Friday, March 18, 2005


Long-time Shrew followers (Shrewites? Shrewians?) already know that nothing attracts this rodent's beady little eyes like a story about New York City. Ex Machina had me before Brian Vaughan name-dropped Bernie Goetz in the first issue, Green Lantern: Evil's Might is one of my favorite Elseworlds, and Ed Brubaker nearly signed his own death warrant the other month by referring to the "city of Manhattan" in Captain America #2. In other words, waving a graphic novel set in 1926 New York in front of me is pretty much a guaranteed sale. Despite the vampires. The Shrew has no love for vampires.

I really, really wanted to love this book. Jorge Heufemann's art is elegant, if perhaps a little too subdued, and works well in the black-and-white format. And it has New York and it has mystery.... But, in the end, this was no Sandman Mystery Theatre.

Patrick Neighly obviously did some research, but there's not really a New York City feel to the story beyond Upper East Side Is Old Money and an oblique (to the point of coincidence) reference to the Harlem Renaissance. Esme make a comment about Edgar looking like he belongs in Brooklyn, but there's no real sense of the cultural or geographical distance involved. With only a few adjustments, it could have been any city anywhere in the world -- New York's grandeur and size and diverse nature are not anywhere on display. Nor is there much of a period sense -- white folks go to Harlem without mention, a woman in a burkah draws nary a glance, and the whole convenience of the Sultan of Brunei visiting feels even more fake when a quick check turns up the fact that the reigning Sultan was all of thirteen in 1926. The dialogue feels wrong -- sure, you can talk about going to 'speaks', but it takes more than the right argot and the right collar to 'get' a time and place.

The story itself... you can almost feel the wasted potential. The mystery, once revealed, is rather pedestrian but that shouldn't have stopped it from becoming interesting because Neighly has stacked the deck with irony with the wannabe vampires looking for the real thing. And so the denouement becomes a washed-out retread of an old Hellfire Club plot from Uncanny X-Men; the murderer's quest for power is never rationalized even within the realm of crazy-person logic and Neighly just brushes it all aside by insisting that the villain was crazy all along despite no evidence to support it one way or the other. And the people most affected by the big reveal? Don't register. Neither Edgar nor Esme are especially engaging or interesting to the point where we care what happens to them; Esme is your generic worldly flapper with a secret and Edgar is a collection of implied cliches (the son unable to emerge from his father's shadow, the Good Cop Still Burdened By A Past Failure, the good-hearted rebel, the scammer with no real malice, etc.) that merge into a white colorlessness. Whether Edgar is bad at his job, has exhibited poor moral judgment in the past, or is simply a victim of circumstance is never explained and he ends up in the limbo between hero and anti-hero because it's not clear if he's redeeming himself or just acting to his personal code. We simply don't know enough about him. Certainly not enough to care when he and Esme do their big (and rather random, despite the cliched inevitability) confession at the end.

This isn't to say that there weren't points that were clever or well-turned. Just that there weren't very many of them and Neighly seems especially impressed with himself when they do occur. This wasn't an awful read or even a bad one. It was an aggressively mediocre story that was not given any sort of impetus from the art. Conversely, Heufemann's got a pretty pencil, but he needs to be paired with a more dynamic storyteller.

The last page promises further adventures of our dashing duo and I'm most disappointed to confess that I'm not waiting with baited breath. DC/Vertigo is finally getting around to printing another of the SMT arcs (v3, The Vamp, #13-16 is solicited for June) and is so far superior in tone, language, plot, and style that I can't reasonably promote this story over the long-delayed collection of Matt Wagner's series despite the Ain't It Cool to Support Indy Comics rule.

The Supernaturalists
Sandman Mystery Theatre: v1 (The Tarantula), v2 (The Face and The Brute), v3 (The Vamp)


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