Saturday, 16 May 2015

Bodies Review (Si Spencer, Tula Lotay)

Four detectives, four different eras, one murder victim, same MO, same location - appearing to each detective. Who killed John Bull? 

Bodies is a very tricky murder mystery to unpack and puzzle out but I will say it’s the first Vertigo book in some years that I really enjoyed. That comes with some caveats but, all said and done, it’s a fine comic. 

The story is divided into four different storylines each drawn by a different artist: Edmond Hillinghead is a closeted detective in 1890, drawn by Dean Ormston; Karl Whiteman is a corrupt detective in 1940, drawn by Phil Winslade; Shahara Hasan is a female Muslim detective in 2014, drawn by Meghan Hetrick; and finally Maplewood is a detective/amnesiac terrorist in 2050, drawn by Tula Lotay. I really liked all the artists’ contributions - very solid work from everybody. 

Si Spencer writes all the different parts and he does a fine job of presenting each in a different voice though the four artists help to separate the segments from one another with distinct visual styles. Colourist Lee Loughridge does excellent work too, giving each era a unique look and feel - dark and bloody for Victorian London, too bright and unbalanced for the future. 

Each character is tasked with investigating the murder of an unknown man found in Longharvest Lane with similarities cropping up for each. Besides the identical victim in each era, a double h symbol “HH” appears for them all and phrases like “Know You Are Loved” are repeated. 

I think the double H could be a reference to double helix which is the term given to double-stranded molecules like DNA. This ties into our bodies but also the main theme of the book: what makes up our national character. I should say this is a very British comic as Spencer seems to be focusing specifically on multiculturalism and cultural identity in Britain through his characters. 

The four detectives could be classed as “outsiders”, ie. the non-traditional standard as opposed to the stereotypically “normal” British types: a gay man, a Jewish man, a Muslim woman, a mentally-ill young woman. But they’re all British - they are Britain, and they make up our country as much as any Anglo-Saxon straight person. Each is a strand of DNA in the national body. 

You could look at Bodies as a character-driven piece, though it has a clear plot, and in that sense I think it’s very successful. Hillinghead, Whiteman and Hasan are all well-written characters who are distinct and real. Maplewood/Maggie May Belwood/Bounce - her character was straight up bizarre. I didn’t really understand any of the 2050 storyline to be honest and, though she’s supposed to be an amnesiac, she comes off as having borderline Alzheimer’s! 

Besides Maplewood’s, the storylines themselves are also easy to follow, up to a point, and are very compelling. We see Hillinghead’s investigations lead him through the same Whitechapel streets “Saucy Jack” claimed his victims two years previously, up to the Masonic societies and a conspiracy seemingly along the lines of Alan Moore’s From Hell. 

Whiteman’s unpleasant journey from the claws of the Nazis to setting himself up as a detective on-the-make in blitzed London is also interesting to see, though he’s very easily the most dislikeable figure in the group. Hasan’s storyline exploring race tensions in contemporary London through the prism of a young woman struggling with reconciling her two cultural identities as a Londoner and a Muslim in a difficult field like detective work is fascinating. 

Here’s where the caveats come in: it is a really involving book with the mystery driving the reader on and the characters becoming more complex and interesting the further we get in. But by about the last fifty pages I realised there wasn’t going to be a satisfactory ending - Spencer had strung on the mystery and been much too cryptic for far too long and he wasn’t going to be able to tie it all together coherently. I don’t even know if that was the plan anyway, but I can’t say I fully understood all of what was happening. 

So: Bodies is a great read - maybe a bit too long at 8 issues; it might’ve been more effective at 6 - but it’s an enjoyable journey that’s worth taking. There’s a lot to like here and Spencer’s created a rich, ambitious and unique story with some excellent characters and a fine mystery at its core. 

That said, the ending is impenetrable and though you get the impression that it’s a happy ending, you’re not sure why - but then the weak ending doesn’t ruin the rest of the book either. Bodies is still mostly a really good comic so long as you don’t mind not knowing what’s happening at all times and can forgive the author being obtuse with the finale. Fans of Grant Morrison’s weirder stuff and David Lynch films will get the most out of this comic.


1 comment:

  1. Excellent assessment! I would concur. I couldn't make head or tail of the ending, and yet I still enjoyed it.