Friday, February 22, 2008

The Scrapyard Detectives: Collected Cases volume 1

The Scrapyard Detectives: Collected Cases volume 1, 2007, The Diversity Foundation
excerpt: "The Mystery of the Stolen Junk!"
writer: Batton Lash
penciller/colorist: Bill Galvan
inker: Robert Hawkins
letterer: Artmonkey's Dave Lanphear

Blogger's note: Entry for Thursday, February 21, 2008.

Before I dive into this review, I owe Bill Galvan an apology. Bill was kind enough to cite a small part of my The Scrapyard Detectives #3 review on the back of this, their first collected volume, and send me a complimentary copy. Further, as I compared The Scrapyard Detectives with The Tandy Computer Whiz Kids, jokingly commenting that his characters would win in a DC vs. Marvel-like confrontation, Bill whipped up a personal sketch of the crossover, which is currently hanging above a Anarky vs. Mr. Freeze drawing from Min Ku in my new man-cave:


So, how did I repay his kindness? I waited almost a year to finally review The Scrapyard Detectives: Collected Cases. Honestly, I hadn't even opened the volume until today, in anticipation of completely enjoying it. The three issues of Scrapyard that I've acquired at the San Diego Comic Con have been nothing short of incredibly entertaining, so much so that I've helped myself to a stack or two so I could share them with the kids at work. (I work for a prominent after school program. What, you didn't think I blog for a living, do you? Sigh, if only . . .!) Yes, considering the sketch on my wall and the poster hanging in my office, you'd think I was the Detective's biggest fan!

You'd be close. In an insightful introductory essay to Collected Cases, J.M. DeMatteis (yes, that J.M. DeMatteis) explains his whole-hearted appreciation for the Scrapyard Detectives' all-ages appeal, as a writer, fan, and parent. While DeMatteis credits Galvan and company for their inclusion of socially relevant themes, he asserts what I like best about this series -- "that it never forgets that a good solid story has to come first." Working with children and striving to elevate my position past "babysitter" to "role model," I've seen plenty of kid-oriented materials that attempt to instill a moral compass via content with a "youthful edge," but oftentimes these efforts fail to impress. Too contrived. Trying too hard. In fact, I'd venture a guess that such curriculum is frequently created without a consultation from real live children. A statistical analysis of what children need is not an experiential equivalent to filling up a room with fifty of the little brats. Believe me.

Therein lies the strength of The Scrapyard Detectives. Reading the first three issues and now the origin story that premiered in this collection, I don't get the impression that Galvan and his legion of writers are trying to ram a morality message down their readers' throats. I'm sure the temptation for a G.I. Joe-like "Knowing is Half the Battle" moment at the end of each issue presents itself during their creative process, but like DeMatteis insists, their strength is in telling a dynamic story first. The Scrapyard Detectives isn't a series about social injustice but about three kids that find a mutual satisfaction in solving little local mysteries. That these cases happen to include a context of prejudice or abuse is simply an unfortunate truth in today's America. Scrapyard spares us the kid gloves, and in so doing respects anyone that might read it, kids included. Simply put, by presenting a realistic story about children, The Scrapyard Detectives appeals to children, or the inner child in all of us comic book readers.

Who thought we could escape into another incarnation of our own harsh world? Perceiving a place such as this optimistically really is just a matter of perspective.

Regarding this never-before-published origin story, Batton Lash presents a concise eleven page adventure in which Robert meets Raymond and Jinn for the first time. When Robert talks about his father's salvage yard in class, the three meet there to explore its treasures and inadvertently observe a thief swiping his own fair share of junk. The kids separately form their own outrageous theories about the burglar's motives, but when they realize that the culprit is an artist from their classmate's mother's museum, the case takes on a much more down to earth tone. Still, Lash writes a well paced tale, with plenty of clues and red herrings to make this simple mystery complex enough to keep any readers' attention. The Scooby-Doo moment at the end -- essentially akin to, "And I would've gotten away with it, too, if it weren't for you . . . you . . . Scrapyard Detectives!" -- has a rewarding Year One quality about it, as if long-time fans like me would respond, "Oh, so that's where they got the name!" Hey, so what if I did, okay?

Also, Galvan's artistic supplementals are really easy on the eyes, and I must say I highly prefer his pencil sketch of this collection's cover over the final glossy product. The fact that these pages are planned so intricately elevates an otherwise free, and therefore potentially throw away series to a legitimate collectors' item . . . not to mention a contending contributor to the medium as a whole.

Finally, while I once criticised the Detective's paradoxical use of highbrow technology amidst the garbage of a scrapyard, I now have a comprehensive understanding that Robert uses said junk to build his little robot spies and stuff. It's the one fantastical element this series allows itself; in the midst of schoolyard bullies and abusive fathers, the kids get a hover scooter and such. Fortunately, Galvin blends these two concepts seamlessly, confirming that a world that isn't always kind to kids might still afford them the resources to express themselves creatively. I don't know who's having more fun -- the characters when they use these gadgets, or the creators that get to write and draw them.

I take that back -- I do know who's having the most fun. We, the readers, are. Trust me, if you pick up an issue of The Scrapyard Detectives, you will not regret it, and I'm not just saying that because I'm quoted on the back cover. It's really the other way around. Why mainstream superhero comics aren't for kids anymore will be a mystery that plagues the industry for decades to come, like all of their other cases, the Scrapyard Detectives present a viable solution. Join them in the pleasure of being a part of the answer.

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