Written by Dan Abnett
Line Art by I.N.J. Culbard
Color Art by Patricia Mulvihill
Published by Vertigo Comics
A stiff upper lip was replaced by two sharp teeth, as Britain turned its best and brightest into vampires in order to save the rest of the population from a worse fate, becoming zombies. Cursed to live forever in service to the Queen, the "Young" as they are called cannot die--until one does, turning the established rules of society upside down in this mini-series from a few years ago.
Dan Abnett is getting a lot of attention from Guardians of the Galaxy, but he's also a prolific writer of many other comics, especially several on and off series for 2000 AD. New Deadwardians, from 2012, finds him looking at two standard horror tropes and seeking out a way to change how they operate. Normally, I wouldn't come within 50 feet of a zombie book, as I am so tired of them, it's not even funny.* But the idea of a mystery set in a world where zombies are just a part of everyday life, and oh by the way, most of the upper classes of Britain are also vampires, and I felt it was worth investigating, if you'll pardon the pun.
Abnett doesn't disappoint. His main character, Chief Inspector George Suttle, is everything you think of when you picture a typical British gentleman. Prim, proper, and so far restrained in his actions and emotions that you expect him to snap under the strain, Suttle is in his way as lifeless as the zombies that are held in check by fences. When he's asked to do the rare job of looking into a possible homicide, Suttle slowly springs to life again, with meaning poured back into an existence that seemed tedious and dull for him. What good is a man of action, who gave up his life (though not his soul, apparently) to tackle an impossible foe, if there is no action left?
That internal struggle plays a big part in New Deadwardians, as Suttle moves throughout this world that's changed from the one we know, yet still has the same class issues, cover-ups, corruption, and other ills that not even the introduction of two forms of the undead can change. Because he has to go from the upper crust to the underclass in order to solve the crime, Abnett is able to easily flesh out the world without resorting to blatant exposition. If Suttle lingers a bit too long thinking over what has come before, it works, because he's meant to be reflective. Abnett does a great job of avoiding one of the main traps stories like this fall into--veering off the main action to show the readers just how cool and imaginative he's been in creating the world. By taking Suttle across the social strata, we get what we need to see while also moving the plot along nicely.
The mystery itself is pretty solid, if not exactly original. Suttle soon discovers that the dead vampire was, like so many aristocrats before him, dabbling in secret societies, private debauchery, and things that were bound to get him burned. The deeper Suttle digs, the more attention is paid to him. When Suttle and the reader learn the truth, we know what must happen, as Duty clashes with revealing the truth. It's very well done, but anyone looking for something new in terms of the plot will be disappointed. Abnett's strength here is in looking at how the introduction of two factors (vampirism and zombies) change the way in which the story is told, not in telling an entirely new story. (Having said that, I do like how he tries to throw Suttle off the scent--I admit for a brief time, I was fooled, and that's not easy to do.)
I liked a lot about New Deadwardians, but unfortunately, I don't think the art was up to the level of writing. Culbard's style is almost painfully straightforward, which means there's a stiffness that permeates the pages and never lets go. While I understand that part of the idea is that many of the characters no longer have violent emotions, it would have been nice to see the contrast between those who are undead (in various forms) and the living. But we don't get that, and I think some of the impact of the difference between the Young and those who serve them.
There are some good moments in the panel constructions, such as when Suttle is staring down the zombies, who are more akin to him than the living, and the parallel is clear. Culbard also does a nice job of making sure that you always feel like Suttle is the center of attention whenever he's in a panel. The vanishing points usually run through Suttle, no matter where he is in the panel. When he's off-panel, the focus is clearly centered on someone else. I also appreciate that he wasn't afraid to draw both male and female characters fully naked. I'm so tired of comics where we get what I used to call "Vertigo Tits" but any hint of a penis was disguised somehow. Culbard draws dongs, and even if I wasn't keen on his overall linework, I really respect that.
New Deadwardians was pretty well regarded when it came out, and I can see why. It's nice to see the horror elements exist, but be taken as just part of life, rather than being outside of it. Like it or not, this version of the world will always have zombies and vampires, and the common man will be stuck in-between. That's the lesson we learn from New Deadwardians, and watching how that plays out when law and order is twisted by factors more powerful than justice makes for a solid, enjoyable comic that's worth seeking out for holiday reading.
*Except the original Marvel Zombies, which was funny.