Death is a common thread in many comics. From the Death of Superman series to the famed Neil Gaiman Sandman comics, the Grim Reaper has appeared both as an event and personified. Some comic artists use death as a plot twist, while others delve into the specifics and myths surrounding human fatality. There is a huge amount of creativity surrounding death in the comic world, and the following offer a few recent interpretations.
Students of the Unusual is like a Twilight Zone for comic books. Containing numerous stories by various creators in each issue, the anthology deals with topics such as zombies, vampires, mystical tattoos and windsurfers in vegetative states. Just as the subject matter varies, so does the quality, sometimes coming in strong with Katharine Leis and Julia Lichty's beautiful serial story "Quest," an epic about a windsurfer trying to find his way out of a coma. However, some pieces fall short, such as the badly drawn and utterly clichéd jailhouse story "Choose Your Friends Well," by Terry Cronin and Michael A. Tyson.
One of the better serial stories is "The Dead Beats," by Terry Cronin and Steve Mack. This hilarious series centers on the character Recalcitrant Jones, a kid who makes a deal with the devil to resurrect Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Elvis and Lawrence Welk to make the most rocking band on earth. Unfortunately, the four come back as zombies, so band practice is shelved and preservation techniques are picked up. The sense of humor is dark and the art cartoonish, so the finished product is little more than a fun read.
Overall, Students of the Unusual gives space for independent artists to showcase their work while climbing the ladder to comic book notoriety. There's a dark lining to these stories, so expect interesting subject matter. But the tendency among the writers to write like the Twilight Zone often leads the stories to cheap twists and old gimmicks. Overall, a mixed bag.
When Neil Gaiman put his Sandman series together, I doubt he foresaw the huge number of spin-offs that would come of it. The Dead Boy Detectives is a made-for-kids manga version of the more adult-oriented Sandman Presents: The Dead Boy Detectives.
The story revolves around three of Gaiman's characters: Death, Charles Rowland and Edwin Paine. Death (Gaiman's most famous creation) is a beautiful black-haired woman with a tricky sense of humor and a less-than-pleasant job. After Edwin and Charles died, Death passed them over, leaving the two dead boys in an eternal limbo, splitting their time running from Death and solving crimes. This manga version has a fun streak to it that other Sandman novels generally don't.
In this issue, the detectives search for a missing girl, reading for clues and even cross-dressing to fit in at an all-girls school. Most everything in the manga is light-hearted and humorous, even the boys' being dead. Maybe combining an Osbournes-like family with concepts of eternal limbo is the best way to broach the topic of death without terrifying a young reader, but I question the cutesy watering down of a series such as Sandman, whose message has such gravity. It's like tossing clothes onto Michelangelo's David.