By Ben Caldwell
208 pages, color
Published by Archaia
Sometimes we do get a second chance. Take, for example, Ben Caldwell’s The Dare Detectives: The Snow-Pea Plot. My only previous exposure to Caldwell was his Wonder Woman strip in Wednesday Comics, which never quite clicked for me. And somehow, I’d entirely missed the original two-part publication of The Dare Detectives by Dark Horse quite a few years ago. But inevitably, what’s old is new again, and with Archaia collecting both installments into an attractive hardcover, this seemed to be as good a chance to check out Caldwell’s comics. What I found was an interesting mix of comics and animation sensibilities.
Caldwell’s basic thrust for The Dare Detectives is simple enough; three detectives (Maria and Toby Dare, plus a rabbit named Jojo) in a world that’s a mixture of pulp adventure, fantastical, and just plain odd. It’s taking a lot of familiar elements and smashing them together; the end result is a format that’s familiar (in part or in its entirety) to just about everyone. It lets Caldwell start with a big action sequence right out of the gate as a result; aside from a quick bottom-of-panel introduction of our three protagonists ("Maria: The Brains. Toby: The Muscle. Jojo: The Jerk.") there’s no slow exposition or lengthy explanation provided, just a hit-the-ground-running level of excitement.
When the book finally slows down, Caldwell does let the reader get their bearings, although even then he does so in a cheeky manner. When Maria complains that they have no money and will have to shut down the detective agency, Toby and Jojo (in a wink to the reader) note that every time she says that, some sort of case promptly shows up and drags them into a new adventure. And with that knowing moment of how these sorts of stories work, Caldwell does just that in a strange theft/kidnapping story involving snow peas and their Uncle Chan (landlord and Chinese food chef extraordinaire) that keeps the book hopping for almost 200 pages. The basic plot is a bit meandering in spots, and there are times when I get the feeling that some of the villains (Mme. Blue and Furious George in particular) are better fleshed-out in Caldwell’s head than what we get on the page, but it’s an entertaining and fast-paced story, and all in all it’s certainly fun.
Caldwell’s art is attractive, and most of the time I love it. Caldwell has a background in animation and it shows here; character designs are big and blocky and just begging to shift from still to live images. Nine times out of ten, I think it’s a big success. Having a clean art style means that it’s easy for all ages to follow, and that it works well with these slightly smaller dimensions. Caldwell gives his characters some wonderfully expressive faces too; I love Toby’s innocent smiles when Maria gives him something to do that isn’t terribly serious ("You and your bright orange sweater can stay here and hide the bikes!" "Oh boy! … If I was a bike, where would I want to hide?"), and Maria manages to come across as cross without being mean, no small feat. Every once in a while, though, I feel like there’s a panel or two missing between images, that transitions aren’t entirely clear. It’s just often enough that I started to notice that it was happening, but considering that this was originally produced six or seven years ago, I’m more than willing to chalk it up to a relative newness at the time to the art form.
The Dare Detectives: The Snow-Pea Plot is cute and fun; if I had a teenage niece or nephew, I know they’d be getting a copy for their birthday, absolutely. I think what got me the most by the time I was done is that Caldwell clearly has dozens if not hundreds of additional stories in mind for these characters; he provides us with lots of mock covers for stories that have yet to have been told, and even just reading the story in this volume you keep getting the feeling that this is just the tip of the iceberg. Hopefully a second volume will be showing up before too long; I’d like to see just what Caldwell has up his sleeve now. In the case of The Dare Detectives, I’m glad to have received a second chance.