Deadbeats (2012) is the latest spectacular success from SelfMadeHero. Written by Chris Lackey and Chad Fifer, and illustrated by INJ Culbard, this graphic novel unleashes Lovecraftian nasties in a Jazz Age setting.
Set in 1924, three jobbing musicians are playing a wedding in Chicago. When Lester, the African-American trumpeter is sent out back to use the 'guest-house' bathroom, he catches one of the family (and Family, if you know what I mean, fugeddaboutit) forcing his affections on an unwilling woman. After a moment of indecision, Lester breaks the mobster's nose. He grabs Hank (pianist) and Willie (drummer, alcoholic and comic relief) and hits the road in the hurry.
Desperate to get out of town, Lester ("desperate is my middle name!") takes a commission from a preacher's daughter in rural Illinois. For a funeral, no less. The three musicians snatch at the opportunity and head out.
From there, things get weird (and Weird, if you know what I mean, R'lyehwgah'naglfhtagn). The funeral is no funeral (although there are lots of dead people involved) and the preacher is no preacher (although there's certainly an angry god or two). Cue: chanting, tentacles and mayhem.
On one hand, Deadbeats is as sleek and lovely a Lovecraftian pastiche as you can imagine. All the elements are there, from the sacrifices to the shambling dead to the too awful to look upon eldritch thingies. Readers versed in the genre will know what to expect. Of course the ritual will go wrong (or worse, it'll go right), naturally things will start crawling through gates. The horror, the horror.
Still, were it only a well-scripted pastiche, Deadbeats would be of limited value. But what Lackey, Fifer and Culbard have done is create the Lovecraftian story that Lovecraft would've loathed. An African-American hero? A female figure with authority and cunning? Even the very premise - replacing ponderous ritual 'church music' with jazz - would presumably be anathema to the man. But Deadbeats is jazz to Lovecraft's 'church music' - snappy, not ponderous, with a pace that feels energetic and improvised, rather than rigorous and unyielding.
Deadbeats features three unconventional heroes than are capable of doing anything - even the unexpected. Lovecraft's characters were Asimovian placeholders, meatbags of tragedy and exposition; faceless ushers for the great unseeable nasties. Deadbeats spins this on its head, focusing on Lester, Hank and Willie, and not just an atmosphere of tentacles and vocabulary.
Perhaps the most effective scene is also one of the most subtle. As the three musicians drive, Lester talks about his time in the war. Hank questions why Lester's been shot at (he was serving as a musician, after all), and Lester explains that the servicemen used to take shots at the non-white performers. The world-eating nastiness of Cthulhu is one thing, but Lovecraft used his monsters to dehumanise evil into an abstract, alien form. Deadbeats does the reverse: tentacles are horrid things, but what's really awful is what people do to one another. Hey, I love me some classic Lovecraft, but Deadbeats gives the mythos a much-needed injection of modern perspective.
A moment on the art, as, for me, INJ Culbard has established himself as the leading figure in modern Lovecraftian style. Just as Deadbeats is a reiterpretation of the old tropes, Mr. Culbard's approach is awelcome alternative to the overly-frilly Gigerian morass that has become the de facto mythos standard. At the Mountains of Madness, which combines ligne claire simplicity with epic vistas is still my favourite, but Deadbeats is a close second. There's a clear 1920's atmosphere combined with incredibly playful tentacular fun. Deadbeats lacks AtMoM's vast scale, but it is a more intimate sort of horror (and, albino cave penguins aside, much more fun).
Not just a great pastiche, but a great novel - graphic novel - in its own right. Deadbeats is another triumph from an amazing publisher.