by Nick Bridwell
I am going to compare these two books as if they are the only two works I’ve read from Dan Abnett and I.N.J. Culbard, because it happens to be the truth. There’s a good chance you know more about both creators than I do. And that’s okay. Confession: I’m a new convert to the Abnett and Culbard cult. Come on over; it’s an easy conversion. I do know that Abnett has written many critically acclaimed works, and that Culbard has adapted the brilliant stories of H.P. Lovecraft and Robert W. Chambers, as well as writing and drawing his own books. I urge you to go and hunt these works down. I will be soon. So, let’s discuss the aforementioned titles. The New Deadwardians and Wild’s End are two genre-bending takes on classic tales. Some spoilers may be discussed, so just wait until you’ve read both books before you dig into this analysis. In reading both, I’ve come to realize that the greatest triumph of the Abnett and Culbard partnership lies in the former’s careful blending of classic stories with original narratives, and Culbard’s poignant art, which is both wholly original and totally evocative.
The New Deadwardians is a mashup of the noir detective flicks of Hollywood’s better Bogart years, the Edwardian era of later Sherlock Holmes, and contemporary zombie/virus movies and television shows. Here, a well-dressed vampire detective — something we’ve seen countless times: Whedon’s Angel (see IDW’s run for the best Angel comics) on the top shelf of the blood-bar and something like Moonlight at the bottom — must solve an impossible homicide, wrestle feelings for a forbidden love, and stop the big bad. Sure, that sounds familiar enough. What could have been executed as cliche trope, however, is miraculously, in the hands of the capable Abnett and Culbard, anything but familiar. How do they pull this off? The beauty is in the details, creating a new vampire mythology that feels natural and building a world that seems morbidly possible.
In Deadwardians, Abnett writes our gentleman vampire not as a man transformed by the hyper-sexual exchange of blood with some sex-fiend of the night, but through some clinical appointment. It’s called “taking the cure,” like how you take a tetanus shot. I’ll shy away from sheer summary. (Since the trade was released in early 2013 you’re supposed to have read this already!) But, essentially, for a convenient refresher, somehow zombies are created. In order to combat the zombies, by way of a concoction both mystical and scientific, man creates a virus that allows all victims to live forever. Only problem: they’re freaking vampires, man! So that’s where our pal and protagonist, Chief Inspector Suttle, is at the beginning of the book. He’s taken the cure as an act of patriotism in order to fight the zombies. And it’s worked. Vamps have pushed the zombies out of town. It’s really quite brilliant. Vampirism as survivalism.
Then, Abnett goes another step in the opposite direction from your typical veiny fare. In Deadwardians, vampires aren’t gifted with heightened, near-orgasmic emotions. In fact, Suttle has a hard time feeling anything at all. He eats out of habit, smells like death, and it takes an enormous effort for him to even get a stiffy (not fair for a bona fide, walking stiff!). Many a vampire lit author has given the vampire unbridled passion, malice, an embrace of the cup that runneth over. This is the first time I’ve read a vampire mythology wherein the vampires are metaphysically and emotionally castrated by their transformation. And doesn’t it make more sense that a dead man might feel dead? Suttle is no Lestat. He’s more accurately Dr. Frankenstein’s Dick Tracy, exploring what it means for himself to have this strange gift of eternal life while ceaselessly deducing the very origins of that gift.
I’ll mention Dick Tracy for another reason. While Culbard’s Chief Inspector George Suttle is not as square-jawed as Chester Gould’s famous detective, and while his Deadwardian London not as angular as Gould’s “The City” (a thinly-veiled facsimile of Chicago), there is nevertheless a beautiful similarity in both men’s ability to capture the very essence of an early twentieth-century detective and his city with simple and elegant lines. The book could have been boringly titled “The Vampire Virus” or more stylishly “London (Undead) Calling,” and one could still easily discern the Edwardian era through Culbard’s exquisitely evocative art. Not since Buster Keaton has a man so effectively rocked a porkpie hat as does our undead Suttle. This seemingly tidy London of the Downton Abbey Days, of course, creates a beautiful juxtaposition when we are faced with terrifying images of zombies at war. These are truly as ghastly as anything I’ve ever seen in print.
