Propaganda tracks down the bad guys in the Old West
This is Propaganda, I’m Richard Bruton and this is what I’ve been reading lately…
The Black Diamond Detective Agency
adapted and illustrated by Eddie Campbell, from a screenplay by C. Gaby Mitchell.
Black Diamond Detective Agency is a departure from recent Eddie Campbell books in that he’s working from someone else’s story. BDDA was originally a screenplay by C. Gaby Mitchell and whilst having to work to someone else’s story has taken away some of the freedoms usually on display in Campbell’s work, he’s adapting the screenplay with very few restrictions and the whole book feels like a pure Campbell comic, albeit in an unusual genre setting. Of course, the irony is not lost on the reader that Campbell should, by book’s end, find himself drawing distinguished Victorian gentlemen with shadowy motives. The shadow of From Hell is never that far away it seems.
As for the plot, it’s a not particularly inspired standard Western tale: a turn of the 19th Century Missouri farmer gets embroiled in the hunt for a train bomber. John Hardin finds himself on the run, framed for the bombing and hunted by the renowned Black Diamond Detective Agency. Everyone wants answers: who set off the bomb? What was in the safe mysteriously spirited from the blazing train? And what does Hardin need more – to clear his name or find out where his wife has gone and why? There are twists, there are turns, mysteries and intrigues and surprises galore.
(the gory aftermath of the train explosion in Eddie Campbell’s Black Diamond Detective Agency, published by First Second)
Behind this simple plot is a story that observes and chronicles the major changes occurring at the time. Change is ever present in Black Diamond; technological change and progress is everywhere in the growing towers of the city to the railroad ploughing across the country. But Campbell also uses personal change throughout the book to reflect the changing times. Hardin himself changes character during the story, impersonating others throughout and even taking on a new identity to join the very Detective Agency that is looking for him. This final identity change is possibly the least believable, as Hardin passes unnoticed amongst these greatest of detectives as he carries out his own investigation into both the crash and the whereabouts of his wife.
One intriguing aspect of the book is Campbell’s focus on the Detective Agency’s use of early forensics artists working to produce the incredibly detailed and accurate wanted posters of the time. Campbell himself has spent many hours in the past working as an official courtroom artist and his experiences there have obviously found their way onto the page here.
(have you seen this man?)
Luckily, like all of Eddie Campbell’s work, the genre trappings and simple plot don’t really matter; after all this is Eddie Campbell, one of the finest cartoonists we have and this tale of Western intrigue is simply and elegantly told with Campbell’s consummate artistic skill and deliberate, considered brilliance in his storytelling. He’s always been quite marvellous but in the last few years, through How To Be An Artist, After The Snooter and Fate of the Artist, he’s proving himself to be one of our most important artists working in the comics medium.
When Campbell writes and illustrates his books, it’s always something that’s guaranteed to impress. And although this isn’t up to the highest standards set by his previous books, that’s purely down to it not being all Eddie’s show. In fact, to criticise it for not being up to the standard set by Fate of the Artist is particularly harsh. Neither is it particularly helpful to describe it as the best Western you’ll read this year – because there aren’t that many of them, and very few good ones! But it’s testament to Eddie Campbell’s continued brilliance that, even constrained by both genre and another (inferior) writer’s plot and story he still manages to produce something that eclipses most other works I’ll read this year.