Written by Chad Fifer and Chris Lackey, two H. P. Lovecraft fanatics, and illustrated by I. N. J. Culbard, Deadbeats is set in 1920s America and tells the story of three jazz musicians who flee Chicago to play a funeral in the sticks of Illinois. Unknown to them, they are pawns in a cult ritual to raise a powerful spirit from the dead. With Chicago mobsters and zombies on the loose, Lester and his band must save the townspeople and save themselves.
Although this almost sounds like a mix between The Evil Dead and The Blues Brothers — an original idea in its own right — there is more to Deadbeats than initially meets the eye.
Fifer and Lackey do not deal with deeper philosophical and moral issues like Alan Moore does in his own work — V for Vendetta, Watchmen and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen are a few good examples of this — but they do use historical context to give their story realism and breathe life into their characters. The authors tackle some of the social tensions that characterised early twentieth-century American thought and culture, and our main protagonist, Lester Lane, a talented African-American horn player and jazz musician, serves as the crux for illustrating these tensions.
When the band arrive in Riverside, Illinois, a backwards local informs Lester, “We don’t get a lot of your kind out here”, and Sarah Blake, when channelling powerful magic, tells Lester: “You will be as you were meant to be…a slave.” Even in Chicago, which was famous for its hot-jazz-and-blues scene in the 1920s, Lester is told he cannot use the bathroom in the main house of a gig he is playing, to which he replies: “Come on. We’re in Chicago, not Alabama.” The fact Lester experiences the sting of racism even in the northern state of Illinois, a state which had citizens serving in the Union Army during the American Civil War, could easily be interpreted as social commentary by Fifer and Lackey that race relations were just as tense in the northern states as they were in the previous slave states, in spite of how we historically understand race relations in this era of American history.
Willie, a Clint Eastwood type who is the band’s drummer and a famed Civil War veteran, contributes to this ambiguity in our understanding of social tensions by telling Lester that he fought on whatever side paid him the most between the Union and the Confederacy: “I wasn’t in it for the politics, I was in it for the profiteerin’!” Willie’s friendship with Lester, however, equally suggests that this tension was not felt by every American.
Although Deadbeats is not as dark or as violent as I was originally hoping — some parts almost play out like a Scooby Doo cartoon — it has an incredible amount of humour, some memorable characters, and Fifer’s and Lackey’s contextualisation adds extra depth to the text and exposes us to some of America’s darkest history. This is a smooth and entertaining read, and you can easily run through the whole thing in less than an hour.
Deadbeats is available in paperback now