The Dead Boy Detectives
by Jill Thompson
(DC/Vertigo, 2005)

By now, spin-offs of Neil Gaiman's Sandman series are as numerous and variegated as the original source material they draw upon. Jill Thompson, one of the original artists from the lengthy series that almost single-handedly redefined comics by creating its own genre-within-a-genre (and was the launchpad for the highly successful DC publishing spin-off Vertigo), has returned with two of the more popular characters from the Season of Mists chapter of the Sandman saga. Edwin Paine and Charles Rowland, both deceased, both detectives (in their afterlives, of course), travel from Britain to America, specifically Chicago, after receiving a letter from a prestigious girls' prep school about a vanished classmate.

While it's a manga-style story through and through, it's still very readable and enjoyable, and shouldn't present any problems for American readers at all. Thompson works hard to make her material understandable and easy to grasp without compromising the essential flavor of Japanese manga. The characters are drawn in wide-eyed, wide-mouthed glory, and the puns and wisecracks so endemic to manga stories are scattered like comic landmines throughout the terrain of a very lighthearted, yet entertaining story. Underneath the sarcasm and the jokes is a fairly absorbing mystery, and underneath that, of course, is the usual biting observation of popular culture, a culture that is at one and the same time idealized and ridiculed in that particular contradiction that is the essence of manga stories.

There's genderbending galore, but in a very PG-13 kind of way. The sexuality on display is more innocent than enticing, but darkness still lurks in the corners in much the same way it does in real life. There's more than one well-placed switcheroo, which keeps the tension running at a decent but not high-strung pace. It's almost a given that Charles will lose his heart to a girl, as he does in almost every story; it's also a given that Edwin's unrequited love for his partner, like Charles' love for the cute human girls he falls in love with, is never likely be reciprocated, which adds a bittersweet context to a story that treats heavy issues lightly and light issues even more lightheartedly. Adding gravitas to a schoolboy crush and an easygoing, laid-back approach to death gives the story a perfect balance between light and dark. And the mystery isn't too bad, either. A great deal of fun for old and young, Sandman fans and non-fans alike.

by Mary Harvey
8 October 2005

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