Trapped by the Stronghold in a virtual reality and forced to live a collection of simulated lives, Michael The Primacy struggles to break free. Year after year, life after life, Michael begins to lose a grip on reality and question his purpose for being.
In the fourth issue of Stronghold from AfterShock Comics, Phil Hester and Ryan Kelly once again stretch the boundaries of the medium to tell a compelling story using techniques only available in a comic book.
Phil Hester spends a large portion of this issue overlaying realities. He gives the reader a taste of Michael’s imprisonment interspersed with the reactions of surrounding characters. The concept of time is distorted by overlapping panels on a page thereby presenting different time dilation’s at the same moment.
The way that the characters perceive the passage of time is illustrated in such a unique way by Ryan Kelly, with one reality overlaid not only on the ‘real world’ inhabited by the Stronghold and Claire but also on top of each other. As the small panels build up like a stack of playing cards something else is happening in the central panel, which has been bled beneath everything else. This highlights the difference in perception between Michael and the onlookers but also hammers home the importance of what is occurring to Michael.
This moment represents not just an escape from the machine but a much bigger, metaphorical escape. The handling of this momentous moment in the comic by Kelly is sublime and it is punctuated with a small, emotional punch that humanises the character and the narrative.
As the story moves on, these earlier moments feed into the emerging narrative which begins to question, in an almost meta-narrative, the concept of history and myth building. Interpretation and bias is a theme that Hester and Kelly have explored in the subtext of previous issues but this idea is brought into the foreground during this issue.
While Kelly focuses on the characters, pushing their emotional responses, Dee Cunniffe casts magic with his color palettes, bringing the settings to life and imbuing the pages with emotional context. The two main night scenes in the comic have a very similar coloring however the feeling behind them are very different and this is subconsciously relayed to the reader through the color choices not only in the panels but also in the gutters. The treatment of the gutter in Stronghold has been impressive from issue 1, taking a routine part of a comic book page and turning it into an important aspect of the storytelling.
Another aspect of the comic that is essential to the look and feel of Stronghold is Simon Bowland’s lettering. His placement of the speech balloons leads the reader around a page and focuses attention on specific panels, often by the lack of speech more than anything else. Character interaction exists both physically, thanks to Kelly’s detailed figure work, and verbally due to Bowland’s speech layouts. The back and forth banter between Michael and Claire is represented by over lapping balloons but the seriousness of some speech is emphasised by its isolation within word balloons and the speech around it.
Stronghold is a strange story packed with numerous science fiction ideas. There are great leaps from one idea to the next and the structure of the story-line may seem a little baffling, especially as larger than life characters introduced in one issue don’t make an appearance in the next. But Hester and Kelly aren’t just telling a story about wild Alien races or secret societies, their narrative runs deeper.
Throughout the pages of Stronghold, the creators are questioning the nature of storytelling itself, and in particular the process of telling a story in a comic book format. This is very similar to Kelly’s previous work on Cry Havoc with Simon Spurrier. The entire art team uses the medium and it’s own limitations to engage the reader in an emotionally gripping way.
Stronghold is a highly impressive comic and dares to raise the stakes in superhero storytelling. The world is becoming more in tune with the unique aspects of comics, and the Stronghold team are bravely using everything the medium has available to captivate, entertain, and challenge the reader.