By Ales Kot, Adam Gorham, Michael Spicer, & Dave Sharpe
Death from above. Death that slithers into your established way of life, understanding little, but knowing that it’s ripe for exploitation. A peaceful people torn asunder by the power in the sky that they were told was there to serve as a bond and as a way to better themselves. Dead Drop #3 slows its roll to show the flipside of the high-speed espionage tale it’s been throwing at you like a brick at top velocity. It’s a distinct tonal change, one that incorporates what could be considered a commentary on the use of drones and the psychological effect it has on a populace, in addition to the requisite smattering of humor. The sharp turn away from the ground-level action espionage is jarring for those expecting more quick-cut cityscape chase scenes, but Kot, Gorsham, Spicer, and Sharpe deliver a surprise examination of revenge and morality in the form, of all things, Beta-Max.
Moving from joke to “aw, shucks can I mister?” aspiring secret agent to naïve victim to moral realist to hero, Kot’s most intriguing script element this installment is certainly how he frames and transforms Beta-Max in just one issue. The character may have his fans, but Beta-Max is essentially a predictable punchline every time he appears, so Kot upends this slightly and has Max’s usual technological shortcomings be an essential asset. That’s fun in its own right, but having the former villain represent the moral center in the face of our newly revealed antagonist’s pain-filled revenge drive is, well, touching in its way. Combined with his early enthusiasm for seeking redemption it makes him the necessary moral realist, however ineloquent he may be, that can see the forest from the trees. In the end, Beta-Max carries the entirety of the emotional heft and its noticeable weightier than anything the prior two issues held.
Our villain on the other hand, is introduced seemingly abruptly and in an almost farcical 60’s sci-fi fashion. This is where Kot gets heavy-handed on his telling in lieu of showing, to the degree that he has the character self-knowingly reference it. Problem is, just because the character acknowledges his Bond villain style monologue doesn’t mean that it’s suddenly more exciting to experience. To his credit, and large part to Gorham’s storytelling, this is where Kot gets to interject his allegorical interstellar death from the skies flashback. It can certainly be read as a commentary on advanced military dropping bombs and causing unintended casualties among a peaceful alien culture a la the sad realities of our world. The degree to which he paints the society’s purity is certainly extreme, but therein we have the birthplace of their corruption and beginning of the violent cycle. It’s fascinating to interpret from a myriad of perspectives, but the nature in which Kot chooses to depict the villain who relates it, as a one-dimensional egotistical “all in a days work” bad guy, undercuts its impact at this stage. In any case, it’s a suitable backstory even if it lacks the rapid pace of the first two issues and there’s certainly room to develop the strife and motivations of Dead Drop’s new players in the final issue.
Ah, a kinder, softer Adam Gorham gets to scratch his pencils this issue. No high-speed chase, no leaping from trains or rooftops, no, just some quieter spy procedurals and talking heads and GAH what the hell is that thing!?! Alright, so Gorham doesn’t get to instill the same level of speed and grit he so phenomenally fueled the first two issues with, but does manage to generate some solid horror and texture into the harrowing tale of a slaughtered people. Early on we’re treated to seeing Gorham’s uninked pencils smartly incorporated as being the result of a “cloaked” Beta-Max and Neville. It works to great effect seeing the shading of the pencils provide added dimension to his figure work especially against the heavier, flatter inked images they’re framed within. Gorham is a damn good cartoonist and the emotional elasticity of Beta-Max’s face throughout is a testament to his skill, allowing for the character’s expression to deliver far more meaning than the words in the bubble next to it.
Where he Gorham gets to recapture the frenetic energy is in the design of our big bad (the eyes!) and the flashback he throws down. The panel layout is appropriately straightforward for most of the issue, but then we go through the looking glass with sharp angled shatters of panels and interconnected bubble close-ups juxtaposed atop those looking like a subatomic solar system. The sinewy, jellyfish-like texture of the invading power is laid out like an outstretched striation of muscle plummeting towards its target in one ever-tangled column of grossness. And the carnage they wreak when they arrive on the surface, to Gorham’s credit, is straight nasty. For those 5 pages, the visuals are a ‘shroom frenzy unlike anything previously seen in this series.
Unfortunately, the lack of the amped-up action and the remote settings leave a lot of blank backgrounds in a number of panels this time around. There are scenes of varying detail depicting a park here or an office or the industrial surrounds of a riverside lair, but aside from the aforementioned space insanity, it’s definitely a little bland this go round. In fairness, this is often to shift focus onto the foreground character and whatever it is they’re trying to convey, but there are several panels that could be bolstered with an added level of detail or any detail really that could help dictate mood and thematic elements.
Michael Spicer turns in some of his best stuff with the bioluminescent palette of outer space anarchy for sure, and provides his typical well-applied texturing to the more grounded scenes. The effervescent neon hues found during the madness are sharp and expectedly trippy without being overbearing or discordant with each other or Gorham’s art. Back on Earth, Spicer’s sponged textured has been supplying a nice level of grit to this, initially, more grounded superhero story and added identity to the urban setting. Here however, with less defined space in many panels, the universal texturing over every element of the page characters and background alike, it feels more out-of-place and contributes to a lack of definition. Spicer’s palette, the arid sepias and washed out greens remain a perfect complement to the established espionage tone and create a fund, distinct contrast to the insect-like chromatic sheen of the antagonist.
Issue #1 established this mini-series would include some off-world threats, no question, and yet issue #3 still feels like something of a sideswipe. Perhaps because of the literal momentum shift that accompanies these revelations, Dead Drop #3 reads like a quick hiccup in an otherwise confidently driven series. Kot’s employment of Beta-Max is arguably his best use of a recognizable Valiant character yet, with smart, thought-provoking themes and surprisingly empathetic characterization. Gorham and Spicer deliver a mind-bending sequence that more than makes up for some stagnation elsewhere and their distinct styles pair well to bring a recognizable attitude to Dead Drop. The third issue’s mission statement is simple: Slow it down and ask questions. This isn’t a war. It’s only death.