Steven Grant reviews Dead, She Said by Steve Niles and Bernie Wrightson

Posted by on December 31st, 2009 at 10:00 AM

IDW Publishing; 104 pp., $19.99; Color; Hardcover ISBN: 9781600102851

The essence of horror is the violent, unanticipated disruption of audience trust in moral and natural order, but modern “horror” comics (with rare exceptions like Charles Burns’ Black Hole) are less about horror and more about iconography.  This mirrors the transformation of the superhero as more and more talents rose from the ranks of fandom with ambitions not to pursue their own creations but to create material for their favorite existing creations.  If a flood of comics featuring zombies, vampires, werewolves, swamp creatures and Frankenstein analogs have supplanted the superhero as the dominant mainstream figures  (in terms of sheer number of titles, if not gross sales), publishers and talent continue to follow the superhero-genre strategy of favoring the familiarity of existing “icons” over the development of new concepts.  Ultimately, it’s a marketing decision, dependent on fannish comfort levels, but comfort and horror aren’t really compatible.

Which may explain the listlessness of Dead, She Said.  In the early ’70s, Bernie Wrightson was a pivotal figure in the fin-de-Comics Code horror revival, merging the diametrically opposed sensibilities of EC comics artists Graham ‘Ghastly’ Ingels and Frank Frazetta into a style so creepy, pretty and original, dancing a fine line between horror and humor, that horror comics virtually had to be reinvented to accommodate it.  In the early ’00s, writer Steve Niles and artist Ben Templesmith jumpstarted contemporary horror comics with a vampire twist no one else had thought of: a town near the North Pole besieged by vampires during a month with no sunlight.  Among other things, 30 Days Of Night’s grubby, ignoble vampires demolished the Dracula stereotype, and Niles emerged from the series a new master of mainstream horror comics.

Since, Niles has become something of a cottage industry, pumping out mostly “iconic” horror stories, trying again to re-energize vampires,  zombies, sasquatch, freaks, Frankensteins and Lovecraft-spawn with new twists and unusual backdrops.  Dead, She Said lets Niles and Wrightson play with another “icon” — the private detective, complete with trenchcoat and fedora — in a twist on 1946 film D.O.A., where a dying man spends his last hours hunting his killer.  Dead’s Joe Coogan goes one better, waking up already dead but ambulatory, leaving him a stack of mysteries to solve.

But development is too linear, and strangely convenient.  Cops identify the mad scientist behind Coogan’s death, but leave it to Coogan to investigate him.  Coogan’s post-mortem reanimation is brushed off with the brief speculation; the how of it seems to barely interest him.  What the scientist wants is never discussed, the couple of “horrors” he creates are unconnected and random, and Coogan’s solution to his threat comes out of nowhere.  Coogan’s ultimate monster opponent also comes out of the blue, though Wrightson fans will recognize the design, a longtime Wrightson favorite, as if thrown in at the 11th hour to keep the artist happy.  With a first-person narrative that vanishes halfway through, the book reads as though Niles himself had lost interest by the second half.  Conversely, Wrightson’s interest seems to pick up as focus shifts from cops and detectives to madmen, monsters, girls and corpses, with early Coogan drawings strangely stiff.  But other characters demonstrate Wrightson hasn’t lost a step, though colorist Grant Goleash’s faux-3D effects work against his style, as evidenced by the Wrightson art collection that dates back 40 years and rounds out the book to prove how full-blown his style was from the start.  Which only leads to the question of why the rest of the book doesn’t have that impact.

At one point, Niles writes a caption describing a woman as “tall, dark, beautiful.”  When she materializes, she’s blonde.  It’s a little thing, but indicative of the follow-through on the project.  Niles and Wrightson together should theoretically result in a dream project for mainstream horror comics, but their apparent mutual disinterest in the iconography they chose to play with also indicates the limits of cultural iconography in general.  One man’s icon is another’s cliché.

[story ©2008  Steve Niles, art ©2008 Bernie Wrightson]

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2 Responses to “Steven Grant reviews Dead, She Said by Steve Niles and Bernie Wrightson”

  1. vanja says:

    Niles, following the original “30 days of night” is really an enigma. He has produced dozens of mini-series that I’ve barely found discussed anywhere.

    As for Wrightson, it’s amazing how both him and Sienkiewicz keep producing such low-key work despite almost universal recognition as incredible talents.

  2. […] 30 Days of Night by Steven Niles and Ben Templesmith (IDW) Steven Grant recently wrote that "a flood of comics featuring zombies, vampires, werewolves, swamp creatures and Frankenstein […]