By Patrick Larose
The first time you see Simon and Annabelle together--they’re smiling. This is the future so they’re in a hover car but still they’re driving along the coastline at sunset, dumbly grinning and badly singing Tom Petty’s “American Girl.” A warm orange glow wraps around them and when they kiss, cartoon hearts fill the spaces between them.
This is not a happy memory. This is a cruel reminder.
For as much as Hadrian’s Wall has been a murder mystery in space, it’s maybe more so been a story about our relationships, how they fall apart, and how the broken ones still manage to hang together.
The theme’s in the very bones of the premise. Simon, our detective, travels to a space station to investigate the death of his ex-wife’s new husband. The job’s supposed to be straight-forward, a “rubber stamp” verification job, but more importantly, it’s a victory lap. This is his chance to rub the tragedy in her face--she tried to be happy and look where she ended.
The initial issue’s portrayal of the cruel bitterness that sometimes accompanies a breakup was a primary draw for me in my initial review but it’s here in issue #4 where we finally see the moment when everything fell apart.
It’s sevens year prior and we’re in Seattle. Simon’s working his former corporate security gig and it’s from his 20th story window that he finds a view for the bad things to come.
Political protests have erupted outside his buildings. The political and commercial relationship between Earth and one of its intergalactic colonies is a relationship poised to break and as they watch a man willingly set himself on fire, they realize this is a relationship far past the point of repair.
The scene permeates this sense of inescapable dread--this idea that sometimes when something is breaking there’s nothing we can do but watch as it breaks. So when Simon gets home after an understandably stressful day, he throws himself on the couch, turns the lights off and holds a drink in his hand. He wants to breathe but when he looks up, he sees his wife finely dressed and waiting for him.
There’s no quotes or lines I could provide for you here to verbally demonstrate how deftly the next exchange is handled. Rather it’s through the mundanity of their words, of the situation that reflects a moment I bet most couples have experienced. One-half of the relationship has a thing--it doesn’t matter what--a party, a get-together with friends or a work social--they told the other about it and at the time they agreed to go.
But then one-half forgot. Maybe they were too stressed out from work or too busy to remember but they find themselves both disadvantaged by their memory gap and emotionally ill-equipped to go.
“I wouldn’t say ‘you don’t have to go’ if I didn’t I mean it,” she tells him.
Hadrian’s Wall understands that even bad relationships are never emotionally understood as one-way reciprocals. In a few panels of expression, you can read more in Simon’s face than any verbose speech bubbles could handle. Simon’s tired eyes and weak expression display the emotional dilemma of taking care of yourself versus being the person the other needs you to be.
Whether or not the latter perception is actually true doesn’t matter because it’s an emotional expectation the individual places on themselves. When Simon tells Annabelle, “I want to go, ok?” It doesn’t matter that his face tells us it’s all a lie because in truth he wants to be the person for her who would want to go.
Despite our tied perspective to Simon, the relationship’s tension never takes his side. There’s an obvious genuineness to her words, a worry in her expression but ultimately it’s clear they’re two people who want to be somewhere else in their lives--maybe even someone else. In the last panels of this exchange, their skin is given a certain texture that matches the striations of ice and their parallel of exasperated sighs let us know something is being locked away underneath a mutual silence.
In the present, Simon and the crew of Hadrian’s Wall run a projective simulation of just how the murder could have gone down. They incorporate the clues Simon discovered, the argument and tension Annabelle admits to having with the deceased husband and together they watch a visual approximation of how she might have killed him. Yet it’s an imperfect recreation. White panels interject across the flow of information and create blank spots in the crew’s collective knowledge.
This works as a visual representation of our relationship with memory. Experience is ephemeral, perspective skewed and how I would remember an interaction is different from how you would remember the same interaction. Using memory as a basis of understanding is flawed in this way and Hadrian’s Wall represents this because no one person can wholly understand what happens between two people.
So when we see the moment when Simon and Annabelle finally end their relationship--there’s no visual representation of Annabelle’s wrathful accusations. There are no sequences of Simon heavy drinking or him sleeping (or even talking) with his co-worker. There’s no showing to accompany this moment of telling because the content of the accusations is less important than the act of accusing. What matters is the frustration and silence that built up in their marriage finally being breaking.
These two characters so naturally switch between being cold and angry in this exchange, their words so bitter that it’s clear this isn’t a one-way feeling. What’s being displayed is two people going on the offensive, these are two people engaging in a mutually assured destruction of their marriage.
What goes down in Hadrian’s Wall #4 is the most accurate and harrowing depiction of a couple fight I’ve ever seen. There’s a thoughtful understanding how the quiet bitter moments never go away when the target of them is a fixture of your life. They build and build until they finally break.
There are lines in their exchange I don’t really like. The unnatural line reads like “He always looked like he could eat a meal” but what’s really genuine about the exchange is the look on their faces. They’re exploding at each other in rage but written on their faces is another person begging for the other to back down--to be the bigger person, apologize and trying to work things through.
Only their mouths aren’t capable of that--either because of personal pride or that somewhere inside, they both knew this relationship was broken long before this moment.
Hadrian's Wall as a comic has managed to tell a story that's not just a compelling murder mystery but demonstrate the power of perspective and the way they shield us from the reality of our situations. In the first issue, you could see the happiness of their relationship--the fluttering hearts that filled the empty space between them. How appropriate then that in those final moments of a couple, at the point when all the scum and resentment finally rose to the surface, that same space between turned to a deep, deep blood red splatter.