Bodies: An Autopsy Of Vertigo’s Cutting Edge Murder Mystery Across Time
Who doesn't love a good postmodern murder mystery? Boring people, that's who. Dull, uninspired, abandoned buildings pretending to be human beings who prefer their detective stories to be streamlined and logical, with a series of clues that can be interpreted to lead to a definite answer, and no funny business with fragmentation, parallel narratives, or the sudden appearance of the author in their own story.
If, however, you're an interesting, exciting, attractive person with an undeniable elan, Vertigo's Bodies might be more your style. Written by Si Spencer and drawn by a team of four artists, Bodies takes place in four distinct time periods ranging from the 19th century to the far future, where four detectives investigate four identical murder cases. Not just identical in that it's the same M.O., with the exact same injuries and found in the exact same spot throughout time; identical in that, over a span of 160 years, it's the same body.
There's a body in London's East End. The body is a nude male Caucasian, with injuries to the thigh, midsection, and shoulder, and it's missing one eye. The body is found in plain sight, on Longharvest lane in 1890... and 1940, 2014, and 2050. Investigating it are four very different detectives: Inspector Hillinghead of Her Majesty's Constabulary; Inspector Charles Whiteman aka Karl Weissman, who escaped Nazi persecution; Detective Sergeant Shahara Hassan, a Muslim woman policing local hate groups; and Maplewood, an amnesiac surviving in the abandoned future, in the wake of an unknown catastrophic event.
Each story is essentially a different genre within the wider classification of murder mystery: Inspector Hillinghead's is a classic Victorian detective tale, the 1940 story is a WWII-era detective noir, the present-day yarn a modern urban horror, and 2050 a discombobulated science fiction. Each time period is depicted by a different artist, with their skills being particularly suited to that individual story. For Inspector Hillinghead and 1940, Dean Ormston's scratchy figures and arcane environments add a perfect ambience to occult Victorian England; Phil Winslade channels EC Comics Noir for Blitz-era London; Meghan Hetrick renders the present with dynamic cartooning and an energetic slickness; and Tula Lotay brings an elegance and quirkiness to the eerie stillness of the future.
Obviously you have to admire Bodies for its ambitious structure. With four parallel narratives, Spencer and his collaborators challenge the reader to link together bits and pieces from each storyline, to evaluate each nugget of information in microcosm and macrocosm; and to make wildly imaginative leaps to logically connect all these collateral threads and recurring motifs. Every issue is like a mystery anthology where each story's protagonist is trying to solve the same case with merely a portion of the clues; the reader is the only one who gets the complete picture, and unless you have some awareness of psychogeography, bogmen, ritual sacrifices, mystery religions, and the concept of eternal return, you won't know what's going on.
Actually, scratch that -- even with that knowledge, you still probably won't know what's going on. There are plenty of clues to interpret in Bodies, including those that recur in every time period, and adorn every issue's cover: the letters KYAL, and this sigil made up of three vertical lines intersected by a horizontal line.
KYAL appears near the body whenever it's discovered, and then again and again and again in the background, throughout each detective's story. The sigil is carved into the body's wrist, and appears in the fingerprints, and in each era has different connotations. In the present day, the symbol becomes an emblem of a hate group who believe the body was a natural-born Englishman killed by a Muslim immigrant. In 1940, it's somehow associated with Weissman's bad memories, and in 2050, it has something to do with the event that caused mass amnesia. In 1890 East End, it's connected to an occult organization called The Order of Mithras, a secret society based on the practices of the Roman Cult of Mithras, a mystery religion from 1-4 A.D. about which very little has survived history.
Also of great importance are the psychogeographic implications of the body and Longharvest Lane. An idea with a different interpretation depending on who you ask, here's how I've always understood psychogeography: the environment has a subconscious affect on people, and some events can forever influence those effects. If you've read Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's From Hell, or Moore's first prose novel Voice Of The Fire, it's an idea you're familiar with, because it's one Moore took from Peter Ackroyd's Guardian award-winning novel Hawksmoor, also an apparent influence on Bodies.
All of these books posit the idea that a ritualistic killing can imbue a location with a certain energy, and in Bodies, Longharvest Lane seems like the epicenter of awful things. In the Victorian era, it's a homosexual hangout not far from Jack the Ripper's haunts, rife with pederasty and murder; it get hits especially hard during the Blitz, and the criminal underground takes advantage of the mayhem; in the present day, it's a hotly-contested territory in a race race war; in the future, it seems to be at the very center of whatever happened to the rest of London.
Along with those recurrences are echoes that seem to flicker from one story to the other; strange resonances across narratives. Phrases that are first uttered in one period are repeated in others, and despite their vast differences, there is a major similarity between all of the primary detectives: they're all pretending.
Detective Superintendent Hassan keeps up the illusion that she's religious even though she's culturally Islamic and won't even enter a mosque; Inspector Hillinghead is a homosexual trying to succeed in a world that punishes such activities; somewhere inside the hyper-A.D.D. jumble of Maplewood's brain is a massive secret; Weissman -- despite being a Jew who escaped Nazi persecution -- is a monster using his position as a policeman to run a criminal empire.
All of this gives the impression that, like in Hawksmoor, there's an element of eternal return in Bodies; that time is cyclical and recurring, and all events will repeat, in some manner, for infinity. Are all these stories occurring at once? Are the detectives just variations on a theme, different aspects of one person? Has this event been recapitulated over and over for eons? How is it connected to the amnesiac wasteland of the future? What is the Long Harvest? What does KYAL mean? And in all these mysteries, is there anything that can actually be solved?
Bodies is not a conventional mystery in any sense. It challenges you to embrace several postmodern concepts, and rewards you with an ever-deepening enigma tunneling into the heart of an atavistic truth: murder changes things. The fifth issue of this eight issue series drops on Wednesday, and if you haven't been reading, it's highly recommended that you catch up. Si Spencer and the artists of Bodies are doing something unique here, and it's worth everyone's attention. Rich in characters and structurally complex, Bodies is the most thought-provoking and unconventional mystery comic in years.