Dead Boy Detectives

By Jill Thompson
144 pages, black and white
Published by Vertigo/DC Comics

When Jill Thompson wrote and drew Death: At Death’s Door, it was a charming little sidestep off of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman: Season of Mists, showcasing several of the other Endless as all of the dead came back to life. Now Thompson’s written and drawn a second Sandman-connected digest—and the difference between the two could not be more obvious.

Rowland and Paine are a pair of teenage ghosts who aren’t ready to move onto the afterlife. They’re perfectly content to stay in this world, and what better thing to do to occupy their time than become private detectives? When they’re asked to find a missing student at the International Academy for Girls, though, they might just be in over their heads… and in women’s clothing, to boot.

Reading The Dead Boy Detectives is ultimately an exercise in frustration. With the rise of manga’s popularity, it makes perfect sense that DC Comics would love to see some of their properties appeal to that readership, but The Dead Boy Detectives feels like little more than a crass attempt to tie in. While At Death’s Door was a charming little romp, The Dead Boy Detectives is a by-the-numbers list of popular tropes in manga. Crossdressing? Check. Crushes on teachers? Check. Mysterious events at a boarding school? Check. Even worse, there’s no real spark of fun evident here; the writing is flat and listless, as if Thompson couldn’t muster up any real excitement for her own project. Add in an ending that comes so far out of left field that it’s almost insulting to the reader, and weak characterization at best of almost everyone in the book, and it completes the package of disappointment.

The one place where The Dead Boy Detectives has some success is in Thompson’s art. It’s a nice mixture of cartoony and more refined portraits, using the black-and-white medium to full effect with zipatone and greyshading to really help her figurework pop off of the page. Her characters are really well defined visually, both major and minor alike. I’d have liked it if the backgrounds had received the same care, with far too many pages having character after character floating on a white background. With a black and white book, vast expanses of white page unfortunately stands out a bit more than a project meant for color. Still, there are lots of nice little touches, from the little flowers surrounding word balloons when the girls have crushes, to the little art-annotations providing amusing sidenotes to the goings-on of the story.

The Dead Boy Detectives is frustrating because Thompson certainly understands how to write for younger audiences; her all-ages creation Scary Godmother certainly proves that. This book just comes across as a real misfire; it’s hard to tell where exactly everything went wrong, unfortunately, save that it did. This is ultimately not representative of Thompson’s work, and it’s a shame because her other books are so much better than this.

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