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Graphic Novels Reviews

The Dylan Dog Case Files

Writer: Tiziano Sclavi
Artists: Angelo Stano/Claudio Villa/Luigi Piccatto/Giampiero Casertano/ Bruno Brindisi
Publishers: Dark Horse Comics/Bonelli
[Three Stars]

Satyajit Chetri Aug 25, 2009
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Horror film afficionados are familiar with a sub-genre called giallo, which are psychological thrillers from Italy that feature copious amounts of blood, gore and nudity. On the surface, giallo films are synonymous with slashers, that family-friendly pop-cultural ephemera that provides squeals and much popcorn-chomping in darkened theaters. But dig a little deeper, and you begin to see how giallo meshed literary traditions, operatic grandeur and stylistic cinematic flourishes to create something unique. Film-makers like Dario Argento (Trauma, Suspiria)and Mario Bava (Diabolik)did not just make horror movies ”“ they engaged the senses with a stunning cocktail of music, psychedelically-filmed sequences and screenplay twists that played with the viewer’s expectations.

Dylan Dog is a comic book which, on the surface, is a pastiche of pulp and horror cliches, the stories rampant with gaudy violence and a streak of pretentious postmodernism. Yet, they will warm the cockles of any giallo lover’s heart because they go beyond being throwaway yarns. This long-running comic book series from Italy was created by Tiziano Scalvi in 1986, featuring a variety of adventures of an occult investigator, illustrated by a rotating team of artists. Sadly, not much of the series has been translated to English. In the Nineties, Dark Horse Press published seven  representative adventures that were mediocre sellers ”“ the lack of information and publicity, and the half-hearted attempt to woo mainstream fans by star artist Mike Mignola’s covers did not really work. Following the recent trend of collected editions, these seven stories have been published in a massive 680-page edition called The Dylan Dog Casefiles. On the book is an endorsement that piques your curiousity immediately. Umberto Eco, he of Foucault’s Pendulum fame says – “I can read the Bible, Homer and Dylan Dog for several days without being bored.”

Well, I can assure you of one thing ”“Dylan Dog does not bore you. Among the book’s strongest points is the variety it offers, not too surprising because the editors had about 20 years of material from which they could cherry-pick chapters, and the stories range from straight horror to poignant tragedy to the downright surreal. The first story, ”˜Dawn of the Living Dead’ is probably the most straightforward of them all; a pretty client requests the detective to help her prove her innocence in the murder of her husband, and Dylan agrees immediately, having fallen in love with her. And this is a consistent part of the detective’s career, it turns out, for he slips into romance as easily as another, more venerated London detective succumbed to shots of cocaine – Holmes’ misogynistic streak is replaced with a decidedly Italian charm.

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Indeed, the series drops one Holmesian parallel after another – the common love of a musical instrument ”“ in Dylan Dog’s case, he plays the clarinet to clear his mind, in contrast to Holmes and his violin. Dylan’s Watson is a strange character named Felix. Originally called Groucho (as in Marx), he resembled the comedian in both word and deed, but an impending lawsuit from Groucho Marx’s estate ensured that his moustache was knocked off and his name changed. While Holmes had Moriarty, Dylan’s arch-nemesis is Dr Xabaras, whose zombie experiments lead Dylan to a sleepy English village and a final, tension-fraught showdown where the doctor meets his end (or does he?) ”˜Dawn’ was one of the earliest Dylan Dog stories, and the only inkling one gets about the writer’s grand plans for the series is in the last few pages, when delirium and reality play tricks with the character’s mind and with that of the reader as well.

”˜Memories from the Invisible World’ and ”˜After Midnight’ are stories that echo the familiar paranoia-fuelled elements of a giallo movie. In the latter story Dylan Dog, having forgotten the keys to his apartment, wanders through the streets of London looking for a place to crash for the night. But there is an unknown assailant in tow, pursuing him with murderous intent, nastily silencing passersby and neighbors with a blood-stained axe. The tone alternates between grotesquery and hilarity, as the killer randomly goes about his business leaving Dylan first unaware, and then bemused about the body count in his wake. ”˜Memories’ takes a similar story of a modern-day Jack the Ripper targeting prostitutes, and adds a surreal element to it by making the narrator an invisible man, someone who had witnessed the killer striking down a woman he secretly pines for, and with her death, he disappeared. (Yes, that was exactly what it sounded like).

But the most mind-bending story is undoubtedly ”˜Morgana’. Written in 1988, two years after the character debuted, it is a sequel of sorts to ”˜Dawn of the Living Dead’; it is not so much as a story as an elaborate , brutal grand guignol. A woman is laid to rest in the ground, and yet she knows she is alive; she wakes up in a train, and everyone around her is a rotting corpse, and then she wakes up again. All she remembers is that she has to find Dylan Dog, and as she works her way to meet him, reality bends and twists around her in peculiar ways. Call it the writer’s conceit ”“ but it is masterful all the way, even when the creator makes an appearance in the story, changes certain elements because they are too absurd and then plonks us back into the comic again.

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Because the stories are taken from various points in the character’s long history, the visual style differs quite a bit across stories. Angelo Stano infuses the first story with an unmistakably European ”˜ligne claire’ ( clean line) look; his zombies on the other hand are dabs of thick brushstrokes, existing almost in a different reality from the rest of the characters. He draws ”˜Morgana’ as well, and by that time, his  art had metamorphosed into something that’s more composed, even at its most experimental. ”˜Johnny Freak’ is the most American-looking chapter ”“you could mistake Andrea Venturi’s artwork for a young Neal Adams, especially in the action scenes, in his portrayals of the horrific sequences, he draws like a slightly under-inked teenage Bernie Wrightson. The other artists ”“ Luigi Piccatto, Giampiero Casertano and Bruno Brindisi ”“ have fairly undistinguishable styles that pass muster, but just about.

One of the biggest problems with the collection is its fragile binding ”“ one pass through the book and you can rest assured that the spine will have weakened considerably. A few repeat reads and it’s likely to come apart, which is one of the common complaints associated with collected editions such as these. Despite this, you could do very well to pick up Case Files, it provides a great glimpse into the kind of European comic that is hardly available in the mainstream market, and even though a film starring Brandon Routh is in the works, there’s not much chance of any more Dylan Dog translations in the near future. A pity.

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