As a sucker for spy thrillers, it’s not easy to admit that good spy fiction is hard to find. Intelligent spy fiction is even harder. That this book provides both is what makes The Dead Hand such a joy, albeit not a surprise. Spanning from the end of the Cold War to the present day, The Dead Hand tells the tale of Carter Carlson, a black-ops agent who while infiltrating a Soviet Base discovers a secret that would change his life and the world as a whole. You may think you’ve heard this story before, but you’ve not seen what happens if you let Kyle Higgins, Stephen Mooney, Jordie Bellaire, and Clayton Cowles loose with the concept. When you consider the caliber of the creative team and their collective bodies of work, how it could be anything other than excellent.
What can be said of writer, Kyle Higgins, that hasn’t been said before on this site and elsewhere? He excels at intimate character studies, and The Dead Hand is no different. In Carter Carlson, he paints the picture of a man whose head is filled with the comic book ideals of the 1960s only to discover that life doesn’t adhere to the same strict moral code. A solider who models himself after idols, but is painfully aware of his shortcomings. Through a number of montage sequences Higgins allows his collaborators to have some fun and stretch their artistic muscles, while introducing us to the dirtier element of espionage that Carlson has become accustomed. Higgins uses third-person narration as the driving force behind the story, something that has fallen out of fashion of late, but acts a wonderful vehicle for informing us about our central character. In many ways, it speaks to the detached manner in which Carlson carries himself, that a career such as his requires. It also pays tribute to the spy literary tradition of yesteryear and adds a welcome twist of pulp to this delicious cocktail of genres and styles. Yet even with all we learn about Carlson in this issue, he remains a mystery to us and is all the more interesting for it. To say any more would be to risk spoiling a story that really must be experienced with fresh eyes.
Artist Stephen Mooney is no stranger to the world of espionage from his previous work on Half Past Danger and Grayson. There is a harder edge to Mooney’s linework than usual that speaks more to the latter’s sensibilities than the former’s, but it is nonetheless an example of master craftsmanship. Each page and panel is filled with engrossing artwork that displays an extensive literacy in the genre. Mooney has cut loose once more in displaying an incredible dynamism in his panel composition and action scenes. The Metal Gear Solid influences make for some stunning character designs that are a cosplayer’s dream. Carter Carlson’s design in particular is lovingly showcased across a number of splash pages that tell us as much about him than anything else. It’s all this and the choice use of negative space that secures his position as one of the finest visual storytellers in the business today.
The ever-busy Jordie Bellaire continues to use her colours in increasingly imaginative ways, presenting a stark difference in tone between time-periods. In doing so, she manages to successfully transport us back and forth in time with ease. Subtle reds and blues permeate our exploration of the twilight days of the Cold War, while bright yellows guide us through the wholesome town of Mountain View in the present day. Clayton Cowles’ lettering is on-point, but that shouldn’t shock anyone. What’s impressive is the way his caption boxes emulate the feel of a military report. It really helps to cement our protagonist’s background and mentality in our collective psyche.
The John le Carré comparisons are sure to be numerous, but they are warranted. Not as a jab, but a mark of quality. The Dead Hand owes much to that tradition of spy fiction that dares to present the ugliness of espionage and critique the politics at its core in more than a superficial way. Crucially, however, the book is not bound by that tradition and succeeds in integrating the more fantastical Metal Gear Solid branch of the spy fiction. The house that Kojima built never shied away from social commentary either, but the juxtaposition between the two approaches allows for those grittier moments to hit harder. This is a book that is happy to offer a surface level adventure, but delights in snapping the readership out of their complacency. The Dead Hand is not only capable of being read multiple times, on different levels, but demands it.
The political climate The Dead Hand finds itself in is one consumed by the legacy of the Cold War. There is arguably no better time for this story to be told. This book is packed with the all-star alumni of the Bat-Office, each bringing some of the best work of their career. This is a book you are going to want to know as little about as possible going into it. So let yourself get caught in The Dead Hand’s grip, you won’t regret it.
A review copy was kindly provided by the publisher.