By Kyle Higgins, Alec Siegel, Rod Reis, Troy Peteri, and Rich Bloom
You’re the farthest from home you could possibly be. Literally on the edge of everything you know staring down the entirety of the unknown before you, on the other side of a wall. It’s cold, unforgiving, and callously indifferent. Things look bleak, but even more so, things feel bleak. Hadrian’s Wall was the northern most military station of the Roman Empire and it was, likely for very many, a harsh and crappy assignment. The titular Hadrian’s Wall found in this new series from the co-conspirators that brought you C.O.W.L. is a ship that stretches to its’ empires farthest points: the known galaxy. And there’s just been a murder on board. Blending neo-noir with a sharp Ridley Scott-influenced science fiction flair, Hadrian’s Wall #1 is all about ambiance as it eschews thrills in the name of nuanced atmosphere.
Feeling cold, stiff, and almost even sterile at times, Hadrian’s Wall #1 is in no rush to have you deeply connect with the characters or lose yourself in the technological futurism. No, Higgins, Siegel, and Reis are content to build the humming emotional static noise in the background; the uneasiness of silence and the deadening distancing effect of being alone. Higgins and Siegel bounce back and forth between subtly injecting thematic elements and overtly throwing down exposition, but somehow it manages to intertwine together without dissonance. They introduce the main protagonist, Simon, with all the hardened, self-pitying, down and out tact that the archetype deserves. Addicted to pain killers, four bullet scars in his chest, and looking for a way to stick it the dame who done wronged him in an attempt to get her back, Simon has by far the most depth of any character seen in this first issue even if the finer finishes of his character are a bold combination of both showing and straight-up telling. Higgins and Siegel pace the story with tremendous patience, and are often at their best when dialogue is at a minimum. That’s not a knock on the dialogue either, it’s just that several emotional beats echo loudest when they’re within an audible void.
The most exciting elements of the story itself are all the ideas that are hinted at here, but not explored. A re-written history of Cold War tensions taken to new heights and mirrored in the current near future as Earth and one of its space colonies enter a period of hostility – now that’s business! How that can be explored via the broken relationships of those onboard the Hadrian’s Wall is promising at this juncture as Higgins and Sigel focus on setting the plot foundation instead of shooting the thematic idea fireworks all over the pages. It’s likely a smart choice even if we don’t see the payoff here because these writers (in conjunction with the soon to be heralded Reis) seem to understand that you need to have the smaller ideas, the familiar everyday human error-filled ideas, inform the grand what does it all mean ideas. There’s a lot to be mined here from the socio-political to the genre-mashing to the emotional horror of feeling disconnected, all wrapped up in a whodunnit in space setting. In short, it would seem that this eight-issue series will have something to say and that’s certainly deserving patience.
To be blunt, this whole issue’s success rests atop the shoulders of Rod Reis. If the biggest takeaway from this issue, indeed the largest impact made, is the inescapably haunting aesthetic then Reis deserves the biggest slice of the kudos pie. Emotionally, it’s akin to the dripping of a faucet in the middle of the night when you’re alone and the ambivalence of the silence between them. Visually, Reis has never looked sharper. This thing is just frozen cold and stiff to very effective degrees as Reis’ linework is devilishly meticulous in its razor thin application that occasionaly gives way to overlapped mania, like the opening sequences’ sharp faced victim and the floating ocular circle that hovers in front of his eye in a moment of sheer panic. There’s a calm, architectural straightening to the way Reis renders the detritus of backgrounds (Simon’s personality-devoid apartment for instant) that really highlights the heavily scratched precision of the way he renders character’s faces and forms. So much of the issue feels flat and lifeless, but in a manner that is in tune with how we’re supposed to feel. Simon has distanced himself with the world around him, it’s cold and bleak and almost blank, so Reis through smart coloring and line economy relays that tenfold with the only moments of real vivacious life oozing forth coming in the form of flashbacks happier memories in a burst of the only warms you’ll see all issue. Reis also has fun with flashback scenes by removing the panel borders and having them fade outwards in the shape of a monitor screen, implying the fuzzy nature of memory as opposed to the structured reality of the now. Paired with some scaled-down, very believable not so distant future tech, most of the design choices Reis makes are wonderfully retro – made even more so when Simon’s hair is at its most Carl Sagan-y. It’s a harsh world, scaled down in its advanced minimalism and lived-in condition and Reis never lets us forget it.
The finishing touch to instill this sense of detachment is Reis’ color palette and applications. Almost entirely frozen in cool, septic blues, Reis lets the colors slither and glow throughout. The use of colored striations on his figures faces add a ton of depth and texture creating a painterly resonance that occasionally even bleeds past established lines and out of panels, letting the edges of reality become undefined or at other times existing as watercolored backgrounds that propel motion as when Annabelle lashes out at Simon. Spattered backgrounds ease gradients and fade in and out in whims. The colors are the star here and are a fine example of how to not only complement, but establish mood in such a way that tells the real story that’s happening underneath that the characters neither say nor act upon.
Typically, a letterer’s success is hinged upon how unnoticeable their contributions are; if they did their job well, you’ll likely never notice. Peteri however, seems to relish putting an accent on the work with his choice of font, a sharp angular approach that adds heft and uneasiness to every scene. Is it noticeable? Big time. Does it detract? You’re free to make your own decision for preference there, but balloon layout flows naturally for sure and the font choice dives in deep on a thematic level with the rough edges of the characters’ circumstances.
If Hadrian’s Wall #1 feels slow, it’s at least slow in full service of thoroughly establishing the tone of this cold, detached existence at the edge of everything. Higgins and Siegel lay out the foundation at a marathoner’s pace to allow Reis to engulf you in the cold harshness of environment and mentality. The surface layer is enticing enough, a science fiction twist on a murder mystery with noir underpinnings, but what’s under the surface, the thematic undercurrents of our own history repeating itself and how it rears its head in our own interpersonal relationships regardless of time and place, that’s the rich promise that lays ahead. Like that Roman solider stationed atop the bitter Northernmost outpost of his world, what’s left to ask but, “where do we go from here?”
Hadrian’s Wall #1 will be released on Sept. 14th from Image Comics