Toby Litt’s Dead Boy Detectives (2014 – 2015)

a limited series of 12 issues
plotted with artist Mark Buckingham

litt_dbd_covThese detectives really need to be put to rest. Ed Brubaker’s one-shot, “the Secret of Immortality,” let readers know that two prepubescent ghost detectives didn’t provide a lot of material to entertain Vertigo’s target audience. Nor did Jill Thompson’s manga-style run with the characters. Neil Gaiman’s original the Sandman series provided an interesting set-up for the characters, but every time they’re dug up, they’re stripped of all characteristics except their English accents and crammed into crummy stories written, somewhat confusingly, for ‘mature audiences.’

The characters and the stories are geared towards the YA market, but then the occasional nudity and gore — blatantly adult content — likely contributed to this series’ low sales and fast cancellation. This short-lived series, about two dead 12-year-old boys who solve supernatural mysteries with a young girl named Crystal and two halves of a philosopher ghost-cat, ends up feeling as scatterbrained as the setup sounds.

Fans of Mark Buckingham’s work in the Fables series won’t be disappointed with his work here: It’s on par with his best. (Although why the ghost of a cruel, white schoolmaster is drawn as a racist Fu Manchu caricature, I’ll never know….) This is partially his pet project, and he shares story / writing duties with Toby Litt — an literary academic and newcomer to comics. Unfortunately, I haven’t had as good an impression of Buckingham’s writing chops as I’ve his artwork, and Litt’s contributions don’t seem to enhance anything. It has a lot in common with Buckingham’s work in Fairest, in that it tends to sacrifice a coherent plot in favor of unfunny, stupid, and ignorant jokes.

litt_dbdvol2_art
This scene contains everything wrong with this series. How many convoluted, messy plots can you spot?

The stories across all 12 issues of the Dead Boy Detectives are rich in ideas, but too many ideas. Transitions between lines of dialogue, between pages, between groups of panels — they consistently lack coherence. Universe rules are explained in the fourth issue for new readers, and then broken numerous times throughout the series without any acknowledgment. And gosh, the coincidences and convenient plot devices — every plot thread is born and bred on impossible coincidences, worst seen in the five-issue ‘Ghost Snow’ story arc.*

The powerful Sandman lore sometimes breaks through. We run into really neat mysteries, like the two young ghosts who have spent 130 years trapped by a shattered mirror that provided a gateway to H. Rider Haggard’s racist Africa. And then random things happen, which is about the crux of this series’ problems. Things just happen for no reason and then it’s over.

5 / 10


* The second half of the series contains possibly the most convoluted plot I’ve ever struggled to pull apart:

litt_dbdvol2_cov
Cover for volume 2, containing the ‘Ghost Snow’ arc and ‘Yonda’ one-shot.

Charles (d. 1990), Edwin (d. 1916), and Crystal Palace (living: somewhere between the ages of 13 and 20 depending on the panel and issue, usually sexualized) stumble into a secret hospital ward down the street from Crystal’s parents’ house hidden behind or underneath an old folks’ home. This depressing home contains a) Charles’ secret half-sister’s mother who, we just discovered, murdered Charles’ mom long before, and b) a gaggle of ghosts who by existing break Sandman lore re: Death established only a couple issues earlier.

It should be noted that Charles’ half-sister is a walking Buddhist stereotype — bald head, orange robes, one-liner wisdom — who lives in a windmill with her steampunk daughter, who exists for no other reason than to poke fun of science and scientists for not believing in supernatural junk.

The secret hospital happens to contain Crystal’s supposedly-dead childhood friend, who’s been in a secret coma for the last 5 or 7 years (depending on the issue). The comatose friend’s spirit, it turns out, has been trapped in what’s known as the Neitherworld with, coincidentally, Crystal’s new best friend’s spirit — her body’s been hijacked: long story –, a meditating Buddhist who lives next door to the aforementioned windmill, and, occasionally, Tragic Mick, a proprietor of a ghost store Charles and Edwin frequent.

Unfortunately, as soon as our heroes learn of the comatose friend, she’s only minutes away from death. (As is the guilt-ridden mother in the old folks’ home.)

litt_dbdvol2_final
The final issue, ‘Yonda.’

Of course they save the friend. Of course. And not only does she bounce awake, totally fine, she’s mentally just as old as Crystal Palace and her gang of ghosts. Because being in a coma since the age of 6 (or 8) wouldn’t have any consequences.

I can’t imagine how the above scenario was storyboarded. It makes no sense.

The second volume only gets worse when the series concludes on a one-shot (‘Yonda’) that takes place in a fictional video game as imagined by a clueless, middle-aged parent stuck in 1993. Excuses for ignorant story-telling like this ran out after Y2K.

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