Reviewby Carlo Santos, May 20th 2007
The Dark Goodbye
Max "Mutt" Mason is a private detective living in the seedy city of Los Allende. When a beautiful and mysterious stranger asks him to help locate her missing twin sister, he agrees to take on the case—but soon falls into a web of conspiracies and horrors even stranger than he can imagine. As Mason tries to figure out the real truth, he will be chased by a man made of flies, get attacked by a sea monster, and discover ancient myths from before the dawn of humanity. Somehow, this kind of stuff was never in his job description.
Many times throughout history, seemingly unlikely partners have combined to yield great results. Peanut butter and chocolate. Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant. m-flo and Studio 4°C. And now, with The Dark Goodbye, we see a genre mashup that few would have seen coming: detective noir and Lovecraftian horror. Fans of cult and retro things are surely familiar with both genres, but rarely will they have seen a story that brings out both at once. This is one such story, and while it's an ambitious one, it also reveals a creative team still trying to come to grips with both ideas. Let's face it: coming up with a good detective mystery is hard. Coming up with good horror is hard. Pile the challenges on top of each other, and the standards become impossibly high. But even those who miss the big jackpot can still count some minor successes along the way.
One such success is the series' grim, nervous mood, which starts right from the first chapter and never lets up—Mason begins his investigation at a holistic doctor's office, lined wall-to-wall with gruesome specimens, and it just gets creepier from there. The world-building in this story is where the genre remix works best: think of the seediest, grayest, most hard-boiled metropolis you can imagine ... and now fill it with haunted mansions, reanimated corpses, and slimy creatures from beyond the animal kingdom. Although this world doesn't deliver any truly disturbing moments—the nebulous art keeps it from getting too graphic—there are still enough creepy-crawly concepts for a good dose of the goosebumps.
Despite such a solid foundation, however, the actual plot and characters are a huge disappointment. The grim mood is so effective that it overpowers everything else and prevents the story from expanding. Instead of going on a winding investigative trail, Mason finds himself doing the same things over and over: discovering creepy places, battling gruesome monsters and villains, and muttering first-person monologues so gloomy that you just want happy shiny ponies to come fluttering in and cheer the guy up already. What's more, these investigations lead to a piecemeal plotline loaded with genre gimmicks—beautiful mysterious women, scheming gangsters, mad doctors, a Cthulhu ripoff—and none of it makes much sense. This volume comes to some sort of ending, but the way it gets there is hopelessly vague, and may the Great Old Ones have mercy on anyone who tries to explain the story in their own words.
Dynamic, angular layouts and a rapid page-turning pace are the strongest earmarks of traditional manga in this work, but the artistic style is an entity unto itself, and one that suits the story very well. Character designs draw their influence from horror toons past and present, with the ugliest ones being the most interesting, and the chaotic, debris-laden backgrounds perfectly capture the feel of this grim city. If a frame of reference were absolutely necessary, think of it as a grayscale collision of Michel Gagne's grotesquerie and Jhonen Vasquez's manic linework, except not really resembling either of those artists. Pencil lines, squiggles, and minor mistakes are left in rather than polished and smoothed out—a basic artistic choice that's essential to the overall mood. The biggest mistake, however, is the insistence on toning and grayscaling everything—while it makes for some very rich, striking effects, it also creates a dullness throughout the whole book. With so few pure blacks and pure whites, there's nothing for the eye to rest on, and the visual "rhythm" is lost. Instead it's just a big mass of gray ... for 170 pages.
The noir influence is strongest in the dialogue, where Mason tries his damnedest to sound hard-boiled—and that's all he is, a wannabe trying to pass himself off as a hard-boiled detective. More often than not, Mason's lines end up being strings of verbiage and metaphor that sound depressing but don't really mean anything. "A visit to Gatemouth was like swimming in the low end of the gene cesspool," for example. Look, people are paying $10 for this book, so what's with the dime-store dialogue? Character-to-character interaction is filled with the same kind of vagueness, where everyone deals in abstractions and tough-guy talk without ever advancing the story. No wonder the plot is such a mess. Meanwhile, the sound effects are typical comic-book fare that only show occasional flashes of creativity, like when the buzzing of flies fills a whole page. Apparently, anything involving text just isn't worth the effort that was put into the world-building and artwork.
In this experiment of noir and horror, success and failure seem to cancel each other out. For everything that The Dark Goodbye does right—the mood, the setting, the art—it does something else wrong—the plot, the characters, the dialogue. In the end, this first volume rides on a strong idea that just doesn't have the execution to back it up. That's just how hard it is to meet the standards of two challenging genres. Urban mystery and monstrous mythology could still have a chance to succeed, though, and only the next volume will tell if this series gets any better.
Overall : C
Story : D
Art : B
+ An intriguing setting filled with mobsters and monsters, drawn in a moody yet dynamic style.
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