The world of superheroes can be robust and diverse, both in its approach and themes, as any other medium today. The only limitation is the writer’s imagination and how much time an artist is provided — otherwise, nothing is beyond limits. However, despite that fact, the bulk of books on the shelf can often be considered “cookie-cutter.” Stealth puts the entire genre under a microscope of scrutiny, questioning the very nature of super-powered vigilantism and how beneficial – or detrimental – it can be to a city collapsing under the weight of its gradual demise. Tapping into themes of dementia, paternity, ill-conceived good intentions, and the power of people versus the individual, the series applies socially aware, real-world repercussions to the world of comic books but never gets too grounded to stray from its genre roots. Any long-standing comic fan or casual reader will come away after reading Stealth with a new perspective on comics.
Stealth was born from the minds of Robert Kirkman and Marc Silvestri, but brought to the page by writer Mike Costa and artist Nate Bellegarde. Tony Barber is a reporter for the Detroit Herald struggling to find hope in a city teetering on nihilism. For years, Stealth has waged his one-person war against crime, but his latest outings have been chaotic, pitting him against police, toeing the line between cult hero and vigilante. Tony eventually stumbles upon Stealth’s identity: his own father. Former DFD Fireman Daniel Barber has Alzheimer’s with bouts of dementia at the heart of Stealth’s erratic behavior. To make matters worse, Dead Hand, Stealth’s nemesis, sets out to finish Stealth for good, even if wanton destruction and death is the only way to bring him out. Tony is soon led down a path of corruption and mystery to discover Stealth’s origins and the creators behind Stealth’s suit’s strange technology.
Who Are We?
Despite its short run, the characters in Stealth all carry weight and feel fleshed out. Tony and Daniel are at the heart of the story; Daniel is fighting the perpetual battle against Father Time, and Father Time is undefeated. His every thought can betray him, as fits of paranoia and the distinction between past, present, dream, and reality blur. Daniel is prideful, and deservedly so. His life has been dedicated to saving lives as both a fireman and under the guise of Stealth. Rarely has a character been so sympathetic as our hearts go out for him. We see the love and pity in Tony’s eyes as he looks at Daniel; ambivalence doesn’t begin to describe the dynamic at play here.
The city of Detroit resonates within Tony. Tony refuses to write a puff piece for the paper, opting to focus on the collective apathy taking hold of the city. Clearly, he has a selfless desire to save his hometown, but how? At home, Tony’s efforts to aid Daniel’s ailing mind have a monkey wrench thrown into it once he discovers Daniel’s identity. Conflict is at the heart of every story, and Stealth has it in spades. Tony loves his father but knows Stealth will be the death of him; Tony also knows that chasing down the mystery of Stealth’s technology can be life-threatening, but he needs to discover a way to save his father. Every new story turn builds on the drama, leaving us as an audience waiting for the revelation at the turn of the next page.
An argument can be made that a hero’s journey is defined by his enemies. In this case, Death Hand is both dangerous and oddly likable. Stealth’s arch-enemy plays into trope territory while still managing do leave an indelible mark on every page. He’s despicable at his core, but is ruthless and pragmatic. When held at gunpoint by a turncoat subordinate? He appeals to the common sense of his capturer’s lackeys and gets them to make the classic double turn. And few villains are as self-aware as he is. At one point, he openly admits that he is old and will die soon, but he might as well enjoy killing Stealth before it happens. Like I said, oddly likable.
Recesses of the Mind
From the very outset, Costa sets the tone. Detroit is in a collective state of ruin, described in Tony’s own somber words as a “failing heart.” Tony can’t seem to muster a sense of positivity in his work or life, a dark reflection of a city in shambles, both literally and metaphorically. Throughout the series, the narration is superb, providing deep insights into each character’s psyche while delivering plenty of exposition and backstory to the reader. Within a few short pages, we as an audience are beginning to understand Tony and his deep connection to the city; it’s both insightful and a subtle foreshadowing of things to come. I’ll avoid spoiler territory, but suffice to say, Tony’s desire to save the city will be a deep cut throughout the series. Costa plays with how this information is delivered, and Tony’s narration pulls from his article for the Detroit Herald. In contrast, Daniel’s narration is plucked from his inner dialogue.
How do you convey bouts of dementia to an audience? Let them into the mind of the person suffering to witness the disorientation for themselves. Costa delivers on all fronts when it comes to conveying the inability to trust your own thoughts. Through a series of self-contradictory narration, we begin to understand Daniel’s disease. In one moment, Stealth knows his brother Eric can fix the Stealth suit, only to correct himself quickly; Eric is dead and has been for years. Daniel puts on his coat and hops on the bus in a brilliant visual, but the coat changes from one panel to the next. Another case of his mind mistranslating the world around him. The result of all these inner workings? We come to feel for Daniel, but understand he is no longer fit to be the hero he once was.
Defining a Hero
Once the story kicks into high gear, things move at a healthy pace. Essentially, the narrative splits into two significant arcs: Daniel trying to stop an all-out war in the city caused by Death Hand, and Tony digging into the mystery behind Stealth. At no point does the narrative drag or feel slow, as we jump from one plotline to another just before either one gets too stale or predictable. The mystery itself proves to be equally as compelling as the action; I was eager to see where each new revelation takes us. Thankfully, very few readers will predict the source of the Stealth suit and its purpose.
There is extraordinarily little to pick apart here, save for some heavy-handed exposition. For example, Death Hand is captured by a police officer (he gave himself up, for now). The officer asks to be told a story, and Death Hand launches into his origin story, because… reasons? I can’t quite make sense of this, because immediately after telling his rather generic origin story, Death Hand kills the police officer. Clearly, the story was meant for the benefit of the audience, but it made absolutely no sense in the context of the story itself. Granted, part of Stealth’s appeal is its deconstruction of comic-book tropes, but it wasn’t easily conveyed if that’s the case.
Costa strings us along in eager anticipation to the very end. Suffice to say, as I knew I was nearing the story’s final pages, I still couldn’t predict how things would end. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Instead, I was compelled to continue reading. When all the proverbial plot threads come to a head, you will be surprised. Tony, Stealth, Death Hand, and the very city itself are all a part of the mystery. It never feels convenient or too heavily strung together; it makes sense. Eventually, it boils down to a considerable sacrifice.
Coming off the final pages, you will (and should) find yourself evaluating the outcome. From saving lives to his eventual vigilantism, Stealth’s very presence is essential to the conclusion, for better or worse. By no means is Stealth your typical superhero story — it turns out to be more of an assessment of the usual hero tale, questioning our over-reliance on a single savior. Is saving a city stopping destruction or building anew? Can one person save us all, or should we be working together for our collective betterment?
Image may have promoted Stealth as a book akin to Black Panther and Iron Man, but the title deserves to stand on its own. It checks all the proverbial boxes and some. There are plenty of titles that can easily be forgotten, but Stealth shouldn’t be among them. In a year full of bombastic crossovers and tentpole runs, Stealth manages to make waves based on the quality of the work itself. As far removed as I am from finishing the story, I still find myself ruminating on the outcome; that alone makes it worth the read.
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