I am thoroughly impressed that Abnett and Culbard have created a post-apocalyptic period piece — a speculative smorgasbord — and it actually works. I mean, what’s next? Anthropomorphic countryfolk fighting off the early stages of an alien invasion?
Abnett and Culbard’s Wild’s End, Vol. 1 is, to quote myself, “a story of anthropomorphic countryfolk fighting off the early stages of an alien invasion.” If you buy my assertion that Deadwardians is a literary cocktail equal parts Edwardian Dick Tracy and 28 Days Later, then you’ll really love the next little drink Abnett and Culbard have come up with. I think I’ll call it the “W,” because it could be defined in its mix-up as equal parts Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows and H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds. Again, we find that Abnett and Culbard have perfect a genre-bending formula. It is worth noting that up until this point, I have read only the first volume of the Wild’s End series. Where Deadwardians was created to be self-contained within the one graphic novel (originally an eight-issue mini-series), there is no telling how Wild’s End will develop past this point. For that reason, I comment not on the series so far — the second narrative arc, Enemy Within, began in September — but of what is in this first collection.
As with most anthropomorphic tales, much of the characteristics of the individuals are brought out in the human perceptions of these creatures. Our hero, Clive Slipaway, another veteran like Inspector Suttle, is a stoic, but powerful, Mastiff. Much of his physicality and temperament is known before we even get to the character development. The same goes for Fawkes (the surreptitious, poaching fox), Alph (the lively, but misinformed swine), and others in the community. This gives the story a fairy tale quality, à la The Wind in the Willows, from page one. In some ways this could be construed as some sort of cheat. The writers do not have to create characters if the animals are already imbued with character traits. Sure, that’s one way to look at it. The other way is to see that in the first volume we are able to use our preconceived notions of the characters as a starting point, and then we are able to watch as these characters change as they take on some sort of alien menace. It turns out Fawkes is brave; the busy body rabbit Gilbert keeps his body busy dying, and who knows (yet) what dark secrets our hero Clive is hiding. We know little of the enemy, only that it is some sort of otherworldly alien bent on destroying our hero and his friends. Where The New Deadwardians showed the aftereffects of a global epidemic, here we have a survivalists story at ground zero.
From an art standpoint, Culbard has recreated himself once again. Where Deadwardians was Edwardian and “period” down to the haircuts, fashion, and shape of the characters’ faces, Wild’s End is storybook at its heart. For the characters to derive so much of their personalities from their physical form requires a fine mastery of the animal figure. Rather than going hyperrealistic or far too cartoonish, Culbard opts for a hybrid of E.H. Shepard’s work on The Wind and the Willows and Donald Chaffin’s work on Roald Dahl’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox. In essence, he combines a likeable animal image with a trademark originality that makes the characters all at once “for children” and “for adults.” I’d highlight Slipaway and Fawkes as my favorite two characters, both written and drawn. Slipaway is commanding and brooding, Fawkes rebellious and questioning.
In comparing these two Abnett and Culbard works, of the two series, The New Deadwardians seems to do a better job at genre-bending. However, this is only because its unique handling of vampire mythology hasn’t been matched in kind. Seeing as how both men have more time to develop their characters in Wild’s End, it’s very likely that the originality of the world-building I found so natural in Deadwardians hasn’t occurred yet in the more recent series. Still, perhaps Wild’s End originality is present in Abnett and Culbard’s going a little darker than the fairy tales of our youth. Mr. Mole never had his head blown off by some sort of alien death ray.
Both The New Deadwardians and Wild’s End, Vol. 1 are epitomic examples of how to properly blend genres and effectively create an original story with original characters. Dan Abnett’s literary strengths come in not only adapting his voice to his characters, but to time itself. I.N.J. Culbard’s art is revelatory, miles away from the carbon copies of some of the bigger books at some of the bigger publishers. (A tasteful nod of approval must be made toward the gang at Vertigo for snatching up The New Deadwardians.) It’s curious that a common thread would exist, artistically, between an alternate reality Edwardian vampire inspector and an anthropomorphic dog, but it’s there. Suttle and Slipaway are of the same mind. Or maybe I’m just seeing a specific kind of talent, that rare kind that can be appreciated and admired and reflected upon, inspires late night journalistic essays, and justifies a special trip to the comic book store for that next issue.
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