Thursday, April 14, 2005

DEATH Jr. #1

This made me laugh about as hard as I Can't Believe It's Not the Justice League did. Which is a lot.

Gary Whitta and Ted Naifeh have created a charming and cleverly subversive little story here. There are plenty of yukks both high- and lowbrow and a boatload of references beyond the characters themselves -- the real estate agency selling the house next door is Holden & Callfield, for instance -- and generally a lot going on on many levels.

Death, Jr. is nominally a story about a young boy on his first day of school, getting picked on by the bully, going to class, meeting a friend, and having a few age-appropriate adventures... But it takes on a whole new look when the boy in question is the Grim Reaper's pride and joy. DJ is his daddy's boy -- he's got a morbid touch (which is hell on his pets; the cat gag never gets old) and his body is only skull and he'd really like a chance to use a scythe like Dad, even if he doesn't quite understand that urge yet.

DJ's new best friend is Pandora, a gothy little girl who has a thing for boxes (get it?) and a personality that could have been any Winona Ryder role in her Heathers-Beetlejuice period, and his classmates are a mixture of perfectly normal and totally freakish. DJ might not notice the difference between the 'special' kids and the general population, but everyone else is hyperaware, if unafraid; the odd kids are treated like special ed, not living curio cabinet specimens -- despite one of them literally being a sort of Thalydomide baby in a giant jar.

It is with this group of 'special' kids where Whitta has the most fun: Stigmartha with the bleeding hands, Pandora with her box fetish, conjoined twins Smith & Weston share a brain, and Seep, the jarred Baby Herman-esque specimen. Whitta develops each according to their oddities, especially the twins and Pandora. Smith and Weston are the epitome of left brain/right brain stereotypes -- one is brilliant, the other not so much; creative and computational, etc. -- and have the most to do out of the supporting cast. Including coating their chemistry teacher in feces. Pandora is the sort of precocious kid that we all knew (or were) as young'uns and who TV writers always try to portray and never quite get. Her need to open things (and for the opened things to become messes) is used sparingly and never goes past the point of being a good gag so that when it becomes time for it to play an important role in the plot, it seems more coincidence than paved path with neon arrows. By the end, where the danger is present and looming, we are engaged with the characters and concerned for their welfare even as we know that they'll probably be all right in the end.

Ultimately the reason Death Jr. works is that it about a boy whose goodness of nature is so genuine and so unconscious that it transcends the sardonic and becomes immune to the too-knowing who'd like to destroy it. The story and the humor wouldn't work if DJ actually was a clueless idiot. He gets teased for his innocence in the face of freakdom, but DJ's unpoisoned outlook on life is just that -- unpoisoned instead of impossibly simpleminded. He's a bright kid raised by a supportive and loving family and it informs everything about him, so that when everyone else snarks at him... it sounds a bit like jealousy. Pandora doesn't seem wiser for being more aware of her differences -- she just seems sadder. It makes for great and effective humor in Whitta's hands. Very much like The Incredibles, it uses gentle humor to show off the positive.

That doesn't mean you won't laugh yourself sick. Especially when the poo literally hits the fan.

Best of the week, hands down.


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