Friday, February 16, 2018

Hardy Boys / Nancy Drew: The Big Lie

Hardy Boys / Nancy Drew: The Big Lie coverIn Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys: The Big Lie, the teen detectives are forced to investigate a crime that hits closer to home than usual.

As Big Lie begins, Frank and Joe are suspected of murdering their father, Fenton, a Bayport police detective who had been arrested on corruption charges. Although the brothers aren’t arrested themselves, the suspicion has caused them to lose their girlfriends, their chums, and their jobs. Nancy Drew, however, offers help for her own reasons, and the three set out to infiltrate Bayport’s underworld and unravel who is behind the death of Fenton Hardy.

Hardy Boys fans will recognize The Big Lie’s setting. Bayport is a crime-ridden burg, with a police force headed by Chief Collig, and Frank and Joe Hardy battle against lawbreakers — with the help of Nancy Drew, like in the Super Mystery series. But this is not the Bayport from the original series or from the Casefiles or any other sequel series. The city has a tourist-trap, postcard-perfect reputation that doesn’t gibe with the relentlessly generic city of 50,000 the boys inhabited in their own books.

The changes don’t stop with the feel of Bayport. In The Big Lie, Fenton worked for the police, not as a private detective. Frank and Joe’s part-time job is at a lobster restaurant, not as amateur or assistant PIs. Chet and the rest of the chums are nowhere to be seen, and Callie and Iola are glimpsed mostly in shadow; Iola’s name doesn’t ever appear in the book. Nancy’s supporting cast, save for her father and a couple of flashback panels with George, is similarly absent. Fans looking for Easter eggs and references to the classic series will likely be disappointed; the Old Mill (from Hardy Boys #3, The Secret of the Old Mill) makes a cameo, repurposed into an inn, but that’s it. The plot gives writer Anthony Del Col opportunities to insert other Hardys characters into the story — for instance, Peterson, the less competent Bayport detective, could have easily been Oscar Smuff or Con Riley — but he refuses the offers.

Instead, Del Col has made Bayport into a pan-Stratemeyer Syndicate city. In addition to teaming up with Nancy Drew, the Hardys attend a party hosted by the Bobbsey Twins, Tom Swift makes several appearances, and the Rover Boys — the Hardys’ even more rambunctious forebears — are vital to the plot. The inclusion of these other series characters elevates the story into something unique, although a Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew fan may feel like the story is more missable because of it; this is not the world the characters usually inhabit, after all. The characterizations for supporting characters also get shaped into the holes they are meant to fit into; Chief Collig, for instance, is depicted as too much of a thug, smacking Frank’s head against a table during interrogation.

The Big Lie is not a noir series, no matter how the publisher, Dynamite, tries to sell it. Frank, Joe, and Nancy are fundamentally good people, not morally compromised in any way; they are forced to realize their fathers aren’t who they thought, but that’s part of most people’s maturation process. Nancy is not a femme fatale; Frank and Joe are not hardboiled detectives. (Nor is Nancy, and Frank and Joe are not hommes homicides.) Few characters are out-and-out cruel, and although the heroes run cons on the criminals, the reader doesn’t get the feeling that any betrayals that happen within the story have much of an impact — save, of course, for the teenagers’ revelation that fathers aren’t who they seem to be. (Mothers seem to be, though.) A revelation of infidelity before the story begins actually weakens the story, decreasing the impact of the faithless character’s greater crimes.

On the other hand, the story’s level of violence, featuring shootings and murders, is much higher than the typical juvenile, though in retrospect the number of concussions and poisonings the Hardys endure is shocking. The Big Lie, at least, imbues each blow with power and shock; punches have consequences, and Werther Dell’Edera’s art gets across the brutality in a way that the softboiled narration of a juvenile series cannot. Even after the violence, Dell’Edera’s art shows the impact of violence; Nancy being interviewed with the blood of a shooting victim still on her hands is an effective image.

Del Col gives the reader backstory and narration through first-person text boxes, with the point of view shifting between the three protagonists throughout the story. The different narrators are denoted by different color boxes, and the shift between them comes between issues … mostly. Switching between points of view waters down the narrative voice, however, and it’s easy to miss the switch between them because they are colored with weak pastels, and the colors denoting each character aren’t consistent throughout the series.

The mystery itself is better than most of the plots in the Hardy canon or in the spinoffs — if, for no other reason, the story seems to have consequences within The Big Lie’s world. By taking away the protagonists’ usual supporting casts, however, Del Col shrunk the suspect pool to a suspect puddle, where the guilty can be deduced because they are simply the only people left. Pages spent on the heroes’ convoluted infiltration of a could have been better used for straightforward investigation, leading the detectives down blind alleys with false leads. Tom Swift’s aid is integral to the plot, but he is less a character than a plot device; despite his importance, he appears in few panels and doesn’t have a single speech bubble.

The name given to the secret organization behind the crimes, given in the denouement, is perfect, though.

Dell’Edera’s art is heavy on shadow and frequently light on detail, appropriate choices for a series in which motivations are obscured and iconic status makes it hard to pin down detailed descriptions. I don’t care for Frank or Joe’s haircuts, but they are teenagers — bad haircuts come with that territory. (I do enjoy Nancy’s multiple earrings in one ear: fitting for a girl just beginning to rebel.) As I mentioned before, the fisticuffs in The Big Lie are more visceral than in any Hardy Boys book. Dell’Edera saves his best work for the Rover Boys, particularly the two older ones, Ricky and Teo: Ricky’s a natty dresser, and Teo is a rough, occasionally frightening thug. Colorist Stefano Simeone has chosen a primarily pastel color palette, which is a mistake, I think; it matches the color boxes, but the weaker colors dilute some of the art’s effect.

Fay Dalton’s covers are fantastic; I don’t know if they can be bought as prints, but they would make great gifts for Nancy Drew fans (especially the cover for #3). The covers combine retro styling with a great sense of who the characters are, managing to create a nostalgia not for what the characters ever were but for what they might have been, had their stories possessed a harder or clearer edge. Dynamite’s decision to include the covers only at the back of the collection, lost among the series’ variant covers, is criminal.

This The Big Lie should be a diverting journey for those a fondness for nostalgia, and it could pique the interest of fans of crime comics. I’m not sure whether the series has legs; everything is wrapped up very neatly, and The Big Lie makes no mention of a sequel series.

1 comment:

  1. The storyline was so interesting that I read almost all of Volume 4 before I realized that I didn't read Volume 3 yet.