Michele and I took the Metro North train up to White Plains on Saturday for the New York Comic Fest at the Westchester County Center. It was a fun convention with a line-up of talented creators as guests.
Among them was writer Don McGregor, who penned some very influential, groundbreaking stories in the 1970s and 80s. I’ve met McGregor on a couple of occasions previously, but it was still good to see him again. I purchased a copy of the Sabre 30th Anniversary Edition from him, which has been on my “want list” for a while now. I mentioned to McGregor that several years back I had written an online review of another of his works, his Detectives Inc. graphic novel, “A Terror of Dying Dreams.” McGregor responded that he’d be interested in reading that, and I told him that I’d try to re-post it on my current blog at some point in the near future.
After I got home, I suddenly realized, via Facebook, that the very next day, June 15th, was his birthday. Well, obviously that called for me to speed things up a bit! So please consider this review a birthday tribute to the talented Don McGregor.
McGregor’s first Detectives Inc. book, “A Remembrance of Threatening Green,” was published by Eclipse Comics in 1980. It was illustrated by Marshall Rogers. “A Remembrance of Threatening Green” introduced McGregor’s private investigator team of Bob Rainier and Ted Denning.
Several years later Eclipse published McGregor’s second Detectives Inc. saga. This time McGregor was paired with a past collaborator, the legendary Gene Colan (they had previously worked together on Ragamuffins and Nathaniel Dusk). “A Terror of Dying Dreams” saw the return of Rainier and Denning, now working side-by-side with social worker Dierdre Sevens. “A Terror of Dying Dreams” was reprinted as an oversized black & white book by Image Comics in 1999. I purchased a copy of that from McGregor back in 2001 at one of the Big Apple Comic Cons, where I got it autographed by both him and Colan. More recently, in 2009 the two Detectives Inc. graphic novels were collected together in a lavish hardcover volume by IDW.
“A Terror of Dying Dreams” opens simultaneously on our three protagonists: Bob Rainier, Ted Denning, and Dierdre Sevens. Each is poised at a threshold. For Rainier, it is the gaudy entrance to a Times Square strip club. For Denning, it is an elevator in a hospital. For Sevens, it is the front door of an old friend’s house. By opening the story in this manner, McGregor does a marvelous job of juxtaposing these three people’s individual circumstances, at the same time setting the stage for an examination of each.
Rainier, divorced and gloomy, sulks along the alleyways of adult entertainment, vainly attempting to convince himself that he can easy his loneliness. Denning rides the elevator to a waiting room, where he meets with his father, and the two discuss old times, all the while waiting for news of Denning’s ailing mother. And Sevens comes to pay a visit on Leila, a friend who asks for her advice, but who is ultimately unwilling to leave her abusive husband.
The paths of this trio soon intersect. Rainier and Denning are, of course, partners in a private detective agency. Sevens hires the pair to follow Leila’s brutal husband Doug, hoping they will uncover evidence of Doug in a compromising situation, something that she might use to finally convince Leila to leave him. Rainier and Denning go to work, with Dierdre in tow, and they soon find evidence that Doug, in addition to abusing his wife, is also cheating on her. Of course, as with the best of detective fiction, this apparently simple case ends up leading them into a much larger scandal. And with that comes plenty of twists and danger.
(And if you expect me to reveal any more about the plot, forget it! This is one graphic novel you really ought to read for yourself, so I certainly do not want to spoil it any further.)
McGregor is probably best known for his cutting edge work with the characters of Killraven and Black Panther at Marvel in the 1970s. With the former, he took what started as a rather clichéd, uneven post-apocalyptic sequel to H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds and transformed it into an epic, soul-searching saga. His interpretation of the later character had a significant influence on subsequent writers’ depictions of T’Challa, the noble but troubled monarch of Wakanda. I admit that when I was younger I did find McGregor’s scripting on those stories, as well as his later works, to be somewhat ponderous. Looking back, I see that he was one of a handful of individuals in the comic book industry during the Bronze Age striving to craft dialogue and narration that possessed genuine sophistication and palpable atmosphere.
