If I had first read The Dead Hand as single issues via my local comic book shop, I probably would not have finished this series. The first two and a half issues are clunky, and you can tell writer Kyle Higgins isn’t totally sure what kind of story he wants to tell. Midway through the third issue, though, Higgins and the story find their stride, and I can honestly say that things get really good.
The Dead Hand focuses on Carter Carlson, a former American Black Ops operative who now works as the sheriff in picturesque Mountain View, an isolated Mayberry-like town hidden away in the mountains. Something feels off about this town, however, like just how remote it is. Mountain View doesn’t have internet and there are no roads going into or out of it. The only way to get there is via a spur railway line…or a long, hard hike over perilous terrain.
It’s difficult to describe Mountain View’s secret without spoiling the whole story, but let’s just say that the Soviets did something inadvisable with artificial intelligence (AI) just before the USSR crumbled and that Mountain View is guarding that secret. It’s like Los Alamos in 1944, but the stakes are even higher. After a series of character flashbacks (more on that later), the story really kicks off when a hiker stumbles into the town. Mountain View just happens to be filled with former Cold War operatives, and the whole town has a collective freak out about what this supposed “hiker” might know.
One of the things I really enjoyed about this comic is how Higgins is able to make Cold War-era anxieties relevant to 2019, almost thirty years after it ended. As I mentioned earlier, he hits his stride midway through the series, and the sense of urgency and dread builds, a hallmark of a good spy novel. It’s clear that he knows the tropes of espionage fiction like the back of his hand, and I would say The Dead Hand comes closer to James Bond than anything else. There’s a character, Ellis, who is obviously based on Bond, and who’s modeled himself after Bond. There’s a scene in the Moscow airport baggage claim that looks like it came straight from a Bond screenplay.
That sequence, while beautifully drawn, did seem odd to me. Here’s an operative who’s trying to get somewhere covertly, and suddenly a hit team descending upon him in an extremely public space. He, of course, escapes unharmed and kills the team—right in the middle of a busy airport. And then he just waltzes away. It would have been nice to see Higgins play with some of the more ridiculous tropes of the genre, rather than take them at face value.
I mentioned earlier in this review that it was clear Higgins didn’t quite know what kind of story he wanted to tell. There are tropes from espionage fiction, but also from classic superhero comics. Merging the two can work really well (see Mark Waid and Chris Samnee’s Black Widow series), but often they don’t quite mesh. Spies are supposed to be covert, while superheroes have the fancy costumes and capes. When the reader is first introduced to Carter Carlson, he’s ostensibly a black ops operative, but he’s wearing a kind of ridiculous superhero costume that looks like a cross between X-Men’s Cyclops and the Winter Soldier. It’s completely impractical, and it feels so out of place with the rest of the story that it’s a distraction.
Paired with the random superhero outfit, Higgins spends a huge amount of time on Carter’s, and almost every other character’s, backstory. In the first three issues, so much time is spent jumping back and forth between the ’60s, ’90s, and the present day that it’s ultimately distracting from the story Higgins is trying to tell. Only some of the information is relevant, and I think the broader narrative suffers. That being said, the story does hit its stride, and the payoff is totally worth it. It’s suspenseful and thought-provoking, and the colors by Jordie Bellaire are masterful. There are pages I lingered on for full minutes admiring her work.
I would definitely recommend purchasing The Dead Hand. It’s unclear whether there will be more issues, but volume one collects the entire first arc and is an enjoyable read on its own. Due to the violence, it’s definitely suited for more mature readers, but I think it definitely deserves a place in any adult graphic novels collection.
The Dead Hand, vol. 1: Cold War Relics
By Kyle Higgins
Art by Stephen Mooney, Jordie Bellaire
Publisher Age Rating: M