Monday, July 14, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #195: Dead Boy Detectives Vol. 1 by Litt and Buckingham

Everyone is the hero of his own story, but some characters are natural supporting players. That doesn't mean you can't bring them to the center of new stories -- look at Tom Stoppard and those quintessential second bananas Rosecrantz and Guildenstern -- but it does generally mean that they won't work as well at the center of an ongoing serial, or hold up as protagonists for repeated adventures.

I suspect Charles Rowland and Edwin Paine, the "Dead Boy Detectives" introduced in an early Neil Gaiman issue of Sandman nearly twenty-five years ago, are natural sidekicks as well. They've turned up in a few minor stories since then -- I'm particularly fond of what Jill Thompson did with them -- but they've never lept out as ongoing characters, even with their schtick of solving crimes from beyond the grave. But IP springs eternal, and so the corporation that owns Rowland and Paine has launched a new attempt to exploit them in the form of an ongoing Vertigo comics series late last year.

The first collection of that series is now out: Dead Boy Detectives Vol. 1: Schoolboy Terrors. It's scripted by British novelist Toby Litt and drawn by Mark Buckingham (fresh off a decade on Fables), from a story devised by the two of them. (Several other artists are credited variously as inkers and finishers for various pieces of the story.) And it collects three stories about Rowland & Paine -- a short piece that ran across several Vertigo anthologies just before their series launch, and the first two story arc of the series (four issues and two issues, respectively).

The rules of the supernatural in Dead Boy Detectives are not entirely clear -- despite a two-page spread about the 7 Rules (and the 7 Buts) towards the end of this book: it seems that Rowland and Paine are usually invisible to living humans, but I'm not sure if that's by their choice or not. What other ghosts can do to them, or to humans, is also a bit murky. That could be an indication of underlying wobbliness, or just a new series jumping into telling stories rather than carefully drawing its map first; it's impossible to say yet.

These stories are set "now," and the origin of the Dead Boy Detectives is still firmly affixed to 1990. That implies that they have a lot of history and experience -- they've been searching for things for other ghosts for most of a generation, and presumably doing it reasonably well -- but that doesn't really come out in this stories, which sees them scrambling and confused and out of their depth the entire time. Perhaps that's just to make them "relatable" and give new readers an entry point into their world, but it feels like Litt has focused too much on the "boy" and too little on the "detectives" so far. (Also, even Rowland is basically forty years old now -- and Paine is well over a century. They may never look any older, being dead, but if they don't accumulate knowledge or wisdom in their ghostly forms, that should be noted and be a thematic/plot point.)

So: these boys attempt to find the ghost cat of two ghost girls, but need the girls' (and the cat's) aid to survive a nasty ghost Victorian schoolmaster (what, again?) that captures them. They then head back to their old school to watch over a new major cast member, the incredibly flamboyantly named Crystal Palace Surname von Hoverkraft -- even lampshaded, that's a deeply silly name -- who looks like she'll be the boys' connection to the mundane human world. Now, the end of their first story had them staying on at that school, so presumably they would be familiar with what's going on there -- but that turns out to be very untrue, and the three only just barely manage to escape supernatural nastiness through judiciously applied massive destruction.

The last two issues collected here tell a smaller story about a more successful case of the detectives: they manage to extricate a Victorian maid from the mirror in which she's been stuck for a century and a half, and aid her mistress at the same time. (I think the maid and mistress are ghosts, too -- they clearly had a nasty event happen to them -- but the story never actually makes it clear whether they're actually dead or not, which is usually of major importance.)

Dead Boy Detectives, so far, is a promising muddle. Buckingham's art is clear and supple, doing excellent story-telling work when he has a clear story to tell (though that's not always the case). The world is complex and full of interesting corners, though there's a worrying lack of context to most of it -- as if it's made up of a few stage-sets, not places set in a real landscape with clear physical relations to each other. The names are almost all silly so far, except for Rowland and Paine, who were grandfathered in. And the rules of the world are so far either arbitrary, not specified, or ignored. This series needs to get more specific if it's to be successful, and I'd hope to see it develop Rowland and Paine as slightly better than horrible detectives -- or, at least, play their failures more clearly as failures, and for laughs.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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