In Review: Stronghold #1

This story starts small and then explodes to galaxy shaking levels. Recommended.

The cover: There are two covers to pick up for this premiere issue, if the Earth hasn’t been destroyed yet. The Regular cover is by Ryan Kelly with Dee Cunniffe, the interior artist and colorist for this issue. Bodies float in a murky water. In the distance a car can be seen and fish swim about indifferent to the bodies. They are especially indifferent to Michael Grey who strolls at the bottom of this body of water toward the reader, wearing his suit and tie and carrying while briefcase for work. This is an odd image that’s been used to promote this series and it teases the opening action sequence. This illustration is enough to create interest without spoiling anything. Having read the issue, this is stellar. The Variant cover is by Tyler Walpole and is one that teases this series’ cosmic nature. Michael Grey stands in a doorway at his work, between the kitchen and the cubicles. His body has become a silhouette and contains a nebulae of space, as does his shadow on the floor. This is absolutely a representation of what is revealed in the final pages of this series. Overall grades: Both A 

The story: Phil Hester’s story opens with Michael Grey on a bus in the rain that’s stopped due to an accident ahead on a bridge. A car is perilously close to going over. Oddly, as he stands next to others, he calculates how people die and what age they die at. The dangling car suddenly topples and Grey breaks through the officers and jumps after the vehicle. In the water he finds the car and rips the door from the vehicle to take a child out of the backseat. At the surface, he passes the child to a rescue worker danging from a rope. The man puts out his hand for Grey to take, but when he says Grey is going to be a hero for his actions, the hero pulls back and allows himself to sink. Underwater, far from prying eyes, he stands on the bottom and looks at his hand and thinks, ‘You know better than anyone how dead you should be right now.’ This man is obviously not what he seems. The next two pages show Michael at home and his actions and narration are killer. It’s on the next page that Hester introduces another character, Claire. Where she goes is the Stronghold and I can’t tell you what this place is; it would spoil a good portion of the story. She is reunited with Holdmother, who’s a very aggressive person, and an important male figure. These three know something most do not and the relationships among them are going to be interesting. Page 16 shows Michael is not a whole person and is aware of it. The last panel on the page shows that he’s really not aware of one person. Page 18 contains the moment that sparks the conflict of the series and I was happy to see that other characters realized that the answer a character gives was not appropriate. It’s dangerous, in fact. Page 23 presents the premise of the series and I like that justification for how Hester delivers it; very believable. It’s the last two pages of the book where everything changes. It’s violent, emotional, and leaves me wondering where in the world this series will be going. I love stories that start small and build to galaxy shaking proportions, and this series is definitely that. I am so ready for more! Overall grade: A+

The art: Ryan Kelly has got an unenviable task: make something unreal look real. The book opens with boring, everyday Grey sitting on a bus considering death. The exterior and interiors of the bus look good. Outside the vehicle, Grey reacts realistically at the top of Page 2 to seeing the child in jeopardy. The fall of the car is good and his leap into the water is dramatic. When he easily tears the door from the vehicle it’s impossible not to think of any number of super powered comic book characters who’ve done the same. In fact, Grey’s pose in the first panel on 4 would only need a cape attached to him to explicitly resemble a famous Kryptonian. After this action, the surprise on Grey’s face when he’s called a hero will be mirrored on the reader’s face as the character pulls away from the rescuer. Page 5 is mostly a full-paged splash, save the panel that shows the choppy waters. Seeing Grey consider his hands underwater, as fish swim by and the fallen car expels bubbles behind him, is a shocker. His casual journey on 6 is bizarre, but it’s supposed to be. There are no super powered moments on this page or 7: it’s as humdrum as can be. This would gather no attention from any reader, had he not just walked underwater. Claire’s introduction is neat, starting with the flash of a symbol that will undoubtedly come into play later in the series, and which leads to a setting of James Bond scale. Holdmother’s design is different, but as the issue progresses makes perfect sense. The skirmish that follows is fun, with the visuals teasing at the top of 11 how things will end. The disgust that ends 13 is a great visual for dramatic irony. The setting where Claire and the male character go is worth exploring later, as Kelly teases much in the background, but nothing is touched or addressed. 15 also has another great bit of dramatic irony at its end. I admit to being floored by the ending of 16. It’s a perfect panel where the visual speaks more than the text on the page. All that’s missing is ominous music. I loved the mild flirtation on 17, with Michael sporting his first smile of the issue. The anger on 18 and 19 is obvious and solidifies the trouble one character will cause in future issues. I’m the last person to consult on fashion, but I admit to going to my wife and daughters, with my children being 17 and 20, to ask if what the woman is wearing on 20 is typical and was told it was fine if someone liked to wear vintage, so any concerns I had about this outfit were stopped. The settings from this point on are very well done, very believable. They have to be given what occurs on the final two pages. Page 25 has two shocking actions, while 26 goes graphic. They are quick, but are necessary to validate information that’s been stated. They leave me wanting to see how far this story and Kelly will get to take things. Overall grade: A

The colors: There are no splashy (no pun intended based on the opening) colors on this issue from Dee Cunniffe. Everything that occurs has realistic coloring. This was a smart way to play this book because it makes all the events seem possible. The brick red borders that surround some panels make the action occurring within them solemn. Silver and white become immediately important in the Stronghold and I’m guessing that these colors will be heralds of future actions. Notice how the borders around the panels in the Stronghold went gray, which is similar to elements of action within them. Very nice. For the remainder of the book these borders change their colors to give an emotional tone to the events on the page. There’s some clever coloring when the power goes out on in a location and continues to be out in the final setting. The final pages feature a hand written letter that’s given a yellow shade to mark what could be the cowardice of the writer and to show that it was written on the closest paper at hand. There’s also some nice reds on the final page, though they, too, are tempered by the lack of a light source. A solid job on every page by Cunniffe. Overall grade: A

The letters: Simon Bowland has created dialogue, Michael’s narration, sounds, the writing in a card, yells, a hand written letter, and the three word tease for next issue. I was happy to see differentiation between the dialogue and narration and between the writing in the card and the hand written note. By making them visually different Bowland is showing the reader they are different forms of communication. I appreciated that. I especially like the hand written note which comes off as a quick scrawl, which it undoubtedly was. Overall grade: A

The final line: This story starts small and then explodes to galaxy shaking levels. I loved it. Michael and Claire are great characters and I’m looking forward to seeing how they change over the course of the series. The visuals are firmly grounded in reality which makes things startling when something impossible occurs. I’m really looking forward to more reveals and how quickly things will go otherworldly. If you want something different, this is it! Recommended. Overall grade: A

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Patrick Hayes was a contributor to the Comic Buyer's Guide for several years with "It's Bound to Happen!" and he's reviewed comics for TrekWeb and TrekCore. He's taught 8th graders English for 20 years and has taught high school English for five years and counting. He reads everything as often as he can, when not grading papers or looking up Star Trek, Star Wars, or Indiana Jones items online.
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