First Impressions – DEAD BOY DETECTIVES #1

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It’s time to solve mysteries again with everyone’s favorite deceased, incorporeal spirit detectives. Vertigo blesses fans with DEAD BOY DETECTIVES #1, from the pages of The Sandman. Edwin Paine and Charles Rowland continue their post-mortim adventures when their intervention in a near-murder leads to a young lady seeking clues to their existence. But this girl bites off more than she can chew when she starts her investigation at Saint Hilarion’s, the very school where Edwin and Charles met their respective ends. A school that is evidently still hungry for the blood of innocents.

Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman needs no introduction.

So I’m not going to bother giving one. It’s great. Read it.

Anyway, back in The Sandman #25, among the “Seasons of Mist” collection of stories, readers were introduced to the eponymous Dead Boy Detectives. Edwin Paine was an English school boy who met his end in the halls of Saint Hilarion’s School in 1916. Then he proceeded to wander the halls of Hell for a while, until those were emptied in another storyline.

The contents of Hell were spilled onto Earth. Must have been a Tuesday in the DC universe.

At this point, Edwin met Charles Rowland, another school boy, met his end at Saint Hilarion’s. Instead of going to the afterlife with Death of the Endless, Charles stuck with his new buddy Edwin, the two becoming spirit detectives.

No spirit guns, though. That would be too convenient for mystery solving. One would think, at least.

This was basically the premise of the franchise. A mature mixture of the boarding school and teenage detective genres, the Dead Boy Detectives appeared in many series and miniseries and storylines over the years. Such as Vertigo’s first – and only – line wide crossover event The Children’s Crusade.

The only incarnation I’ve had the personal pleasure of reading though is a graphic novel by Jill Thompson. A graphic novel drawn and written in shojo manga style, as was the style at the time. It was okay.

With the recent success of Sandman: Overture, Vertigo decided to revive this franchise once again. The Dead Boy Detectives have come back to life! Figuratively.

DEAD BOY DETECTIVES #1 not only introduces new readers to Edwin and Charles, but introduces them to Crystal Palace, daughter of an infamous performance artist mother and a rock star father. In the middle of a staged, fully public, museum approved heist of Vincent van Goph’s “Sunflowers” – one where they would replace it with cover by Crystal’s mom called “Bumflowers” (exactly what it sounds like) – a mysterious group of armed bandits drop a grenade on them. Luckily, our mortality challenged protagonists step in to prevent Crystal’s death (not that it isn’t close), and rescue the painting.

The van Goph one, not Bumflowers. Even if that’s an awesome name for a band.

Crystal wakes in the hospital with two things: 1) a trippy near-death experience, and 2) knowledge that not only was she saved by spooky ghost boys, but that one of them wore the uniform for Saint Hilarion’s. Crystal Palace, having nothing better to do, uses her parent’s connections and indifferent attitude towards granting her every request to transfer to the school. Edwin and Charles meanwhile realize that by saving Crystal, they’ve made themselves involved in her shenanigans. They must follow her to the school and prevent the obvious mortal danger she’s put herself in from doing her in.

Because let’s face it, Saint Hilarion’s is just a deathtrap. They don’t know if anything’s going to happen, but of course they happen to be right.

I think one of the best things going for modern Vertigo is that it’s not a part of the DCU (anymore), and thus doesn’t need to be screwed over whenever DC reboots everything. Like they with the New 52. No, it would appear that DEAD BOY DETECTIVES circa 2014 is just as canon with the original Sandman series as the first storylines were back in the early nineties. Maybe.

Not that DEAD BOY DETECTIVES #1 is a canon heavy book. There are shout outs to some past events or supporting characters, such as the many young ladies Charles helps because teenage boy, but the issue is helpfully accessible. Everything one needs to know to understand where these characters come from is explained. And what characters they are. Edwin and Charles are portrayed as complementing opposites, Edwin the proper goody two shoes who is understandably cautious, Charles the adventurous type with a complicated relationship to girls.

“I’m off girls forever,” he says at one point. So will readers see a budding bromance between our two lads, or is that merely to be implied? The shippers are already on the case regardless.

The story is pleasantly subdued, and quite subtle. A dry British humor permeates everything, which might not be everyone’s cup of tea. Then again, Bumflowers. How is that not everyone’s cup of tea? There’s a sense of mystery and dread about the issue as well, a very important asset for a first issue. Things are not always cheerful, and they’re frequently morbid. What does one expect from a series about murdered children solving crimes? And the setting is updated to modern day, with Crystal’s interest in technology creating a contrast with the old English boarding school atmosphere on display. An enjoyable contrast and one I expect will factor into how Crystal views her investigation versus how the boys do.

Artistically, aesthetics match the atmosphere. Dry, homey, warm where the living are concerned and cold wherever death (or is that with a capital ‘D’?) is nearby. Colors (or should I use a ‘u’ because British English?) are predominantly softer, but more vibrant hues appear strategically for maximum effect. Pencil work leaves all characters visually distinct and convey expressions well. Layouts are formal and blocky, but serviceable and in fact appropriate given the setting.

If I may talk fonts and narration, there are three protagonists in DEAD BOY DETECTIVES #1. Edwin Paine, Charles Rowland, and Crystal Palace. Each of them provide narration boxes, and each have distinct styles and fonts to go along with them. Edwin and Charles share the trait of boxes that look torn from paper. Edwin’s look handwritten, printed (as opposed to cursive), whereas Charles has a typewriter’s font. Crystal, child of the new millennium, has rounded boxes with smooth gradiant backgrounds, and her narration is in a sans serif font.

I bring these up because they speak of their respective characters in a subtle way. One that casual reading might miss.

All in all, I recommend DEAD BOY DETECTIVES #1 for those who can stomach a more formal pace and stuffy atmosphere. The characters are well established and likable, the script British, and the mysteries standard. At least for the franchise. Spooky supernatural nonsense stalking folks in boarding schools; that’s this series’ wheelhouse. As a successor to old school Vertigo, readers could do much worse. Call it a cash in, but at least the cash in is made with a modicum of talent and careful planning.

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