[4 October 2007]
A busy, two-lane highway of sorts has built up between the world of comics and the world of Hollywood filmmaking. Film properties as famous as Star Wars and as obscure as Buckaroo Banzai have made their way to comic store shelves.
In recent years, there has been a steady spate of reverse traffic with comic properties such as Spider-Man, X-Men, 300 and many more adapted for the screen. More comics are set to join them every year.
So symbiotic is the relationship between Hollywood and comic books that something like The Black Diamond Detective Agency was bound to happen. The graphic novel is adapted from an unproduced screenplay of C. Gaby Mitchell (one of the writers of the movie Blood Diamond) and is written and painted by comic legend Eddie Campbell.
The story is set at the end of the nineteenth-century and revolves around a man named John Hardin. Hardin is a man with a secret past who has started life in a new town. Unfortunately, that life has come to an end as Hardin is framed for blowing up a train. The act of destruction is investigated by the notorious Black Diamond Detective Agency, an organization known for always getting their man, no matter at what cost. Hardin must find out who set him up all the while avoiding the detectives who are on his tail.
The plot is your typical conspiracy pot-boiler, the kind that tries to be convoluted enough to keep you guessing throughout, but simple enough that all the pieces fit together in the end. Overall, it succeeds, but there are missteps along the way.
The pacing is breakneck, with a lot of information thrown at us in quick succession—one plot point after another. There is a barebones storytelling at work here to facilitate the speed of the story. This means that some twists and turns come off as a little confusing. A character is first introduced then gruesomely killed off in the span of seven pages. The scene does establish an important plot point, but we learn very little about the character and who actually kills him could be lost on the no-so-careful reader.
Some more time could have been devoted to fleshing out the relationships between the characters. The love Hardin has for his wife is a great motivating force for his character, but outside of a few lines of dialogue we don’t see it. Hardin also mourns the death of a supporting character but nothing we have read that far tells us why he feels the need to do so.
The pacing also affects the dialogue. The scripting is wordy and exposition-laden. Conventional wisdom states that comics, and movies, since this is adapted from a screenplay, should be show-and-not-tell. But in both media there are constraints, be they page counts or running time, that sometimes are pre-ordained. If you don’t have time to show your audience the events that move your plot along, then you must tell them.
That would be the major fault of The Black Diamond Detective Agency. It seems that Campbell and/or Mitchell (because, without seeing the original screenplay, it is not always clear what Campbell changed in the adapting and what he left the same) felt the pressure to tell their story in a restricted amount of time. Everything you need to know to understand the story is there. They do paint the picture they want to, with as few brush strokes as possible, but it would have been nice to see some shading around the edges.
The art is up to Campbell’s usual high standards. It is painted in a rough hewn style which fits the subject matter and setting nicely. He takes great pains to establish distinctive looks for each character, which in this type of story with this many characters is absolutely vital. Due to the style of painting, some of this detail is lost in crowd scenes but not so much that you can’t tell who is who.
Campbell also does well in capturing the era, which is not surprising because the time period is only a decade after the one that From Hell was set in. And he doesn’t shy away from showing gore. The bloodiness is not gratuitous and drives home the point of the violent lifestyles of the characters, but the squeamish should be warned.
All in all, The Black Diamond Detective Agency is a good read. But it would have been much better if the story had a chance to slow down and catch its breath.