Review: ‘Hilo Book 1: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth’
Judd Winick’s entry into the comics field was something of an explosion, no doubt propelled by his celebrity as a cast member on one of the earliest seasons of one of the earliest reality TV shows, MTV’s The Real World. In 1999 he launched The Adventures of Barry Ween, Boy Genius, a comedic series about a foul-mouthed 10-year-old super-genius at first Image and then Oni Press, one of several shorter works Winick did for the then-new Oni. The following year he released the memoir Pedro and Me, about his friendship with his fellow Real World cast member and AIDS educator Pedro Zamora, through Henry Holt.
For much of the last decade and a half, however, Winick has been known in comics primarily as a writer, rather than an artist or cartoonist, having devoted himself mainly to a series of ongoing assignments on DC Comics’ superhero titles. His last work for DC was the 2011 relaunch of Catwoman, which he left after a year. So what’s he been up to since?
Returning to his roots as a cartoonist, apparently, and producing what is easily his best work in that decade and a half, the first installment of a multi-book original graphic novel series entitled Hilo.
Comics readers may not have seen much in the way of new art from Winick over the last few years, but he’s clearly been drawing, as this is some of highest quality artwork. It still has the look and feel of Winick’s earlier work–that is, you wouldn’t be surprised to hear who drew it after seeing it–but it’s much cleaner and crisper, more refined and more assured. It flows beautifully from panel to panel, making the fast-paced action comedy seem still fleeter still.
The main character is D.J., the middle of five children and the least remarkable of the bunch, in terms of obvious talents or after-school activities. The only thing he was ever any good at, he tells us, is being friends with Gina, a neighbor girl who moved away a few years ago, leaving him all alone to stew on his own ordinariness.
He makes a new friend in Hilo (pronounced “High-low”), an amnesiac boy who crashes to Earth wearing only a pair of shiny silver underpants. Hilo doesn’t seem to be from around here, not having any idea what grass or milk or clothes or burping are. That’s in addition to apparently possessing a rather full catalog of super-powers.
Winick mines the situation for cliched but genuinely charming fish-out-of-water comedy and keeps ramping up the tension around D.J.’s fear that Hilo will be discovered, as his naive new friend introduces himself to his family, enrolls himself in D.J.’s school, and befriends Gina, who just so happens to return to town on the same day Hilo does. Ironically, D.J.’s efforts tend to make him seem just as weird as, or weirder than, Hilo.
There’s dramatic tension, too, as Hilo gradually remembers things about his past while he’s dreaming, and robot monsters begin to follow him to Earth and cause trouble. Winick’s years-long output of piles and piles of superhero comics might not have yielded any material that was all that great, but he certainly became intimately familiar with various superhero tropes, and here he repurposes them into all-ages adventure comics elements and gags.
Savvy readers (i.e. grownups) will be able to pick at various influences and inspirations, and likely admire the ways in which Winick has riffed on them. (I particularly enjoyed the running gag that develops from the generic kids movie meeting between the main character and one more fantastical, where the kid starts screaming in surprise or fear and the fantastical character echoes the scream; here, Hilo assumes it’s an Earth greeting, so says “Aaaah!” every time he meets someone new.) Younger readers will simply laugh.
Kids’ comics might be new to Winick’s resume, but he’s not necessarily new to children’s entertainment, having created the animated series The Life and Times of Juniper Lee, which similarly blended a normal kid into a fantastical genre storyline. That experience likely informed Hilo as well, with its highly animated action sequences and lines of dialogue that seem to scream to be performed aloud as much as read.
Kids’ comics are a nice fit for Winick’s big-headed, four-fingered, all-expression art style, though, and if Hilo is any example, the change in audience has brought out the best in Winick’s writing.
As is the case with his title character then, I guess it doesn’t matter so much where Winick came from or how he exactly he got here–I’m just glad he’s here now.
About J. Caleb Mozzocco
J. Caleb Mozzocco is a way-too-busy freelance writer who has written about comics for online and print venues for a rather long time now. He currently contributes to Comic Book Resources' Robot 6 blog and ComicsAlliance, and maintains his own daily-ish blog at EveryDayIsLikeWednesday.blogspot.com. He lives in northeast Ohio, where he works as a circulation clerk at a public library by day.
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