I picked up the trade paperback of "The New Deadwardians" from my local comic book store on a Wednesday. There had been plenty of positive reviews and comments about the eight-issue mini-series when it was coming out, but for some reason it never made it to my pull list. That's probably for the best. It's a great value at $14.99 for 176 pages and it left me with the distinct impression that it read better as a single piece than as a series of installments.
"The New Deadwardians" defies basic genre groupings, taking elements of horror and detective fiction, then blending them with Edwardian era England. It's unique and that's a large part of what makes it such an enjoyable comic. It isn't a vampire-story or zombie-story or a detective-story or even a Downton Abbey-story, it can be compared to all of these things, but is none of them. Dan Abnett has done good work previously on properties like Warhammer 40K and Marvel's space-based heroes. This work stands as his best creation so yet, however.
The mystery aspect of the story, although well told, serves more as a reason to explore the clever alternate history Abnett has constructed. The social classes of England are separated by "The Young" (upper class, vampires), "Brights" (middle class, normal humans) and "The Restless" (lower class, zombies). Buried in this stratification alone are a couple jokes I enjoyed, the obvious "Young" and "Restless" classification and their replacement of vampires and zombies respectively. It's a cleverly constructed world, which slowly reveals itself as Chief Inspector George Suttle conducts his investigation, which avoids devolving into an overly contrived one. The introduction of a young feminist supporting "Throats for Women" is at the very least chuckle-inducing.
The playground doesn't overwhelm the players though. As much as the walls built between each group and the other societal constructs drawn onto the pages are worth discussing, the characters form the heart of the story. George forms the center of a relatively small cast. His primary companions are Bowes, a human with a snarky attitude towards the "Young" and Sapphire, a charming young prostitute. All three of these are written as human, or mostly human, not as a type. Sapphire particularly walks a tight line, not devolving into a caricature of the "hooker with a heart of gold" or a "trapped young woman". She's probably the most strong-willed character and her interactions with George are challenging and very enjoyable to watch.
On the surface "New Deadwardians" is an enjoyable story filled with interesting characters, an engaging plot and plenty of layers to remain engaging upon additional readings. The reason it has received as much praise as it has, is not only because it's a well crafted story though. It has more to do with the challenge it presents for readers and the industry it exists within. George's primary challenge throughout the story is not to solve an impossible murder, it's to overcome his own sense of ennui. In a dinner scene he explains, concerning Brights,
… it is appetite which gives their lives purpose. It’s the hunger to learn, and grow, and live, that drives them on… So the very point of living disappears at the precise moment that you’re given an endless slice of lifetime to use up.
This problem can be applied to the social stratification created in this alternate Edwardian Era and reflected in our own, on a more personal level to the reader, or to the comics industry. It’s the last of these that I find the most interesting. George is an eternal man. He expects to live forever, but cannot change and so his life cannot truly be described as such. In the same regard, mainstream comics have guaranteed an ongoing existence by paralyzing any appetite they may have. As long as Batman continues to punch the joker and Superman flies in to save the day, the comics industry will continue to make money and publish books. This is not a good thing, as George expresses. Value is found in growing and learning. Art evolves through experimentation, not stagnation. Abnett’s story communicates this message to the comic industry in two ways. First, it tells it as a well crafted them. Second, and more importantly, it shows that his best work has come when he is no longer trapped by pre-determined universes.
There are a lot of writers doing great work re-inventing the wheel (Scott Snyder on “Batman”, Matt Fraction on “Hawkeye”), but these same writers are inventing new properties which are just as good, if not better (Scott Snyder on “American Vampire”, Matt Fraction on “Casanova”). “The New Deadwardians” is part of a movement leading away from a focus on superhero comics and long term properties. It represents a new wave of comic readers who are interested in good stories, not genres or characters. This charge is being led by Image Comics, but Vertigo is regaining its footing with entries like this. It represents an investment in talented writers and their ideas as opposed to sticking them on old ideas.
I don’t know if ten years from now the comics industry will have changed to support more creator-owned properties and leave superheroes with significantly less shelf space. I hope that’s the case though, I hope that the comics industry gets its appetite back.