12 October 2016

Faster than a DC Bullet: The Sandman Spin-Offs, Part XXXIII: Dead Boy Detectives: Schoolboy Terrors

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2014 (contents: 2013-14)
Borrowed from the library
Read April 2016
Dead Boy Detectives, Volume 1: Schoolboy Terrors

Writer – story: Toby Litt
Penciller – layouts – story: Mark Buckingham
Inkers: Gary Erskine, Andrew Pepoy
Finishers: Russ Braun, Victor Santos
Colorist: Lee Loughridge
Letterer: Todd Klein

They've had a couple of confusingly-titled standalones to their names already,* but the Dead Boy Detectives have finally landed an ongoing series, some twenty years after the characters originally debuted in The Sandman (and almost as long since they became detectives in The Children's Crusade). I'm not sure why, but I committed to reading every Sandman spin-off years ago, so here I am!

Schoolboy Terrors contains three stories. The first, "Run Ragged," is a short tale of the two ghost boys (Edwin, d. 1910s, and Charles, d. 1990s) helping find a lost dead cat; events quickly spiral out of control and they end up enrolled in a creepy school. This is fun, if inconsequential stuff: like Jill Thompson did in her run on the characters, Toby Litt and Mark Buckingham extract a lot of humor from the two boys' interactions with girls. (Charles is obsessed, Edwin less so.)

Weirdly, after the first story sets up these girls and their claim on the Dead Boy Detectives' treehouse, they basically don't turn up again except very briefly, and then we get a whole story about the boys making a different female friend. Not sure what that's about.
from Time Warp vol. 2 #1 (art by Mark Buckingham & Victor Santos)

School turns out to be a fruitful setting for the Dead Boy Detectives (Thompson's run was also set in one), as in the title story, they end up traveling to St. Hilarion's, the very school in which both boys died, eighty years apart. They're there to protect Crystal Palace, the daughter of a performance artist who likes MMORPGs but is possibly being set up as the receptacle for demons coming through from another dimension. I like the idea of taking the boys back to the scene of their demise, but it shows up one of the fundamental difficulties of the Dead Boy Detectives premise. What happened to these boys was terrible and gruesome-- they were both killed by bullies-- but the inclination is to put them into light-hearted goofy adventures. The plot in "Schoolboy Terrors" is about kids being killed so demons can use their bodies, sure, but the writing and especially Buckingham's art emphasizes the goofiness more than anything else, and the danger is all "fantasy violence," not realistic violence. Yet the boys have this fundamental, disturbing trauma in their backstories that is difficult to reconcile with their ongoing adventures, and bringing them back to the scene of their deaths makes that disjunction hard to ignore. Neil Gaiman is actually pretty good at mixing horror with childlike whimsy, but Toby Litt is not as talented a writer (no slight to him, of course).

Something that's a little weird is that the flashbacks to Season of Mists often ignore that Edwin's release from Hell was not a singular event: in Gaiman's original story, he was one of untold trillions of souls released from Hell when it was abandoned by Lucifer. Though it is sort of implied: that's how Edwin's tormentors can torment Charles eighty years later, and why Death is so busy.
from Dead Boy Detectives #2 (art by Mark Buckingham and Gary Erskine & Andrew Pepoy)

That said, "Schoolboy Terrors" is a decent, if sometimes aimless, adventure; I felt like the boys spent a lot of time toing and froing with little purpose.

The last tale here is "Halfway House," which seems to set up the new status quo for the Dead Boy Detectives: solving supernatural difficulties with their new friend Crystal Palace. I remember complaining during Ed Brubaker's run that the rules of being a ghost often seemed arbitrary (the resolution to his storyline turned on a previously unseen ability of ghosts to create miniature ghost duplicates of themselves, as I recall), so I was pleased when Litt and Buckingham gave us a two-page spread explaining the rules of being a ghosts:
Maybe they read my complaints.
from Dead Boy Detectives #5 (art by Mark Buckingham & Russ Braun)

Otherwise, this is a cute if somewhat confusing story about a cursed mirror, dead Victorians, and philosopher cats.

Later, the cat gets cut in half and becomes two cats, one black (with a white tail) and the other white (with a black tail).
from Dead Boy Detectives #6 (art by Mark Buckingham & Russ Braun)

Litt and Buckingham are clearly treating this as an ongoing; there are hints of something bit going on that I imagine will pay off in volume 2. The real highlight of this book is Mark Buckingham's art; I had mixed feelings about his very short run on Doctor Who, where he inked himself, but here, with other inkers, his work really pops and delights. Great facial expressions, great layouts.

* The first was called The Sandman Presents: The Dead Boy Detectives and the second just The Dead Boy Detectives. One notes that the definite article has vanished from the title this time out.

Next Week: More death! More boys! More detectives! Have it all in Ghost Snow!

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