Pulp and Dagger

Graphic Novel Review


Ruse, vol 1: Enter the Detective

2003 - available in soft cover

Written by Mark Waid. Pencils by Butch Guice, and Jeff Johnson. Inks by Mike Perkins, Paul Neary.
Colours: Laura Martin (a.k.a. Laura DePuy), Jason Lambert. Letters: Dave Lanphear.

Reprinting: Ruse #1-6 (2002)

160 pages

Published by CrossGen Comics

TPB Cover price: $15.95 USA
Digest-sized Traveler Edition: $9.95 USA.

Imagine a movie about Sherlock Holmes directed by Howard Hawks (with his flare for snappy banter and the gender switching he brought to "The Front Page" when he turned it into "His Girl Friday"), add a supernatural spin, and throw in the pulp-era staple of a hero with a network of operatives...and you might get an idea of Ruse.

And at its best, it's every bit as fun as it sounds.

Ruse is set in an alternate reality late 19th Century (presumably England), where bat-like gargoyles flitter about the streets the way pigeons and sparrows do ours. Simon Archard is a Sherlock Holmes-type: a brilliant detective, able to infer clues from things most people don't even notice, but with a lack of people skills. He's rude, abrupt, and condescending. His Dr. Watson-esque female sidekick is the feisty Emma Bishop who, in some respects, is more truly the star, in that she provides some of the narration and the story often follows her without Archard, more than Archard without her. She's also more compassionate. Their relationship is flinty at times, allowing for amusing banter and sarcastic asides.

But there's a little bit more at work here, because Emma has a secret unbeknownst to Simon. She has magical powers (to stop time), and seems to be here with an agenda to study, and/or subtly teach, Simon.

The opening story arc has the two investigating a newly arrived Baroness in a plot that is perhaps intended to have vague echoes of "Dracula" -- though only vague. It throws us instantly into this world, as though already an on-going series with a history to the characters already in place. We are casually introduced to Simon's various eccentric operatives, from a child savant to an ex-boxer, to characters meant to evoke pre-existing figures such as a chimney sweep named Bert -- ala "Mary Poppins" -- and a man dressed like the Elephant Man (both appear only briefly).

Mark Waid is one of the better regarded writers in comics. His "Kingdom Come" mini-series from a few years back, imagining a future reality for DC Comics' superheroes including Superman, Batman, etc., was particularly well received (albeit, as much thanks to the breathtaking, fully-painted art of Alex Ross). Like all writers, Waid can be hit and miss, but his work on Ruse is, at times, exceptional. Well-paced, it'a a talky, investigative detective series, but with plenty of action and suspense. Waid, tongue firmly in cheek, seems totally at home with his characters and the evocative milieu. The badinage between Emma and Simon might actually have you chuckling out loud at times. Above all, Waid seems to be having fun, and wants his reader to as well.

The series is cut from similar cloth as Alan Moore's and Kevin O'Neil's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen with its light-hearted evocation of Victorian Era fantasy adventure given a modern spin. But Ruse is frankly better -- despite its tongue-in-cheek aspect, it's a more human, more narrative-driven version of the concept.

The art by Butch (Jackson) Guice is also a stand-out. Guice is an artist who's been around for a long time, and has always been a perfectly serviceable artist...but his work here is light years ahead of anything else I've seen by him. Perhaps some due goes to inker Mike Perkins, or colourist Laura Martin. But the art is wonderfully effective, full of detailed city scenes, and period drawing rooms, well realized wardrobes, and careful, realist figures and faces full of energy and conviction. If you're going to do a period piece, it helps to have an artist who can draw period details. Guice even manages to slip in a certain element of sensuality...no easy feat giving that the women all dress in shoulder-to-feet gowns. But there is a lush beauty to his women.

Guice also experiments with the comicbook format, his panel arrangements being such that you read from left to right across a two page spread. It can take a bit to adjust to -- particularly as he isn't entirely consistent: the first few pages are conventional, read-each-page-at-a-time, sort of stuff, and even later he occasionally breaks his own format. But once you figure it out, it's an interesting approach, almost like a "widescreen" comic. Curiously, not so very long ago I had been thinking along those very lines, how it might be interesting for an artist to try such a stylistic experiment.

The first four chapters comprise the initial story arc and it's a delightful romp -- fun, clever, exciting, with a touch of the macabre. Granted, as often happens with Sherlock Holmes pastiches (or homages as this more truly is, since, after all, it's not about Sherlock Holmes), it's more a suspense-thriller than a genuine mystery. We learn the Baroness is the villain early, and as Simon and Emma uncover aspects of her villainy, we wait to learn what her master plan is. But then it turns out, there isn't one. Her actions aren't so much a means to an end...they're the end in and of itself.

Still, as a rollicking adventure, it's thoroughly entertaining.

That story comprises only four of the six chapters collected here. The fact that the next two issues are relatively stand alone affairs should be welcome. You get one epic, novel length adventure...plus two bonus stories! Part of the appeal of the initial story arc is its very length, as the plot veers about, throwing in a few twists and turns...something the shorter pieces can't quite match. The next story, for instance, has Emma investigating a serial killer of prostitutes, and it's a decent but somewhat banal affair. Since it's basically an Emma story, the highly entertaining interplay between her and Simon is missed, and the humour can be awkward when it's maintained even in scenes of Emma visiting the parents of a victim. The final story, featuring a murder during an illusionist's act, provides hints into Simon's background. That last story is drawn by Jeff Johnson -- it's also beautifully realized, but, I'll admit, lacks some of the striking reality of Guice's work.

But part of my quibbling arises from the whole nature of collected edition trade paperbacks -- usually included under the umbrella title of the "graphic novel". A book like Ruse: Enter the Detective is available in outlets (bookstores) that the monthly comic isn't. And so, it's not unreasonable for a casual reader to expect it to form a true "novel". Although the four-part opening story comes to a close, it ends with Simon MIA -- making it a welcome decision on the part of the editors to include the next story, which sees Simon return. And the final story answers some questions raised in the previous chapters -- all well and good. But it also raises new questions. Not in the sense that the story seems "to be continued" or anything. But it still leaves a certain feeling of dissatisfaction. The initial questions about Emma -- her powers, her secret agenda -- go unanswered (in fact, they're barely alluded to as the chapters progress).

It's a problematic concern. Since this collects six issues of an on-going title, one can't expect everything to be wrapped up neat and tidy here (else the series might have nowhere to go). On the other hand, TPB collections have become so prevalent (to the point where I've heard it suggested that TPBs are actually how the companies make their money, moreso than from the original comics) it might behoove writers to structure their stories bearing in mind that the end result will be a collected volume.

As genuinely fun, as geuninely clever as the story is -- and as genuine as my enthusiasm is -- it's not quite as smart as you would like it to be. Part of the appeal was the belief that it would all come together, at least somewhat, in the climax. But that doesn't quite happen.

Still, for all my grumbling, Ruse: Enter the Detective was refreshingly delightful, particularly the initial story arc. Well realized characters, and witty dialogue, mixed with its intentionally evocative milieu, makes for a truly fun read. And I'm certainly encouraged to seek out the duo's further adventures. Which, after all, is no doubt the point of the unresolved sub-plots. It has been collected both as a regular TPB and, for those on a budget, in a smaller, (slightly) cheaper format.

Reviewed by D.K. Latta

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