Quick Hits: Hadrian's Wall

I feel like “murder-mystery set in space” has actually become its own sub-genre at Image Comics. It makes sense - people love a good mystery, and setting the story in a space station or aboard a ship affords interesting narrative possibilities. It’s your classic locked-room mystery (Murder on the Orient Express, Clue) But you can add interesting futuristic elements and take the story in different directions.  Below, I take a look at a terrific example of that sub-genre, Hadrian's Wall. Soon I hope to write about and Southern Cross, which I caught up on (through the first two trades) recently. Each is interesting in its own way and each takes the genre in different directions. 

Hadrian’s Wall
Story by Kyle Higgins and Alec Siegel
Art by Rod Reis
Letters by Troy Peteri
Published by Image Comics

Hadrian’s Wall is a great, stylish and engaging space-noir mystery, and a story I very much enjoyed. It’s got some classic murder mystery and noir elements (a confined setting, an investigator with a substance abuse problem and a dark past, bad blood between him and the murder victim, and a lot more) and fantastic art and design choices that create a very appealing, engaging visual world. Hadrian’s Wall also tells a complete story in a single volume, something more writers should consider. I highly recommend this book. 
A lot of the fun of Hadrian's Wall for me was soaking in the visuals, and the very specific look the creative team was going for. The illustration and colors are from Rod Reis, and he does some fantastic work here. Reis has an engaging watercolor style with realistic, angular and highly expressive line. This creative team previously worked together on C.O.W.L., which was a terrific story which I’d describe as  “superhero murder mystery in a Mad Men world”. There, Reis did terrific work establishing a slightly different 1962, one where the city streets of Chicago were patrolled by superheroes employed by the city. Reis has terrific thin lines, and I think his work on Hadrian’s Wall represents a creative leap forward even from his great work on COWL. I would describe the style used in Hadrian’s Wall as being retro-futuristic, not in a 60’s space-age Jetsons kind of way, but very much evocative of the styles and technology of the 1980’s, and a number of different science fiction stories of the 1980's.

There are a lot of great detailed touches that make clear that the motif of the story is that it brings to life a vision of the future, as imagined through the lens of the style and cultures of the 1980’s. The look and feel of the ship is daily industrial and utilitarian (like the ships on Alien). The computers aren’t flat screen (they’re fairly big and bulky), everyone is using dot matrix printers, and the lettering on computer monitoring has a very bare-bones, MS-DOS look to it. They’re on starships, but all the technology just looks like a more evolved version of the popular tech of the 1980’s. At one point you even see characters listening to a recording on a small cassette recorder. Similarly, some of the fashion choices echo 80’s fashion - the space suits have a slightly 80’s quality to them, and Annabelle (one of the main characters) wears an outfit with shoulder pads that feel like it would’ve been at home in Working Girl.  The decision to set the story in this sort of “future as seen from the 80’s” world immediately won me over as it’s not only a fun choice that provided a nice sense of nostalgia, but it also illustrated something really interesting about depictions of the future generally. This really does feel like something someone would’ve created in the 80’s when imagining the future a century later. The reality is, we have no idea what the future will really look like. People thirty years ago could anticipate flying cars and fusion reactors but they thought fax machines would still be commonplace and couldn’t have anticipated wireless technology. It makes one wonder, what are the things that will become commonplace in the future that we aren’t even anticipating now?

I won’t say too much about the story in Hadrian’s Wall, except to say that it feels like it has a lot of classic detective story elements, but done in a fresh way. Detective Simon Moore is investigating the murder (aboard the ship Hadrian’s Wall, owned by Antares Interspace) of his former supervisor (Edward Madigan) who also happened to be married to Simon’s ex-wife Annabelle, who’s also aboard. Suffice it to say she doesn’t want him aboard, but there’s even more going on than it seems in this story. There are other people who don’t want Simon’s investigation to go anywhere, and a number of other people with differing agendas. All of this takes place in the right confines of a starship where there’s nowhere to run off to. The creators do a great job making it clear there could’ve been a number of suspects. They also make Moore, Annabelle and Madigan all sympathetic (or at least understandable) people. Annabelle initially comes across as a little stereotypically cold and shrewish, but we see there’s a complicated history and she’s got every reason to feel the way she does about Simon (and she's certainly given some agency and depth in the course of the story). There's business, politics and murder at play in a confined space, which makes for tense, compelling storytelling. The intersection of murder and big business and politics brought me back to L.A. Confidential, and if a story can do that, it's always going to be something I enjoy.

Ultimately, Hadrian's Wall is a very engaging story with a satisfying outcome. But even beyond the plot of the story, the creative team here has given us an interesting world to explore with creative and very specific visual and stylistic choices.