Review by Frank Plowright
Neil Gaiman introduced the ghosts of two schoolboys from different eras in a Sandman story found in The Season of Mists collection, whimsically naming them the Dead Boy Detectives. They’re the starting point for what incorporates the youngest characters from the half dozen titles published by Vertigo in 1994. It was an awkward proposition from the beginning, Vertigo being an imprint designed to showcase vastly different storytelling approaches with no unifying factor beyond. Gaiman did his bit, but the work of other creators as the story crossed into their titles wasn’t enthusiastic. The uneven quality delayed a book version for twenty years until editor Shelley Bond hit on the idea of a new bridging section between Gaiman’s start and finish. Conveniently Toby Litt then happened to be writing a Dead Boy Detectives series.
Gaiman reached back to the childhood stories he loved to create a bucolic English village for the opening chapter from which all the children have disappeared. His narrative captions echo the quaint precision of old British children’s books, but he impresses by switching styles over the succeeding short chapters during which Paine and Rowland stumble about their detective business. He was then a lesser known quantity, so equally impressive on the original publication was the fluid variety of Chris Bachalo’s art, which remains very accomplished. He mixes myth and fairy tale to establish Free Country, an other dimensional idyl open only to children, and the opening third of the book may be episodic, but it still reads well.
In the middle chapter Peter Gross aims for artistic continuity, but as decorative as some panels are, he doesn’t have Bachalo’s visceral imagination. Litt also attempts approximation, breaking his piece down into small chapters and varying the writing, but he’s hamstrung by having to include the children from the 1990s Vertigo titles, now long forgotten. Little attempt is made to explain who they are, so they pass in a hallucinogenic fog further strained by Litt picking up on Gaiman’s Robert Browning reference.
A fair chunk of Gaiman’s work back in print again after twenty years was something to anticipate in 2015, but the likeliest reaction was surely disappointment. Free Country is a book with some shining moments, and some very nice art, but it hangs together poorly. The concluding section is a muddle of children arguing in contrived English regional accents and a master plan echoing the fate of the real world Children’s Crusade as synopsised in the opening section. Jamie Delano writes the Maxine Baker section and Alisa Kwitney contributes other sequences, while the excellent Peter Snejbjerg draws, with Gross providing some new insert pages attempting to provide some closure and explanations ignored in the original comics. The sample page is a fusion of their art. Gaiman also provides new pages at the end, nicely echoing his opening pages, but Free Country will forever be a footnote in his career.