I love it when I'm really torn on a book. It makes reviews fun!
Ben Caldwell, writer/artist of The Dare Detectives: The Snow-Pea Plot (which is published by Archaia and costs $24.95, with additional colors and inks by Bill Halliar and Mike Mucci), is a favorite of the three ladies of our very own podcast.
His Wonder Woman story in Wednesday Comics a few years ago would have been very nice to look at if it hadn't been crammed onto a page that didn't suit it, and the 3 Chicks speak in hushed tones of his Wonder Woman pitch (which does sound pretty cool, I must admit). I was impressed enough with the WW story in Wednesday Comics that I decided to pick this book up when it came out, even though I could have read it on-line. That's just not my style, man!
The Dare Detectives is a madcap caper book which is "suitable for Readers of All Ages," according to the back cover. The detectives themselves are Maria Dare, Toby Taylor, and JoJo - or, as Caldwell puts it, "the brains," "the muscle," and "the jerk." Maria's detective license is constantly getting suspended (it is in this book) due to her unorthodox methods and penchant for leaving giant messes in her wake. The story takes place in Enderby City, which is populated by humans and anthropomorphic animals, including JoJo, who's a rabbit. This conceit allows Caldwell to draw a lot of crazy creatures doing wacky stuff.
I like the book, but two things bug me about it, and while I don't often get all socio-political, that doesn't mean I'm afraid to do it! Caldwell is obviously flipping the script when it comes to Maria and Toby, as Maria is extremely smart and can handle herself in a pinch while Toby is big, strong, and dumb as a post. I read this book and started writing about it before Kelly's latest excellent post (which you should all read, by the way), and now I'm a bit nervous to dip my toes in this water. Kelly's point has always been that it's not okay to portray all women as porn stars because there's very little to balance that - showing Emma Frost in skimpy clothing is fine, because that's who she is, but showing all women that way is ridiculous.
Similarly, she has made the point that Wonder Woman is hamstrung because she's the only high-profile DC female character, so she is burdened by expectations. Male characters can be nuanced personality-wise because there are so damned many of them, but Wonder Woman has to remain an ideal. What does this have to do with Toby and Maria, you might wonder. If Caldwell is flipping the script and showing a woman in charge, why doesn't he make Toby more of a sex object? I was kind of annoyed, reading this, that Toby is that stupid - it seems that he wouldn't know how to tie his shoes, which doesn't make him slightly dim-witted, it makes him completely learning-disabled. He doesn't even seem to be needed in the "muscle" department too much - Maria can handle herself perfectly well. My question is, why does Caldwell think Toby is funny? If the roles were reversed and Toby was the smart one and Maria the dim-witted one, this would be a wildly insulting comic. Toby is actually not that terrible a character, and the fact that Maria treats him like shit is dealt with over the course of the book, but he's still stupid. The best part of their relationship is that Toby really admires Maria because she has all her shit together (which, considering her background, is very impressive). It seems overkill to make him an idiot.
The second thing that bugged me has to do with Maria's attire. Throughout the book, Maria's "uniform" is a small, somewhat ragged tank top that exposes her navel and super-tight short shorts.
She's not drawn like a porn star, but if we accept that everything is context, I wonder why, when the detectives go out at night, in the rain, to infiltrate the villains' lair, she's still wearing the same clothing (she does change clothes in the book, but apparently her entire wardrobe consists of belly shirts and short shorts). Caldwell doesn't pose her gratuitously, which is nice, but I do wonder why he made those choices, especially as Toby is clothed in long sleeves and cargo pants when they're about to break in, because maybe they need to, you know, carry useful stuff. At one point there's a flashback to when Maria was a criminal (she's made some bad choices) and she's wearing a bad-ass red suit that covers her up but still looks awesome. Personally, as a mouth-breathing man, I don't really care too much about what characters in comics wear, unless it's very odd, but I was struck by how Maria is the protagonist of the book yet she's still wearing very little clothing. My question is: Why is this okay? I'm not being facetious at all, because I do wonder about it. I assume it's because she's never posed sexually or obnoxiously, but a weirdly unzipped superheroine may or may not be posed normally, yet it's still problematic. Is it because Caldwell's style is more cartoonish and therefore less "realistic"? I don't know.
Anyway, what about the comic itself? Well, like I wrote way up there, it's a madcap romp with lots of mustache-twirling villains (even the ones that don't have mustaches!) and diabolical plots. Maria, Toby, and JoJo accidentally stumble upon the sinister plan when they learn that their favorite Chinese restaurant is out of snow peas. This sounds wildly suspicious, as it should, and when they investigate, they discover that a villain named Madame Bleu is stealing all the snow peas in the city for some nefarious reason. Madame Bleu has moved in to fill a void left by Mr. White, a crimelord who's stewing in prison. She's using his muscle (pandas who aren't too happy to be working for her, retaining their loyalty to Mr. White) and allying with Furious George, who's supposed to be some kind of ape or monkey but looks nothing like one.
Madame Bleu kidnaps Uncle Chan, the owner of the detectives' favorite Chinese restaurant (and their landlord), so it's personal! The story takes a lot of twists and turns, but Caldwell rarely takes his foot off the pedal, and the book speeds along, getting more and more wacky as Madame Bleu's plot is revealed.
Despite my problems with Toby's portrayal, Caldwell does a pretty good job with the protagonists. Maria is smart but she has a lot of insecurities, some of which come out over the course of the book, Toby is dumb but a good guy who always tries to do the right thing, and JoJo is irascible but provides nice comic relief. Caldwell has a lot of characters in the book, but even minor ones like Uncle Chan and the panda sidekicks have interesting personalities and get some nice lines. Madame Bleu is an interesting villain - a bit silly (her master plan involves dressing up like a showgirl) but also quite evil, which is always fun. Caldwell's plot isn't terribly important (the missing snow peas are a bit of a MacGuffin), but it's suitably dastardly, and that's all the matters, isn't it?
Caldwell's cartoony art is fun to look at - it crackles with energy and verve, and we easily suspend our disbelief when the crazy stuff starts happening. It's a wonderfully detailed book - Enderby City is a weird place, with all sorts of nooks and crannies where bad guy pandas can lurk, and Caldwell's Chinatown is a very fascinating place. The character designs are well done, too - Uncle Chan might be an old-guy Asian stereotype, but that's because he's, you know, an old Asian dude. There are many other ethnic characters in the book, and it's refreshing to see so many different kinds of people populating a comic.
Caldwell easily moves between monstrous creatures that try to eat our heroes and the cheesecakey Madame Bleu, and everyone fits well into this world. He even - shocking! - draws the two principal women - Maria and Madame Bleu - with completely different body types - Maria is athletic, while Madame Bleu is far more buxom (this makes Maria's choice of clothing more inexplicable, because I can't figure out why she would wear what she's wearing). The colors in the book really pop, too, so that everything seems more vibrant and alive. The only small problem with the art is that Maria breaks (sprains?) her right arm during their first battle with Madame Bleu, and in a few panels later, her left arm is in a sling (as you can see above). No big deal, but it was a bit funny.
For the most part, The Dare Detectives is a fine comic book, and I would definitely Recommend it. My reservations with it don't really have to do with my personal issues, but whether Caldwell "gets away" with something that someone like Ed Benes, for instance, would get called on. I honestly don't know the answer to that question. Buy the book yourself and see where you stand!