After 13 years and in excess of 100 issues of his hit comic book sitcom come conspiracy thriller Strangers in Paradise, you'd think the work of Terry Moore would be a known quantity. But no.
Echo has elements of the essentially self-published series with which its cult creator made his name, including realistic female leads, an unpredictable romantic triangle and some corporate corruption, but beyond these superficial similarities, it's a distinct thing both narratively and thematically, as delightful in its own right as it is demonstrative of Moore's myriad talents.
Like all the best things in life, it begins with a bang: an almighty explosion high in the sky, the fallout of a live munitions exercise gone awry. The Heitzer Nuclear Institute (hereafter HeNRI) has fashioned a battle suit from a revolutionary new alloy, but when project lead and pilot Annie Trotter dies during the final phase of its testing, all is thought lost.
That would be that... were it not for Julie Martin, an unfortunate photographer who happens to be in the desert when everything goes to hell in the heavens above her head. Instead, shrapnel from the battle suit adheres to her like a second skin.
As if Julie's life weren't complicated enough! In the midst of a long-delayed divorce, she's an emotional mess; meanwhile her sister needs round-the-clock care, her dog isn't eating, and now, to make matters worse, she's covered in shiny metal. At the hospital, immediately after her near-death experience in the desert, doctors dismiss Julie as a prankster, but when HeNRI is made aware of her involvement in the accident, its top dogs take her very seriously indeed. They dispatch NSB agent and mother of one Ivy Raven to bring their target in... at any cost.
State Park Ranger Dillon Murphy may be Julie's only hope when the company finally catches up with her, but he's Annie's man, and who knows what he'll do when he finds out about his new friend's ties to his partner's tragic passing?
There's so much more to Echo than the above, but I'm going to leave it at that for fear of spoilers. Half the fun of this wild ride is in seeing where it's headed next, anyway. One senses that was the case for Terry More, too, because the series changes gears repeatedly, sometimes suddenly, altering everything from the division between former friends and enemies to the very genre Echo operates in. At the outset, it seems to be a fairly straightforward superhero origin story, but the second arc is all horror and high-octane action, the third revolves around a biblical clash, and in subsequent volumes, far-fetched science fiction segues into oddly topical science fact.
Admittedly, all this gives Echo a bit of a schizophrenic feel. What it is at any given moment is no guarantee for what it was, or will be, and some sections are more successful than others: the subplot revolving around Hong the jawless is nonsense, and the middle act is painfully prolonged, but the beginning is brilliant, and though a fair few loose ends are left to dangle - such that you can easily see a sequel series - the climax still satisfies.
So the narrative is neat, but don't buy this book for the story: buy it for the fantastic characters. As in Strangers in Paradise before it, Echo's main attraction is its core cast members, whose incremental development carries through the complete series. Never mind what everyone's up to — where Moore excels, on the writing side, is in showing how events affect them and their perspective. The Julie of the last chapter is a far cry from the Julie we meet in Echo's opening issue... and I've hardly said word one about Ivy Raven, my favourite character by a massive margin.
Art-wise, Moore is as impressive as ever, and his work here is particularly consistent. His set-pieces especially are extraordinary - sweeping and detailed yet clearly rendered - but even amidst a five-part arc that would be better entitled Talking Heads, his pencils demonstrate a mastery of the minute: facial tics, posture and body language communicate as much about Julie as her dialogue ever does.
That said, I could have done with a little less fan-service, sir.
But let's not end on a bum note. Like Jeff Smith's Bone bible, The Complete Edition of Echo represents tremendous value for money, collecting all 30 issues of the mostly monthly — and unlike the series on either side of it (though seemingly complete, Strangers in Paradise is due to return in 2013, meanwhile Moore views his gorgeous horror comic Rachel Rising as an ongoing endeavour) Echo is over, and there's a lot to be said for such singularly satisfying, self-contained stories in a landscape so prone to the bloated or overblown.