Writer: Dan Abnett
Artist: I.N.J. Culbard
The last time I talked about The New Deadwardians on this blog was just after the release of issue #2, at which point the nature of this alternate history had just begun to take shape and the political machinations and their consequences were slowly being hinted at. Now with five issues under their belt, Abnett and Culbard have arrived at an extraordinarily well realized and highly complex world of class division, political posturing, repression, and general unease.
In issue #5 Chief Inspector Suttle and his wry, “bright” assistant, Bowes, have arrived at the country estate of the new lord Hinchcliffe (the former Hinchcliffe being the “young” (vampire) aristocrat whose mysterious death is the subject of the investigation) in order to explain the situation to the widow Hinchcliffe and see what he can learn from the rest of the family. The issue plays out like an Edwardian era game of clue, populated by an eccentric cast of characters, each of whom has a curious relationship to the deceased lord and the rest of the family. Even though each character only enjoys a bit of page time, their characters are developed with a thorough efficiency. We have the Lord Hinchcliffe, the “young” snooty heir to the family title who is noticeably unconcerned with his father’s death and very cavalier about his newly acquired nobility.
Next we meet the Widow Hinchcliffe, also “young” (though social mores required her to wait until she passed child-bearing age to take the cure). She is smart and cynical, though well versed at projecting a more acceptable image of herself in social settings. This social veneer is presented quite nicely during her interview with inspector Suttle. The inspector is instructed to find the widow in her chambers where she is applying her “tears.” Because the “young” cannot cry, the widow Hinchcliffe expresses her mourning by painting pitch black tears on her cheeks. The widow apparently feels no need to put on a front for the Inspector and, consequently, her grotesque make-up contrasts poignantly with her defiant attitude.
Then enters Lady Celia, the former Lord’s daughter. She is a hard-headed young woman who cuts an imposing and impressive figure. It is revealed that she did not get on well with her late father, mainly because he did not support her political leanings, namely this alternate England’s version of the suffragette movement: Throats for Women. She believes that women should be entitled to the same privileges of immortality as men and fears that if her father’s death proves “the cure” to be flawed, it will put an end to her pet cause.
The issue ends with the introduction of yet another character, Lord Falconbridge, a family friend and politician. Falconbridge’s motivations are unclear, but he offers some very intriguing theories about the case that will clearly influence Suttle over the coming issues.
Many an ironic commentary on early 20th century values and social customs have been written, both at the time and over the years since, while many a story that exploits the respective tropes of the zombie and vampire story has also been told. It’s worth acknowledging that part of the reason that so many stories have been told in these modes is because they are rich and relevant, though it’s also worth acknowledging that sometimes enough is enough. By using the designated horror genres, however, to tell a story of Edwardian manners, Abnett and crew effectively lend a new set of rules to old territory, ones that are just similar enough that the world is recognizable, but just different enough that it feels fresh and all of a sudden old critiques and commentaries are given new significance and are ready to be looked at in a slightly different light.
I have sung enough praises for the world building and supporting cast but the series would not have the same impact or resonance if the protagonist were not as layered and multidimensional as he is. Like many literary detectives of note, Suttle is an outsider who, as a member of the undead ranks, cannot relate to the mortal working class, but he cannot share the ignorant acceptance of the new status quo that his fellow aristocrats do either. More than just a misfit, however, Suttle is a character in transition. Once a Military hero who happily took “the cure” in the name of queen and country, he is struggling to come to terms with the consequences of his war efforts that he will now have to live out in perpetuity. Suttle’s struggle is summed up very concisely on the last page of issue #5 in a conversation with Bowes which reads as follows:
Bowes: Were you looking for something sir?
Suttle: Meaning, Bowes. I was looking for meaning.
Bowes: We’re all looking for that, sir.
Suttle: Indeed, and I think someone wants me looking in the wrong direction entirely.
This remark refers to the case specifically, but it is also a compelling metaphor for the misdirected repression and complacency of Edwardian society, a metaphor that, ironically, is given new life through its undead messengers.
In my last review I commented on the issues one flaw, a lack of consistent visual rhythm. Here in issue #5, however, Culbard seems really to have found his narrative voice. He demonstrates a powerful sense of visual composition that works on the level of individual panels, as well as cohesive page layouts. He makes use of tight shots and wide angles, shot / reverse shots, and contrasting points of view in a way that allows each page to develop and explore a fully realized idea, mood, or question, which then leads fluidly into the next page.
Detective narratives, when told through the comics medium, have a unique ability to place the reader actively within the mystery. Our ability to see everything the detective sees, while also having a privileged view into their internal monologue, allows the reader to actively work with all the pieces of the puzzle in a way that the limited perspective of prose and the forward moving nature of film do not. Pure detective comics are fairly rare and do not all rise to the aforementioned potential, so it is a joy to see this one hit the mark so absolutely. I had mixed emotions at the end of this issue, on one hand I was eager for the next installment, but I was also slightly saddened that the story will draw to a finite close in just 3 more issues.