Comic Review: Dead @ 17

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Writer | Artist: Josh Howard
Publisher: Viper Comics

Buffy Summers casts a long shadow. The main character of TV’s sadly defunct Buffy the Vampire Slayer shows up in a lot of comics and TV shows these days, repackaged and diluted, bearing different names and faces. She’s at least a little in every wisecracking, cute-looking, spunky monster killing teenage girl with a cast of quirky sidekick/friends.

While the ideas and characters built over the past half-decade-plus by Joss Whedon still have a lot of life and merit to them, they’re best handled by him and his writers.

Some works stand more squarely in Buffy’s shadow than others. Dead @ 17 is about half eclipsed by Sunnydale’s favorite adopted daughter and half standing in the another shadow cast by, among other things, The X-Files.

In Dead @ 17, Nara is murdered by an unknown assailant in her home. After her murder, Nara’s connection to growing dark forces becomes known and revelations abound, not the least of which being that Nara is back from the dead.

Unsure of how or why she’s alive when not so long before so was resolutely dead, Nara and her friend Hazy join operative Noel Raddemer (which my spell checker points out is cloyingly close to “redeemer”) in learning about Nara’s fate and her power. You see, Nara is one of what the two factions competing over her, of which Raddemer is but one representative, call “the resurrected” – people who cannot truly be killed, but who are “killed” once in order to unleash their hidden mystical powers.

Nara, in turns out, is unusually powerful and rests at the center of a struggle between Raddemer’s faction, the Protectorate, and an evil, unnamed faction. Whichever group controls her, it seems, will control untold amounts of power.

And that’s well and good, but it’s a familiar story, isn’t it? Since The X-Files-inspired early ?90s explosion of paranoid conspiracy entertainment, the story of two secret factions fighting a secret war behind the scenes, but at the same time fully in the open, has been told time and time again. And at least one character in those stories is almost always the one person who Can Change Everything.

Which is all OK. Good conspiracy stories, with secret histories and hidden agendas, are fun and will always have a place (at least in my heart). But given that we’ve had such a glut of them in the last decade, modern ones really need to do something new. Dead @ 17 doesn’t.

The story is fine and largely competent, if a little ragged – a lot of hints are thrown and not picked up, though the follow-on series may well explore them. The dialogue is less fluid. Pages drown in word balloons and exposition overflows and swamps any hope of naturalism in a lot of the dialogue. That and there’s hardly a contraction in the book. So many “it is,” “I will” and the like ricochet strangely off the ear.

Writer/artist Josh Howard’s art is clearly more advanced than his writing. He’s got an angular, manga-inflected style that closely calls to mind the work of Michael (Powers) Avon Oeming. Though his art is largely polished, Howard needs to work a bit harder at differentiating the look of his characters (all the women look essentially the same, if with different hair and eye colors) and at cutting down on the cheesecake (for instance, why does Nara return from the dead in a Britney Spears circa 1999 Catholic schoolgirl outfit? Was she buried in it?). For what is no doubt thought of as a “strong female lead” book by many, there’s far too much dismal-in-distress-and-torn-clothes-or-underwear.

Of course, as long as the woman punches hard and kills things, that’s good enough for most male comic creators to call the character a “strong woman” – no matter how else she’s portrayed or what actually happens in the book. You’ll notice markedly few cheesecake shots of Sarah Michelle Gellar over her seven years in Sunnydale. But comic-industry sexism and shortsightedness is an essay for another time and probably another blog.

Dead @ 17 is not a bad comic, but it’s not good enough to interest me in picking up its sequels (and sequels are clearly where the book was headed. It ends on a very Buffy note, with Hazy and Nara’s love-interest Elijah essentially teaming up with Nara to fight the forces of darkness). Howard’s art is strong, and the production values of the book are great (the cover design is particularly sharp), but Dead @ 17 is just too much of the same of what we’ve seen for nearly 15 years to make it stand out from the conspiracy pack.

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