. Had been doing just that for the past half year, give or take, and was doing a bang-up job of it, screw you very much.
Then HE had to show up. Some smooth-talking, smarmy businessman type going by the name of Casper Quellex, with a proposition to offer: if Levy participates in—and wins—a cross-country road race, he’ll arrange it so she can go back and right the wrong that’s damned her. And he’s got fairly convincing proof he can pull it off, too.
The winner is first one into the parking area at Dodger Stadium—a mere 30 miles from the starting point.
This isn’t just any cross-country road race.
They’re going the long way.
Coming this November from Oni Press is Backtrack: Volume One, collecting the first five issues of Brian Joines’ sci-fi, time-skipping, Deathrace 2000-esque thriller about car races and redemption.
Joines’ premise is an intriguing one: a mysterious, seemingly magic-wielding individual approaches various and sundry individuals, all with significant driving skill and all with a life-altering cross to bear, some source of guilt related to a single event that he offers them the chance to relive and remake…provided they win his race.
A race that stretches across time and space, depositing our misfit group of wheel jockeys amongst dinosaurs, plague-ridden Romans, an earthquake-shattered Chinese countryside and Cold War era Berlin (on the wrong side of the Wall). All for the entertainment of a mysterious cabal of far-future idle rich who like their car races the deadlier and gorier, the better.
Joines’ structure is a fairly simple and very effective one: each issue/chapter starts with a one- to two-page flashback to “Alydexterous’” (her lost loved one’s pet name for her) previous life, each one moving us closer to her downfall, then it’s off to the races (other than the first chapter, where we meet the curious Mr. Quellex). Each leg of the race ends in the confines of a kind of pocket dimension garage/hotel, where the characters rest and argue, then get back at it.
As intriguing as the primary plot arc is, however, it wouldn’t hold a reader’s interest for an ongoing series without some effective character interaction and development, and thankfully, Joines offers that aplenty. His characters, outside of some early and quickly dead Joe Nobodies, are fully three-dimensional and intriguing—and Joines resists the temptation of giving us the standard full background round robin, which serves to sustain curiosity and intrigue for those characters we’re not quite sure on, yet. I mean, we know they all have some major skeleton in their closet, but we don’t get to visit all their individual armoires and hence, aren’t quite sure on some of their motivations beyond their dialogue and behavior. And, truth be told, I find myself actually wondering about some of the early kills, wishing I’d heard their stories—which is indicative of how interesting the surviving Joe Somebodies are.
The characters’ dialogue is brisk and effective, and Joines also isn’t afraid to have foreign language-speaking characters speaking in their native tongue—absent translation. I like this device, because it both engages a trust of the reader and invites us further into the characters’ heads: Levy has no idea what the ancient Chinese guy is saying to her, so why should we?
Also, over the five issues in this collection, we see a growing—and necessary—bond between the characters, who gradually come to the realization that teamwork is going to be necessary to survive this race, let alone win it. Joines handles this development well also: each character comes to this discovery at a different pace and to differing degrees, and each with different triggers. A lot to keep track of, but Joines’ handling of it flows effortlessly, and makes the characters all the more real for it.
Pretty words and well-constructed dialogue and setting is all well and good if you’re reading, say, Great Expectations. Or even the history of NASCAR. This here’s one a them funny picture books, though, and an action-heavy one at that. And that means art.
Jake Elphick and Doug Garbark have us covered, though.
This is an action heavy book. And by heavy, I mean borderline obese. There’s action in the main arc, there’s action in the flashbacks—heck, there’s even action in the in-between times when there isn’t supposed to be any action. Thankfully, Elphick captures all of the movement with ease and fluidity. Interestingly for a tale centered around a car race, the vehicles themselves are fairly nondescript: real car models are hinted at, but not definitively. This ends up being a good choice, because really, the story isn’t about the cars. The story is about the people. And that’s where Elphick shines.
Again, with this kind of setting—a frenetic race against and through time amongst a host of characters all with some dark tints to their souls—it would be easy to blur the individuality of each character, especially beyond our main “heroine.” Elphick’s renderings, however, (as well as Joines’ dialogue) provide each driver their individual look and personality, making for a much more Joss Whedon-esque ensemble cast feel to the story.
And Garbark’s colors help, too. Wow, do they. With the variety of times and places explored in the series, Garbark gets to play with a diverse spread of palettes and finds the way to create an independent look and feel to each setting, while maintaining the consistency of our primary characters (and vehicles). Visually, this makes for a gorgeous experience, but mentally, it makes for both the continuity and the dissonance the reader needs to truly feel what’s happening to these characters.
And kudos as well to letterer Jim Campbell: he’s got a workman’s job in this one, finding ways to fit all the words of all those characters within all of the tight and frantic action going on. Bonus kudos to Campbell for fitting in all the foreign-language dialogue just as boldly. Interestingly for an action epic, the team chose not to include sound effect wording, allowing Elphick’s art to speak on its own (and likely because there’s so much going on, in both action and dialogue, that there just isn’t room for it!).
Truth be told, this trade edition is a little light on extras, though given how good the story and the art are, you’re still getting plenty of bang for your buck. Basically, there’s copies of each of Marco D’Alfonso’s covers (which are seriously cool and worth the price of admission on their own—all with the feel of a ‘60’s or ‘70’s action movie poster), and some character roughs from Elphick. Like I said though, this one’s got enough of a main course to not require much in the way of garnish.
So, get your orders in at your LCS, or pre-order at Amazon—or watch for Backtrack Volume One on ComiXology. While the floppies are and have been out throughout this year, the trade collection will hit shelves, both wooden and digital, November 18, and will set you back $19.99 (or 2/3 the cost of seeing Mulan, ‘cept you get to keep this one).
Review by Andy Patch
Contributing Editor, thePullbox.com