Set in 19th-century America, Eddie Campbell’s The Black Diamond Detective Agency frames a relatively conventional tale with unconventionally rich technique. The graphic novel tells the story of a train that explodes in Lebanon, Missouri, and the Pinkerton-like agency of detectives hired to track down the bomber. All, of course, is not as it seems – a man known as John Hardin has been framed for the explosion and a large part of the book deals with his quest to clear his name.
If you noticed the word “frame” was used twice in the preceding paragraph, it’s not accidental – “Frames,” in fact, is the title of the first half of the book, and the opening image is a full-page shot of a major character “hiding behind those fake glasses,” another kind of frame. In details like these, Campbell demonstrates that his interest is not so much in telling the story of a train bombing as it is in investigating the semiotic possibilities of the comics medium. (This isn’t to say that the surface narrative won’t compel readers, especially those who like heist scenarios and spaghetti westerns; the Scottish-born Campbell’s turn-of-the-century Chicago is to the Windy City as Sergio Leone’s San Miguel is to Texas border towns.)
Campbell’s art, rendered in exacting watercolors, makes particularly interesting use of panel borders – frames again – although at times one must read attentively to follow the action. Punctuating his initial conservative layouts with stunning splash pages, Campbell quickly begins to use negative space to great effect, until the period white backgrounds and borders become a pacing mechanism all their own. Even more impressive is an eleventh hour gunfight shown in small square carefully scattered over a white page; severe as one of Mondrian’s geometric compositions, the spread gives us a panoptic view of the battle, ordered only by the horizontal tracks of bullets from panel to panel. We see the shoot-out as if it were a Cubist conceit, from all angles at once. Campbell is hardly unaware of his sources: “What was that Goddamn noise?” says one character, looking forward to the new century; “they’re writing music that sounds like a cornfield meet. Next it’ll be statues that don’t look like nobody and paintings with nothing in ‘em but your nightmares.” Even as he acknowledges his debt to high modernism, however, Campbell isn’t afraid to handle it with a little irreverence. “Up yours, modern time!” exclaims the same character as he rings in the year 1900.
The resolution of the plot depends largely on the work of Sadie Geoff, an artist whom the eponymous sleuths hire to create lifelike wanted posters; through Sadie, Campbell funnels ideas about artists as observers, recorders, and mediums (“It’ll be good to see the world through your eyes, Miss,” says one of her associates). A great observer, recorder, and sometimes medium in his own right – this book is adapted from a screenplay written by C. Gaby Mitchell – Campbell always manages to transfer something of his peculiar and incisive vision to the page, and his mordant intelligence and mastery of the form are clearly present in The Black Diamond Detective Agency. And les we forget that the plot unfolds in the aftermath of some powerfully exploding boxes, each of Campbell’s panels is a box charged with a certain amount of narrative weight. If any fail to detonate – if Campbell occasionally appears to be having more fun rearranging invisible fuses than telling his chosen story – it’s because the medium is more interesting than the eventual explosion.