Detective Joe Coogan remembers the man who shot him last night: “He was a cheap crook…but I still liked the guy. Too bad he killed me. It would definitely put a strain on the friendship.”
Blending macabre humor and bizarre noir, Dead, She Said is the second project that brings together the legendary horror comics artist Bernie Wrightson (co-creator of Swamp Thing, illustrator of Frankenstein and collaborator with Stephen King, among many other famous projects) and acclaimed writer Steve Niles (perhaps best known for 30 Days of Night). It was the duo’s first project for IDW, who published the comic over three issues in 2009.
Dead, She Said riffs on the 1950 film noir D.O.A. and to a lesser extent the 1988 remake. The movies and comic book each follow a hard-boiled main character who is “dead” from the story’s opening (a victim of poisoning in the films, and of somewhat stranger circumstances in the comic book).
David N. Meyer called the 1950 film “the single most brilliant idea in noir,” in his guide to the genre, A Girl and a Gun, and it’s still a strong enough concept to carry Dead, She Said. There’s also a science fiction element that’s relatively minor in the original film, and that Niles and Wrightsone take to another level in Dead, She Said.
In the film, Edmond O’Brien’s character ingests a “luminous” poison, the potency of which his doctor demonstrates by showing him a vial of liquid taken from his body, then turning off the lights.
“[T]he tube glows like a nuclear reactor. O’Brien recoils with his eyes bugged out like the good citizens fleeing gorilla-aliens in Plan 9 From Outer Space,” writes Meyer.
Niles and Wrightson combine this dash of 50’s sci-fi weirdness with a classic mad scientist, an undead-yet-decaying hero and some giant bugs (reminiscent of the 1954 creature feature Them) for a thoroughly wild hodge-podge of horror and pulp fiction. Doing so, they recall Noel Carroll’s description of a seminal type of monster, from his classic study, The Philosophy of Horror:
“One structure for the composition of horrific beings is fusion,” writes Carroll. “On the simplest physical level, this often entails the construction of creatures that transgress categorical distinctions such as inside/outside, living/dead, insect/human, flesh/machine, and so on. Mummies, vampires, ghosts, zombies…are fusion figures in this respect. Each, in different ways, blur the distinction between living and dead.”
In this regard, Dead, She Said is all about fusion. Early on, when Coogan assesses his situation, his words blend the hard-boiled, bizarre and darkly comic: “I danced around the obvious. I didn’t want to admit what was right in front of me,” he says. “I was dead. Annoyed as hell and dead.”
Unfortunately, in another connection between 1950’s D.O.A. and Dead, She Said, the critics were not kind to either project. Despite loving the premise, Meyer blasts nearly every other element of the film in his book, and in a June 2009 review (washingtonpost.com), the renowned and often brilliant critic Douglas Wolk wrote of Dead, She Said:
“[D]espite the battered fedoras and Venetian-blind shadows that parade across the page, Niles’s story lacks one crucial component of a resonant noir: He never blurs the line between his righteous, if stinkily decomposing, hero and the inhuman bad guys, or suggests that the terrible decay might really be lurking in his readers’ sympathies.”
Setting aside the question of whether “resonant noir” requires the elements Wolk highlighted, it seems like the stronger resonances in Dead, She Said involve playfulness, not only in creating a wild pastiche of classic 1950s horror and pulp fiction, but also between two masters of comic book horror.
As in much of his work, Wrightson’s iconic style often recalls that of E.C. Comics legend Graham Ingels, whose “horror tableaus were swampy, oozing, decaying, and fetid, and in the depiction of the rotting, shambling corpse he was second to none,” as Grant Geissman describes it in Foul Play: The Art and Artists of the Notorious 1950s E.C. Comics. There are also similarities to Jack Davis, about whom (and apropos of Wrightson) Geissman writes: “[H]is scratchy, cartoony style proved to be the perfect foil to the often gruesome E.C. horror stories.”
“I’m a direct descendant of Frank Frazetta and Jack Davis, most of the E.C. guys, and I think there is a progression and a chain of influence,” Wrightson explained in a 2008 interview (with comicbookresources.com). That lineage also seems to have been one of the biggest draws for Niles.
“For those who don’t know this already, I have been a huge fan of Wrightson since I was a kid. And by fan I mean I was obsessed,” he writes on his website. “For a kid tooling around in the 70’s loving nothing but horror and comics, there was no better creator then Bernie Wrightson. He not only embraced horror, he embodied it.”
(As a bonus, for like-minded fans of horror comics from that era, Dead, She Said includes various artwork, a classic story from 1972, and a worth-the-price-of-admission, full reprint of a Bernie Wrightson horror-monster colouring book from 1974.)
Describing this series in the 2008 interview (with comicbookresources.com), Wrightson was cryptic: “It’s about a dead detective and, um, giant ants. That’s all your going to get out of me.”
The way Niles describes his process with Wrightson, it sounds as if they followed a mischievous and almost free-associative flow of ideas, which oddly enough also centred around the giant ants.
“It’s an odd combination of elements; horror, crime, noir, 50’s b- movies,” Niles writes on his website (steveniles.com).
“I guess it’s important to note here that Bernie and I collaborate one hundred percent. Nothing is written that hasn’t been talk through over some nachos or a game of Scrabble. I love working from images Bernie creates or wants to create. Dead, She Said started with the notion of a private detective waking up dead and having to solve his own murder, as well as figure out how he’s still conscious. To make things worse the detective has figure out how to stop his flesh from rotting off the bone before he solves the case. Then Bernie says he wants to draw giant ants. ‘Not huge like the ants in Them, but pit bull size.’ Sure. Why the Hell not?”
Over the course of several projects together, it appears that Niles and Wrightson are creating a linked universe. On his website, Niles describes how characters from various stories will turn up in each other’s comics, including a welcome return of the memorable Detective Coogan. As he tells the big bad at one point in Dead, She Said: “It’ll take more than dead to stop me, chump.”
Borderland Speakeasy appears every other week and explores classic and contemporary horror and crime comics.