By: Toby Litt (story), Mark Buckingham (pencils), Gary Eskine (inks), Lee Loughridge (colors)

The Story: It’s bad if it takes a couple of deceased prepubescent kids to solve a case, right?

The Review: My first introduction to the eponymous Dead Boy Detectives was in the pages of Vertigo’s recent anthologies.    During all that time, it never registered on me that they were anything other than Litt’s original creations.  To discover that they are in fact a Sandman spin-off was surprising, because they seemed like such unlikely candidates to be products from the mind of Neil Gaiman.

A lot of this had to do with Litt’s treatment of the eponymous heroes in those anthologies.  While the young duo’s misadventures started out kind of charming in Ghosts, they steadily grew less so in Time Warp until they became a harmless but rather dull feature in Witching Hour.  It retrospect, it was a mistake to reintroduce them in that piecemeal fashion, because given a whole issue to develop and state their purpose, the Detectives reclaim that Gaiman-esque combination of the whimsical and macabre.

Of course, Litt does take a few pains to make the Sandman connection clearer, most notably in the speaking appearance of Death, whose coming the Detectives fear.  But the higher quality of this full issue compared to the previous anthology features goes beyond name-dropping.  Litt simply emphasizes the “Dead” in the Dead Boy Detectives in a way he neglected to do before.  Even without a cursory Wiki-search, you have enough information to understand the boys’ origins and, consequently, how they belong under the Vertigo banner.

Much as the Detectives make light of their unearthly natures (“Ever see another ghost still wearing a school cap?”), you are never short of references to the inherently grim side of the afterlife.  Edwin reveals a more than passing familiarity with “the corridors of Hell,” and Charles speaks of his own murder with a bluntness that directly contrasts with his otherwise adventurous personality.  These details also hint at the “accounts” they must settle before they can move on.  Solving mysteries is how they’ve chosen to use their time, but as ghosts, they have more important reasons for lingering on the Earthly plane.

Whatever those reasons are, they almost certainly revolve around the ominous nature of Saint Hilarion’s boarding school, where both met their untimely end and where featured character Crystal Palace is now headed, determined to seek out her ghostly rescuers.  From Edwin and Charles’ memories of the place, Hilarion’s is clearly a sadistic institution, but it’s only when they accompany Crystal back to the school that they realize its supernatural connections, placing it squarely in the same category as the academy in Morning Glories.

Obviously, there’s a lot of plotting going on in the issue, to the point where it nearly turns Charles and Edwin into little more than vehicles for its advancement.  From the get-go, Litt establishes the contrast between Edwin’s refined manners and Charles’ more boisterous personality—think of Edwin as modeling himself on Sherlock Holmes while Charles is the spiritual successor of Damon Runyon’s gumshoes—but otherwise, they’re not terribly substantial protagonists as yet.  Crystal has them beat in both the depth and complexity of her backstory and personality, both the results of her offbeat parents, who give performance art its deservedly bad name with their self-serving projects and lifestyle.*

Buckingham is the only artist I know who can legitimately handle two ongoing series without a major compromise in the quality of either.  His linework immediately gives the title a classic look, at home in the modern age and all others besides.  His storytelling is straightforward but effective and he has great instincts for how much detail to give each panel and when.  Loughridge similarly straddles the retro-modern line with radical pastel hues drawn directly from the Andy Warhol palette.

Conclusion: A much, much better case for the ongoing existence of the Dead Boy Detectives than any of their recent appearances elsewhere.  Litt leaves plenty of room to take the series in both serious and purely entertaining directions.

Grade: B

– Minhquan Nguyen

Some Musings: * The sad part about Crystal’s mom inscribing her own name on her newborn daughter’s head shortly after birth is that it doesn’t seem all that farfetched, given the current eccentricities of our society.

– “My mom’s an artist, no a psycho,” Crystal insists.  Potato, po-tah-toe, I say!