Criminal Macabre: A Cal McDonald Mystery #1

Written by Steve Niles
Art by Ben Templesmith
32 pages, color
Published by Dark Horse

This book had to be one of the easiest sells in the universe. “Hi, we’re Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith; we did this little book called 30 Days of Night. Now we’d like to do a comic mini-series about Niles’s prose character Cal McDonald, you see he… you want it? Don’t you want to know the story, first?” I exaggerate, of course, but it’s easy to see why Dark Horse would want to scoop Criminal Macabre up for their horror line. So in some ways, the question is… will lightning strike twice?

Cal McDonald is a private investigator in a world where ghouls and vampires skulk on the outskirts of society. As one of the few humans who knows about the darker side of the world’s existance, he knows some of the rules. For instance, vampires, werewolves, and all the other species of freaks do not get along, so when a tip has Cal stumble upon a meeting between them all, he knows something’s up. And if that wasn’t suspicious enough, there’s also that vial of a strain of the Black Death that’s just been stolen from the Rockwell Institute of Infectious and Deadly Diseases. Yep, something’s definitely up.

Readers who are expecting to be dropped into the center of bold and in-your-face ideas like the first issue of 30 Days of Night might be a little disappointed; Criminal Macabre is its own entity, with its own pacing and structure. While 30 Days of Night is a classically styled horror/thriller, Criminal Macabre mixes horror with traditional detective fiction, which means the story is as much about the journey as it is the plot. Niles uses this to his advantage, letting readers who haven’t read any of his Cal McDonald stories before get to know both the world and the character. Niles gives McDonald a nice narrative voice to tell the story with, and it’s easy to see why he’s worked well in prose in the past.

Templesmith’s art on Criminal Macabre looks as slick as always. I think what struck me the most in Criminal Macabre was his use of color, from the dark grays of the Deadly Diseases institute, to the bright red practically jumping off the page when a character gets repeatedly shot. Even shifting from the dingy insides of clubs to the haze of Los Angeles’s sun comes to life, with a dull sepia letting you know instantly how Cal McDonald sees the world outside, as well as evoking a strong sense of his surroundings. It’s color that also fills in the gaps between Templesmith’s scratchy lines on the page; he doesn’t need to connect the dots because the color is doing it for him. It’s a fascinating technique, and it’s almost as interesting to see how Templesmith achieved an effect as it is to simply admire the final result.

Criminal Macabre #1 is a pretty strong start for the mini-series; the only thing really lacking is a strong cliffhanger to lead into #2, but I think most readers are going to enjoy this enough to not need an extra excuse to buy the second issue. If your local store is sold out of Criminal Macabre #1, don’t worry, because a second printing is on the way, and #2 hits stores this week. Criminal Macabre: A Cal McDonald Mystery is a five-issue mini-series from Dark Horse Comics.

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