So what’s the big deal about The Five Dimensional Adventures of Dirk Davies? Why should it attract so much attention beyond the quirkiness value of a comic that’s not only digitally produced by Dean Haspiel and Ben McCool, but inspired, like the rest of the Shiftylook comics fleet, by video games from the 80’s? The unlikelihood of the concept makes people look twice; we remember the video games vaguely or fondly and it cues a nostalgic tune in the back of our minds. We liked those games that now seem so low-tech because they engaged our imaginations with their strangeness. There was no way images could play out on those small television screens (more often than not the old half-broken TVs in our bedrooms where friends clustered, neck-craning for not much of a view) to match the concepts suggested by the titles. The graphics weren’t up to it. That didn’t matter. We filled in the rest, imaginatively, the way people used to “see” the The Shadow on the radio. Shiftylook decided all that possibility could stage a comeback and given a starting point, great artists and writers have leapt into the fray and produced their visions of what those fictional worlds could have been like. That’s why Shiftylook’s new web-comics are interesting: the sheer diversity of artistic views and the energy behind all these adventure stories. And then there’s the ideal lack of predictability. The plots were thin on those games, barely more than a premise, so the freshness of the new tales is going to get you even as you recognize a thing or two along the way.
But what’s the big deal about Dirk Davies, particularly? I could try to explain some kind of theory about why its elements, in combination, make it so fascinating, but that would be a false impression that it’s explainable. It’s not. I like that very much about Dirk Davies. I don’t know why a caveman is falling through dimensions behind Davies in the recent 16th episode, nor why a Crocadoid is called a Crocadoid. I don’t know how Dirk Davies “hides” his massive blaster gun under his overcoat (I want to call it a trenchcoat but it’s not quite), nor why he wears an overcoat at all given it’s not earth and not particularly rainy. Then there’s the button down shirt, come to think of it. What’s with the shirt? I tell myself to give it up for now and come back to those questions later. What I can do, even if I can’t explain the things I love in the series that remain unexplained, is try to pin-point a few cultural things that I am reminded of when I read Dirk Davies that make me feel at once “at home” and also somewhere strange and unknowable. I’m “at home” because this is noir detective fiction with plenty of tropes from novels, stories, films and the like. I’m somewhere strange and unknowable because I’m in a 1950’s-1960’s sci-fi world that is intentionally unknowable but visually striking from the covers of pulp magazines to the lowest budget film of the period.
Dirk Davies plays a symphony of noir in both narrative and visual elements from the get go. Dirk is “hired” by a government entity to track down a killer. He’s a hired gun and he has a couple of guns like any good gumshoe. The motives of his employer are not revealed, a major element in many noir tales, leaving room for reassessment and suprises later. Dirk also has a companion vehicle. It’s no exaggeration to say that hundreds of noir depictions of detectives connect them to the vehicles in which they lurk, lurch, and give chase. In fact, it’s typical in detective stories to know more about the gumshoe’s car than his apartment. It becomes an extension of personality. Dirk soon hits the trail and knows, intuits, expects for it to be circuitous and more of a meander than a straight line. Not only is that good story-telling, it’s part of the experience for the reader.
Blind alleys, tricks, minor connections are going to force Dirk to make use of his beaten-in detective experience. That’s the thing. In noir stories we almost never meet a new detective. They always have time-worn wisdom to dole out around cigarette butts. They know what they are doing, goddamn it. Even if the audience/reader doesn’t. Then we can be impressed at the appropriate junctures. Dirk does all those things (without giving too much away) and actually impresses the reader with more of these masterful moments of problem-solving the further you get into his adventure. One more thing: noir detectives are uncluttered. They don’t have a lot of stuff and they don’t rely on using much more than their wits to get things done. They are their own best resource. One constant from noir books and films is the telephone, however, fitting in tandem with the role of the car. The gumshoe makes and receives endless phone calls in dark apartments, backs of bars, or even drug stores, and having gotten that signal or bit of leading information, makes a dive for the car and he’s off on another brush with danger. I mention this because Dirk’s cell-phone is one of his greatest resources, and zaps him into transport with the near immediacy of the phone-car dynamic in noir.
But to say that Dirk Davies is just a fantastic and fantastically drawn detective story is not enough. It’s a hybrid text of the highest caliber because Haspiel and McCool have taken on a truly challenging combination in bringing noir to science fiction. They are in good company, but that doesn’t mean it’s ever been an easy enterprise. They have to combine the familiar with the strange at just the right pitch to keep the visual narrative entertaining and not too confusing.
And it could get confusing, but it doesn’t. Good science fiction films from the 50’s managed that too- outlandish premises, fast pace action, and campy acting kept audiences in their seats because of one thing: a balanced combination. One of the signatures of success from this period is style. Did the futuristic lines of the space vehicles, weapons, costumes, appeal and somehow capture the strange along with a kind of desire for emulation? We have always wanted the future to be stylish in a peculiar way that we haven’t achieved yet.
Dirk Davies does that and then some. It doesn’t cloy us with the unrealistic. The gritty noir aspects help ground the futuristic aspects of Dirk’s multi-verse, but the alien and multi-temporal worlds he visits have that distinctive air: a glimpse of the truly strange, from the sources he interrogates to the captors who think they have a grip on him. The strangeness is for the reader/audience. It’s all in a day’s work for Dirk. That means he’s on top of it. Nothing phases him as long as he has his wits about him. And by wits I probably mean a really big gun, a waiting car, and a handy-dandy tech device known as a phone. That’s why Dirk Davies, with its alarming and moody color palette can take us on quite a trip: we think we know what to expect in our two-fisted detective, but if we think we know what he’s really up against, it’s all surprises, stylish surprises, from here on out.
To read Dirk Davies, head over to Shiftylook at: http://shiftylook.com/comics/dirkdavies/
–I am Hannah Means-Shannon, aka Hannah Menzies on FB and @HannahMenzies on Twitter