The Dead Hand (volume 1) review
Image Comics, October 2018
Writer: Kyle Higgins
Artist: Stephen Mooney
This is our second review of espionage genre comics this week. We here look at The Dead Hand, a comic by writer Kyle Higgins and artist Stephen Mooney.
The Dead Hand is a sinister text. The Cold War, with its proxy wars, its secret assassinations, and its overarching threat of global destruction, cases long shadows into the 21st century. This story is not so much a shadow as a remnant nightmare, an outcome of the Cold War with its own momentum, which can only be slowed and not stopped.
The Dead Hand is compelling because it has a basis in fact. A non-fiction book called The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and its Dangerous Legacy introduced the concept to an audience outside of political scientists and military analysts. The book was the winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction. It written by Washington Post contributing editor David E. Hoffman. The subject matter of the book is chilling from beginning to end. The Dead Hand is an actual defence protocol officially called Perimeter and created by the Soviet Union. It involves an automatic system which can decide on an adequate nuclear retaliatory strike on its own with no (or minimal) human involvement in the event of an all-out attack by US ballistic missiles. (The story of nuclear threat ends with the disarmament treaties of the late 1980s and early 1990s: the book goes on to talk about the as-yet unchecked proliferation of biological weapons.)
The Soviets never installed a fully automated “dead hand” of thermonuclear retaliation. This title explores the idea that Perimeter became sentient, manifesting as a small boy named Roger. The mission of its watchers is to prevent Roger from realising that his side – the Soviets – lost the Cold War, by trying to slow his path to maturity. If Roger realises the Soviet Union was dissolved, Roger will initiate a nuclear strike. Switching off Roger would result in a nuclear strike. Endeavouring to otherwise disable or destroy Roger would result in a nuclear strike. And Roger is starting to learn to identify lies. It is a doomed mission.
Roger’s keepers are a grim bunch masquerading as small town citizens. It is not explained by the sleepy and isolated hamlet of Mountain View is not in some American state like Colorado (as suggested by a backdrop of white capped mountains) but instead is in Siberia. But the execution of that subterfuge upon the reader is very well executed. One of the main characters, Carter, wears a tan uniform and a sheriff’s badge. The local bar uses American Old West serif font spells out the words, “Mountain View Saloon”.
Otherwise the thought which Mr Higgins has put into the geography, logistics, and effort taken to keep the town regressed to a time when the Soviet Union was still a force is thoughtful and impressive. Mountain View is only accessible by train: the change of gauge of the train track spur means only the way into the town is by the dedicated train, which brings goods in and hauls garbage (and the odd body) out. The technology is very 1980s: a teenager named Harriet speaks to her friend in a cordless handheld phone, and there is no sign of the internet. Harriet for her part has posters on her bedroom wall of bands from the 1990s: Soundgarden, Nirvana, and Stone Temple Pilots. At school, Harriet studies world history and a map of the world still depicts the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. For those of us who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, there is something disturbingly familiar about how this young person, who would have been born in the early to mid-2000s, has the teenage preoccupations of those born in the late 1960s to mid-1970s.
The main character is Roger. Roger is a slightly spoilt, slightly solemn, around seven. He loves the drama of superhero comics. Roger appears to have no ability to interact with the outside world other than by spy satellites and by direct access to missile silos. When Carter interacts with Roger, artist depicts Roger as a cute brown-haired boy in a t-shirt and shorts. Mr Higgins makes it seem as if Carter and Roger are in the same living room. When Roger panics upon Mountain View being visited for the first time by a hiker, exhausted and deranged after crossing the (what we assume is) the brutal Verkhoyansk Range, Roger fumbles amongst a coffee table filled with television remote controls. Roger’s first instinct is “retaliation”, and he has to be calmed down by Carter. The reader suddenly realises that Mr Mooney has rendered the controls for each of Roger’s nuclear silos as innocuous TV controls. To Roger, they are as the things he uses to protect himself. Mr Mooney exaggerates the catastrophic danger by draining those panels of colour and detail. This seems to us to represent a flash of adrenal stress by Carter, trying to save the world from incineration, and by Roger, fearful of harm from a newly arrived stranger. Carter distracts Roger by reading him superhero comics, which Roger takes up with sudden delight.
It looks happy, but it is a frightening scene, made more horrible by closing panel. Here, we see Carter in actual reality, sitting in a room conversing with a large camera, and Roger’s response to Carter’s kind words and attention, “I love you Mr Carlson” flickering in block letters around the scrolling ticker tape screen. Roger feels love towards Carter as a source of protection. But Roger is a large machine with a user interface protected by a vault door. Carter looks exhausted, slumped in his wooden chair. Global destruction has been averted through the distraction of a comic book.
Carter’s history like those of the other main characters is described in detail (and perhaps too much detail – a detailed biography seems to unnecessarily strip away some of the mystery, and is a little clunky). In an extended flashback of Carter’s life prior to Mountain View during the 1990s, Carter wore costume-like body armour which looks like it might have been designed by artist Jim Lee – and indeed on a side-by-side comparison looks conceptually similar to that of covert operations fighter Maverick, a 1990s associate of the X-Men mutant superhero group.
Guns, holsters, combat trousers, body armour and tousled and exposed hair are all indicia of what nowadays would be derided as “tacticool” visuals. Mr Mooney makes a statement as to Carter’s comic book pedigree: he once was one of these ornamented paramilitary gunslingers which were like fleas on a dog during the 1990s American comic book industry.
Carter’s mission changed when he found Roger. Saving the world did not require superheroes with body armour and advanced handguns. It required a fast-thinking but patient father figure – who, ironically, uses superhero comics as a sleight of hand to keep a Soviet-era artificial intelligence blissfully distracted.
Renae is another secret operative relocated to Mountain View. She is French. It becomes clear that while some of Mountain View’s population is devoted to monitoring Roger, others are there as a last line of defence. Renae is an utterly ruthless killer. Unlike Carter, Vil, and Ellis (see below), it is unclear who or what Renae is modelled upon. The unfortunate hiker, a British intelligence analyst writing a book about covert operations during the Cold War, is shot dead by Renae without discussion as to the merits of doing so.
Harriet is Renae’s daughter. Renae has trained her as a marksman, but Harriet does not realise how strange that is. She has no idea what Mountain View is about, and no idea about her mother’s background. Teenaged frustration lends this scenario to eventually boil over with nail biting results.
Ellis is an MI-5 agent who is looking for his friend the dead hiker. Ellis is a James Bond type, plainly modelled on English actor Idris Elba (who has been occasionally touted as a candidate to play Bond in a motion picture).
Vil is a Soviet spy, once Carter’s mentor. Vil reminds us of Croatian actor Rade Serbedzija, and his character Boris the Blade from the 2000 motion picture, Snatch.
Both Vil and Ellis are key players in The Dead Hand. The story has a surprisingly upbeat ending – perhaps unavoidable given the only other realistic option is for Roger to do what he was designed to do. This is a clever and captivating title.