In Review: Stronghold #2

This is the science fiction, mystery, conspiracy you're looking for.

The cover: The terrifying form of the Teacher holds the grandson of Rosa in his hands that are made up tendrils that resemble tree limbs. The character’s face is purposely placed in silhouette to spur the reader to open this book and start the tale. Making the background purple is a good way to highlight the black portions of this character and its red eye, as well as draw attention to the fleshy infant. This is an excellent tease by Ryan Kelly with Dee Cunniffe, the interior artist and colorist. Even better, this cover takes place on the second page of this issue. If you like this cover, you’ll like what’s inside. Overall grade: A

The story: Take about a major change up! Phil Hester’s story starts somewhere in an unnamed South American country. A small building is surrounded by several armed soldiers, while within Ignacio presents the Teacher with several papers he’s prepared. They show where chaos is building, occurring, or lessening around the world. The large alien Teacher makes comments on what he reads, “Things are slowing in Syria. Increase arms shipments to all sides. Arrange for more car bombings in Kandahar. If a coalition soldier so much as throws a piece of candy into a schoolyard, I expect –” He stops from the crying going on outside. Ignacio reveals that it is cook Rosa’s grandson who was born with a defect in his heart. Teacher tells the man to bring the crying child to him. Holding the baby, his fingers wrap around the child until it disappears silently within his entwined fingers. Their work continues without any distractions, until the incident in St. Louis is discovered. “A child saved from a flood. Too perfect,” Teacher says. “Make preparations for Colonel Junipero’s team and myself to travel to St. Louis immediately.” The creature states that his centuries of hunting may finally be at an end. Its fingers unravel to reveal the toddler healed. What a way to introduce a powered up antagonist! The book then moves to Michael Grey who has one heck of a reoccurring vision. After this he leaves his transportation for the street, where he encounters two groups: one he wasn’t expecting, the other he was aware of. Two new characters are shown doing something devious, before the story returns to the Stronghold, where Holdmother is speaking to a group and makes a dramatic decision, which will have repercussions on several characters. The final three pages have a startling surprise that will change the direction of this series considerably. I was already intrigued by the premise, but this ending has me eager for the next installment. Overall grade: A+

The art: Ryan Kelly gets to create an incredible variety of images in this book. Right on the first page is the Teacher. This character is a bizarre looking creature I’ve not encountered in other books, and I’ve read lots of them, so kudos to Kelly for a neat design. The hands of this character are a horror as they wrap around the baby; reminded me of Swamp Thing’s classic transformations. The setting that Teacher and Ignacio are in teases the location of the site without it being explicitly stated in the text. The full-paged splash on 5 is awesome, with a hand in a very bad place. The first six panels on the next page create a great sense of motion as the reader is pulled away from an intense close-up a character, only to find this person in a horrible situation. Page 9 shows a threat about to occur, only to be upstaged by something else entirely. I really like the design of the weapons by this group at the bottom of the page, with Michael’s reaction to their appearance being so calm. The action on 10 is graphic, but befitting the weapons. The response at the top of 11 is good, which foreshadows the actions in the panels that follow. Pages 12 and 13 introduce two characters in a highly detailed location. I was really impressed with this setting and how Kelly moves the point of view around so well, with the character on the ground often the focus. I love that the object that causes a change is plainly shown in the first panel on 12 and is teased again at the top of 13; I’m always impressed when an artist puts something right in front of the reader who doesn’t realize its importance until it’s used. Holdmother has the iconic villain panel at the bottom of 16 which looks terrific. I really like the design of the instruments that become key to the story on the same page and 17. They look almost organic, which is what one would expect given the appearance of all the Stronghold’s futuristic tech. Pages 18 and 19 are good glimpses into the normal, clueless world of humanity, save the appearance of one character. But with a turn of the page, 20 is full-paged fright fest that has echoes of classic EC Comics’ horrors. Kelly cuts loose in spectacular style on this page that has me craving more of his work. Overall grade: A

The colors: Take note how colorist Dee Cunniffe emphasizes Teacher’s appearance by using a light violet for the borders around the panels that are the same color as the alien’s skin. Very cool. The crimson eyes of Teacher accentuate this creature’s horrific design. The dark colors of Teacher swallow the warm colors of the baby on Page 2 in deviant fashion. The reds on Page 5 are stellar. They continue on 6 making the character and the location macabre. This provides a neat contrast to the cool blues that follow. Placing Michael’s narration boxes in a light yellow make the text stand out, but because of the color choice, make his words seem off kilter. Take note again how the graphic action on 10 uses violet as a background color — a throwback to Teacher? Violets are used withing the Stronghold for characters’ clothing and some very unique devices. The strong use of this color cannot be coincidence. Overall grade: A

The letters: Simon Bowland creates this issue’s text which includes dialogue, baby cries, whispered text, narration, transmissions, and the three word tease for next issue. I am happy to see that dialogue and narration are not only differed by the shape and color of their balloons and boxes, but they are different fonts. It’s a little thing, but as two different forms of communication, they should look different. The whispered text is a good way to pull the reader into a speaker’s thoughts on Page 3. There are no sounds in this issue, save the baby’s wails, but there could have been some in the action scenes atop 10. Given the ending of this book, I’m hoping to see sounds next week. Overall grade: A-

The final line: The mysteries continue as a group changes its direction and a new player goes to the park. I love the teasing of the story, with some elements obvious, but most plot threads still not clear. Michael is only briefly in this issue, but is still confused after the events of last issue. Holdmother is quite the evil entity, though Teacher looks to usurp that title. The visuals are solid, with the backgrounds impressive and that last page jaw-dropping. This is the science fiction, mystery, conspiracy you’re looking for. 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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