After an interminable wait, the creators of C.O.W.L. have returned with Hadrian’s Wall, a 1980s/2080s Cold War sci-fi mystery in space. Right from the get go it’s an interesting contrast with C.O.W.L., replacing the fantastic characters in a known historical setting with everyday people in a futurist world. But while I can’t pretend that C.O.W.L wasn’t the driving force behind my excitement for this series or that fans of that title shouldn’t grab this one, Hadrian’s Wall stands on its own.
Alec Siegel and Kyle Higgins launch us into this brave new world with an impressive confidence. Every element feels conscious, even if some don’t feel justified to the reader yet. The formula is a classic, a murder in space, a personal attachment to the case, and a cast of mysterious and realistic characters.
The key to Hadrian’s Wall at this point is the pacing. The pages fly by at that impartial 24 frames per second. It’s a risky move, but, by my reckoning, Higgins and Siegel pull it off, using tension beautifully to keep you engaged in even the most mundane moments. Often times in whodunnits there’s a feeling of what obviously happened or what the writer wants you to think happened, but I have to say that this time it’s impressive how quiet the hand of the writers is.
The greatest downside of this writing is the degree to which it is dependent on future developments. Unless it becomes important down the line, I’m not sure how important it is that people can’t do math in this future and there’s plenty of tension but not a lot of payoff this issue. I find that acceptable in a well written first issue, but I won’t blame anyone who demands a more tangible hook in a first chapter.
One theme that I’m noticing immediately is the tension between the old and the new. Obviously there’s Annabelle’s old husband and her new one, but there’s the specter of the Cold War over these new developments and even the use of old noir trappings in new ways. The hostility between Simon and Annabelle is old, as old as dating itself and deeply connected to the masculinity of the Post-War period, but there’s a quiet about how it’s played that suggests a greater objectivity and regret than that old chestnut. Indeed the brusque disconnection of noir paranoia is suggested but repurposed to tell us something about the world our characters inhabit.
It almost feels unfair to grade books with Rod Reis artwork. Taken purely on their clarity and aesthetic beauty, Reis’ books are easily some of the most breathtaking on the stands any week they release.
Reis isn’t playing with the comics form the way he did in the latter half of C.O.W.L, nor does he seriously innovate his style, but he brings enough clarity and simple beauty to his panels to disarm any criticism. One of the greatest strengths of this issue is the specificity of faces. I actually generally prefer abstraction in comics art, but the degree of photorealism in Reis’ style allows his expressions to be instantly and complexly legible. Combining that intense realism with some painterly flourishes and sharp linework yields an art style that very actively engages with the reader and allows Reis to cram a lot into his compositions without over burdening his panels.
It’s also plain to see Reis’ training as a colorist. It’s most obvious in the gorgeous blues, greens, and oranges that dominate this issue, but there’s also a great attention paid to gradients, distance, and negative space.
Hadrian's Wall is both fascinating and a little strange in its objective, slinking pace, setting up dominos for a classic sci-fi murder mystery. At this stage Siegel and Higgins are asking you to trust the craft on display here and come back for the next issue, when the action really begins, but absolutely incredible artwork and big ideas don't make it all to hard to have faith. The fact that the writing team has largely had Rod Reis to themselves over the past years is an incredible blessing that they seem all too happy to share with us and the emotional core of the mystery gives us something real to hold onto. Though its first issue trades on tension rather than action, Hadrian's Wall is poised to be the kind of comic that justifies a separate term for graphic novels.