Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Watching the Detectives

Saying 'DC Comics' has always rubbed me the wrong way - kinda like 'ATM Machine' or 'PIN Number.' We wouldn't say 'Detective Comics Comics,' would we? Well, I can imagine there are comics fans who would, but those are the weirdos who give the rest of us norms a bad rep. But then again, I spent the better part of a week tracing comic book characters on my iPad in order to give them beards, so who am I to judge? Fly your freaky pendant flag high, dudes!

Anyways, we wouldn't say 'Detective Comics Comics' nowadays for another reason - there are no detectives in our comics, at least no classic ones. Yes, yes, I hear you shouting, saying the name of Lord Batman in vain as I commit the horrible sacrilege of saying he's not a detective.

But he's not. Torches will be 20 dollars. Please RSVP for the angry mob by Thursday.

Batman is certainly skilled in the art of detection, he can analyze a clue or get information out of a hostile witness like nobody's business. But when was the last time he took on a client? Ever? When did he last get involved in a crime that he had no emotional attachment to? One of the side-effects of all good Batman villains being in some way a twisted reflection of Batman means that he is not an impartial observer, that he's not disconnected from the crime.

There is a wealth of detective fiction out there, so much of it that the genre is pretty well defined. Batman does not fit the mold of the fictional detective. And that's not a bad thing, mind you. Batman is an active force, someone who goes out an tries to prevent crime. The classic detective, on the other hand, comes into the picture after the crime is committed and attempts to root out the truth of the event and thereby sort the innocent from the guilty. Hanging out on a rooftop, bat-noculars in hand, waiting for the Riddler to break into the Gotham Museum is not something a detective would do. Batman comes from a world more inspired by noir and hardboiled fiction, which does have some crossover with detective fiction, but just as in hardboiled fiction, the story emphasis is on action and dishing out justice, not the act of solving a mystery. For Batman, solving a mystery is merely a vehicle that gets him to the next fight scene. He needs to be awesome at detection so as to make the ride in the mystery train as short as possible.

So for our detective comics (I had called it Detective Comics completely blanking on the fact Batman already had dibs), we're going to move away from the involved, proactive crime fighting of Batman to the independent observer of classic detective fiction. Of course, there is a reason most comics highlight chin music over mystery solving - it keeps the reader's attention from month-to-month - but I like to believe that with catchy enough characters and an interesting enough mystery, we won't need regular giant fight scenes or anything. Of course, given the medium we'll have to have fists come out at some point - we're not going total PBS drawing room mystery here.

To whom can we turn to inspire our detective comic? Two answers spring to mind immediately. From the world of detective fiction, we have Nick and Nora Charles of The Thin Man fame. The advantage here is that Nick and Nora's characters, the way they banter and carry on, can hold the attention of readers pretty easily, so much so that they have spawned multiple spin-offs and homages over the years. I think that Nick and Nora inspired characters could carry a comic, their lighthearted approach being a refreshing change from the grimdarkness that tends to permeate noirish characters like Batman. They would be actual private detectives, people who are approached to solve a problem, but in truth, they're just doing it for the fun of it, rather than any need for money or to right childhood wrongs.

Which DC characters would we then use as our Nick and Nora? Whom could we stretch to fit their character types? Well, that was a give away, of course. We'll use Ralph and Sue Dibny, aka The Elongated Man and his wife. (Hell, Ralph's superhero name is a play on The Thin Man) I've always felt this duo got the shaft in the past decade. While Ralph's mourning of his dead wife in Identity Crisis sticks with me as one of the best panels of the 21st century, the way that they characters were brought to that situation sucks. Identity Crisis was, to put it lightly, a deeply flawed book that attempted to shoehorn a comicbook genre into a more modern crime fiction genre and the two worked together about as well as a carob in a "chocolate" chip cookie. No matter how well the cookie is made, you'll always wish the carob chips were chocolate instead.

Also, Ralph and Sue were kind of cast off at the end of 52 and Blackest Night. There was a lot of potential in the idea of Ralph and Sue Dibny, Ghost Detectives. This potential was just sort of chucked out the window by Blackest Night which, if we are going to keep the sweets analogies going, was a cough drop in a candy dish. Since we already have a "ghost detective" in the Drewniverse in the form of Deadgirl (and since she's directly involved with the mystery, she's not actually a classic detective either, nor is her Veronica Mars inspiration), we'll keep Ralph and Sue among the land of the living.

Sue is already a wealthy socialite from New York, so she slots into the Nora role pretty well. It'll be Sue's money that the couple lives on, pretty comfortably mind you, so that they can pick and choose their cases. What does Ralph bring to the table? Gingo fruit, of course. See, back in the day before everyone decided all stretchy guys had to be Reed Richards and always stretchy, Ralph had to knock back some concentrated Gingold Soda to get his powers. Later, it was stated that the concentrate awakened Ralph's metahuman genome and that's where he got his powers, but I'm of the mind that metahuman's and latent abilities and stuff like that is best left to Marvel. In the Drewniverse, anything that gives one person a power can, if the situation is identical, give another person the same power. Ralph just happens to be a curious guy with a knack for chemistry that happened to stumble into the process to concentrate Gingold Soda into an elixir that would make the drinker stretchy for several hours. In our world, Gingold would be akin to Moxie or Faygo - a semi-obscure soda that not everyone has a taste for, but is reasonably available if you know where to look for it.

Anyways, Ralph of course shares his elixir with Sue, so they can both be stretchy as needed. This gives them their nonchalance when investigating mysteries in a world populated by superheroes and supervillains - they know that they are functionally immune to bullets and physical attack when using Gingold, so they are free to quip and make snide remarks to their hearts content. It also serves as a nice stand in for alcohol, so we won't have to go without the "fix me a drink" routines Nick and Nora are known for.

The first mystery of The Elongated Pair (#50/52)? The murder of Maxwell Lord, of course. Ralph and Sue are brought in on the case by a socialite friend of Sue's who was involved with Max and knows that the strange circumstances of his death would be just the sort of thing to get the duo's noses a'twitchen.

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