With Further Ado #032: Only the Strongest Shall Survive

Aftershock is calling this The Year of Reading Dangerously. Their newest comic, Stronghold by Phil Hester and Ryan Kelly, embodies that tagline. In this thriller, there’s something mysterious going on, the stakes are high, characters you care about are struggling and you can’t wait to read what happens next.

I recently heard Phil Hester on John Siuntres’ Word Balloon Podcast.   Each week, Siuntres conducts engaging interviews with comic creators.  Hester talked about his fascinating career for much of the interview, but he elaborated on the premise of Stronghold.  While he didn’t spoil any of the surprises, I think his insights (a) made me more eager to read the series and (b) gave me just enough backstory to get a head start on the narrative.

In Stronghold, there’s this guy with superpowers.  But with a few twists.  This guy doesn’t really use his superpowers often, and it’s unclear really how much he understands his “powers and abilities beyond those of mortal men”.   Meanwhile, there’s this whole organization (kind of like U.N.C.L.E. or S.H.I.E.L.D.) that’s dedicated to clandestinely monitoring this individual.  And the series’ lead, Claire, is a young agent who spies on the guy with superpowers. 

Claire’s a nice surprise. She’s strong-willed but still learning. As we meet her, she’s just about ready to become a rule-breaker and willing to fight for what she believes in.  Her resolve sneaks up on you. Her choices make sense as Hester reveals more and more about her, and as a reader, I couldn’t help but to root her on.

And as a father who misses his daughters all the time (our family is scattered around the Northeast these days), Claire’s brief scenes with her dad were heartfelt and pitch-perfect. Not maudlin or sappy, but genuine.

In Stronghold, most of the characters are likeable and interesting. Upon reflection, I’m surprised that Hester got me to care about them after only 26 pages.

After reading this comic, I’m also amazed how much information Hester stuffs into the first issue. But it’s not shoe-horned; it’s nuanced and entertaining. He’s able to create tension and action in several sequences and still find time for humanity and humor.  It’s not until the end of the first issue that you realize he’s introduced a whole new secret world to the reader, and immediately has begun chipping away at it.

The art is strong and compelling. I see a bit of influence from the great Eduardo Barreto in the lighting, figures and panels.  Everything is moody and solid. Kelly provides lots of intricate details and backgrounds that never clutter up the story. Instead they all just grease the skids as this thriller picks up speed. Kudos to the colorist, Dee Cunniffe, who is able to set scenes with thoughtful palette choices.

Is Stronghold just another fresh-and-groundbreaking take on the Superman mythology? Maybe, maybe not.  Clearly, the creators are having some fun with the notion of “what if this really happened”, but the depth of thinking and care that went into their worldbuilding takes it far beyond the just-another-reimagining category.

In the weeks after the retailer summit, ComicsPRO, the comic industry, and the business world at large, is struggling to understand the realities of today’s difficult publishing market.  Is it dire and doomed? Is it hopeful? Those are the topics debated by retailers, licensees, publishers and fans.  We expect the strongest to survive.  I’m looking forward to this new series, Stronghold, finding an audience and thriving. It deserves that and readers do too.

Stronghold by Phil Hester and Ryan Kelly.  Published by Aftershock $3.99 On sale now.