We Only Find Them When They’re Dead is Al Ewing’s grand entrance into creator-owned comics, and it’s a very Al Ewing book. Ewing is a continuity-head — sometimes it seems like he can quote chapter and verse from the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe off the top of his head. He’s a guy who likes the deep complexity that makes up the Marvel Universe, and is as comfortable telling a story about Technet, the obscure supervillain team from the first volume of Excalibur, as he is writing the Avengers.
That is, I’d argue, one of the key reasons that his extended arcs in various Marvel books are so good, and why Immortal Hulk works as well as it does. But it’s also the fatal flaw in We Only Find Them When They’re Dead.
Let me zoom out a bit.
WOFTWTD is follows the crew of an ‘autopsy’ ship, which goes out into space, finds, and cuts up the corpses of giant space gods – like the Celestials – and sells said dead space god body parts for a profit. It’s a very Marvel idea; it’s not too far removed from something like Knowhere, really. But it’s not really about the crew of this autopsy ship. It’s about the feud between a hard-edged space cop and the grim captain of the autopsy ship. The rest of the premise that I just relayed – the autopsy ship, the dead gods, the black market of space god parts – is just set dressing.
To be fair, it’s good set dressing. It’s intriguing. But it foregrounds just why Ewing is such a good Big Two guy. When he writes a story about Technet, the Elders of the Universe, or the Hulk being possessed by the Devil, he can rely upon extant stories and knowledge to set up that universe. When I read that Hulk story, I already know that the Hulk has these different personalities, that they change his physical appearance, that the Gamma can affect your mind – Immortal Hulk is developing upon these extant mythemes.
WOFTWTD wants to do the same. It operates as if we already know this stuff, as if Ewing is building on stories told in an established universe. But it’s not. To be clear, I don’t want just straight up exposition, but, well, what do you need carved up pieces of space god carcass for? Inquiring minds need to know.
And the core plot arc doesn’t even need that, either. The emotional arc here – and it’s a good emotional arc! – could work just as well, if not better, translated to any other place with criminals and the police. I almost wish it was. If this story was a Brubaker-Phillips style crime story, I think it would be stronger, shorn of this distracting set dressing.
The same issue applies to Simone de Meo’s art. When it comes to these great establishing shots of dead gods, fleets of ships, and deploying drones, the book is beautiful. When it comes to the actual people, and the close-ups that are the actual meat, the good part, of the story, it looks almost anime-esque. It saps the drama from the story.
We can only judge a comic for what it is, rather than what it could be. But this could be so much better.
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