The Black Diamond Detective Agency (:01 First Second Books)

blackdiamond-header.jpgA new potboiler of a graphic novel from Eddie Campbell, the famed co-creator of From Hell.

 

 

144 pgs. FC; $16.95

(W / A: Eddie Campbell)

 

Eddie Campbell is a comics artist par excellence, with a list of credits that would surely make even his most accomplished peers at least a little envious. His long-running series Bacchus is a sardonic interpretation of the Roman god of wine and revelry in modern times; his even longer-lived Alec is a respected semiautobiographical examination of the artist’s role in society; and his collaboration with writer Alan Moore on From Hell, a speculative reckoning of England’s Jack the Ripper slayings, is widely regarded as one of the most artistically successful graphic novels ever created. Campbell’s latest work, the first in a purported series of graphic novels, is The Black Diamond Detective Agency, an adaptation of an unproduced screenplay by C. Gaby Mitchell for First Second Books.

 

John Hardin, the book’s protagonist, is the kind of man who seems propelled almost entirely by grief. Fleeting, almost impressionistic flashback panels suggest that he has lost a daughter and a wife, each to different circumstances, and although the Black Diamond Detective Agency is adamant that he is responsible for using an illegally obtained load of nitroglycerine to blow up a train at a crowded blockade in Lebanon, Missouri, a series of winks and nods alerts readers to the likelihood that he is not. Hardin’s personal history unfolds at a gradual pace as the character progresses through a series of twists and turns, some more believable than others. On paper, the story is a rather standard detective yarn set against the end of the 19th Century, complete with mysterious messages in need of unraveling, cases of mistaken identity, and other standard MacGuffins. In Campbell’s hands, however, this material is occasionally elevated to a far more interesting and unique vantage, though careless readers may find themselves missing the forest for the trees.

 

The cover to The Black Diamond Detective Agency. Click thumbnail for a larger image.Mitchell’s story delights in trotting out the usual genre mores and, for his part, Campbell clearly enjoys bringing them to life with his evocative, de-saturated panels. Alas, the book is perhaps too fussy for its own good, focused as it is on a cluster of often indistinguishable characters who exist largely to service a convoluted plot. By assuming that his audience is as familiar with his subjects as he is, Campbell is guilty of breaking one of the cardinal rules of comics storytelling, which frequently results in unnecessarily confusing passages. Part of the problem is Campbell’s art, which is less scratchy here than in much of his previous work, but which still sometimes falls on the impressionistic side of the fence. This often results in scenes that are difficult to follow and characters that are hard to differentiate between. These qualms aside, fans of Cambell’s art will no doubt be quite taken with his work between the covers of Black Diamond. Gone is the busy, loose pen-and-ink style employed in most of his work, replaced by a spacious layout that makes intelligent use of washed-out visuals rendered with a deliberately limited palette. It works quite well in bringing to life the Chicago area of 1899.

 

If Black Diamond disappoints when evaluated as the sum of its parts, it is likely because the truth of the book lies in its details. On one level, the story is merely a potboiler, but on another still, it’s a commentary on where America stood at the dawn of the 20th Century. The detectives and feds in the book rely on uneasy cooperation and primitive forensics as they work to solve the case at hand, and the integration and industrialization of such techniques frequently results in some of Black Diamond‘s most satisfying moments. "It’s a sign of the times," reasons one character repeatedly throughout the second half of the book, in response to fantastic, often misconstrued, events. When the story’s final mystery is solved at last, it arrives in the form of an amusingly condescending wink from the present day; out of respect for spoiling the ending, I’ll refrain from commenting on it directly, but I will say that it excels at tying the book’s most important themes together in a neat little bow. | Paul Little

 

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