“DEAD BOY DETECTIVES VOL. 1: SCHOOLBOY TERRORS” (Comic Review)
Now over twenty years old, Vertigo has changed the comic industry in many ways. DC’S longest running imprint introduced serious takes on magic and horror, the bizarre and mysterious, and have gone on to influence future generations of dreamers, movers and shakers. And with such fan-favorite titles as HELLBLAZER, SANDMAN and FABLES, there’s bound to be numerous spin-offs of oft-mentioned yet unexplored characters that lurk in the underbelly of larger works. One such story is DEAD BOY DETECTIVES. First introduced in SANDMAN #25, the mini-gumshoes saw brief appearances in various publications, along with a couple of limited-series of their own over the years. It wasn’t until this past year did they finally get their own monthly series however, one that’s arrived in cumulated graphic novel, SHOOLBOY TERRORS.
DEAD BOY DETECTIVES begins as it should, with the two ghost boys and a spooky mystery only their undead expertise can solve. The collection focuses on our protagonists, Edwin (died 1916) and Charles (died 1990) as they explore strange happenings around the world. While the first and last stories are standalone, it’s the middle issues that really make up the meat. The lads decide to stake out an attempted art heist in Paris, something a bit more standard than their usual affairs.
Despite the heist being a staged promo event for a pair of artists, a real attack transpires and almost kills the artists’ young daughter, Crystal. Unbeknownst to them, Crystal has always been a bit “special,” and sees the young detectives watch over her. She soon awakens, demanding to go to a different school, one called St. Hilarions. It’s the very same place the boys both died. Edwin and Charles follow Crystal, encountering old fears and new terrors, while finally learning the gory details of their deaths.
One of the most appealing aspects of DEAD BOY DETECTIVES is its perfect blend of old and new Vertigo aesthetics. The standalone mysteries that surround the main arc are a great combination of original art and classic British fantasy, two of the founding principles on which Vertigo was established back in 1993. There’s a beautiful charm to it that’s touched with wit and fairy magic reminiscent of early SANDMAN works. The main arc embraces the contemporary vision of globe-trotting madness that has gripped DC’s New 52 universe. New friend Crystal acts as a solid bridge between both, fangirl-ing over computers, anime and all things geek, while acting as a guide for the boys, who seem helplessly stuck in their old ways. With the constant crossovers seen in the DC world, it almost wouldn’t be surprising to see Constantine or Zatanna make an appearance further down the line.
It’s at times not enough of a bridge however, as there is no reintroduction of the characters. It’s strongly advised that first-time readers either read some of their earlier appearances or inform themselves online, as SCHOOLBOY TERRORS dives straight into story with no background.
Hailed as the “foremost young lion of British hip-lit,” DEAD BOY DETECTIVES is Toby Litt’s first venture into monthly comics, though he was previously seen contributing to Vertigo’s THE WITCHING HOUR and TIME WARP. Litt does a great job of breathing new life into the old characters, creating wondrous adventures while staying true to the boys’ mysterious objective. The interaction between Crystal and the boys is a quirky nod to what happens when the old meets the new, reminding the reader that everything changes, from fashion to information. The story may get a little stiff in places, but manages to push through, leaving the graphic novel on the perfect cliffhanger.
Its success is certainly thanks in part to the art by Mark Buckingham and Gary Erskine. Both are known for other works in DC’s roster, especially Buckingham and his Eisner winning run on FABLES. Together they create a visually panoramic trip from clubhouses to art houses to haunted houses around the world.