The Cold War might seem like a distant memory for some, but with America’s relationship with Russia, things are, as writer Kyle Higgins says, complicated in his new Image Comics title with artist Stephen Mooney and Jordie Bellaire, The Dead Hand. In a world of superspies and global threats, former agent Carter Carlson takes it upon himself to make sure The Dead Hand stays dead.
Based around real events, Higgins, who is hardly a stranger to the world of espionage storytelling, takes a look at one of history’s longest wars and brings it up to a contemporary setting. Newsarama talked to Higgins and Mooney about The Dead Hand, the events surrounding Russian Cold War tech, and what drives him to the world of spies for the series' debut on April 11.
Newsarama: So Kyle, tell us about Carter Carlson, he's a former secret agent with a flair for the superhero theatrics, had his own team and eventually decided to settle down. But old habits die hard for people like him.
What is he going through when we're introduced to him in this first issue?
Kyle Higgins: Carter grew up in a rather idyllic setting in the early 1960's, was close with his sister, and dreamed of being a superhero. As he got older and learned what the world was really like though, that natural level of cynicism that we all come to terms with started to set in... and was absolutely aided by the type of work he found himself doing as a secret agent during the Cold War. When the war ended, Carter seemingly got out of the spy game and wound up in this small town called Mountain View, which has a lot of similarities to the environment from his childhood.
I think it's fair to assume he's trying to recapture a bit of his youth. Of course, there's much more going on with Carter and Mountain View, which readers will see by the end of issue #1.
Nrama: Let's talk about the politics surrounding this setting. Where are we in the Cold War and the relationship between America and Russia?
Higgins: The book takes place - primarily - in 2018. However, because of the way I've written things - using third person narration throughout - we take plenty of detours back to the 1980s.
But as far as the relationship between America and Russia, it's... complicated. Different than it is in our real world, but that's because of the nature of the The Dead Hand secret.
Nrama: Kyle, working with Stephen Mooney on art as well as Jordie Bellaire, what did you want aesthetically from them both for The Dead Hand?
Higgins: Well, I've been a huge fan of both, for years. Jordie and I worked together on a few Batman Beyond covers, and knew each other socially over the years.
Actually, it was her good friend Scott Ferguson - on her recommendation - who colored my film The Shadow Hours. Mooney and I met through Batman, which is obviously the best way to meet anyone. [Laughs]
Plus, we're both Irish, though to be fair... only one of us has a red beard.
Aesthetically, Stephen and I wanted something that evoked a lot of the action comics we grew up reading. We joke that there's a bit of 90's Image in here, too... which I think there totally is. There's also a bit of Barry Windsor-Smith in some of the splashes.
Stephen Mooney: Personally, I wanted to work in a much more deeply noir style than my usual output. We really wanted to evoke the shadowy side of Cold War espionage in the best, pulpy way. So lots of heavy blacks, moody shadows and foreboding corners! I also hit on a more montage-heavy element that Kyle and I had discussed in the brainstorming meetings, which I feel have brought a pretty cool and interesting new layer to the work.
On the color side of things, I discussed influential projects like John Paul Leon’s art on Wintermen, and some older Vertigo projects. The kind of pieces where the colour choices may be deceptively simple but absolutely nail that ambience that’s perfect for this kind of murky spy tale. Jordie is the absolute queen of palettes, and pretty much nailed what I was after in one take. I couldn’t be happier with the end results.
Nrama: Stephen, did you feel like there was one design you found more challenging than the others?
Mooney: Yes! The design for Carter's CIA Sneaking Suit was a tough one to nail down. I wanted it to be a cross between Solid Snake from Metal Gear Solid and some of my favourite 90’s comic book designs.
Carter was a big comic book fan as a kid and somewhat naive as to how these things work, so he happily and unironically wore a fairly jingoistic “costume” on his black ops missions, which was a variation of the standard CIA sneaking suit of the time. Great fun to draw, though!
Nrama:Can you actually talk about what "The Dead Hand" is or is that top secret for now?
Higgins: The name refers to an autonomous Doomsday weapons system that the Soviets never actually built. It was designed to be a successor to a semi-autonomous weapons system they did build, named Perimeter... which we didn't learn about until 1993. Both systems were designed to guarantee a retaliatory strike against the United States, even in the event of the Kremlin being totally decapitated. As for how and what the Dead Hand is in our series...you have to read to find out. I will say this though-- so much of Carter's current life was determined by the secret last mission of the Cold War, called "Operation Dead Hand."
Nrama: What amount of research did you guys do, if any, to get the political climate in Russia down?
Higgins: A bit. I've always been fascinated by the Cold War, so a lot of this was stuff that I already knew about and was familiar with. The book is definitely modern espionage mixed with historical fiction though, so there's some creative licenses that we're able to take.
Mooney: Tons! Kyle sent me plenty of relevant articles from the time and I delved heavily into those to try and distill the particular flavour and information required from them. I adore the research period on every big job, as I always encounter so much riveting and fascinating material that I’d otherwise never see.
Nrama: Kyle, you seem to have this attraction to the spy genre with Nightwing, to C.O.W.L., to Dead Hand. What is it exactly that draws you into it?
Higgins: I think, probably, it's the same reason I grew up loving superheroes. There's a sort of romanticism to the genre and the career as it's depicted in fiction. It's the idea of being more than you are in your everyday life... but in a bit more of a grounded way. The genre absolutely lends to tension and suspense, action and mysteries. What's not to love?