Comrades, conscripts, free citizens, and everyone in between: new agitprop just dropped. Well, kind of. “Red Zone” #1 revs the Cold War engine, and after the dusts burns off, we’re left with a solid, action filled story with some genuine surprises (warning: spoilers ahead). The writing is strong, the illustrations elite, and the colors and letters fit together will all the rest rather snugly. The story may not be so complex (yet), but if Slavic intrigue, classic spy and special ops stories get you excited, then “Red Zone” #1 should find itself into your pull list ASAP.
Red Zone #1
Written by Cullen Bunn
Illustrated by Mike Deodato Jr.
Colored by Lee Loughridge
Lettered by Steve Wants
Mild-mannered academic Randall Crane is an expert in all things Russian, but it’s still a surprise when he’s recruited by the U.S. Special Forces to help get a high-value asset out of the country—who happens to be a former flame. Is Crane the right man for the job? And more importantly, does he have the expertise to get out of Russia alive when the job goes bad? Danger awaits around every corner in AWA’s RED ZONE!
“Red Zone” #1 starts off doing everything right. Close-up shot of samovar, tea in the early morning light, tea pouring splendidly into a cup held by an older but not withered hand. Newspapers, trinkets, and books adorn the shelves, and a professor’s blue bowtie adds the pop of color needed to wake up the opening panels. As we zoom out to the arch in Washington Square Park, New York City, the collegiate vibe is palpable. Herein the story starts, with Randall Crane telling an esoteric yet jovial story about Peter the Great. The students like him, and he looks cool. He’s charismatic, and a believable step below the silver fox/Indiana Jones swoon that sometimes come with this Hot Professor kind of story.
So far, all is well. Professor Crane has swag. We get it. But then things twist a little, he gets startled by a student, and his agedness shows. Less wise and more wizened, we see another layer to the character, one who’s part silver fox and part gray mouse. It’s a small moment, but adds some characterization to someone who would be more one-note in a story that takes itself less seriously (and more on that later).
From there, the plot picks up quickly. Professor Crane gets propositioned by elite US forces to join them on a mission in Russia, given that he’s the foremost expert on the region in the country. But he’s old now, and his days of adventuring across Urals are over. Why do they want him? The kicker — a person of interest in the mission has specifically requested his presence, and that person of interest is Professor Crane’s old flame. How could he say no? Fast forward, and we find ourselves in a world of hackers, gun fights, crossed plans, and violence. The action takes over, and the final twist of the story reveals itself. Up until this point, our picture of Professor Crane is a little unclear: he’s charismatic, has certainly seen things, but also a little gregarious, nerdy, and droopy. But in the final pages, things switch up. After evading capture through sheer luck, Professor Crane happens upon an old warehouse with his precious human cargo (his ex-lover’s kid), and pulls up into a John Wick style armory/safehouse as if he owns the place. With the mission aborted, he drops the act and promises to get them the hell outta there. “Red Zone” #1 ends on that cliffhanger, and you know what, we’re in. Look, the pacing is quick, perhaps too quick at times, but we read spy stories not for the protagonist’s ambivalence towards joining the mission before it starts, but for the drama that happens when the mission goes haywire. So, by all means, take us to the mission.
Now to get into some nitty gritty. Recall earlier we said that this story takes itself seriously. That doesn’t mean it’s pretentious, just that “Red Zone” #1 really seems intent on telling an action story grounded in its characters. There’s no over the top machismo here, no guns a’ blazing “Red Dawn” or “Inglorious Basterds” style revelry. “Red Zone” #1 gives us something different, not boring, but different. It’s hard to pin down, but maybe we can find some clues in the art. Deodato makes marks in a detailed, realistic nature that imbues the story with a level of attention that, in some way, tells the reader that this is a serious story. The characters are drawn realistically, we see their wrinkles, their age, their expressions — everyone we see on page is a living, breathing thing that demands care. Everyone is a character, nobody is purely a prop. Juxtaposing this level of care with the drama and violence of a spy story works wonders. Loughridge’s colors also play a part. In another version of this story, everything pops with color, every panel is saturated, and blood spills in a gonzo manner. In this story, shadows fall on faces, casting characters in mystery and sorrow. Violence happens, yes, but in most moments the color scheme is muted, or a little diluted. There’s a sense of nostalgia and age to this story that makes it feel Cold War era, and matches the perspective, and life experience of its main character. The washed out nature of the color in “Red Zone” #1 mimics the weathered nature of Professor Crane.
Overall, “Red Zone” #1 hits all the beats and then some for a story of this nature. It’s not reinventing the spy thriller, but it’s executing the form exceptionally well. We’re excited to see where this one goes.
Final Verdict: 8.5 – Sustained by a well developed protagonist, “Red Zone” #1 brings some thrilling heat to a Soviet cold.