Dr. Murder and the Island of Death suggests its ambitions early. The comic begins with a full-page drawing of Earth before a multi-panel zoom-in on the volcanic lair of its title character. The island is an evil hideout as a microcosm, with supervillain kitsch belying the story’s bigger concerns: isolation, the nature of the self, the possibility of change. Throughout Dr. Murder, Emil Friis Ernst pursues these subjects with a kind of balletic overreach, creating an uneven but often brilliantly drawn comic.
Ernst's Dr. Murder is a master criminal at a crossroads: twenty years into his career, he has won notoriety and built a massive island complex, but nemesis Johnny America has abandoned their longstanding hero-villain partnership and Murder's henchmen have left their posts. The story stresses the intimacy between adversaries, with Dr. Murder reeling from his split with Johnny America in an unmistakable post-breakup fashion. Directionless, he receives an invitation to the 20-year reunion of the Adventure Academy class of 1951, fellow graduates of a hero-villain performance school. With the reunion, the doctor sees a chance to show everyone how far he's come--or at least fake it--and to court a heroic counterpart from his academy days.
Much of this may sound familiar. An organized system of costumed conflict, adventuring as an outlet for personal grievances or midlife reckonings--this has been the substance of Venture Bros. for 15 years. A series like Marshall Law from Pat Mills and Kevin O'Neill--whose spindly-lined faces Ernst's sometimes recall--came earlier and pushed further, into a study of masked derangement. Even the comics writing of Tom King, in its efforts to flatter the intellectual vanity of dimwits, has treated malaise as a natural mode of super-person storytelling. These are only a few possible reference points--Dr. Murder has more predecessors than it does new insights into its chosen tropes, although it sometimes clicks as character study.
The comic tends to be most effective in smaller moments: Dr. Murder condescending to an ex-villain and old acquaintance who gives him a lift to the reunion, the man's contentment alien to him; the doctor so intent on initiating a chase with a former rival that he's unable to really listen to her. Ernst has a talent for writing one person’s misreading of another. Unfortunately, he also has a tendency to let his characters monologue. "You can't win," reads one sequence, "and the reason for that is kind of a paradox because in a sense nothing ever ends, but all things also come to an end all the time. / The struggle to keep everything afloat never ends, and everything will keep spinning until the heat death of the universe, but at the same time everything is always ending, changing form and shape so that we can no longer recognize it. / There's simply no winning in a world defined by impermanence."
Dr. Murder is aware of how these passages sound, to a point. Sometimes the book finds humor in the contrast between such lines and the small talk beforehand or Dr. Murder's blinkered reaction. Still, the comic’s intro-to-philosophy axioms have finite benefits. Like most stories, it would have been better off letting subtext be subtext or working that subtext further into the motions of its plot.
A sequence late into the comic typifies its collegiate qualities. Dr. Murder wipes out inside his compound, loses consciousness, and begins to hallucinate. He envisions the son of an Ethiopian former rival, who quickly chastises the doctor for his subconscious lapse into an "outdated racist 'spirit guide' stereotype." Ernst’s desire to deconstruct is clear, but so is his misconception that emphasizing a flaw somehow resolves it.
Ernst realizes his ambitions more often--almost constantly, as a matter of fact--on a visual level. A typical page combines a striking palette of saturated yellows, purples, and blues (or brick-red flats, in flashbacks to Dr. Murder’s academy days), a versatile twelve-or-so panel grid, and fluid linework, with Ernst putting down spider-thread lines for the contours of the doctor’s face and marker-thick strokes for motion lines or the texture of a volcano. When drawing figures, Ernst prefers bold geometric stacking over anatomic literalism; the doctor’s distinctive boxy torso suggests Diabolik upon swallowing a mini-fridge. Ernst’s fondness for a striking silhouette extends to one of Dr. Murder's school-days rivals, Ballhead, via a charming cribbing from Steve Ditko’s Mysterio.
Ernst excels at putting objects in motion too. The way he draws knotted trails of exhaust from Dr. Murder's helicopter, a tidy rendering of movement and substance, is one of the comic’s simple pleasures and a modest reminder of the pleasures of the form itself. An early look back at one of Dr. Murder's Adventure Academy feats, a bike chase, is another highlight. Ernst carefully coordinates the sequence’s pacing, perspectives, elisions, and gigantic sound effects. At his best, he's almost Feifferian--everything looks like a dance.
Dr. Murder and the Island of Death is not a book that always meets the highest standards, but it does invite them. For a dawn-of-career comic like this, that's an achievement too. The story arguably confirms that comics doesn’t have much left to say about sad people in spandex. Even so, let’s hope it’s an early entry in a long, evolving body of work.