Are you looking forward to a new comic book but it’s impossible for you to wait for its release before you know what we thought about it? That’s why there’s DoomRocket’s Advanced Reviews—now we assess books you can’t even buy yet. This week: ‘Stronghold’ #1, out February 20 from AfterShock Comics.

Stronghold #1 Review
Cover to ‘Stronghold’ #1. Art by Ryan Kelly and Dee Cunniffe/AfterShock Comics


by Brendan Hodgdon. The otherworldly, beguiling woman steps into the world of the disaffected and frustrated man. She takes him by the hand and shows him the world behind the world, the hidden machinations lurking behind the veil of his “regular life”, and tells him that he is powerful, he is special. She tells him that he is the key to everything, and helps him to unlock his power. We’ve seen this story so many times before, in everything from The Matrix to Wanted. Now Phil Hester, Ryan Kelly & company have set out to give us a new take in the form of Stronghold #1.

The first place where Stronghold deviates from its counter-cultural fellows is in the age of its protagonist Michael. With our hero being middle-aged, the story feels less like the usual disaffected youth/rage against the machine narrative and more like a midlife crisis. The irony of course is that, with the amount of time that has passed since the release of books like Wanted, this title should still appeal to the same generational readership at a new point in their lives. Besides which, taking an older character and upending their lives in this fashion does open up some different dramatic avenues that could further distinguish Stronghold from its brethren as the story progresses.

As is de rigeur in stories such as this, there are a lot of mysterious components left to be revealed in future chapters. In the case of Stronghold, these mysteries straddle the line between being compelling and frustrating, as some of the obfuscation makes it that much harder to get a sense of the stakes. Stronghold agent Claire tells Michael of a grand Adversary that the Stronghold opposes, but we don’t get any examination of what the Adversary is really like or what sort of danger they truly represent. And while the Holdmother, the leader of Stronghold, certainly seems to have her own agenda, we can’t say for sure whether she is the real enemy or just a momentary obstacle. While this uncertainty and ambiguity could be effective, right now it just leaves the issue feeling incomplete.

At the core of all this is Michael himself, and as with the plot the question marks in his character equally intrigue and exhaust. There’s obviously something universal and relatable in his feelings of aloofness and detachment, which is why stories of this sort have such cultural longevity. And Hester’s words and Kelly’s considered pencils help sell Michael’s sense of self-doubt, both before and after he gets dragged along on this murky mystery tour. But there are still dangling threads, such as Michael’s calm reaction to his ability to survive under water for almost twenty minutes, even as the Stronghold’s leaders panic over his overt display of superhuman power. Has he done this before? Does he remember it? Has the Stronghold hidden events like this already, even from Michael himself? These questions suggest many great directions with which to continue the story, but the way they present themselves is less than satisfying in this debut chapter.

But where Hester & Kelly, along with colorist Dee Cunniffe and letterer Simon Bowland, are really off to a great start is their worldbuilding. While the narrative can be a bit muddled, there are still a lot of great creative choices made throughout this first issue that help give the story more depth, particularly in the aesthetics of the Stronghold and its followers. Their clothes recall the sort of stylized, retro-sci-fi look of many a Star Wars prequel character, and the technology and superhuman abilities that they use have a very distinct appearance and functionality. These design choices, combined with the surprisingly religion-y vibe that Hester gives to this hidden society, so far give the story a strong visual imprint and do a better job of capturing and holding the imagination than the unanswered questions of the plot.

Beyond just the design choices, Kelly and Cunniffe handle the visual storytelling very effectively throughout. For the “real world” parts of the story, Cunniffe’s colors vary from drab and generic for scenes at Michael’s insurance office to dark and moody during an unexpected showdown in an empty warehouse. And when we see the Stronghold itself, he provides lots of blues and silvers, emphasizing the sleek, futuristic origin of this bizarre organization. For Kelly’s part, he draws much of the material with restraint, implicitly reinforcing the repressed nature of Michael’s predicament. But when the action breaks out, he goes for the jugular with gusto, and fills each panel with visceral martial brutality. On top of that, Bowland does a straightforward job with his letters, with a nice grace note coming from the italicization of the opening narration that highlights its sophisticated language and the poeticism of its message. It helps to set the tone nicely while the meat of the world has yet to be unveiled.

Coming as it does from such an esteemed group of veteran creators, it’s hard to imagine Stronghold not being a success when eventually taken as a whole work. And there’s a lot of cool and interesting elements in this debut issue to stimulate the imagination and invite the reader back for the next chapter. But the way this issue unfolds and functions unto itself leaves some frustrating questions dangling in the air, left for another issue to catch them or not.

AfterShock Comics/$3.99

Written by Phil Hester.

Art by Ryan Kelly.

Colors by Dee Cunniffe.

Letters by Simon Bowland.

7 out of 10

‘Stronghold’ #1 hits stores February 20.

Check out this 7-page preview of ‘Stronghold’ #1, courtesy of AfterShock Comics!