Christopher Sebela and Jonathan Brandon's "Welcome Back" #1 opens with a clever title and a double meaning. On the cover, the "L" is colored pink, so that "Welcome Back" can also be read as "We Come Back," giving the reader a double hint about the reincarnation concept that drives the story.
Sebala's idea of "sequel" warriors chasing each other throughout history for endless battles to the death takes its cues from Eastern philosophy and religion, in which souls are bound throughout the ages and reenact old loves or hatreds until enlightenment can alter the cycle of reincarnation. Sebala's version has compelling mechanics, although the origin of purpose of these assigned roles is kept back from the reader.
The scene in which Mali breaks her boyfriend's nose by accident reveals her physical strength and foreshadows the awakening of her memory of past lives. The breakup conversation feels familiar but uninspired. It's realistic enough, but the reader isn't invested.
Further characterization for Mali runs along the same lines. Her angst places her easily without making her distinctive, even with her extraordinary backstory. She's sympathetic, but it's the events that feel remarkable, not her voice. Sebala attempts to deepen her characterization in the girls' night in scene with Mali's friend and housemate Shena. The two stay up late and bond, but the timing is too convenient and the dialogue tries too hard to show them as regular girls while filling the reader in on Mali's past. I get that Sebala is showing the reader so much of Mali's everyday life and thoughts to build sympathy for her, but the characterization isn't strong enough to justify all the panel time it consumes. Tessa's scenes are more functional, but she's also too flat a character, as she has no life outside her mission.
Sawyer draws great action scenes. His figures have energy and grace in them. Zamudio's daytime scene feels poorly lit, but his night sky looks great and he is careful to preserve the detail and depth of the linework. The transitions are often abrupt and the reader can get lost in all the choppy scene and camera angle changes. All the back-and-forth is meant to build suspense for the Tessa and Mali's inevitable re-convergence, but there's too much of it and it makes the first issue too choppy. Some of the disorientation is probably meant to add urgency or heighten the emotion in the blurring of Mali's nightmares and her real life but, even then, there is too much redundancy between the words and the pictures.
The pages and panels are cluttered with too much text. Besides obscuring Sawyer's background details, they also slow down or interrupt the flow of action. In an attempt to make things easier on the reader, the textbox voiceovers are colored in yellow. While this does make them instantly distinguishable from the dialogue balloons, the color also has the unfortunate effect of making the voiceover narration dominate over the dialogue and the art, both of which are stronger forms of storytelling.
Sebala's voiceover narration has good rhythms, but his prose is too purple, especially for a long stretch in the middle when Mali and Tessa's voices intersect. These passages try too hard to be profound, and Sebala would have done better to trust more in Sawyer's strong body language, which is able to convey mindset and mood without fuss or melodrama.
It was inevitable that Carl, Mali's dead stepfather, would come back into the plot, but the last page cliffhanger still packs a punch. Sawyer's page composition and character design perfectly set off Sebala's neat plot twist. Carl's dialogue feels fresh too. While his character will add some fun to the pages, he may upstage Mali in future issues.
"Welcome Back" #1 is marred by uneven storytelling but, even so, the concept and visual energy are unusually strong and -- with the much of the exposition out of the way -- future issues may offer a smoother read.