Expanded Review: WEIRD DETECTIVE, a respectful homage to pulp and pop culture
EDITOR’S NOTE: Is there a title you’ve read this year that you’re still raving about? Is there a book or a series that’s so good that you want all your friends to read it? Do you endorse it to perfect strangers and leave verbal testimonials whenever the opportunity arises? If so, you're not alone! We know the feeling. The pleasure of discovery feels so good it’s hard not to enthuse about it and try to share that emotion with others. Every year we look for a book or limited series that we can get behind and wave the flag for. For 2016, we nominate the WEIRD DETECTIVE mini-series at Dark Horse. We’ve already reviewed the first issue for the Nameless Digest website back in June ( http://www.namelessdigest.com/2016/07/27/review-weird-detective-lovecraft-for-the-masses/ ), and reprint most of that review below with some expanded material and insights more in line with the interests of comics fans. We're going to review the entire run here, so stand by for more.
WEIRD DETECTIVE #1 (Dark Horse Comics; June 15, 2016 release date) $3.99, 46 pages. ISBN #6156800013 00111. Script by Fred Van Lente. Art by Guiu Vilanova. Colors by Mauricio Wallace & Joseph Gonzalez. Letters by Nate Piekos of Blambot. Cover by Guiu Vilanova & Mauricio Wallace.
H. P. Lovecraft connoisseurs will devour this book. The savants will praise it’s faithful homage to the Mythos of the Master. It’s pages contain enough ethereal pleasures to please the palates of even the most persnickety of pundits. The rest of us will find it very tasty indeed.
Writer Fred Van Lente, our spirit guide throughout WEIRD DETECTIVE, takes some familiar Lovecraft tropes and mixes them into the pop culture blender, along with police procedural, detective and “buddy-cop” elements as well as healthy dashes of respectful references to classic movies and television. This concoction is carefully infused with copious dashes of humor, sometimes subtle, sometimes blunt and bold, but always appropriate to the scene and often laugh out loud. It’s a specific spooky smoothie that makes WEIRD DETECTIVE so easy to slurp down.
Every month brings new works in literature, comics and media that borrow themes from Lovecraft’s universe. A large majority attempt to be steadfast to the dark and unsettling nature of those tales of horror and macabre fantasy. There is plenty of the same, along with the standard threat of alien invasion/influence behind the scenes in WEIRD DETECTIVE. The difference is the blend of humor with the horrific elements, which should make this more accessible to a larger audience. Van Lente may be the first writer to make it easier for the general readership to access some of the Lovecraft magic. And in doing so, he may just earn a deserved seat at the right tentacle of Cthulhu.
Even before revealing it’s delectably devilish contents, the cover of WEIRD DETECTIVE beckons to all lovers of Lovecraft lore and pulp noir fiction. The title itself harks back to the days of pulp magazines like Weird Tales, The Shadow, and Doc Savage Adventures. The typeface reflects the predominant font style of those times. The cover illustration promises a mix of crime with the mysterious. A detective, seemingly backed up against a brick wall, holds up his badge of identification. However, Detective Sebastian Greene’s shadow does not silhouette a human form, but rather something much larger and alien. To entice us further, the story title on the cover proclaims in large bold face “The Stars Are Wrong.”
The credits page seems to beckon and dares us to read further as it outlines the horrors to come: “Shadows of loathsome horrors from beyond space and time, seeking to usher in the unimaginable evil of the Old Ones, are lurking in New York City. And the only man capable of fighting against the unspeakable terrors, Detective Sebastian Greene, may not be a man at all.”
Monstrous black tentacles erupt from the inner credits to lead us to the first page and captions containing cryptic philosophy against a cosmic backdrop. (“The most merciful thing in the world, I think . . . is the ability of the mind to correlate all its contents.”) The next page brings us to modern day New York City, where a female murder victim is discovered at the bottom of a community swimming pool. The captioned narration continues, and expands upon the meaning of the opening page.
The narrator is none other than Detective Sebastian Greene, as we are audience to his somewhat condescending thoughts. It quickly becomes apparent that he is different and strange, not cut from the standard detective cloth. For one thing, he possesses seventeen senses. Soon after arriving at the crime scene, he employs one of his extra senses - - Rennakesh,or emotionalocation, to quickly assess the mental space of his newly assigned partner.
That partner, Sana Fayez, is not without her own set of observational skills. The body of the victim in the pool has been neatly eviscerated, with only a bag of skin remaining. As Chief of Detectives Thomas Malone wonders how the body got there without anyone noticing before the pool opened, Fayez points out that the shell is so thin it could have slipped in through the intakes valves of the pool’s water system.
Grim as the situation is, it lends itself to some wry humor (which writer Van Lente is very adept at utilizing). As Fayez looks upon the body in the pool, she comments “It’s like when my little niece empties a juice box . . . She sucks it dry. Until it implodes.”
Six pages into the story and it becomes apparent to readers that they have seen just the tip of the iceberg, and that glacial construction will contain a bounty of police procedural, horror, fully fleshed characterizations (including the secondary players), mystery, science-fiction, and humor - - all perfectly balanced and measured out in just the right proportions.
The events in WEIRD DETECTIVE occur within the urban landscape of modern New York City and boroughs, a palatable palette of city streets and criminal hangouts deliciously illustrated and colored by the art team of Guiu Vilanova, Mauricio Wallace and Josan Gonzalez. Throughout the story, weirder elements begin to creep from the fringes onto the canvas in an effort to transform the landscape into something much stranger. Anytime those large purplish tentacles push forth behind the story panels in the foreground, the reader realizes that the menace is growing.
