The Dead Hand Vol. 1: Cold War Relics

Cover to ‘The Dead Hand Vol. 1: Cold War Relics’ TPB. Art by Stephen Mooney and Jordie Bellaire/Image Comics

by Clyde Hall. Imagine a disagreement where both parties not only plot and plan a perfect way to have the last word in anticipation of the exchange escalating, but also manage to imbue the discord with essence of Danth’s Law. Now imagine the squabble is between two antagonistic superpower rivals and whichever one gets in the last global thermonuclear strike ‘wins’. That’s the spectre still looming over our world in The Dead Hand.

The Dead Hand Volume 1: Cold War Relics is a very satisfying, genre-bending read, but not an easy one to describe without tipping writer Kyle Higgins’ hand and spoiling the many twists he’s skillfully applied in his narrative. How satisfying, and how skillful? Let’s just say that a trade paperback is the ideal form for it to take, because many readers will finish it in one sitting and then likely go back immediately and savor it a second time. Higgins has created a fusion tale combining elements of John le Carré, James Bond, Black Widow, War Games, True Lies, The Prisoner, and even a gentle dusting of superheroics.

He’s also refrained from the more sensational aspects of each ingredient, layering it with a sense of reality that makes The Dead Hand more chilling, and in the end more effective, than it would otherwise be. Yes, there are big shoot-outs and explosions. But they’re offset by violent acts performed impersonally for the Greater Good, and tactful allegiance realignments to the highest bidder. More is done with sighs of resignation than with growls of vengeance.

Protagonist Carter Carlson was a Cold Warrior, one present for the final salvos of that covert conflict in the early 1990s. In the time since, he’s traded in his black ops gear and CIA lifestyle for a Sheriff’s badge and the duties of a small-town constable for the isolated, backwater municipality of Mountain View. His days now are concerned with maintaining the peace, and keeping the local teens reigned in so that their parties and rebellious behavior remain harmless venues to relieve the boredom bred of a sleepy hamlet. Carter still has secrets, though, and when a hiker stumbles into town, the outsider becomes a threat capable of exposing the Sheriff’s past.

Then begins a domino fall of events, leading, as many good spy stories do, to the fate of civilization hanging in a teetering balance. But leading to that, Higgins fills in backstory on the Mountain View residents under Carter’s protection, and the Sheriff’s relationship with one very special little boy who comes to be, in many ways, the son he never had the time or freedom to sire. The spy game is a lonely one, the players more potential enemies than steadfast allies, and requires personal sacrifice even after you’ve folded your hand and left the table. Carter comes to embody that brilliantly as imagined by Higgins. The writer maintains a neutral gray morality for most of the cast, also good for espionage dramas, except when that façade slips and we discover that a few characters have simply muted their tarnished white plate armor.

Jordie Bellaire punches up that neutrality with black, white, and every gunmetal, slate, charcoal, or smoky gray variation in between to give Mountain View a dreamlike quality of monochrome. Bolder hues are saved, and used reservedly, for teen poster expression of non-conformity, and for violence far removed from Mountain View by time, place, or both. Stephen Mooney’s art is tightly in-sync with Higgins story, panels shaped and sized to enhance every startling revelation for maximum impact. And Mooney geckos smoothly from flashback action sequences of ample gunplay and heroic posturing to the Mayberry setting of Mountain View with the individual expressions of residents the only activity present.

His renderings of certain characters also conjure certain actors; if ever the story is adapted to a live action format, I’ll be very disappointed seeing Ellis played by anyone besides Idris Elba. Add in Mooney’s page and half-page splashes of almost-photographic renderings of the town, of Russia, of rail spurs and mountain expanses, and your appreciation for his talent deepens further. Clayton Cowles matches the tone with a level, understated lettering style to the narrative overall; even his sound effects maintain a uniformity that fits and elevates the mood. Even exclamatory exchanges are minimal, as if spy work consists predominantly of quiet surveillance and even boredom, only occasionally blossoming into wetworks moments. There, again, is the sheen of reality because many such real life tasks are endless prep, then stretches of tedium, finally punctuated with moments of sheer terror.

Each member of the creative team does quality work on The Dead Hand, but more, they’re doing it in a rarely aligned concert of talent that the reader actually feels. It saturates the project, from start to finish. The Dead Hand is akin to watching a film, always a tempestuous maelstrom of acting talents, screenplay, stagecraft, and camera technique, blended into a sum vastly superior to any one of the ingredients. It’s atypical for cinema, it’s atypical for comics, but unmistakable when it happens. It happens here.

Because it does happen, many truths are effectively offered for our consideration. Our kids are always smarter than we give them credit for. Loyalty to friends can happen even in the most duplicitous trades. Cultural expectations, unmet, become poisonous. Some secrets are better left undisturbed. And old spies, like Carter Carlson, never really retire. They just go on protecting the world on a smaller, more personal scale.

Image Comics/$16.99

Written by Kyle Higgins.

Art by Stephen Mooney.

Colors by Jordie Bellaire.

Letters by Clayton Cowles.

9 out of 10


Check out this three-page preview of ‘The Dead Hand Vol. 1: Cold War Relics’ TPB, courtesy of Image Comics!