In Review: Stronghold #4

If you want different, you want Stronghold.

The cover: The evil Holdmother snarls at the reader as she raises both her hands that transform into the bizarre blades she’s employed in previous issues. As the reader’s eye moves down, Michael Grey and Claire Emmering are walking hand in hand, unaware that ebony blades are surrounding them on each side. Neat symbolic cover for showcasing the villain of this series and how she is trying to swallow the pair. The colors are cool with the villainess in violets, backlit by a deep rose. Very cool frontpiece by Ryan Kelly with Dee Cunniffe. Overall grade: A

The story: The first five pages of this issue show the lives that Michael Grey is cycling though from the machine that holds him in captivity. Each is oddly similar to the other, with his fictional memories trying to be interrupted by Claire Emmering. How he overcomes this never-ending supply of lives is a testament to his abilities. Michael’s final line on Page 7 may be foreshadowing how this series might have some surprising hope in it. The action sequence on 8 – 10 goes as one would expect, though the bottom of 9 does have a surprising moment. The conversation on 11 – 12 has some neat character exploration. I like how Michael doesn’t have a clue as to who or what he is, but he feels like he’s closer to achieving clarity. The conversation on the hilltop was even better, with it not doing what one would expect at this location, so I have to tip my hat to writer Phil Hester for not doing the expected. Page 17 introduces a bizarre character and 18 has the arrival of the character Michael has been searching for. I was very happy with the twist in both characters, with the last page being an outstanding cliffhanger. This was a neat change of pace for not having Holdmother be the antagonist and allowing the characters a moment or two to breath and consider what they’re doing. Overall grade: A

The art: Ryan Kelly wonderfully employs the same layout for the first five pages of this issue as Michael and the reader experience him journeying through different lives. Each is similar enough to provide a pattern, though there are differences, some strong and some subtle. I love that the center panel of each page was the primary difference of each, showing his captors and then moving to his savior. Notice how the panels’ sizes are not exactly the same as the previous page’s, with the new panels atop the old and the wavy lines that connect them. This was a really cool sequence of pages to look at. Once free from his bonds, there’s a great amount of smoke from the device on Page 6, giving his exit a magical flavor. The close-up that ends the seventh page is outstanding. Michael’s actions on 10 are violent and superhuman, but not done at a blinding speeding, making his movements stronger and more personal. The visual that begins 11 is really cool and I love that Michael’s hand is on the wall; neat parallelism. I like that when this visual on the wall is shown it’s always in the center of the panel, reinforcing its importance. Pages 14 – 17 focus on two characters on a cliff at night having a conversation. This could have been visually dull, but Kelly makes it interesting by moving the point of view about and pulling in close to speakers when they say something important. The character that appears at the end of 17 is awesome; it’s a visual sledgehammer to the reader that the story is about to take a drastic turn. That’s what makes the arrival of the character at the bottom of 18 surprising because he’s so normal looking. The final page is the only full-paged splash of the book and it will leave readers breathless at what it shows. Wow. Overall grade: A

The colors: Dee Cunniffe does a cool job with this issue’s colors. Notice how the outside panels on the first five pages are outlined in a unique color that peeks out when overlapped by the next page’s panels. I like that the center of these pages is in a cold blue, reinforcing the machinery in use to keep Michael down. The image in the center of the fifth page is surrounded by black, giving it an inhuman look. Very cool. When a violent action occurs at the bottom of 9 the background is given a tempered rust color. I was expecting a harsh red, but in using this rusty red Cunniffe continues to emphasize the darkness of the setting. This allows the tans, oranges, browns, and yellows that begin on 11 to really mark a dramatic shift in location and time. Even the borders of the panels are given a muted yellow. The pages set atop the cliff at night are really well done, given the colors that bathe the pair. The character that appears on 17 is otherworldly in several shades of violet. The explosion of colors behind the character at the bottom of 18 gives him a dramatic entrance. I also have to give the thumbs up to the black dialogue balloons for the character on 17, increasing its bizarre design. Overall grade: A

The letters: Narration, dialogue, yells, sounds, and the unique font of the character on 17 is created by Simon Bowland. I can’t get enough narration being differed by dialogue, so I’m ecstatic to see Bowland doing that in this book. The dialogue is easy to read and never overpowers the visuals. It’s differed from the yells by size and thickness of the letters: when someone is yelling it’s unmistakable. There are a few sounds in this book and they look fine, but the lettering that stands out is the speech of the individual on 17. This speech is as revolting looking as its speaker — fantastic! Overall grade: A 

The final line: Michael and Claire are on the run, but get some time to consider their next moves. Sci-fi tales with questions of identity that spiral into cosmic calamity are always fun to read, but tough to find. Hester’s tale ponders the big questions while keeping the heroes on the run. The visuals are well done, with Kelly, Cunniffe, and Bowland to be congratulated for keeping things real, with the unexpected popping up wonderfully. If you want different, you want Stronghold. 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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