Comics Time: The Black Diamond Detective Agency

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The Black Diamond Detective Agency

First Second, May 2007

Eddie Campbell, writer/artist

Based on a screenplay by C. Gaby Mitchell

144 pages

$16.95

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The use of color in this turn-of-the-century (literally) crime caper is perhaps emblematic of the entire enterprise. It’s lovely in its impressionistic greasiness, it looks like if you touched the page you might pull back smeared fingers, there are spots of vivid bright-red brilliance, but mostly it sits on the surface of the page rather than drawing you into it. Eddie Campbell, the preeminent veteran of the graphic-novel terminology wars, brings all his usual panache for evoking sooty old-time sordidness and populating it with warm, likable-looking characters. The problem is that there are just too many swelling the mustachioed, bowler-hatted ranks, and in a heist story that lives and dies with issues of mistaken identity, disguise, and double agency, not being able to tell the players without a scorecard is a major hindrance. That’s also one area in which Campbell’s sketchy figurework works against him: Quite frequently I had no idea who I was looking at, or, in the case of several key action sequences including a bedroom assassination attempt, a shootout in a train station, and the opening terrorist detonation of a train that provides the book’s central mystery, what the heck was going on. Some of the more conspicuously comics-y storytelling devices Campbell employs, like solid red word balloons for a character who can’t speak and Chris Ware-style cutaway boxes highlighting certain details, call attention to themselves but don’t add clarity or meaning to the proceedings; indeed, the cutaways all but disappear after a certain point, as if Campbell’s heart just wasn’t in them. There’s a point about halfway through the book where the story shifts from a wrong-man mystery to a criminal-helping-catch-the-killers thriller, and all of sudden I felt like I was being pulled along for the ride, but before long shaky action choreography, an out-of-nowhere element of supervillainous conspiracy, and a tacked-on From Hell-ish indictment of dawning modernity had me hopping back off. It’s a fun enough read–the period art really is beautiful–but the parts don’t cohere into a satisfactory whole, and in some cases they’re not that satisfactory as parts either.