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Review: The High Ways

Highways-CvrAScience fiction is a pretty traditional genre; there are expected tropes, expected characters, and expected settings. The very best sci-fi, of course, manages to take these things and keep them recognizable, but show them in a slightly different way. Take, for example, Whedon’s Firefly. It was set on a space ship, followed a group of smugglers led by a captain with a heart of gold, and there was a vaguely defined, vaguely evil empire ruling the galaxy. Firefly worked so well because it took those tropes and used them to tell stories about very clearly defined characters, and because it was set in a believable, realistic future. Saga continues to work because it takes some classic sci-fi and fantasy tropes and uses them to tell a huge story centered around an intimate and engaging relationship between two characters.

John Byrne’s The High Ways does none of these things.

Byrne attempts to tell a story just as huge as Saga, with mad scientists and drugs and galactic shipping and space exploration. The only problem, though, is that Saga is ongoing, whereas The High Ways is a four issue miniseries, and the narrative suffers for it. The first issue clips along at a good pace, pulling in the reader with an interesting world and setting up an interesting mystery: newbie Eddie Wallace, Marilyn Jones, and captain Jack Cagney (intergalactic truckers, essentially) spend eight months traveling to make a pick up, only to find that there’s no paper trail and no record of the request. Instead, they find themselves in a mysterious, possibly government funded research station. That right there is enough for me; unfortunately, it wasn’t interesting enough for John Byrne.

After the initial setting up of the mystery, the narrative kicks into high gear in a way that doesn’t really make sense. Suddenly there’s a splash page of some crazy, amoeba looking alien that’s never explained, and then there’s a naked man running around outside without a space suit, and then there’s a huge space ship containing a mad scientist and his crew, and then there are drugs, and then there’s a space battle. And it turns out some people might actually be robots. It was impossible to deepen any aspect of the characters or the story because there were so many twists and turns that just didn’t make sense. Too much too fast, everything and the kitchen sink. Any one of the ideas above could have made for an interesting story, and it’s a shame that Byrne felt like he needed to use them all at once.

Thankfully the art is a different story. The ship and equipment design is excellent, the backgrounds are consistently detailed, and the panels on each page are always well laid out. In fact, I might go so far as to say that the page layout in The High Ways is some of the smoothest, most readable I’ve ever seen; there’s a reason John Byrne’s style has been used as an instructional tool. Leonard O’Grady’s colors do a really excellent job differentiating characters, which is necessary as several of the faces are drawn in a similar manner. But aside from that, the colors, while bold, lend the series a sense of style not unlike classic sci-fi B-movies, giving The High Ways a fun and slightly campy feel.

At the end of the day, The High Ways could have been so much more than the sum of its parts. Unfortunately, we got stuck with a multitude of sci-fi tropes that just don’t fit together.

Story and Art: John Byrne Colors: Leonard O’Grady
Story: 4 Art: 8 Overall: 5.5 Recommendation: Pass

IDW Publishing provided Graphic Policy with a FREE copy for review