Conspiracies; Alien Invaders; Superhero actions; Stronghold #3 from AfterShock Comics has it all. Continuing to dig into the ‘Alien among us’ concept, the creators pull out all the stops and expand their world view.
Stronghold keeps getting bigger and bigger, and going to places the reader would not expect.
After the massacre at the stadium, the Stronghold rally to control the situation and keep the Primacy out of the action. But the best laid plans don’t stand a chance against the ingenuity of Michael and his mission to find Claire.
With his emerging new powers and a villain to confront, how will Michael react to the deaths of so many innocent people?
Phil Hester opens this issue with a bang. It’s big and it’s bold. He does not apologise from the harshness of the scene but at the same time he does not wallow in the violence. The Adversary is a larger than life character and an obvious villain but one of the brilliant aspects of Hester’s script is that, as the story unfolds, the villain becomes sympathetic. The obvious black and white elements of the narrative are quickly muddied, just as in previous issues, so that the reader is not sure who or what to believe.
Hester creates a world where the reader instantly wants to root for the superhero character but he then makes the reader question this choice. What do we know about him? Where does he come from? Why are the Stronghold so obsessed with controlling his environment? All of these questions are raised and, to a certain point, Hester leaves the answers up to the reader.
Stronghold is about character’s getting manipulated and the consequences of that. It is also a comment on how mainstream comic’s handle their hero’s. So often superhero stories are straightforward, the reader knows who to stand behind even when things go awry. There is comfort in them, knowing who the hero is. With Stronghold Hester is challenging that conception. He uses elements from the format to create a world of grey areas. There is a large element of control and manipulation by various characters throughout the comic making this relevant to today’s world.
If comics like Superman and Captain American represented the need for Hope in the 1940’s then Stronghold represents the need for information in the modern world. It highlights the dangers of accepting everything at face value but also the reasons why it is easier or more appealing to do this.
Ryan Kelly has a firm grasp on a sense of the dramatic. Each of the pages of Stronghold is packed with bold images and dynamic composition. Kelly creates a cinematic staging of the scenes using the panels like a camera, following the action and focusing on characters in slow zoom like movement. The intensity of a moment is heightened by the pacing in the panels: a slow turn followed by a stepped close up, for example, produces a menacing moment and enhances the threatening behaviour.
There is a tone set by the coloring throughout Stronghold. For a large part of the comic, Dee Cunniffe uses mostly a blue hue across the pages. This reflects the twilight setting for much of the comic but also makes the reader uncomfortable, as it portrays a coldness penetrating the narrative. It also allows Cunniffe to highlight one element of a scene and make it easy to follow across the panels.
Simon Bowland excels in giving the speech some punch. He spreads the speech across linked balloons to create a rhythm which he punctuates with the use of bold text. The text directs the way that the reader digests the images around it, giving moments set beats and a reading pattern. This in turn dictates the pace of each page and the transition between panels. The gutters work to identify the tone of a scene but it is Bowland’s lettering that gives each page it’s pace.
Stronghold has layers. There are stories and concepts over lapping and weaving together to form a complex and challenging work of fiction. The art work gives the narrative depth and tone. It also packs an emotional punch. There are disturbing scenes and touching scenes, each containing the same intensity.
AfterShock have produced some outstanding comics in the last few years and Stronghold is one of their best. It delves into the ethos of modern superhero comics to produce a piece of work that is both part of the mainstream and a critique of it at the same time.