Certainly I did not have any problems with McGregor’s scripting on “A Terror of Dying Dreams.” McGregor’s prose is very well suited to this genre. Mystery and detective fiction has always relied on strong narration and description to establish a particular mood, as well as to delve into the characters, their backgrounds, and how they relate to each other and the world in which they exist. As I noted earlier, this is exactly what McGregor does with Rainier, Denning, and Sevens at the story’s opening and again throughout the entirety of the story. McGregor’s story is as much about these three individuals as it is about the solving of a mystery. His introspective writing superbly brings these characters to life, and establishes the realities they live in. While still occasionally heavy, for the most part McGregor’s narration is strikingly appropriate.
I’ve also found that this is one of those great stories with so many layers to it that you can re-read years later when you are at a different point in your own life and get something new out of it. Looking at “A Terror of Dying Dreams” in 2014 as someone in his late 30s who has gone through a number of changes and life experiences in the past decade, I certainly have a different perspective on McGregor’s story and characters than I did when I first read it in my mid 20s back in 2001.
Gene Colan’s work on “A Terror of Dying Dreams” is superb. His art style, with its unconventional layouts and extensive use of shadows, is perfectly suited for a story such as this. On occasion, I have found Colan’s work to be rather jarring, at least as far as some of the superhero stories he drew. His style is perhaps a bit ill-suited to that genre, and is more appropriate for mystery, suspense, and horror. The fact that Colan was so successful with Daredevil over the years was no doubt due to that character’s firm grounding in reality, set amidst the grim urban locales of Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan. Likewise, Colan’s work on both Tomb of Dracula and Doctor Strange was memorable, with his haunting, eerie, disturbing depictions of unearthly, supernatural phenomena and macabre menaces.
It has often been noted that Colan, who passed away in 2011, was a somewhat difficult artist to ink, due to his very distinctive style, as well as his aforementioned use of shadows and darkness. Of the numerous inkers who tackled Colan’s pencils over the years, I think there was only a handful that really did him justice. Colan himself stated on more than one occasion that that Tom Palmer was the artist who did the best work inking his pencils, an opinion shared by many fans. I certainly agree with that assessment, and I would also add George Klein, Frank Giacoia, Bill Everett and Al Williamson to my list of favorite Colan inkers.
More significantly, though, I think that the dark, shadowy nature of Colan’s pencils probably made his stories a challenge to color. I suspect that some colorists unwittingly end up obliterating the fine detail of Colan’s work. In the past decade, it has been something of a revelation seeing many of his stories reprinted in black & white within various Marvel Essential collections.
The art in “A Terror of Dying Dreams” was reproduced directly from Colan’s uninked pencils, and the book is black & white. The result is crisp and stunning. Colan’s work has never looked better. Visible is the intricate detail of his work, the subtle gradations of shadow and lighting that he utilizes. The emotions of McGregor’s characters are vividly brought to life by Colan’s illustration of their facial expressions and fluid body language. The many and varied settings, from the time-faded boardwalks of Brighton Beach to the glitz of midtown Manhattan, the seedy trappings of Times Square, and the suburban gentility of Dobbs Ferry, are all brought to life by Colan’s talent. The scenes of action and danger are dramatically rendered, all the while retaining a definite realism and believability.
This was the type of genre that Colan excelled in. It is a pity that during his career he did not have many opportunities to work on tales of noir-tinged mystery. His collaboration with Don McGregor on “A Terror of Dying Dreams” and a handful of other projects enabled readers to view Colan’s skill and talent at work on different genres. And the black and white, uninked format allows for the full impact and detail of his art to be experienced.
Sequential illustration is, ideally, the synthesis of words and images. Within “A Terror of Dying Dreams” this is nearly flawless. McGregor’s writing and Colan’s art complement each other. The majority of McGregor’s script is dialogue. Those narrative passages that he does write are usually at the beginning of each chapter, set alongside or between captionless establishing shots by Colan. McGregor clearly had confidence in Colan, trusting that the art and the dialogue will work together to communicate what is taking place. He does not clutter up the panels with captions that state what the reader can plainly see. “A Terror of Dying Dreams” is an outstanding example of what can occur when a talented writer and a skilled artist who are working together recognize each other’s strengths. The result is a balance between story and art, with neither overwhelming the other.
And, simply put, Detectives Inc. “A Terror of Dying Dreams” is an enjoyable, intelligently written graphic novel with superb artwork. As I said before, I certainly recommend it. The book is one of the highlights of both Don McGregor’s and Gene Colan’s careers.