The Dead Hand #1
Publisher: Image Comics
Writer: Kyle Higgins
Artist: Stephen Mooney
Cover: Stephen Mooney & Jordie Bellaire
Colors: Jordie Bellaire
Letters: Clayton Cowles
Reviewer: Steve Sellers
The Dead Hand had not initially been on my radar, though it really should have been. A Cold War spy thriller involving some notable names within the comics industry would be enough to grab my attention. However, we’ve seen many kinds of stories told within the Cold War espionage genre, particularly at Image, so it takes something special to stand apart from those. While this is a solid creative team, I was curious what they might do to take it to the next level.
At least in principle, there is something worthwhile about this series. The concept that they’ve taken with The Dead Hand is an intriguing one, and it’s a good setup for a long-term story arc. This is a genre that thrives on secrets and illusions, and The Dead Hand has both of these things in abundance. The question, however, is whether the execution would hold up to that promise.
Although the result is somewhat mixed, The Dead Hand sets up a promising new espionage thriller.
Though the cover doesn’t really tell that much about what the story is, it is an effective image that evokes the spy genre. The framing of the characters against the empty background, with stylized action poses, makes it clear what the reader is in for in this respect. There is quite a bit of empty space in this cover, but this is offset by Jordie Bellaire’s excellent colors, which uses contrast to make the image more lively. The use of dark red and deep black also helps to establish the Cold War vibe and evokes the flavor of Soviet-era Russia. The lettering and the logo on this image also work quite well, and the Russian-inspired font for the main title helps to reinforce the setting. While it is a simple cover, it catches the eye well enough and it establishes genre effectively.
One of the strongest points of this issue is the art, capably provided by Stephen Mooney. In the first place, it does an excellent job of establishing the gritty tone of this series. The characters maintain a heroic stature, though there’s a sense of detail in the background and the action that help build the tension of Cold War espionage. Action sequences are direct and brutal in their presentation, rather than presenting a stylized take on the spy genre. At the same time, these scenes are well contrasted against the Mountain View scenes, which present an image of an innocent American town. The visual storytelling is clear and cinematic, presenting locations and characters with depth, while also moving the action smoothly. The final splash page with the big reveal looks dramatic, with a good wide camera shot that focuses on the important story points.
Jordie Bellaire is one of my favorite colorists currently working in the industry, and her strengths are evident in this series. Because this particular issue adopt two distinct tones—the idyllic American town sequences and dark espionage thriller—the coloring plays a strong part in conveying that. Not only does Bellaire manage to present those tones well, she also makes them feel natural and seamless. There’s never a sense at any time like the two sequences don’t belong in the same comic, and the lighting and shading make a large difference in that respect. This is particularly clear towards the end of the issue, where the red backgrounds echo those in the flashback sequences; this reinforces the thematic ideas of violence that we see earlier on in the issue. Even where the story itself struggles a bit more, the images are striking, and this is in large part because the coloring makes the most of the line art.
Because this is a narrative-heavy issue, the work of Clayton Cowles is greatly appreciated here. Much of the story is told through narrative captions that explain the backstory leading into the situation at Mountain View. Because there is so much text at work, it takes a good letterer to manage space so that the text is both readable and economic. Cowles manages this balance and makes it look surprisingly easy, especially with the amount of panel space he has to work with in some instances. The captions work quite well, providing an old-school style with the font and the text boxes. Though this may not necessarily have been the intention, it does help to evoke the late Cold War flavor of the comic. The background text also works quite well in establishing setting, especially with the signs in the town of Mountain View, helping to sell the small town atmosphere.
Kyle Higgins is perhaps best known for his work at DC, most recently his excellent Nightwing: The New Order, but he does reasonably well in establishing the world of The Dead Hand. While the lead-up leads the reader to believe that this is a simple espionage tale, the actual concept of the book is deeper and much more interesting. This becomes especially noticeable when the story turns away from Carter Carlson and more towards the setting of Mountain View, where the real ideas for this series begin to take shape. At this point, Higgins introduces the real complication of the piece and how this sets up bigger consequences that will play out in future issues. I’m curious about what The Dead Hand actually is, and how Carter’s decision connects to the long game that Higgins in playing with this.
Unfortunately, as much as the basic story structure and the concept work for me, I take issue with the storytelling approach, particularly in setting up the character of Carter Carlson. Too much of this book plays the game of “tell, not show”, using numerous pages with narrative captions to give the reader information about Carter. This is unnecessary, and in fact is a missed opportunity, because it might have worked better to slowly dribble that information out as we get to know Carter over time. I was far more struck by Carter’s brutal act at the end of the comic than I was about his life’s story in the narration; that speaks more to who he is than the recap of his childhood. In fact, I think I would have been more drawn in if the comic had gone from Carter’s opening mission directly to the introduction of Mountain View. This would then have raised an interesting mystery about why Carter is in his current situation and what Mountain View truly is. Unfortunately, Higgins gives us too much information too soon, and in an inelegant way, and that undermines what could otherwise be a great first issue.
That having been said, this is otherwise a solid story, and none of the narration issues actually break the story in any real way. This is still a reasonably well-written book, and the Mountain View scenes by themselves offer a promising start to this title. By the end, I was able to care about the people involved with the story and appreciated the thought that Higgins must have placed into this concept. Hopefully, the execution will improve in future issues, but for now, it suffers from some clunky exposition.
While this comic does suffer from some storytelling flaws in the execution, The Dead Hand is nonetheless a worthy and engaging first issue. The larger story is a compelling one, and it intrigues me just enough to see what the creative team has in mind for the long term. The ending twists help to sell the concept, and more than overcome the earlier narrative flaws.
I’m curious what will happen in the aftermath of Carter’s actions this issue and the resolution of these mysteries. Consequently, The Dead Hand earns a death-dealing 8.5/10. This is a perfectly good comic, though there is room for the book to get even better than it currently is. As things stand, I have faith in Kyle Higgins and the rest of the creative team to tell a great story. Given the time to grow into its potential, this book could well be a top-quality title in the future.
Written By Steve Sellers
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