The only way to describe Steve Niles and Fiona Staples' 2010 series Mystery Society, which was collected into a trade paperback in December 2010, is as a truly poststructuralist Steed and Ms. Peel for contemporary audiences. Blending cool with sexy and quirky, as well as bizarre and brazen, Mystery Society takes a cue from Grant Morrison's The Invisibles, Matt Fraction's Casanova, and Gerard Way's The Umbrella Academy in its approach to an unfolding narrative and story development, not insulting the reader with regurgitated and sometimes formulaic structures of story creation.
As with the aforementioned titles, Mystery Society is a book that is not for everyone. Transporting Nick and Nora Charles from either the pages of Dashiell Hammett's Thin Man novel or its varied cinematic versions and repackaging it for modern readers is a difficult task. Niles and Staples' Nick Hammond and Anastasia Collins also owe a debt to elements of Mr. and Mrs. Smith. In fact, it's difficult to read Mystery Society without forging these references to recognizable portraits from the silver screen. Teachers might consider the literary possibilities of Mystery Society in developing comparative class assignments between the graphic novel and these Hollywood precursors. What makes Mystery Society succeed as more than a simple adaptation though is Niles' prose and Staples' digital pencils.
Niles's approach with Mystery Society is a risky one. The book reads as if it is the second or third installment in an ongoing series nobody has read. Niles is not beholden to long-winded expository on character origins and histories. He references other adventures and encounters the heroes have had throughout the book. While this method naturally generates a level of intrigue among audiences for tales untold, it can also leave some feeling that the plot has undeveloped segments or is rushed in certain parts, glossing over moments or sequences that could have been fleshed out. Of course, when risks pay off, the author is routinely championed for the effort. Just as equally, when they don't pan out, the writer becomes the target of criticism and reviewer ire. Mystery Society falls somewhere in the middle here.
The major limitation of Mystery Society is that the central mystery really is not that mysterious, original, or engaging. Thus, the book lacks the thrust of The Invisibles, Casanova, and The Umbrella Academy that drive those titles, as well as their related impacts upon audiences. While Niles creates a fun and wild subplot around the Secret Skull and Verne characters, it too seems rather mundane alongside the primary tale of heroes taking on a clandestine government operation trope which occupies the majority of the book. All too often, the past adventures referenced by Nick and Anastasia seem far more intriguing than what has been presented to readers here. Although Niles does a solid job of crafting dialogue that is quick, sometimes biting, and clever, it does little to bolster the underlying story concept.
Yet, the reason why Mystery Society succeeds despite this narrative setback is in large part due to the work of Fiona Staples. A 2011 Joe Schuster Award nominee for both outstanding comic book artist and comic book cover artist, Staples also received an Eisner nomination in 2010 as Best Penciller for her Wildstorm workNorth 40. All too often, digital art can seem overly rendered or too polished. Not so with Staples' work. Instead, her coloring and wash techniques possess such a natural vibe and feel that the revelation of digital creation almost seems impossible. There is a graininess and texture to her art that can reinforce the mobility of the action sequences while also reigning in movement for the introspective moments of character dialogue and narration. Throughout the book, her color palette is mostly muted into cool blue and green tones as the warmer sequences thusly achieve a greater prominence when given center stage. Any mysterious atmosphere or mood is shaped by this approach and Staples deserves the credit for such innovative panel designs, page layouts, and color patterns.
Niles and Staples have generated enough capital though with Mystery Society to warrant future explorations of the characters and the stories. Niles could conceivably craft a second volume that plays quite well to Staples' strengths with darker and more sinister illustrations, a factor that is broached in Mystery Societybut never fully developed. The foundation for original and thought-provoking storylines, particularly those verging on the horror genre, has already been established by the pair both here and in their separate projects.
Reviewed by Nathan Wilson on July 9, 2012