Detectives Inc.

 January 20, 2010

It’s about time that Don McGregor’s classic Detectives Inc. stories were collected in hardback because they’re among the most passionate, thoughtful and intelligent comics of the 1970s and 80s.

McGregor has always been a writer who is thoroughly devoted to his craft, his principles, and his passion for his work. He’s always been a writer who refused to compromise the integrity of either his own character or the characters in his story just to make things easier for himself.

Characters in McGregor’s stories are tortured by the sublime and ridiculous in order to maintain their convictions. The men and women in his comics suffer everything from poverty to deep existential crises in order to become the people that they strive to be.

Ted Denning and Bob Rainier are partners in the Detectives Inc. agency, and they make an interesting pair. Both men are damaged (as we all are damaged) in different ways. As the first Detectives Inc. volume A Remembrance of Threatening Green begins this collected edition, Denning is wrestling with the emotional consequences of killing a young boy in the middle of a vicious fight. Though he is a tough-looking man–a Vietnam vet who’s been through more than a few fights–the death of the boy has a real impact on him.

This emotional impact is one of the key ways in which McGregor’s writing is different from that of most other writers–violence often has horrific consequences.

The boy’s family is bereft of the presence of their child, but Denning also suffers, “I try to justify it by telling myself that Clark was a destroyer, and I’m not. I’m pure of heart–and then I wonder how I can be so goddamned self-righteous, because I’m not pure of heart–and maybe I’ve been a destroyer all along.”

Thankfully Denning has the love of a good woman to help him through the horrors, because otherwise the guilt and pain would consume him completely.

Denning’s partner, Bob Rainer, is also suffering. He is trying to get through a very difficult divorce, an event that eats his soul and makes his connection to the murder in A Remembrance of Threatening Green hit very closely to his heart.

The detectives–don’t call them “private eyes”–are complex men with complex lives. McGregor is interested in the murders that happen in both of the stories in this collected edition. However, his interest isn’t in the standard way that police procedurals often follow these stories–this isn’t CSI where the impact of the murder is an abstract trigger for forensic investigation. Instead, violence is the most profound sort of existential crisis–triggering deep and horrific gashes of pain in the hearts of all involved, including the survivors.

The second story in the book, A Terror of Dying Dreams, takes a typically McGregor-esque view of domestic violence. When social worker Deirdre Stevens discovers her childhood friend Leila is the victim of horrific beatings, she feels compelled to come to her friend’s aid.

Yet this story isn’t some movie on the Lifetime Network in which a woman lifts herself up to a better life; no, that would be too simple a resolution for a comic written by Don McGregor.

Instead, McGregor unflinchingly shows us the panoply of emotions that Leila feels at the beatings–and those emotions overflow onto Deirdre, Denning, and Rainier. The case isn’t just a chance for the detectives to earn a few bucks; it affects them deeply and thoroughly–becoming an existential battle against the darkness that lives in all men.

It’s this richness of personal experience that sets apart McGregor’s comics from those of so many of his contemporaries. There has always been a sense that much of McGregor’s writing is autobiographical in the same way that much of, say, Philip K. Dick’s writing was autobiographical.

The stories don’t literally depict the either writer’s experiences–I highly doubt that McGregor experienced life as a Wakandan prince or that Dick experienced America under Nazi rule–but their stories explore the emotional landscape of the two creators. Autobiography crept into both men’s writing because they simply live and think so deeply and passionately–and because their obsessions and concerns spill out onto the printed page.

It’s clear from McGregor’s intensely personal diary pages that appear in this volume that his work is an unanticipated mirror on the crises he dealt with in his personal life. McGregor had great familiarity with poverty, with fighting for one’s ideals in a corrupt world, and with the horrors of divorce and the stress of living in New York in the late 70s. These experiences were deeply important in shaping him as a man–so important that they became part of his comics work.

Like his characters, McGregor just feels things more deeply than do many people–and that’s what gives Detectives Inc so much of its power and conviction. There’s an intensity to the writing and a passion for the experiences lived by his characters that fills every panel of each story and every page of this book.

Back when he was writing a lot in the 70s and 80s, McGregor was often criticized for his florid prose. In response, he has said, “I wrote every story like it was the last one I would get to write.”

It’s refreshing to read a graphic novel with such a density of text these days. It forces a reader to slow down and really take in the words–and there is another key difference between a story by Don McGregor and those written by some of the more popular writers these days: You can’t skim a McGregor comic.

Detectives Inc. is not some story by Brian Michael Bendis that will take you five minutes to read. A McGregor tale requires some lingering, some thought; like the characters depicted, McGregor’s writing has a depth and passion to it that merits a longer look.

Similarly, the illustrations that accompany the stories merit long looks. The art for the two stories collected in this edition is by Marshall Rogers and Gene Colan, respectively.

Rogers’s art is somewhat difficult to study, though. Part of my problem with it is that it’s been reduced in size from its original magazine format to the standard comic book format. The shrinkage of the art doesn’t do it any favors: Rogers chose to draw the comic with very dense panels, and the smaller reproduction makes those panels seem extremely crowded.

Pages 33 and 34–featuring the characters taking a jog in Central Park–are a good example. It’s literally difficult to see the characters for the trees that surround them, and one character seems to almost disappear on the page.

The other problem with Rogers’s artwork is that I’m not sure he’s all that great of an artist. I hate to speak ill of the dead, but Marshall Rogers was one of those cartoonists who was hyped at a young age on the merits of some fine work, but whose work has not aged well. He was always better at depicting landscapes, especially cityscapes, than people. In fact, his cityscapes in this story are compelling and interesting–though a bit dense, as I’ve mentioned.

Rogers’s depiction of people is less solid. His people have odd shapes, with elongated legs and strangely emotionless expressions. His faces are really interesting, though, because it’s clear that he is working from photos of real people, and that he’s trying hard to capture the appropriate emotions in the various scenes. Yet, he’s just not a skilled enough artist to really pull off the full level of emotionality that A Remembrance of Threatening Greenrequires.

Again, I hate to speak ill of the dead, and McGregor delivers a nice eulogy for his friend, but I found Rogers’s story a bit lacking.

On the other hand, Gene Colan’s work on A Terror of Dying Dreams is just about note perfect.

Colan is a real master of comics art, and we see all his strengths on display in this story. In reading his story, I’m reminded once again that Colan’s
best work is all about the characters and their interactions with each other. Nearly every page shows a character in a moment in which the emotions can be read from their body and face.

There’s a quiet, intense energy to Colan’s story that provides an interesting counterpart to McGregor’s loud, intense energy. McGregor’s writing is all about inner tension that shows on the surface; Colan is terrific at depicting people with exactly that sort of inner tension. It shows in every line on their faces.

I have to admit that I have trouble being objective about Detectives Inc. because I’ve loved these two stories since they first appeared almost 30 years ago. It’s amazing how they became the precursors for some of the great graphic novels that have been released in recent years. There’s a depth and thoughtfulness to this book that feels wonderfully contemporary–and that might be the highest recommendation I can give it.