The likely provenance of Weird Detective is not hard to tease out. Back when it was still merely overrated rather than flat-out terrible, True Detective was very happy to flirt with the iconography of the Cthulhu Mythos (albeit iconography lifted from the work of Ambrose Bierce, some of which he lifted from Robert W. Chambers). Ultimately though it pulled back at the last minute, revealing the terrifying being at the centre of a secret murder-cult of staggering power and influence to be (SPOILERS!) a dude on a lawnmower with a slapdash approach to house-painting. The extent to which that actually matters if you don’t know what the “King In Yellow” is, or where Lost Carcosa lies (roughly, I mean; it is lost, after all) is up for debate, no doubt. For those of us who know our Hyades from our Hastur, though, watching Nic Pizzolatto paddle in the shallows of Lake Hali only to splash back to dry land at the last moment was deeply frustrating.
It would be difficult to imagine a more obvious response to all this than Weird Detective. That’s not meant as a criticism. Van Lente has seen a hole and he’s filled it, both in narrative and scheduling terms (the first issue of this title came out a year to the week after True Detective‘s second season premiere; this might be the closest to a third year of the show we’ll get). There’s no teasing us here, no will-they-won’t-they-discover-a-tentacle-monster. Everything is out on display as our protagonist sniffs around the contours of the… well, the weird. And no wonder. We’re not just seeing the Cthulhu Mythos fully revealed here, we’re seeing it through the eyes (and myriad other sensory inputs) of a member of the Great Race itself.
Detective Sebastian Greene has a secret, you see. He’s not Detective Sebastian Greene at all. The being that wears his form is something utterly different, an intelligence that boasts seventeen different senses, including/in addition to the ability to have conversations with his cat. This unfathomable creature from beyond time has two goals. First, he must investigate the present for clues that could help his race escape their fate in the past. Second, he must avoid being recognised for what he is whilst he’s walking (slithering?) that beat. No easy job for someone with no grasp of idioms or popular culture, and whose only response when his strangeness is noted is to mumble something about being Canadian (hey, does anyone else miss Due South?).
As a reply to True Detective, there is an awful lot to like here. The inversions it performs on Pizzolatto’s freshman offering are all good ones. Instead of Rustin Cohle’s endless self-absorbed agonising over what really exists beyond our perception, we have a protagonist entirely aware of what’s out there and desperate to keep it quiet. Woody Harrelson’s Martin Hart meanwhile is reforged as Detective Sana Fayez. Fayez retains Hart’s wandering eye and his struggle to find satisfaction in domestic life, but also happens to be an Arab American lesbian. That’s just the kind of new perspective Mythos stories need, as for that matter did True Detective. The book is also rather funnier than its two starting points would suggest. The jokes are solid rather than inspired, admittedly, and frankly if Van Lente hadn’t been able to make undercover aliens or talking cats funny I’d have suggested he turn in his word processor. Still, fair play: the humour here works.
At least, it does on its own terms. As a counterpoint to the series of grisly murders Greene and Fayez are investigating (because of course there’s a series of grisly murders), I’m less convinced. For a story as steeped in Mythos lore as this one, there’s a surprising lack of weight to the whole thing. Sure, there’s plenty of unpleasant ends and gibbering horrors, given support by strong, unsettling art from Vilanova and Wallace. There’s not really a sense of threat, though. It’s all just a bit too staid. A bit too familiar. Little sets the monsters of Weird Detective apart from those of any other horror comic, and that’s not just because of how many design cues artists have taken from the Mythos over the years. There’s a moment in the final installment that sums up my issue perfectly. I won’t spoil it, but you’ll know it when you see it.
This problem is compounded by Greene himself. The alien intelligences that haunt our galaxy in the stories of Lovecraft and his friends are supposed to be utterly incomprehensible in both form and motivation. Our pathetic perspectives aren’t supposed to even be able to process their actions, never mind understand them. We’re meant to glimpse them in the shadows and be horrified by how little they resemble us, by how randomly and capriciously they behave. We’re supposed to react to them the same way a scared child does when they surprise a cockroach and it responds by scuttling towards them. These beings don’t think like anything we’ve observed up until now. They don’t move the way things are supposed to move. They don’t react the way things are supposed to react. They fail to play by rules so fundamental we never even consciously realised they existed.
Having Greene as our viewpoint character completely shatters all that. Consider our introduction to his incomprehensible alien nature. Greene spends much of the first issue and some time after that taking us through his list of groovy super-powers (such as ranos, the “opposite of sonar”, to take a particularly clunky example). As an introduction to a new super hero, that would be a little cliche. As a glimpse into the world of seething alien intellect, it’s positively banal. After decades of scheming in the shadows, the Great Race stand revealed… and they’re just socially-awkward jerks who you can still rely on when the chips are down; more Cumberbatch’s Holmes than Lovecraft’s horrors. Even the conversations with his cat cause problems from this angle. When a domestic feline is less concerned with the fate of mortals than a Lovecraftian alien, something is most definitely amiss.
Of course, these are all criticisms that stem from my knowledge of the wider Mythos. Perhaps for the casual Cthulhu-spotter all of these complaints are no more relevant than those I’ve made about True Detective. I’m not sure that’s quite true; the show never claimed to be what it ended up not being, whereas Weird Detective is claiming to scratch this particular itch and not quite getting there. Still, I recognise the danger in being too prescriptive about what a Mythos story should be. I have my preferences, but that’s all there are; preferences. Those who’ve read my previous reviews on the subject on this site already know how I like my updated Cthulhu tales: better prose, better structure, and above all, better representation. Tonal shifts are not my thing at all. They might very well be yours, though, especially considering how well Vilanova and Wallace do here at portraying both the human and the utterly not – this book is a real disturbing treat to look at.
So if you like your Lovecraft more lighthearted and colourful than is standard, and with its prehensile multi-spined blood-siphoning tongue stuck firmly in its squamous cheek, this is definitely a title you should check out.
Title: Weird Detective
Publisher: Dark Horse
Release Date: Out now
Reviewer: Ric Crossman