Today, Patrick and Shelby are discussing the Dead Boy Detectives 1, originally released December 30th, 2013.
Patrick: The first issue of Dead Boy Detectives revolves around a young girl named Crystal Palace and a near-death experience that brings her — however temporarily — face to face with our titular detectives. The issue is pretty neatly divided into periods before and after the experience. The before-portion is an odd little mediation on art and artists and the relationship between the two, and that’s naturally what interests me most in this issue, so let’s pick that apart!
Crystal Palace is the daughter of the conceptual-artist husband and wife team, Maddy Surname and Seth Von Hovercraft. Obviously, that’s a pair of people with very specifically crafted public personas — no one’s born with the last name “Surname.” It’s the kind of insane reality-crafting that makes normal people roll their eyes, but at the same time think it’s funny and maybe even super-cool. “Seth Von Hovercraft” is like “Lady Gaga” – you can’t believe you’re hearing it, but deep down, you sorta love it. Mark Buckingham and Toby Litt treat these characters with that same mix of reverence and derision. Their big art project involves stealing a Van Gogh from the National Art Gallery and replacing it with a juvenile painting of butts (hilariously titled “Bumflowers”). The “art” isn’t the new painting itself, but the whole performance of “stealing” the original and replacing it with something silly. People turn out in droves to witness the “crime,” and the Gallery even displays a rather curious slogan projected across its facade:
Ridiculous as the Surname/Von Hovercraft/Palace family might be, they have a point about art and theft. This is particularly true when you consider the book you’re holding in your hands and the creative team that produced it. First, we’ve got artist Mark Buckingham, who is one of the regular series’ pencilers on Fables, which is a series populated by fairy tale characters. In a sense, Buckingham has made a career on stealing characters out of the public domain and presenting them as his own art. More immediately, we’re reading a book spun off from Neil Gaiman’s original run on Sandman. It’s hard to escape the thought that the only reason we have a copy of Dead Boy Detectives 1 in our hands is because there was so much hype around Sandman Overture. So this issue is like “Bumflowers” – the performance might not be in the piece itself, but the fact that the piece exists.
It’s heady, heady stuff, but I believe Litt and Buckingham want us to acknowledge that that’s what’s happening here and then move on from it. Remember that the artists here are insane — they tattooed a baby’s forehead as a PR stunt, for crying out loud — so anything they believe should probably be taken with a grain of salt. I mean, simply acknowledging that the series mere existence is sort of a publicity stunt suggests that there’s actually a ton of self-aware substance here. It’s not even like Litt and Buckingham dwell on this idea for too long before moving into the intriguing business of setting the plot into motion.
Oddly, that plot isn’t a mystery for our detectives to solve, but a mystery for Crystal to solve. When she was momentarily deceased, she caught a glimpse of Edwin and Charles, and she simply wants to figure out what their deal is. One of the only pieces of information she’s able to get about them is the name of the boarding that they both attended (and both were murdered at), so she gets her parents to enroll her in Saint Hilarion’s. I’m new to the whole Dead Boy Detective concept — I didn’t get that far in my reading of Sandman, and I didn’t read any of their other appearances — so Crystal’s goals mirror my own almost exactly. She and I both just want to learn what the hell these two ghosts are about. She even sorta notices the same things I do about them — one wears a school uniform but the other doesn’t. Why is that? Did they die at different points in history?
The issue is lousy with clues that sorta half-answer my questions. My favorite spread of the whole issue shows side-by-side accounts of their first day at St. Hilarion’s.
Shelby, I assume that you were coming into this issue with more background on these guys, but I actually really like having these very schematic presentations of their first days to provide me with context for who they are and where they come from. Did any of this seem like re-treading old info for you, or are you too learning stuff about the detectives? Also, the boys talk a fair amount about the possibility of passing on to the other side after they’re through protecting Crystal – could this be foreshadowing the end of these characters? More importantly, are we being primed for a Dead Girl Detective? (You know, something a little less Hardy Boys, and a little more Harriet the Spy?) And finally, what the hell is that creepy headmaster up to? He’s got a hidden camera in the toilet, but I gotta believe he’s up to something more interesting (and a little less icky to read about) than pedophiliac voyeurism.Shelby: I do have more background on these guys. I haven’t read any of the other Dead Boy Detectives books, but in Sandman they exist as a brief side-plot, a consequence of Lucifer shutting Hell down and locking the gates. I know they have had their own spin-offs before, but I don’t much like exploring more about these two. For me, they existed as a sweet, macabre, sad little story, and think I would have preferred them to stay that way. As they are presented here, both characters fall rather flat for me. Charles died during the Sandman story, so probably in the 90s, but he reads like an adult trying to talk like a child trying to talk like a hard-boiled P.I., I can’t get a grasp on the voice Litt and Buckingham are trying for. Edwin is easier to read; he died a long time ago, so he’s old-fashioned. Even still, I don’t have a solid connection to either of these characters.
That actually goes for all the characters. Maddy Surname and Seth von Hovercraft are painted with broad strokes as archetypes that are instantly recognizable and completely two-dimensional. I can think of celebrities they’re modeled after, but that doesn’t make me feel any sort of connection to them. Even Edwin and Charles come off more as knock-offs of the Hardy Boys than actual fleshed-out individuals (if you’ll pardon the pun). The idea of all art as theft and the heavy-handed nature of it all makes it seem a very intentional choice on the part of Litt and Buckingham, but it doesn’t make me want to read more. I like comics that make points about art and storytelling by playing with tropes and archetypes, but I still want a story I feel some sort of connection to.
There’s a sense of trying too hard that muddies up the story. Crystal’s trip to a mysterious snowy place is a perfect example. The art in this sequence is beautiful, with the boys fading into the background and snow slowly starting to fall as she flatlines, until we are left with this beautiful image.
Just the image of her in the hospital bed in the snow would have been enough to pique my interest in what was happening to her. Instead, Litt and Buckingham include twenty dialogue boxes in five different font/color combos, most of them filled with nonsense rhyming words. It’s like the page is jumping out at me and screaming, “THIS IS THE MYSTERIOUS PART, DO YOU GET IT?” Further more, doesn’t Crystal get the idea to go to St. Hilarion’s from this snowy limbo state? If you’re going to spread words all over an image like this, why wouldn’t you include something about the plot point? Instead, she just wakes up from her coma/death and starts asking about the school. This title has a lot going for it, with a stellar team and Gaiman’s name attached to the franchise, I just thought this issue was trying too hard, and was too on-the-nose. I’ll give it another chance, of course; judging a new series on its first issue is as unfair as judging a new TV show on its pilot. Hopefully in the next issue or two Litt and Buckingham will hit their stride with these characters and give me something more to latch on to.For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?