Despite all the intriguing and engaging story elements in the foreground, it’s this sub rosa menace that is at the heart of the main conflict/threat/challenge in WEIRD DETECTIVE. Following the swimming pool incident, two murders occur on the upper floor of a residential renovation site. A man is sucked into the underworld when he’s at his most vulnerable and exposed. His traumatized and fleeing girlfriend takes a wrong turn, and falls to her death on the streets below. Both victims come from shady backgrounds. Assumptions are made about the death of the girlfriend, resulting in war between two crime families.
The various sub-plots within the first issue are more than enough to make readers want more. However, it’s the rich characterizations that will bring them back. Van Lente has an empathic ability to get deep into the head of his characters, even when they are alien, and employs the story to bring out their individual potency, fervor, and foibles.
WARNING: SPOILERS FROM THIS POINT FORWARD.
If you prefer to be completely surprised when you read WEIRD DETECTIVE, stop reading this review now.
As in most of Lovecraft’s work, the story in WEIRD DETECTIVE is told in first person. His narrators are always horrified by events and react passively. However, narrator Sebastian Greene is unperturbed, alert and active. He’s not the usual Lovecraft victim of circumstances. Greene is an alien, possessed of unusual mystical abilities, and on a mission to help save his otherworldly civilization from the encroaching Old Ones.
Some of Greene’s abilities may seem familiar to fans of DC’s otherworldly character, The Martian Manhunter, particularly the extra mental abilities he possess as well as the ability to transform parts of his body to a gaseous state and move through obstacles. There’s a visually compelling scene where Greene phases his arm through a wall to apprehend a criminal suspect on the other side.
During a June appearance at Captain Blue Hen Comics in Delaware to promote WEIRD DETECTIVE and his other works, some of these similarities were pointed out to writer Fred Van Lente by astute employee Jason Colatriano. Van Lente revealed that he had previously made a pitch to DC Comics for a Martian Manhunter series focusing on those abilities. When DC passed on the proposal, Van Lente morphed the ideas and concepts into the basis for the Weird Detective series. It’s awesome when a creator can put a Plan B option into effect and make it pay off. Thanks, DC! While we’d like to see a Van Lente-created Manhunter series, we’re very happy with WEIRD DETECTIVE instead.
The alien inhabits the human form of Greene in order to move about within the New York Police Department, where he seeks to uncover the unearthly infestation and find a weakness his species can exploit. He resides on a small houseboat, and shares the habitation with a telepathic smart-aleck cat.
As depicted by artist Villanova, Greene is tall and slender with a sallow complexion and prominent cheekbones, a profile that appears very similar to portraits of author H. P. Lovecraft. His attire, from trench coat to hats, reflects the pulp detectives he tries to emulate in his speech and manners.
His awkwardness provides several humorous moments, as he struggles to understand common behavior and street language. His co-workers consider him to be unconventional and strange, attributing his peculiarities to his nationality (Canadian, a running joke). Unable to explain Greene’s recent success at solving some puzzling crimes (by using his extra-sensory abilities), Chief Malone assigns Detective Sana Fayez to keep an eye on him and learn his secrets.
It’s an unlikely partnership, and an engaging dichotomy. Fayez has her own set of peculiar traits and difficulties. After a “whistle-blowing” incident, she’s been demoted from a prominent job in counter-terrorism to this new position, and tasked with tailing Greene as penance.
The working hours in her job seem to be in conflict with the working hours of her same-sex roommate (lover?). She’s trying to care for her infant son (from an earlier relationship) and doesn’t trust nannies. When all else fails, she shows up on a crime investigation with the baby in a front-loaded papoose. When the crying infant stops wailing in the presence of Greene, she jokingly asks him “Will you come live with me?’” He seriously responds “No. I have a cat.”
One of the many humorous exchanges in the issue occurs as they drive away from a crime scene. Greene’s houghts begin to wander as he considers the perplexing (to him) consciousness of the human race. He absentmindedly stares at Faye, who’s driving the car. She thinks he’s sizing up her physical attributes and accuses him of staring.
She lectures him: “Don’t . . . Just, you don’t need to deny it, just don’t do it. . . . And I’m telling you, if you have any weird, like, Princess Jasmine, belly-dancing, Thousand and One Night’s fantasies going through your head, kick that shit to the curb, or I will do it for you.”
Greene: “I don’t, uh . . .”
Fayez: “And here, I was hoping you and I played for the same team.”
Greene: “I have been invited to join departmental softball team, but first I need to acquire the requisite equipment . . .”
Fayez: “No, I mean I thought maybe you were gay.”
Greene: “We do not have the ‘gay’ in Canada.”
Fayez: “Ha! Jesus, you are repressed. What’s next? You’re going to say they don’t have hockey?”
As the conversation ends, Greene types a query into his smartphone: “What is hak!”
As the issue ends, an unlikely connection/partnership is revealed between the Great Race and the underworld, and Greene seems willing to compromise the safety of his new partner in order to learn how to defeat the creatures.
WEIRD DETECTIVE bears repeated readings, and promises more unearthly delights to come.
EDITOR’S NOTE: We are postponing our normal BC Rating System for this issue. Instead, we’ll use it to rate the entire series following our review of the remaining issues.