With Dead Inside #1, writer John Arcudi and artist Toni Fejzula hit upon the magic formula to crafting a gripping crime thriller; take all the familiar and necessary aspects of a hard-boiled procedural, mix in a setting that is unusual or intriguing, and make sure you’ve got a compelling protagonist to lead you through the mystery. As a result, Dead Inside #1 is a gripping and atmospheric debut that has a lot of promise and much to offer for fans of tough crime fiction.
Linda Caruso is a detective for the Mariposa County Sheriff’s office, though she’d rather be back in uniform as a plain old deputy. Caruso is assigned to the Jail Crimes Division, meaning she investigates serious crimes that took place in lock up. While Caruso’s private life is a mess, the job also gets her down, both the depressingly open and shut nature of the work and the inherent corruption and back-room politics that affects her ability to actually do the job. Despite all this, when a baffling and grotesque murder/suicide happens at Bennett Penitentiary, her innate skill as a detective takes over, leading her to make a gruesome discovery.
Solving crimes in jail is, frankly, a hell of a hook. Arcudi’s got his work cut out for him in that most crimes in this setting would seem to be simple, with a limited pool of suspects who all have limited opportunity, and while they may have a surplus of motives, those motives would all initially seem to be basic in a nature. While Arcudi doesn’t shy away from the lurid and grimy aspects of his prison setting, he manages to set up an actual mystery that surprises and intrigues from the get go.
Additionally, Caruso is a compelling protagonist that fits right in with the long-established tradition of flawed and dysfunctional detectives that have always populated noir and hard-boiled fiction. With her deep ambivalence for her job, a messed up personal life, and a propensity for perhaps drinking a little too much, she’s certainly not the most unconventional lead for a crime story. But there’s a reason why this kind of character works so well within the setting; it’s because simply put, we find them compelling. I don’t know why messed-up detectives work, but they do. I could hazard an analysis of why, but where’s the fun in that? Suffice to say that Arcudi does a good job in instantly making Caruso a relatable and interesting figure with clear motives and flaws. The supporting cast are all well-drawn as well.
The art by Toni Fejzula is equal to the script, and accentuates the horrific and stylized nature of the gruesome subject matter. While the book feels like a noir and works all the touchstones of that particular genre well, I found myself viewing it more as a horror comic than a crime one, albeit in the best way. The figures are all just slightly exaggerated, enough so that there’s a whiff of the grotesque to them without tipping over the line into caricature. It’s a strong point of the issue that keeps things unsettled enough to maintain a consistent feeling of dread throughout the issue. Fejzula chooses odd angles in order to slightly distort the figures and keep the reader off-balance. Even scenes that seem relatively innocuous wind up feeling tense and off-kilter. Nice stuff throughout.
Dead Inside #1 is an excellent addition to the always reliable comic genre of hard-boiled crime, and there’s tough competition in that category. Arcudi and Fejzula deliver a stellar opening issue, packed with enough atmosphere and suspense to easily bring you back for issue two. 8.5/10
Dead Inside #1 will be released on December 21, 2016 by Dark Horse Comics