The New Deadwardians
Yes, this is another zombie comic. Yes, the protagonist is another vampire with existential issues and yes it’s yet another story set in the ‘so-hot-right-now’ era of Elizabethan England. So it would make sense if you simply saw the synopsis of this series and skipped it altogether, tired of these now dried-up, dusty and dead genre concepts. Hell, the mashing of them together is barely fresh enough to elicit a raised eyebrow, let alone any actual excitement or longing. All of that is entirely understandable but it’s also an atrocious shame because this book is so much more than its mere concept suggests: the story is so much subtler than slumbering slaughterers usually get, the character at its core so much more complex than other cursed cannibals and the philosophy more potent than the over-proper pomp of a palisade mansion usually allows. It’s not hammy puns and hybridisation that make The New Deadwardians exciting, it’s that it takes three genre traits and knots them not into a mere tale, but into art.
Speaking of art, the line-work here in the large, expansive panels that the stories steady pacing allows is amazing; sure the stances of the figures sometimes seem a little stunted when they are reduced to fit into smaller squares, but there is something strangely fitting about even that. ‘Fitting’ really is the word that best describes what I.N.J Culbard has crafted for the pages of this comic, though crafted isn’t bad either. Their draftsmanship is the key to these drawings, they are lines more than they are lived in characters but that suits the stilted style of the book’s posh world perfectly. Also fittingly, it is only with the prostitutes and rioting rebels that Culbard loosens up his crushing grip and allows the figures to flow and act with some dynamism; only there when it is depicting the base desires of the brights does the book ever look alive.
“Brights”? You may have just asked. A fair question, but one I am not overly want to answer because the story that Dan Abnett has scripted through this tightly structured mini-series is mystery and a majorly suspenseful one at that. There is a murder at its core and a detective as the main character – like all of the British TV shows that aren’t set in manor’s – but this isn’t a simple procedural, no the mystery goes much deeper than that. As we read we are only made to wonder as much about the crime as we are about the nature of the world in which it occurred and that of those involved; the history and mythology that Abnett auspiciously weaves in through the issues, teasing and teaching us in equal parts, are fascinating and the net result strangely satisfying given how sure I was of having seen every iteration of these two supernatural beings.
More important though – both to me and to the book itself, based on the page time dedicated – is the personal impact of the here linked curse and cure, the inverted images of undeath and immortality. The basic premise of this world would quite easily have lent itself to a rather malicious metaphor for class -the rich and powerful are parasites, the powerless and foreign poor are a mindless mass – that many would have seen as satisfying but what we are given instead is much more intricate than that. Those class-ist tendencies do exist but they are in no way so crass as that, the conflict between tiers a much more ambiguous one that doesn’t so much judge as offer an insightful mirror to our own ways. What I didn’t expect to see in this story though was its more spiritual meaning; what it has to say about life without death, about life without loss and life without longing is important and heretofore untouched on material that truly struck a chord for me.
Like most mysteries the ending here is all important and although the final reveal – which i won’t spoil – is a little mad, there is some fun in raising the stakes like that. Abnett apes Somerset Maughm’s The Magician in many ways with his final chapter, never quite capturing the same majestically morbid tone as the master did there but leaving us with that same feeling of fragile fulfillment: that the story we were reading has ended but that we were perhaps reading the wrong story, looking in the wrong places at the wrong time; it is a sound resolution that closes as many questions as it piques. Though there is no telltale numeral embossed on the book’s spine I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a sequel series to come and really hope that there is one.
I am thoroughly satisfied with the story here – and more-so with its telling – so a sequel is not necessary for The New Deadwardians to be seen as a creative success, but I think it may well be necessary for the comic industry as a whole. Vertigo, once the proud sole bastion of high-quality alternative comics has flopped and floundered over recent years to the point where it now has less than five ongoing titles and few of them could stand against the series of old. New Deadwardians can and so, although it is the rash of rushed out recyclings that have seen this book’s core traits devalued – we hit peak zombie some time ago and vampire’s were dead on arrival – I kind of hope that this comic is copied; if not officially by it’s original creators than by others coming up: because what it offers is fresh blood and now that I’ve got a taste for that I’m not sure how else to sate my tendencies.