Chemistry in Dead Hand 4

by Patrick Ehlers

This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!

Chemistry between characters is one of those things that’s almost impossible to fake. Either a group of people crackle with common charisma or they don’t. That’s very easy to recognize on TV or in movies, but how does that translate over to a comic book page? Snappy dialogue is one way to get that across, but that only works if your characters are the quippy type. So, sure, you can show that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have chemistry with each other, but good luck showing me Frank Castle has chemistry with anyone. In Kyle Higgins and Stephen Mooney’s Dead Hand 4, chemistry is expressed through non-acting visual cues, allowing the storytelling flow to express quality of the relationship.

There are two central relationships at play in this issue: Harriet and Renae, and Vil and Ellis. Harriet and her mother have a strained relationship, and it’s clear that they just keeping missing the opportunity to meaningfully understand each other. The issue opens in the middle of Harriet’s drunk driving escapade before staggering back into an explanation of what lead her to this point. Higgins’ narration says part of the reason she gets in trouble is that Harriet likes “to test boundaries” and we can see that reflected in the way Mooney tells this story. A page of blue panels is interrupted by one violent red panel, and Mooney selects erratic camera angles, creating a sort of visual cacophony. That could be an expression of Harriet’s rebellious nature (or her inebriation), but my favorite bit of visual discontinuity comes later in the issue, when Harriet is talking to Mr. Carlson and her mother.

Check out the composition here. Harriet is in the middle of these two panels, but Mooney goes out of his way to not let the two halves of her line up. Not only is she turning around within what appears to be a static moment for the other characters, Mooney’s angle changes — note the position of the baseboard. There is no visual continuity here, and that alone can tell the story of a mother and daughter struggling to communicate.

Vil and Ellis are the perfect example of the opposite. These are two guys with a deep shared history, and Mooney leans into storytelling fluidity to underline the effectiveness of their relationship.

Each of the first two rows shares a static background and camera. Even as time passes in this conversation, Mooney insists that these guys are in the exact same version of this space together. The last two panels cement this idea — Ellis is in one panel and Vil is in the other, but they can cross over into each other’s panels fluidly. Ellis’ speech balloon can’t be stopped, even if the tail is momentarily interrupted by the panel divider.

So it’s no surprise that by the end of the issue Harriet is insolently thwarting her mother’s plans to not-nuke America, while Vil and Ellis are surviving impossible odds against a squad of Russian goons. Mooney has more than made the case that only one of these teams work.

The conversation doesn’t stop there. What do you wanna talk about from this issue?

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