For Kyle Higgins, there's no story without the perfect characters to inhabit that story. And vice versa: It doesn't matter how amazing your characters are if they don't populate a compelling world that demands their presence.
"I've never built a world without a story for it. Maybe it's because I'm not a real writer, but I don't subscribe to building out characters and then finding a story for them. I've just never really understood that," Higgins tells SYFY WIRE. "I tend to build a premise and then find the character that can explore that premise, and then the world changes a bit as I flesh that character out and add more specific details. It's a back-and-forth process."
This makes total sense, of course, but when it comes to comic books and graphic novels, the tendency sometimes can be to emphasize one over the other. Superhero books, especially, fall prey to this trap. Flashy costumes, distinctive superpowers, and over-the-top villains can take center stage — because they look cool — without a fully realized story to support them.
Invariably, this kind of one-dimensional storytelling is malnourished. Thankfully, the industry has grown up over the past several decades, and the audience along with it. In 2018, readers are more sophisticated than ever, and as such, they demand more. They expect a story to fire on all cylinders and feed all of their senses. They need to feel satisfied.
Enter Dead Hand, the new series from Higgins, artist Stephen Mooney, and Image Comics (Issue #2 is on the stands this week). The story is set in an alt-history timeline rooted in Cold War reality, and it raises all manner of "What if?" questions. (Listen to my full conversation with Higgins and Mooney here.)
The Dead Hand, by all accounts, was a Soviet Cold War-era weapons program that guaranteed mutually assured destruction. It was incredibly secret, but it was a real thing.
"Well, sort of," Higgins interjects when asked about the program's true origins. "It gets conflated with something called Perimeter a lot, and they were different things. Perimeter was a semi-autonomous weapons system that was designed to ensure a retaliation strike on the United States, even in the event of the Kremlin being totally decapitated. But it had a bunch of "if-then" conditions built into it. So there was still a person in control of launching this, but there was a checklist they'd have to go through.
"Basically, if you're in this bunker and a red light comes on, it means the Kremlin has initiated Perimeter," continues Higgins. "And then a bunch of other conditions and scenarios kick in, and if it looks like all indications are pointing to a nuclear strike, you have to retaliate. And then these missiles would launch across the country with electronics in their nosecones that would transmit signals to any ICBMs that were left in the Soviet Union's arsenal — and then those would also launch.
"[Russia] actually built this, and we didn't learn about it until 1993. They talked about a fully autonomous system called the Dead Hand, but they didn't build it. Even the Soviets thought, 'Well, that's crazy. We can't let a computer control our nuclear arsenal,'" says Higgins.
Interestingly, a book on the Dead Hand program, written by Washington Post journalist David Hoffman, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2010. Currently, it's unclear if Perimeter is still operational. There are claims that it is, but as far as anyone knows, the Dead Hand, the fully automatic version of the failsafe, was never actually built.
Or was it? This is the conceit of Higgins and Mooney's Dead Hand, which exploded out of the gate last month. The first issue does an excellent job of building just enough of the world to leave the reader begging for more. Instead of hitting you over the head with exposition, the story and the art hint at events and characters to come... and then the final page of the issue subverts all expectations and guarantees you'll be back again.
The second issue continues to scrape away at that surface. We get a bit more backstory, a few new characters, and another final-panel reveal that leaves your jaw on the floor and will have you counting the days until the next issue.
However, telling this compulsively readable story is like walking a tightrope. How much of the story should be grounded in realism, as if the Dead Hand were a real thing that actually happened, versus Higgins and Mooney's own unique version of alt-history?
"It's a fine line," Higgins admits. "If I can ground details, then it enables me to hand-wave some of the more fantastical elements that are coming up. I think about that sometimes. Where is the line as far as historical accuracy versus heightened historical fiction? You look at the genres we're playing with in just the first issue, and it definitely has that Metal Gear Solid, sort of heightened espionage feel to it. But that mixture of genres and aesthetics actually makes for a really interesting series."
Mooney agrees, even if he still gets lost in where history ends and his story begins. "When you talk about what's Perimeter and what's Dead Hand, and which is which and what is what — I was still asking about it up until pretty recently. I was like that little kid who thought the Dead Hand was the coolest thing he'd ever heard of, and I bet they built the hell out of this thing. Kyle tried to tell me, 'Well, no…,' but I just had my fingers in my ears, going lalalala."
"Oh, yeah!" Higgins laughs. "I sent you an article a couple months ago, and you were like, 'Oh! They built the Dead Hand!' And I had to say, 'No... that's the point of our story.'"
This is hardly the first trip into alt-history for either Higgins or Mooney, who have explored similar terrain in C.O.W.L. and Half Past Danger, respectively. So what is it about this approach that makes it so engaging?
"All the permissions it gives you for any given scenario," admits Mooney. "You're tied down in the way that your present may be the same and all the roads are established and all the fences are in the same place. But you're coming from a half-made up scenario that brought you to that place — that nobody knows except you what happened at A, B, and C, which resulted in this present. It allows you to do whatever you want. It's kind of a Get Out of Jail Free card. But if you can present an appealing scenario that's not too hokey and that could have happened — to me, that's an appealing concept."
With the first two issues, Higgins and Mooney have done a masterful job of setting up an intriguing premise, populating their world with interesting characters perfectly suited to that world and premise, and posing just enough questions to keep readers engaged. So where are they going?
For his part, Mooney needs to know the ending. "I'm terrified not to have an ending for anything I do," he says. "I know Kyle does have an ending, but if we don't have a strong ending, the danger of just meandering along and losing our momentum is very real."
Higgins elaborates: "This is a book we designed hoping to do an ongoing series. Finding a way to wrap up a story that is satisfying while leaving the door open for future tales — that's kind of the way you have to operate in the creator-owned space."
So is one preferable? A limited series with the promise of an ending, or an ongoing series with more freedom to tell larger stories?
"I don't think that I'd say [an ongoing series] gives you more freedom," Higgins says. "It gives you a greater ability to develop subplots, which are promises to the audience. They're promises of a plan. They're kind of like dividends. Invest in this book, and it will pay off. In a limited series, it's much harder to develop some of those outlier subplots, just because you don't have the space to bring them back in a narratively satisfying way.
"They're different engines. Trying to straddle both is tricky. It's doable, but it's tricky," Higgins continues. "So Dead Hand is kind of in that space where it's this big six-issue story that is part of this larger world. I mean, assuming the world survives by the end of Issue 6."
What a tease.