The sneaking is over and the Satanic rituals are in full swing as Toby Litt and Mark Buckingham's "Dead Boy Detectives" hits the penultimate installment of its first arc. It's all big reveals and answers in this issue, which is a satisfying pace change from its predecessors. Charles and Edwin's relationship gets some necessary fleshing out, the heroes and villains finally see one another face-to-face, and many of the creepy goings-on at St. Hilarion's are revealed. All told, Litt and Buckingham move this story along at a nice clip despite their big, cluttered bucket of plot elements.
The clutter remains my biggest complaint about "Dead Boy Detectives." It's not that I don't appreciate having a complex, multi-layered plot, and it's not as if any of the elements are poorly conceived or dull. Litt has, in all fairness, made all the right choices in his additions; they fit the themes, heighten the atmosphere and complicate the characters. However, when there are so many of them dropped in so early, it makes it harder for the creative team to flesh anything out. I found Charles and Edwin's fight so refreshing in part because they hadn't had a conversation of any emotional substance yet -- and they're the title characters! Had these subplots had been staggered more judiciously, I'd probably be in love with them.
Even with the clutter, I really do like where the team is going. This book is creepy and exciting, with sometimes-brilliant visual storytelling to amplify the experience. While Buckingham and Erskine created many solid panels in the first two installments, they do some truly trippy work in this issue. Their stranger and more experimental panels really embrace and emphasize the contrast between their boys' apparent liveliness and their actual, physical deadness.
Loughridge's colors also highlight contrasting themes, but he's using the difference between the brightness of childhood and the mature, frightening material that these children are dealing with. He colors a demonic ritual in dusky pinks and purples and a flashback to domestic abuse with striped orange wallpaper. Even after Charles saves Edwin from torture and Hell, they escape to a treehouse that's covered in hearts and throwing out warm yellow light. Rather than taking the reader out of the story, these little touches add to the creepiness of the scenes and help "Dead Boy Detectives" to stand out from the many other supernatural titles on the shelves.
To be honest, I associate Buckingham so strongly with "Fables" that I wasn't sure I'd be able to separate this series' aesthetic from that one, but it really does feel quite different. Klein continues to work overtime on Litt's text-heavy script, with this issue handing him yet another distinct text treatment. He's handling the workload as well as anyone could, but some pages still feel covered in an excess of text. As with many elements of this book, less might give the reader more – but that's an issue with the script, not with Klein.
"Dead Boy Detectives" is off to a good start, but it won't make the leap to "great" until it has time to develop the many elements it's introduced. Here's hoping it gets that time, because all signs suggest that this could develop into a wonderful read.