Most comic readers will know the name of Judd Winick from his work on Green Lantern, Batman, Catwoman, and Marvel’s Exiles, to name just a few. His earliest work, writing for DC, established him as an award-winning writer, with his classic run on Green Lantern. But a few years later, he would gain notoriety for his work on Batman, in which he brought back the character of Jason Todd, the second Robin. But it was his work on Catwoman that would lead to his return to creator-owned work and his first all-ages book.
While Hilo is not his first all-ages project, it is his first all-ages comic book. Winick’s first published work was a comic strip Nuts and Bolts for the Michigan Daily newspaper. And in 2005, he created the Cartoon Network original series “The Life and Times of Juniper Lee.” Currently, he is a writer for the Hulu animated series “The Awesomes.”
Winick’s best works always begins with a personal connection to the story. His complex and moving book Pedro and Me is an autobiographical story of his close friendship with Pedro Zamora, the AIDS-educator and activist who died in 1994. In the case of “Hilo,” it began with his son asking to read some of the comics that Winick has written. Unfortunately, all of the books that Winick was writing for at the time were written for a much older audience. Even his seminal creator-owned book for Oni Press, The Adventures of Barry Ween, Boy Genius would not be appropriate for younger children, due mostly to its mature language. So he decided to create a book that he could share with his kids.
The story begins in medias res, with D.J. and Hilo running for their lives from a giant, robot ant that is chasing them with obvious, murderous intent. Predictably, the sidekick D.J. trips and falls. As the giant killer robot ant closes in for the kill, Hilo leaps to his friend’s defense, exhibiting abilities that demonstrate that there is more to this boy than meets the eye. The mystery of Hilo and his origins are the focus of the story, though surprisingly little is actually revealed. While this lack of an understanding of Hilo’s true nature would be frustrating coming from most other creators, in Winick’s hands, this is part of Hilo’s charm.
After the cliffhanger introduction, the story then leaps backwards in time to introduce the cast, beginning with the narrator D.J. Within his back story, we are also introduced to Gina who has returned after her family spent three years in New York. We get to see both D.J. and Gina interacting with their families which not only serves to develop their characters but helps to flesh out the world these children live in, making the narration feel more genuine. D.J. often laments that he isn’t talented the way his siblings are, in tennis, chemistry, ballet, etc. But throughout the course of the story, it is obvious that D.J.’s compassion, loyalty, and bravery are his gifts. On the other hand, Gina is immediately shown to be brilliant and witty with a passion for astronomy, though her mother wants Gina to be a cheerleader like her sisters.
Hilo has dropped, quite literally, into D.J.’s life, arriving in an impact crater wearing only silver underpants. Suffering acute amnesia, Hilo’s past comes to him in bits and pieces, usually in the form of dreams. He exhibits extraordinary powers as well as a fondness for puzzles, belching, and narcolepsy. As they attempt to unravel his mysterious past, Hilo, D.J., and Gina are beset by killer robot insects.
The denouement sets up the conflict that will, of course, be explored in the second book, scheduled for a May 17, 2016 release.
It’s hard to believe that Winick hasn’t been drawing regularly during the years that he has been focusing on writing. His style is as charming and elegant as ever. The cartoony feel that was introduced in Barry Ween has evolved into—not a simplistic style, but rather an economic one that clearly reflects the influence of Bill Watterson. Complex emotions are conveyed deftly with an expression. Scenes of battle and high adventure feel comical (and for younger readers safe) without losing that sense of actual peril.
The writing is some of Winick’s finest. The story is engaging but relatively simple and lighthearted. D.J.’s narration betrays his introspective intelligence despite his claims of acute averageness. The characters all feel like unique individuals (Gina’s sisters notwithstanding) just in their dialogue alone. And the ongoing conflict with the army of robot baddies is exciting without being too scary for younger readers.
One thing about this book that I noticed right away was how quickly D.J. bonded with Hilo. It’s a fascinating phenomenon that children form friendships very quickly and easily. And best friendships are no exception. Unlike the rest of the book, the dialogue in that one scene feels stilted and forced. But the immediacy of their connection feels genuine. This friendship is the core of the book, and readers will walk away feeling that they have just been included in a companionship that is altogether unique.
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Hilo Book 1: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth by Judd Winick
Age Range: 8 – 12 years
Grade Level: 3 – 7
Hardcover: 208 pages
Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers (September 1, 2015)
"Hilo: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth" by Judd Winick
We all have friends who are special, friends who have had a profound impact on our lives, friends who have unique talents. But Hilo is something else. Silly but powerful, brilliant but innocent, Hilo is that certain special friend who leaves a lasting impression.